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)
Here’s something I would never have known had I not read it in Science Daily.
Did you know that the migratory generation of monarch butterflies — the ones that fly to Mexico — are darker red than the earlier, more sedentary generations? The monarchs you’re seeing right now are less red than the ones you’ll see in late August.
You’re probably aware of this color difference if you raise and tag monarchs as Marcy Cunkelman does, but do you know why the last generation is darker? Scientists are on the verge of finding out.
According to Science Daily and PLoS ONE: Recent research, led by Andrew Davis of the University of Georgia, tested 121 captive monarchs in an apparatus called a tethered flight mill where they quantified butterfly flight speed, duration, and distance. They found that monarchs with darker orange wings overall flew longer distances than those with lighter wings. This suggested that pigment deposition during metamorphosis is linked with flight skill traits such as thorax muscle size, energy storage or metabolism.
It makes sense to me that a bug that has to fly to Mexico is born with the traits necessary to do the job, and it’s not too amazing that dark color is one of them. In birds, dark feathers are stronger than light-colored feathers. Perhaps this applies to the wing scales of butterflies, too.
Meanwhile, if you have a butterfly net and a camera you can do some research on your own. Look for monarchs now and again at the end of the month. When your photographs record darker red monarchs in late August, you’ll know why.
It’s easy to notice when a new bird arrives in town, much harder to notice when a resident leaves. This month the new arrivals are shorebirds. Has any nesting bird departed yet?
Here’s a tale of two breeders who may have left — or soon will leave — our area.
Baltimore orioles nested in Schenley Park this year as they always do. (I have photographic evidence.) They arrived in late April, quickly set up shop, and fledged young by mid-June. In July they virtually disappeared. The last time I saw an oriole in the park was in June. The last time I heard one was July 12.
Orioles can afford to leave their breeding grounds early because they raise only one brood per year and their young are soon independent after fledging. Mother orioles leave the family in late June. The fathers leave a few days later. Sometimes the young gather in juvenile flocks in August but the adults tend to be solitary and quiet. That’s probably why they seem to be missing.
Dickcissels are another story. They’re so unusual in Pennsylvania that many birders know exactly when they arrived and many will notice when they leave. Every few days there’s a new report on the presence or absence of dickcissels.
Quite soon breeding will be over and the dickcissels will form flocks to head to their wintering grounds in Venezuela. Since they’re not in a rush they often spend August and September in the grain fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Notice the word “August.” That’s only two days from now.
I expect the dickcissels will leave our grasslands soon. Schenley Park’s orioles appear to be gone.
It’s still summer — especially today with a forecast heat index of 100oF — but fall migration has already begun.
Shorebirds are on the move and this year we may see some rarities in land-locked western Pennsylvania because the drought has lowered water levels and exposed many mud flats.
Last Sunday Shawn Collins saw sanderlings at Tamarack Lake in Crawford County and on Tuesday five American avocets were a one-day-wonder at Yellow Creek State Park in Indiana County.
Check the edges of local lakes and you’ll likely find killdeer, sandpiper “peeps,” spotted sandpipers, solitary sandpipers, and lesser yellowlegs. If you’re lucky you’ll find a surpise like the avocet pictured above.
And if thunderstorms or heat force you indoors, stop by Steve Gosser’s exhibit at Penn State’s New Kensington campus to see beautiful photographs of birds.
Steve’s one-man show, My Feathered Friends – Bird Portraits, runs through Friday, July 27. This is your last chance to see it. Click here for directions.