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.
Have you seen either of them lately?
(Baltimore oriole photo by Steve Gosser, Dickcissel photo by Bobby Greene)
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.
(photo by Steve Gosser)
When I saw a hooded warbler in Schenley Park Tuesday morning I knew it was time…
The warblers are here!
Tuesday’s birds were just the leading edge of a huge, singing wave of tiny, colorful birds heading north to breed.
Many warbler species are just passing through. We see them for a week or two and then they’re gone. In the fall they pass through again heading south, but then they’re silent and dull looking.
So there’s no time to waste. I’m dropping everything and heading for Magee Marsh in northwestern Ohio where I know the warblers are easy to see and very plentiful. I’ll be there for part of The Biggest Week in American Birding and so will thousands of others. It’s a crowd scene of birds and birders.
If you’re thinking of birding Magee Marsh there’s still time. The warblers will be going strong through mid-May.
This weekend I plan on seeing a prothonotary warbler. That’s where Bob Greene photographed this one.
(photo by Bobby Greene)
Songbirds migrate at night and they like to have a tail wind so this week’s weather has been great for moving north.
Before dawn on Monday the wind swung around to the south. That morning I saw my first Baltimore oriole of the year and heard a red-eyed vireo in Schenley Park.
Yesterday I saw a chestnut-sided warbler, a hooded warbler (pictured above), white-throated sparrows and many rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Despite the rain I bet it will be another good day for birds.
I wonder who arrived last night on the warm wind.
(photo of a hooded warbler at Sewickley Heights Park, April 28, by Shawn Collins)
Last Friday I took the day off and visited Presque Isle State Park. It felt like a mini beach vacation to walk along the shore of Lake Erie and pretend I was at the ocean.
With the waves lapping at my feet I paused to gaze north. I knew that Long Point, Canada was more than 25 miles away but it was beyond the horizon, invisible.
Suddenly I noticed that butterfly after butterfly flew from behind me and headed straight out over the open water. They were brown, orange and white and they flew very fast, zigzagging on their way.
What was this steady stream of butterflies? Red admirals.
Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) live in temperate Europe, Asia and North America. They cannot survive winter’s cold so they migrate south in the fall. In the U.S. Red Admirals overwinter in south Texas. In March they start their journey north.
How long would it take for these delicate creatures to cross Lake Erie? I estimated I would have to run to keep up with them so I guessed they were traveling 7 miles per hour. If they flew due north they’d reach Long Point in 3.5 hours, but they were headed northeast, a trip of 50 miles to the mainland of Canada. This long route would take them more than seven hours. It was 3:00pm. They would arrive at night.
What I saw was only the beginning. By Sunday the south winds and warm temperatures had triggered a mass migration. From the Presque Isle Hawk Watch, Jerry McWilliams reported to PABIRDS:
“Probably the most remarkable observation was the mass movement of Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) flying SW to NE. A conservative estimate of the butterflies moving past the watch was 25 individuals per minute making the total estimate of the count around 5500 butterflies!”
The photo above matches what I saw. The fall brood of Red Admirals is brown like this. Those hatched in spring/summer are blacker.
(photo by Daniel Herms, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)
Earlier this week Libby Strizzi sent me an email with this ruby-throated hummingbird migration map and the question: Why are the hummingbirds everywhere but here?
The map from hummingbirds.net is shown above with a black circle I drew to highlight the absence of hummers. Hummingbirds have been seen east, west and north of northwestern Pennsylvania but not in the “hole.”
I’ll bet this is because northwestern PA is not on any spring migration flyways.
Migrating birds use four aerial “highways” to reach their breeding grounds in the spring. Pennsylvania is fed by the Atlantic Flyway. You can see this on the map below by Melissa Mayntz, linked from birding.about.com.
Notice the “hole” in northwestern Pennsylvania where the migration highway splits into two streams. Early migrants are probably following the main highway and not stopping in PA’s northwest corner. Other migrants fill in the gap but they arrive later.
And notice that two flyways meet in northwestern Ohio at Lake Erie. Two sources of birds! That’s why birders flock to Magee Marsh, Ohio in May.
We’ll just have to be patient. They’ll get here when they get here.
(Hummingbird map from hummingbirds.net. Flyways map by Melissa Mayntz, linked from birding.about.com. Click on each map to see the original in context.)
After stunningly warm temperatures in mid-March, Nature hit the pause button and produced lower than normal temperatures for more than a week. That hasn’t been enough to halt the onward march of plant development.
Trees are leafing out four weeks early and the insects that eat them are hatching too. Tent worms are a case in point.
Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) feast on trees in the Rose family, especially wild cherry, apple and crabapple. Last summer the female moths laid their egg masses on the branches of host trees. The eggs remained dormant all winter and then, just as the hosts’ buds began to swell, the eggs hatched and the larvae began to spin their tents. In the past this happened in early May.
This year I saw the first tiny tent on April 1 at Moraine State Park. A week later I found this much larger tent crawling with activity.
Most birds won’t eat tent caterpillars because they retain cyanide from the host plants but cuckoos eat them with relish.
Black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos spend the winter in South America and time their arrival to coincide with the emergence of eastern tent caterpillars. A few yellow-billed cuckoos have been seen in the Gulf Coast states but the bulk of them aren’t in North America yet. The leaves and tent caterpillars are four weeks ahead of schedule but the cuckoos are not.
What will happen to the cuckoos when the tasty caterpillars they expect to find have retreated to cocoons? What will happen to our trees if this causes an excess of caterpillars?
Nature is out of synch. Some things can cope, some cannot. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For more information on climate change’s effects on bird migration listen to this interview with Powdermill’s Drew Vitz on The Allegheny Front.
(photo by Kate St. John)
Pennsylvania birders were treated to a surge of ducks last weekend when Friday night’s storm forced migrants to stop in our state to wait for better weather. The migration fallout was especially large on Saturday.
A day late, I went to Moraine State Park hoping to see a few stragglers. There weren’t as many ducks on Sunday but I found a nice variety: ruddy ducks, buffleheads, horned grebes and five long-tailed ducks.
My own notes indicate that long-tailed ducks usually come through our area about a week earlier, approximately March 25. This group was a little late, but I was too, so our paths crossed.
Meanwhile, the plants and insects are still early even though our weather has moderated.
A week ago, on March 25, I found this large-flowered bellwort blooming at Barking Slopes. It usually blooms around April 25 so it was one month ahead of schedule.
A little late. A lot early.
What will happen next?
(photo of long-tailed ducks by Steve Gosser, photo of large-flowered bellwort by Kate St. John)
Welcome to Day 11 of June-in-March. The heat feels nice, huh? What could go wrong?
Yesterday I found red oaks starting to bloom in Schenley Park a month ahead of schedule (photo above). This should be happy but something is missing. The rose-breasted grosbeaks aren’t here to eat them.
Long ago I learned from Chuck Tague that rose-breasted grosbeaks move north as the oaks bloom, perfectly timing their arrival to coincide with their favorite migration food — oak flowers.
But right now the grosbeaks are in Central and South America, waiting to fly across the Gulf of Mexico to arrive in Pennsylvania in late April or early May. They don’t know our oaks are blooming. The flowers will be gone.
What will the rose-breasted grosbeaks do when they get here?
(photo of oak flowers by Kate St. John. Photo of rose-breasted grosbeak by Chuck Tague)
The robins are here!
Migrating flocks of American robins swept north overnight and arrived in Pittsburgh in the dark. They’re pausing to tank up before continuing their journey north.
In the morning I see them everywhere but I know they arrived, even before dawn, because I hear them singing in the dark.
The big flocks began arriving Monday night. Lots of them and more every day.
Because I live in the city I miss hearing another great nighttime sound — spring peepers — so the robins are my only spring night cue.
I do wonder, though, what happens where both robins and spring peepers occur.
Do spring peepers drown out the sound of robins when they’re singing in the dark?
(photo by Cephas on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)