New citizen science project to add to your schedule

This past February, the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) initiated the Winter Raptor Survey, a volunteer effort to determine winter abundances of raptors. The purpose according to the association’s website “is to get birders/raptor enthusiasts out in the field during the winter looking for diurnal raptors, and to provide those surveyors with a set of guidelines enabling them to record their observations in a standardized format.”

While 2007 was the kickoff year, birders are still being encouraged to make their own 30-100 mile route and record raptor species seen from this car route between November and March. Instructions and data forms are available on the HMANA website.

This is a great opportunity to get out for a nice drive and possibly see some of the rarer winter raptors such as Rough-legged Hawks as well as some of the other common species.

Monitoring in this way is a great conservation tool and the results will be published in the associations publication, Hawk Migration Studies.


Superflight 2007-2008

As posted on BirdChat-

We are experiencing the biggest winter finch irruption since the
"superflight" of 1997-1998, when many boreal finches went well beyond
their normal ranges. The cause is the largest tree seed crop failure
in a decade across more than 3200 km (2000 mi) of boreal forest from
Saskatchewan into Quebec. Today in Toronto, I had a Pine Grosbeak,
Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches
migrating along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Boreal winter finches
are being reported in many areas of southern Ontario and the United
States, where some species such as Pine and Evening Grosbeaks haven't
been seen in years. There is no telling how far south this
"superflight" will go.

Winter Finch Forecast 2007-2008 is stored at two sites. AT

Ron Pittaway
This is definitely true in Pennsylvania as Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are being seen at feeders across the state, quite a few redpolls have been seen and heard and reports of Evening Grosbeaks are coming from most of the state. Get those feeders out and fill them!

Banding the Saw-whets

female Northern Saw-whet Owl

A few nights ago I had the opportunity to help band saw-whet owls at a Girl Scout camp close to Halifax, PA. This excited me because, although saw-whet owls are one of the commonest owls in Canada and the northern US, I have rarely seen them. These owls are tiny, with the males only weighing as much as an American Robin (~75 g) and females just a little more than that. Saw-whet owls are a common target for banding because they are migratory, arriving in PA between October and November.
We were looking forward to a busy night because a cold front had just passed thru and the wind was generally calm. Plus, we had heard reports from further north reporting some huge catches recently and were expecting a huge influx at any time.

a little male

Our first net check produced 2 owls, the very small male in the photo above, and the female that is squinting at you in the first photo. You can also see the leg sizing tool and banding pliers in the above picture.

qualifying eye color

There are a lot of unknowns as far as ageing saw-whet owls. To better determine different characteristics that might give clues to age, many banders take additional information such as eye color, amount of white in face and amount of barring on the alula. Above, the bander is comparing the shade of the owl’s eye to a paint strip.

wing from the squinting female above

By looking at the condition of the wing feathers, it is sometimes possible to tell how old the bird is. Without getting too technical, you can see that the outer five primaries (p6-p10) are darker than the inner five primaries (p1-p5) and the adjacent 5 secondaries (s1-s5). The inner secondaries are again darker like the outer primaries. The darker feathers are from one molt cycle and the light feathers are from the previous molt cycle. This would make the owl at least 2 years old.

underwing shot with blacklight

Another way to look at feather age is to shine a blacklight on the underside of the owl’s wing. The newer feathers have a pinkish wash to them that really stands out when under a blacklight.

something on the ceiling

Occasionally the owls would become fixated on something in the room as they were being banded. sometimes it would be a face but other times it was hard to say what exactly the owl was looking at. This was one of those cases.

perched on the tree

After spending time being banded under lights, the owls are set out on a specific tree to recover their night vision and preen their feathers back into alignment. Occasionally they will remain for quite some time. The above bird remained for about half an hour as we closed the nets due to rain. We came back and were able to take pictures using a red light and no flash. We didn’t end up with the large catch we were hoping for but the 3 owls we did get provided the banders with valuable information and me with cute pictures and something to blog about.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are breeders in the forests of s. Canada of n. United States that are being logged at an accelerating rate. Regenerating forests do not provide the dead snags that are necessary for nesting. Already hard to observe, a declining population could mean that they will become downright impossible to see. Saw-whets do use nest boxes so if you live in a region that supports nesting Saw-whets, consider putting up a nest box.

For more info on the banders work visit Scott Weidensaul’s research page. You can also support thier work by adopting an owl.

The Rhino and the Tickbird

For a nice story from The Onion click on the story below.

Rhino, Tickbird Stuck In Dead-End Symbiotic Relationship

The Onion

Rhino, Tickbird Stuck In Dead-End Symbiotic Relationship

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA—”We just go through the motions and there’s hardly any communication. I get on top and take the parasites off while he just lays there,” the tickbird said.

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Winter Finch Forecast 2007-2008

from the Ontario listserv…looks good for Evening Grosbeaks, redpolls and Red-breasted Nuthatches to irrupt into the US, hopefully into Pennsylvania.

“This winter’s theme is “finches going in three directions” depending on the species. Some finches have gone east and west or both, while others will come south. Most coniferous and deciduous trees have very poor seed crops in much of Ontario and western Quebec. The exception is northwestern Ontario such as Quetico Provincial Park, Dryden and Lake of the Woods, where there are good crops on some species. However, north of a line from the top of Lake Nipigon to Manitoba the crops are generally low in the boreal forest. This will be a quiet winter for most (not all) winter finches in Algonquin Provincial Park, in contrast to last winter’s bumper seed crops and abundance of finches. Most of last winter’s White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer. They probably went either to eastern or western Canada or both where there are bumper cone crops. Type 3 Red Crossbills, which were abundant in Ontario last winter, have probably returned to their core range in western North America. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins will not be irrupting south out of Ontario as they do in some flight years, because most have already gone east and/or west. However, other winter finches such as Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches and redpolls are irrupting or will irrupt southward out of northern Ontario. See individual species accounts for details. In addition I comment on other irruptive passerines, such as the Red-breasted Nuthatch, whose movements are linked to cone crops. Also included is a comment on northern owls.


Pine Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest. However, crops are good in northwestern Ontario west of Lake Superior. Pine Grosbeaks should wander south to Lake Ontario and perhaps farther in search of crabapples and planted European mountain-ash berries, which have average crops in southern Ontario. Watch for them at feeders where they prefer sunflower seeds. After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March. Buds form a larger part of their winter diet when mountain-ash crops are poor.

Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches will migrate out of Ontario this fall in response to the low seed crops. Currently, Purple Finches are migrating south through southern Ontario. Very few or none will stay behind at feeders in southern Ontario.

Red Crossbill: The Red Crossbill complex comprises 9 sibling Types, possibly full species, which have different call notes, and different bill sizes related to cone preferences. At least three Types occur in Ontario. Type 3 (smallest bill) prefers small hemlock cones (and spruce cones) in Ontario. The hemlock Type 3 was abundant last winter, but is presumed absent now from the province because hemlock produced few or no cones in 2007. Type 4 (medium sized bill) is adapted to white pine cones. White pine cone crops are fair to good (but spotty) in northern Ontario. Currently, small numbers of Type 4 Red Crossbills are present on the “east side” of Algonquin Park (heavy crop on white pine) and probably elsewhere with extensive white pine forest. Algonquin’s east side pine forest is accessible from Highway 17 west of Pembroke. South of Algonquin white pine crops are poor to none. An infrequent presumed Type 2 Red Crossbill is
associated with red pine forests.

White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill moves back and forth across northern coniferous forests searching for new cone crops. Most White-winged Crossbills left Ontario this past summer. They will be scarce or absent in Ontario this winter. They presumably went either west to bumper spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia, and/or to Atlantic Canada, which has large cone crops on spruce and balsam fir, particularly in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. White-winged Crossbills are currently common in Newfoundland and western Canada.

Common and Hoary Redpolls: There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter. Far northwestern Ontario has a good white birch crop so redpolls may be common there.

Pine Siskin: Similar to the White-winged Crossbill, most Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer, presumably attracted to huge spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia and/or to big spruce and balsam fir cone crops in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island and probably elsewhere in the Atlantic Provinces. Some of the very few siskins that remained in Ontario are now wandering south with sightings of usually only ones and twos in southern Ontario.
Large southward irruptions occur when cone crop failures span much of Canada. Very few siskins will visit feeders this winter in southern Ontario.

Evening Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the boreal forest this fall because tree seed crops are generally very poor in northeastern Ontario and western Quebec. In recent weeks scattered birds have visited feeders in southern Ontario. Beginning in the early 1980s the Evening Grosbeak declined significantly as large outbreaks of spruce budworm subsided. The larvae and pupae are eaten by adults and fed to nestlings. Expect Evening Grosbeaks at bird feeders in southern Ontario and northern United States, but not in the large numbers seen during the 1970s.


Red-breasted Nuthatch: They have been moving south since mid-June presumably because of the poor cone crop in central Canada. Almost all Red-breasted Nuthatches will depart Ontario’s boreal forest by late fall and left the province. Some will be at feeders in southern Ontario, but they will be very scarce in Algonquin Park. Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts (32 years) show a biennial (every two years) high and low pattern, with some exceptions.

Bohemian Waxwing: The poor crop of native mountain-ash (rowan berries) in much of northern Ontario will cause Bohemians Waxwings to wander south and east this winter. Watch for them eating buckthorn berries and crabapples in southern Ontario. The mountain-ash crop is better west of Lake Superior with a big crop around Kenora at Lake of the Woods.

Blue Jay: A strong flight is expected this fall. The beechnut crop is zero and the acorn crop on red oak is only fair to good (aborted in some areas) in central Ontario. Soon thousands of jays will be migrating southwest along the shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie, exiting Ontario south of Windsor. This winter there will be far fewer Blue Jays in Algonquin Park and at feeders in central Ontario.

Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee: They are moving in northeastern Quebec east of Tadoussac along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. These movements could extend to southern Ontario and northeastern states.


Small mammal populations were abundant this summer in northern Ontario, presumably increasing after the big seed/berry/fruit crops in 2006. However, crops this year are very poor in much of the north, partly caused by cold weather and snow in late spring that froze the buds and flowers of many plants. In early August, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologists on aerial surveys noted many raptors near James Bay including 15-20 Great Gray Owls, Short-eared Owls (common), Northern Harriers (common) and scattered Rough-legged Hawks. If small mammal populations crash this fall, then Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls will move, possibly southward into areas accessible by birders. Northern Saw-whet Owl numbers are linked to red-backed voles (a forest vole) in Ontario. There is the possibility that this vole could decline soon because it often cycles with deer mice. The huge population of deer mice in central Ontario is declining rapidly now because of poor seed crops this summer, particularly sugar maple samaras, which they store for the winter. If red-backed vole numbers decline as they often do in association with deer mice, there will be a strong flight of Northern
Saw-whet Owls this fall.


I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and
birders whose reports allow me to make predictions about finches.
They are Ken Abraham (OMNR Hudson Bay Lowlands), Dennis Barry (Durham
Region and Haliburton County), Kevin Clute (Algonquin Park), Shirley
Davidson (OMNR Minden), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carrolle
Eady (Dryden), Dave Elder (Atikokan), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club,
Toronto), Brian Fox (OMNR Timmins to Chapleau), Marcel Gahbauer
(Labrador, Alberta, British Columbia), Michel Gosselin (Gatineau,
Quebec), Charity Hendry (OMNR Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Leo Heyens
(OMNR Kenora), Tyler Hoar (central Ontario and southern Quebec),
Peter Hynard (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), Jean Iron (Toronto
and northeastern Quebec), Christine Kerrigan and Peter Nevin (Parry
Sound District), Barry Kinch (Timiskaming), Bob Knudsen (Ontario
Parks, Algoma), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Scott McPherson (OMNR
Northeast Region), Brian Naylor (OMNR North Bay), Marty Obbard (OMNR
Peterborough), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park), Janet Pineau (Arrowhead
Provincial Park), Fred Pinto (OMNR North Bay), Gordon Ross (OMNR
Moosonee), Rick Salmon (OMNR Lake Nipigon), Don Sutherland (OMNR
Hudson Bay Lowlands), Doug Tozer (Algonquin Park), Ron Tozer
(Algonquin Park and Muskoka), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (OMNR
Brancroft District), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR Northeast Region), Mike
Walsh (OMNR Muskoka and Parry Sound), John White (OMNR Ontario Tree
Seed Plant) and Alan Wormington (Point Pelee). I thank Michel
Gosselin, Jean Iron and Ron Tozer for reviewing the forecast. Ron
Tozer also provided information from his upcoming book on The Birds
of Algonquin Provincial Park.

PREVIOUS FINCH FORECASTS archived at Larry Neily’s website: AT

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario

The lumping of the gulls

For any of you who have looked through a flock of gulls and thought it was hopeless to pick out the different species, you are in luck. Scientists have just released their findings in the UK journal Molecular Ecology Notes regarding DNA barcodes for bird species in North America. They found that most of the large, white-headed gulls (California, Herring, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed, Western, Glaucous-winged, and Glaucous Gulls) share 99.8% of their DNA. Although there is no official percentage that endows a bird with its own species name, these gulls show a high percentage of similarity, enough that the researches lumped them all into one group.

This would greatly simplify the issue and birders would only have to worry about separating Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. The idea that they are all the same species is difficult for me and many others to believe. There are problems with the DNA barcode method because it does not look at the whole DNA sequence, but just one particular area. Despite this, it is still an interesting study and helps us feel better for having such problems ID’ing these birds.

I have seen all of these gulls and photographed them as well so I give you 4 to ponder. You tell me if you think this is acceptable variation for one species.

Kumlien's Iceland Gull Lesser Black-backed Gull

Herring Gull Glaucous Gull
clockwise from top right:L. Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull and Iceland Gull.

Eastern population of Golden Eagles being tracked

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh and Powdermill Avian Research Center are both working on satellite tracking several Golden Eagles that were trapped this fall near the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch near Bedford, PA. I was lucky enough to be in the trapping blind for a day when 39 Golden Eagles and 1 Bald Eagle migrated past but unfortunately we only caught two Red-tailed Hawks. The eastern Golden Eagle has been recognized as a geographically and genetically isolated population for more than two decades now and it is crucial that we understand how their migratory behavior might be affected by proposed wind power projects along the Appalachian ridges. According to one article…

The possible increase of wind power on Appalachian ridges may threaten golden eagles as they travel their historic migratory corridor that follows these mountains through Pennsylvania to reach their nesting grounds in eastern Canada or wintering grounds in the southern reaches of the mountain chain. Since all known eastern golden eagle migratory routes track over the Appalachian Mountains, possibly along or in close proximity to ridges targeted for wind power development, the Game Commission must ensure the well-being of this state and federally-protected species – as well as other wildlife – as this growing industry sites turbines between the state’s Allegheny Front and Blue or Kittatinny Ridge. -according to

Below are the tracks of two Golden Eagles that were trapped this fall.

For more info on this project, click here.