Have you noticed? There aren’t many robins in Pittsburgh right now.
In December it was another story. Every day I watched hundreds feast on the ornamental fruit trees in Oakland. Their numbers fell slightly in early January, then surged again on the 13th when I saw so many that I recorded their number as ∞ (infinity) in my notebook.
But they ate all the fruit and the ground was too frozen to find worms and invertebrates, so they left. If I’m lucky I see one or two robins a day.
This situation is only temporary. The robins wintering in Florida are getting restless. Soon they’ll come north, following the 37oF average daily temperature isotherm and the arrival of the Spring.
In western Pennsylvania they’ve joined purple finches, red and white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches, all of whom came south because of the drought up north.
I’ve chronicled other irruptions (see list below) but I don’t remember a year in which so many species visited at the same time. This year the only thing we seem to be missing are snowy owls.
This was it. If I was going to see an evening grosbeak it had to be this winter while they’re irrupting across Pennsylvania. I missed them at Marcy Cunkelman’s (above), but flocks of 40 to 80 are reported every day at Dave Yeany’s feeders in Marienville. Last Sunday I made the 2+ hour trip to see them.
Before I left I studied the sound and appearance of these beautiful birds and learned that their call resembles the chirp of a house sparrow (Click here to hear. If that link doesn’t work, try this one).
When I arrived at 7:30am I heard loud chirps like a house sparrow who’d taken voice lessons. Close by I saw and heard a real house sparrow. Aha! The grosbeaks were here but I couldn’t see them.
I crossed the street to view Yeany’s feeders but there were no grosbeaks there nor in any of the trees. Another car pulled up. Surprise! Fellow birders Tom and Nancy Moeller from Pittsburgh.
Dave Yeany came out to say hello and assured us the grosbeaks would come in at 8:00am. They would start in the spruce, then settle in the maples, then come to the feeders. So we waited.
Sure enough at 8:00am the grosbeaks came to the spruce. Yay! Life birds at last! But the light was poor. Rain was coming. We wanted to see them closer. We waited. By 8:30am the grosbeaks landed in the maples but something spooked them and they flew away. No!
We had come this far and couldn’t bear to leave without seeing the grosbeaks at the feeders. It began to rain so we retreated to Moellers’ car. It was nice to be waiting with friends.
When the rain subsided at 9:00am we found 40+ evening grosbeaks in the maples preening and nibbling the buds. They fluttered down level by level. At last they came to the feeders. Here, Tom Moeller captured them surrounding a starling.
Thanks to Dave Yeany’s hospitality and advice we waited for the grosbeaks to come to the maples. Our surprise was that the grosbeaks like to eat sugar maple buds.
People like maple products, too. Dave Yeany has acres of sugar maples that he taps to create pure Pennsylvania maple syrup. If you visit when he isn’t home you can buy it from the red cupboard on his front porch.
We had the advantage of chatting with Dave and learning about his additional maple products. I couldn’t resist the maple cream which I’d never tried before. It looks like honey butter and it tastes great. Mmmmmmm! Good!
If you visit Dave Yeany’s evening grosbeaks you’ll find a big flock of beautiful birds and a sweet treat at the end. In the meantime you can “like” Yeany’s Maple Syrup on Facebook.
(Male evening grosbeak by Marcy Cunkelman, Nov 2012. Flock at the tray feeder by Tom Moeller, 2 Dec 2012. Photo of Yeany’s delicious maple cream by Kate St. John)
Visiting kingfishers shuttle up and down the valley to find favorable fishing spots. They perch above the man-made lake and stare at the cloudy water. The fish are hard to see. If they don’t catch a meal at the lake the birds head down Junction Hollow to the Monongahela River.
Junction Hollow must be amazing to kingfishers because it’s a waterless valley. Four Mile Run was there but it’s buried beneath the playing fields and bike trail. Those amenities are making the best of an unnatural situation.
The Run was buried long ago but any hope of daylighting it was dashed in 1989 when Sol Gross bought 28 acres of Junction Hollow and further buried the valley under construction debris generated by his demolition company. The City stopped his dumping and everyone ended up in court, but the damage was done. The creek is so far underground now that it’s way too expensive to remove the debris. Hence the fields.
Kingfishers come and go through Schenley Park in the fall. Gregory Diskin found this female at the lake on September 30, then saw none until last week.
When the lake freezes this bird will leave for a site with open water. Until then, keep your ears open for the rattling call of an occasional fisher.
Last week Peter Bell alerted me to this awesome photo of more than two dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds. Taken on September 18 by Illinois photographer jeffreyw, the feeders are mobbed by tiny birds. Jeffrey aptly calls this, “Please take a number.”
If you feed hummingbirds, I’m sure you find this scene as amazing as I do. Normally a single hummer dominates the feeder and chases all others away. Who knew that when large numbers feed together they line up peacefully!
I asked Jeffrey how he attracts so many hummingbirds.
He wrote, “We mount feeders according to demand, one early [in the season], then adding until we get to 5 feeders. We could add more but have restricted ourselves lest the project gets out of hand. As the birds migrate away we remove feeders until we are back to one and leave that one till the freeze.
We have been building our flock for 25+ years.”
Persistence pays off. Feed them (a lot!) year after year, and they will come.
Thanks to JeffreyW for permission to use his photos. Hummingbirds aren’t his only subject. Check out his photos and food on the What’s 4 Dinner Solutions blog.
At this time of year migrating thrushes and warblers spend their days eating and resting. Then at sunset they don’t sleep, they fly!
Most birds that flap to migrate choose to travel at night because the calmer air makes flying easier and they can see the stars by which they navigate.
From sunset until 2:00am — sometimes until sunrise — they are in the air above us flying in loose flocks kept together by contact calls. The number of travelers peaks between 11:00pm and 1:00am on nights with a north wind. We know this because they’re seen on radar.
Back when radar was first widely used during World War II operators noticed that many things showed up as blips on the screen including rain, snow, birds and insects. After the war, radar came into its own as a weather forecasting tool. Nowadays it’s easy for birders to monitor nighttime migration because weather radar is available on the Internet.
To demonstrate how birds show up on radar, Cornell University created a time-lapse video showing migration over the U.S. on the night of October 1, 2008. Read the explanation below, then watch the video above:
“This animation created by Cornell University researchers illustrates the use of a network of surveillance weather radar to record nocturnal migrating birds, bats, and insects in the continental U.S. from sunset to sunrise Oct. 1, 2008. The blocky green, yellow, and red patterns, especially visible on the east coast, represent precipitation; but within an hour after sunset, radar picks up biological activity, as seen in the widening blue and green circles spreading from the east across the country. The birds, bats, and insects take off, fly past, and get sampled by the radar beam. Note, the black areas on the map do not represent places without birds, necessarily, but rather places where radar does not sample.” — from futurity.org
You can watch migration, too. Tonight Pittsburgh’s wind will be from the north so you’ll see birds on the move if you tune in to the National Weather Service radar loops after sunset. Pittsburgh appears on two maps: Central Great Lakes and Northeast. Click on the links and watch bird activity appear after sunset and subside at sunrise. Remember that the best time is 11:00pm to 1:00am.
True confessions. When I’m in Maine I usually go on a whale watching trip but my real goal isn’t whales, it’s pelagic birds.
I’m not the only birder on the whale watch boat. There’s usually a dozen of us keeping our eyes peeled for gannets, shearwaters, jaegers and storm petrels.
Storm petrels are my favorites because they’re so dainty. Only the size of starlings, they appear to walk on water as they search for food.
The most common type in the Gulf of Maine in early September is Wilson’s storm petrel, pictured above. When I learned where they came from I was amazed.
Wilson’s breed in colonies on the coast of Antarctica. Like most storm petrels they nest out of sight in crevices and burrows and only visit their nests under cover of darkness. That’s how they hide their eggs and young from raiding gulls and skuas.
When not breeding they live on the open ocean and never come to the land, but they’re easy to see on a pelagic trip because they’re willing to approach boats.
So while it’s winter on the southern ocean I get to see this Antarctic visitor off the coast of Maine. Soon they’ll journey back.
(photo by Patrick Coin via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)
American pipits breed in some of the harshest habitat of any songbird. They prefer open tundra and mountaintops above treeline where bad weather is the greatest threat to their nesting success. In a bad year, their nests suffer 80% mortality when deep springtime snow covers their eggs and young.
In the fall they avoid the coming snow, flying south to beaches and open mudflats. I’ve seen them at the edge of Shenango Lake and on the treeless mountaintops of Acadia National Park.
I even saw several lone pipits on the beach at Cape Cod in early August.
I don’t know why those August pipits left the tundra for the beach but it certainly wasn’t because of snow this summer!
(photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedian Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)