You’ll want to go for a walk this week. It’s prime time to see birds in all their spring splendor. Colorful Neotropical migrants are moving through in waves to supplement the numerous temperate species that arrived earlier this spring to begin their nesting cycle. Here’s a sample of what you might find this week along a rail-trail, park path, or quiet country road near you—even on a rainy or breezy day.
The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of more than two dozen species of warblers passing through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed right now. Look for it in the middle and bottom branches of deciduous forest growth.
The Veery and other woodland thrushes sing a melodious song. Veerys remain through the summer to nest in damp mature deciduous forests.
The American Redstart, this one a first-spring male, is another of the variety of warblers arriving now. Redstarts nest in deciduous forests with a dense understory.
Adaptable inquisitive Gray Catbirds are here to nest in any shrubby habitat, whether in a forest or a suburban garden.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptilia caerulea) arrive in April, so they’ve been here for a while. They spend most of their time foraging in the treetops. The gnatcatcher’s wheezy call alerts the observer to their presence.
Look way up there, it’s a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers building a nest.
The Eastern Phoebe, a species of flycatcher, often arrives as early as mid-March. This particular bird and its mate are already nesting beneath a stone bridge that passes over a woodland stream.
Orchard Orioles (Icturus spurius) are Neotropical migrants that nest locally in habitats with scattered large trees, especially in meadows and abandoned orchards.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Baltimore Oriole is a more widespread breeding species than the Orchard Oriole. In addition to the sites preferred by the latter, it will nest in groves of mature trees on farms and estates, in parks, and in forest margins where the canopy is broken.
The Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) nests in big trees along streams, often sharing habitat with our two species of orioles.
Eastern Towhees arrive in numbers during April. They nest in thickets and hedgerows, where a few stragglers can sometimes be found throughout the winter.
The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a migrant from the tropics that sometimes nests locally in thorny thickets. Its song consists of a mixed variety of loud phrases, reminding the listener of mimics like catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds.
Thickets with fragrant blooms of honeysuckle and olive attract migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Look for them taking a break on a dead branch where they can have a look around and hold on tight during gusts of wind.
The Eastern Kingbird, a Neotropical flycatcher, may be found near fields and meadows with an abundance of insects. In recent years, high-intensity farming practices have reduced the occurrence of kingbirds as a nesting species in the lower Susquehanna valley. The loss of pasture acreage appears to have been particularly detrimental.
Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) can be found in grassy fields throughout the year. Large parcels that go uncut through at least early July offer them the opportunity to nest.
Male Bobolinks have been here for just more than a week. Look for them in alfalfa fields and meadows. Like Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks nest on the ground and will lose their eggs and/or young if fields are mowed during the breeding cycle.
Cattail marshes are currently home to nesting Swamp Sparrows. Wetlands offer an opportunity to see a variety of unique species in coming weeks.
Shorebirds like this Solitary Sandpiper will be transiting the lower Susquehanna basin through the end of May. They stop to rest in wetlands, flooded fields, and on mudflats and alluvial islets in the region’s larger streams. Many of these shorebirds nest in far northern Canada. So remember, they need to rest and recharge for the long trip ahead, so try not to disturb them.
The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway. With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.
Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.
Blue-winged Teal are among the earliest of the waterfowl to begin southward migration.
Sandpipers and plovers have been on the move since July. The bird in the foreground with these Killdeer is not one of their offspring, but rather a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), a regular late-summer migrant in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Hawk watch sites all over North America are counting birds right now. The Osprey is an early-season delight as it glides past the lookouts. Look for them moving down the Susquehanna as well.
Bald Eagles will be on the move through December. To see these huge raptors in numbers, visit a hawk watch on a day following passage of a cold front when northwest winds are gusting.
Merlins were seen during this past week in areas with good concentrations of dragonflies. This particular one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties…
…was soon visited by another.
Check the forest canopy for Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Some local birds are still on breeding territories while others from farther north are beginning to move through.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are darting through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to the tropics. This one has no trouble keeping pace with a passing Tree Swallow.
Nocturnal flights can bring new songbirds to good habitat each morning. It’s the best time of year to see numbers of Empidonax flycatchers. But, because they’re often silent during fall migration, it’s not the best time of year to easily identify them. This one lacking a prominent eye ring is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
During the past two weeks, Red-eyed Vireos have been numerous in many Susquehanna valley woodlands. Many are migrants while others are breeding pairs tending late-season broods.
During mornings that follow heavy overnight flights, Blackburnian Warblers have been common among waves of feeding songbirds.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are regular among flocks of nocturnal migrants seen foraging among foliage at sunrise.
Scarlet Tanagers, minus the brilliant red breeding plumage of the males, are on their way back to the tropics for winter.
While passing overhead on their way south, Bobolinks can be seen or heard from almost anywhere in the lower Susquehanna valley. Their movements peak in late August and early September.
During recent evenings, Bobolinks have been gathering by the hundreds in fields of warm-season grasses at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
If you go to see the Bobolinks there, visit Stop 3 on the tour route late in the afternoon and listen for their call. You’ll soon notice their wings glistening in the light of the setting sun as they take short flights from point to point while they feed. Note the abundance of flying insects above the Big Bluestem and Indiangrass in this image. Grasslands like these are essential habitats for many of our least common resident and migratory birds.
After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned. Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region. Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.
A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States. It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.
Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in flocks comprised of as many as fifty birds gathered in weedy meadows and alfalfa fields for the week.
A Bobolink sheltering in a field of Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) during the rain on Friday, May 8th.
Two of seven Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) in a wet field on Friday, May 8. Not-so-solitary after all.
Grounded by inclement weather, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) made visits to suburban bird feeders in the lower Susquehanna valley. (Charles A. Fox image)
Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings. The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted. Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded. Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source. For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence. So they wait.
A freeze warning was issued for Saturday morning, May 9, in the counties colored dark blue on the map. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 3:28 A.M. Saturday morning, May 9, indicates a minor movement of birds in the Great Plains, but there are no notable returns shown around weather radar sites in the freeze area, including the lower Susquehanna valley. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
To avoid the cold wind on Saturday, May 9, this Veery was staying low to the ground within a thicket of shrubs in the forest.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler avoided the treetops and spent time in the woodland understory. He sang not a note. With birds conserving energy for the cold night(s) ahead, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the second Saturday in May.
A secretive Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) remained in a wetland thicket.
A Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) tucks his bill beneath a wing and fluffs-up to fight off the cold during a brief May 9th snow flurry.
In open country, gusty winds kept Eastern Kingbirds, a species of flycatcher, near the ground in search of the insects they need to sustain them.
Horned Larks are one of the few birds that attempt to scratch out an existence in cultivated fields. The application of herbicides and the use of systemic insecticides (including neonicotinoids) eliminates nearly all weed seeds and insects in land subjected to high-intensity farming. For most birds, including Neotropical migrants, cropland in the lower Susquehanna valley has become a dead zone. Birds and other animals might visit, but they really don’t “live” there anymore.
Unable to find flying insects over upland fields during the cold snap, swallows concentrated over bodies of water to feed. Some Tree Swallows may have abandoned their nests to survive this week’s cold. Fragmentation of habitats in the lower Susquehanna valley reduces the abundance and diversity of natural food sources for wildlife. For birds like swallows, events like late-season freezes, heat waves, or droughts can easily disrupt their limited food supply and cause brood failure.
For this Barn Swallow, attempting to hunt insects above the warm pavement of a roadway had fatal consequences.
Another freeze warning was issued for Sunday morning, May 10, in the counties colored dark blue on this map. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 4:58 A.M. Sunday morning, May 10, again indicates the absence of a flight of migrating birds in the area subjected to freezing temperatures. Unlike migrants earlier in the season, the Neotropical species that move north during the May exodus appear unwilling to resume their trek during freezing weather. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
On Sunday evening, May 10, a liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated around radar sites along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and, to a lesser degree, in central Pennsylvania. The approaching rain and yet another cold front quickly grounded this flight.
After a one day respite, yet another freeze warning was issued for Tuesday morning, May 12. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And again, no flight in the freeze area. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze warning for Wednesday morning, May 13. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And the nocturnal flight: heavy in the Mississippi valley and minimal in the freeze area. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze on Thursday morning, May 14. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
At 3:08 A.M. on May 14th, a flight is indicated streaming north through central Texas and dispersing into the eastern half of the United States, but not progressing into New England. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The flight at eight minutes after midnight this morning. Note the stormy cold front diving southeast across the upper Mississippi valley. As is often the case, the concentration of migrating birds is densest in the warm air ahead of the front. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it. The flights have resumed.
Indigo Bunting numbers are increasing as breeding populations arrive and migrants continue through. Look for them in thickets along utility and railroad right-of-ways.
Common Yellowthroats and other colorful warblers are among the May migrants currently resuming their northward flights.
The echoes of the songs of tropical birds are beginning to fill the forests of the lower Susquehanna watershed. The flute-like harmonies of the Wood Thrush are among the most impressive.
Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers with a surprisingly explosive song for their size. Many arrived within the last two days to stake out a territory for breeding. Listen for “teacher-teacher-teacher” emanating from a woodland near you.