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!

Bonies at the flats

A few days ago I spent the morning at Conejohela Flats, canoing around because the water level was extremely high following the 3 inches of rain we had just received. Generally we spend most of our time scoping the birds out from a blind that is on one of the small islands but now the blind was basically a small island of its own.

Bonaparte’s Gulls

Before I set off though, I had the pleasure of watching several first winter Bonaparte’s Gulls (or bonies) elegantly forage for food right near the dock. I really enjoy these gulls because of their bouyant, tern-like flight. They are not these big bruiser gulls like Herring or Glaucous Gulls that look mean and fly like a cargo plane.

On the contrary, they can float just above the water, gracefully maneuvering to and fro looking for a tasty floating tidbit, and then just as gracefully dive down to nab it. Even without binoculars they were easy to pick out among the Ring-billed Gulls due to their size and different flight mannerisms.

Bonaparte’s Gulls are smaller gulls, and the first cycle birds (just molted out of their juvenile plumage) have distinctive dark stripes on their wings. I also saw several adults later on when I was in the canoe, hence the lack of digiscoped adults.

One interesting thing about Bonaparte’s Gulls is that unlike most other gulls, they usually nest in trees. I would be hard pressed to remember one time when I saw a gull in a tree.

Counting at Hawk Mountain

Saturday was one of the four days this fall that I am scheduled to count hawks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania. The day started out pretty dismal as a huge mass of rain from the south was working its way up the northeast. I initially headed to some lakes to check for scoters and brant which had been reported around the state during the storm but came up empty.

The storm ended around noon and I was soon up on north lookout, waiting for the raptors to start flying. I didn’t have to wait long as the afternoon started off with a young Osprey.

North Lookout, clearing off after the rain

Sharp-shinned Hawks dominated the flight early in the afternoon but the real star of the day were the Red-tailed Hawks. We ended up with 74 redtails and it always seemed like there were 1 or 2 in sight. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, an off-duty counter came up and asked, “Did you hold the golden for me?” He had walked the mile up to the lookout just to see a Golden Eagle. Since we hadn’t seen any yet, I answered that of course we had held it, and it is on the way. Well, the sun started to lower and it got colder so he decided it was time to leave, despite not seeing a Golden Eagle. Not a minute after he left I lifted by bins up to the horizon, and wouldn’t you know it, a large bird appeared. We quickly yelled down the trail, telling him to hurry back and we were all treated to a fantastic view of an adult Golden Eagle that slowly made its way towards us, circled, and then continued on.

adult Golden Eagle

I tried to phonescope the eagle since there were enough observers around to determine its age and other details. I only managed one shot of the eagle with my phone, thru my binoculars and it turned out better than I would have expected. If you look closely you can see the golden nape of the eagle as well as the distinctive way it holds its wings, not quite as board-straight as a Bald Eagle.

Passerines were pretty sparse except for a fairly exceptional number of tree swallows there were flying around the lookout. We counted ~70 throughout the day but they were moving around and it is hard to know whether that is accurate or extremely low.

My sparrow fest

So it seems like ever other bird blogger has gotten out to digiscope the sparrow migration and today was finally my day. I got some OK pictures but there always seemed to be something obstructing part of my subject.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

I managed to come across several Lincoln’s Sparrows and one cooperatively perched about 30 ft away long enough to snap a few photos. These delicate sparrows are one of my favorite. According to some, Lincoln’s Sparrows affinity for dense shrubby areas, secretive nature and boreal breeding habitat make it one of the most elusive of N. American birds.

White-crowned Sparrow- adult

White-crowned Sparrows made a major push into the area following the cold front that just passed. Both striking adults and buffy juveniles were pretty common and generally easy to digiscope.

White-crowned Sparrow- juvenile

White-throated Sparrow- tan-stripe morph

According to Birds of N. America Online, there are two different color morphs of White-throated Sparrows during the breeding season. Tan-striped birds like the one above generally provide more parental care while white-striped birds, pictured below, are more aggressive, territorial and likely to mate more than once (extra-pair copulations). The interesting thing is that each morph nearly always mates with its opposite. Tan-striped males tend to mate with white-striped females and white-striped males look for tan-striped females to mate with.

White-throated Sparrow- white-stripe morph

Ammon, Elisabeth M.. 1995 . Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Falls, J. B., and J. G. Kopachena. 1994 . White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

I and the Bird #60

Edition #60 of I and the Bird is currently online at the Search and Serendipity blog. Check it out for the best of bird blogging in the last few weeks.

More Arizona pictures

Juniper Titmouse @ Grand Canyon National Park

Black-headed Grosbeak @ Grand Canyon National Park

Broad-billed Hummingbird @ Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

Barn Owl @ Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

Anna’s Hummingbird @ Madera Canyon

Anna’s Hummingbird @ Madera Canyon

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.