Category Archives: Migration

Swallow-tailed Kite Madness in Sumter County

I usually see my first Swallow-tailed Kite of the year around my birthday at the end of February. And this time of year, the end of August, is when I usually see my last one for the year.

Swallow-tailed Kites are social birds. When they are getting ready for their fall migration to South America, the birds gather in large roosting and feeding flocks in the weeks prior to the epic flight. Large late-season flocks are known to occur at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, among other spots.

One communal feeding site that has gotten the excited attention of birdwatchers during the last few years is located in rural Sumter County, Florida. All through July our local birding listservs are full of breathless reports from birders who have made the trek out to the melon fields of Wildwood. The birds tended to start arrive around 10AM and peak shortly thereafter; the big show would last an hour or more.

waiting for STKI
Birders waiting for the kites to arrive [photo by Arthur]

Arthur and I made the trip out to the melon fields on July 26th, along with my parents. We weren’t the only ones. And we were not disappointed. While cloud cover kept the birds from arriving at the usual time, once the skies cleared, the birds started to arrive.

Swallow-tailed Kite feeding flock
The skies cleared up. Look for the tiny dots in the distance — those are Swallow-tailed Kites!

I estimated that we saw about 350 birds during our visit. Watching them was a treat. They were there to feed, and it was relatively easy to see them catching flying insects and devouring them while on the wing.

Swallow-tailed Kites

Arthur took this video during the feeding frenzy:

We were also lucky to see (but not photograph) a Mississippi Kite flying among the Swallow-taileds — a Florida lifer for us all.

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IMBD at Animal Kingdom

IMBD at Animal Kingdom

On May 6th, Walt Disney World will celebrate International Migratory Bird Day at Animal Kingdom. When Arthur and I have attended in the past, we enjoyed seeing the special birdcentric displays and activities to mark the day.

If the schedule followed for the last few years remains the same, you can go to see an Operation Migration ultra-light airplane at Conservation Station, learn about bird banding by “playing bird”, find out what you can do to help Purple Martins and other native birds, and much more.

Last year there were a couple of displays at Conservation Station that I thought were pretty clever; I hope they bring them back again this year.

A model of a mountain ridge was set up to show how raptors migrate over higher elevations using thermals. There was even a little fan blowing on the display to show how the mountains impact wind direction and speed.

Raptor Migration

Raptor Migration display

There was a table set up where children could dissect owl pellets. But for anyone who didn’t want to get so up close and personal with owl barf, they had a plush owl pellet, complete with models of bones inside! This seems like a fun way to explain what owl pellets are without necessarily dissecting one.

owl pellets

owl pellet

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Red Knot FLV5M

At the end of December, I participated in the Daytona CBC (Christmas Bird Count). A stretch of beach was part of my group’s area, most of which we could cover by car. As we drove along four-plus miles of beach, I counted the gulls and terns, while others in the group counted shorebirds and other species.

Red Knots

Among the shorebirds we found a couple of flocks of Red Knots. One of the birds was banded and flagged. I took some photos of the distant bird in rather poor drizzly conditions — and was pleased to later see that the flag’s numbers were readable.

Banded Red Knot

I reported the sighting on and was amazed to find much data about this particular bird’s movements was immediately available to me. No waiting for a response, awesome!

Red Knots have one of the longest migrations of any bird species. Birds in the western hemisphere may travel over 9000 miles, twice a year, between their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their winter homes in southern South America.

The rufa subspecies of the eastern Americas is emperiled, in great part due to its reliance on the availability of horseshoe crab eggs during a critical part of its migration. These birds are the subject of the excellent Nature episode Crash: A Tale of Two Species.

Red Knots

The bird we saw on the CBC was first banded during spring migration, on June 3, 2005, in New Jersey. Since then, this hearty Red Knot has been sighted several times. During the following spring, it was seen again in New Jersey. The next sighting was in the fall of 2009, where FLV5M* apparently spent (at least) nearly two months on the coast of Georgia. Sightings in South Carolina and again New Jersey followed. In March 2011, the Red Knot was captured again (this time in South Carolina) and had its flag replaced (*to the present FLV5M). Sightings continued to come in from New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, and once in Delaware. The first Florida sighting was reported at Ormond Beach in January of 2013. Our CBC sighting at Daytona Beach on December 28, 2013, was the first reported December sighting for this bird.

Between its first capture in 2005 and our sighting in December 2013, Red Knot FLV5M had traveled well over 145,000 miles, and possibly many more. All on its own power. Red Knots weigh less than 5 ounces. Isn’t that amazing?!

If you’ve ever seen a flagged shorebird, be sure to report your sighting!

In North America, other species of banded birds can be reported to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Laboratory. If you aren’t able to read the entire band, your sighting may still be useful. Do a web search for your species and banding efforts; that’s what I did when I could only partially read the band of a Reddish Egret Arthur and I found on the Keys a couple of years ago.

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Posted in Banding, CBC, Florida, Migration | 1 Comment


A delicious, nutritious moth makes a nice meal for a migrating Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photos taken 17 October, 2012, at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve in Lake County, Illinois.

delicious moth

delicious moth

delicious moth

Since we’ve been back in Florida, we’ve been spending a lot of time away from home. I haven’t seen any butterbutts in the yard, but I haven’t had much opportunity to look. Hopefully that will change very soon! It’s always a pleasure to see Yellow-rumped Warblers in the yard!

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Delicious dandelions

I’ve been spending a lot of time fretting over the health and happiness of this old man lately, which has put me on an unexpected birding hiatus.

Arby sees starlings
Arby watching starlings, December 2008

So here’s a dip back in time and another installment of blog catch-up. Back in May, when I visited family and friends in Illinois, I took a few walks at my old favorite, Rollins Savanna.

Rollins Savanna
Rollins Savanna on May 10, 2012

Male Bobolink

In mid-May Rollins was hopping with Bobolinks. Their robotic calls could be heard from nearly every step along the 3.5 mile main loop trail.

Bobolink eating dandelion seeds
Bobolink eating dandelion seeds

Bobolink eating dandelion seeds
You’ve got a little something stuck to the side of your beak there, Bob.

Bobolinks normally first arrive in Lake County around the beginning of May, so the birds I observed chowing down on dandelion seeds along the path may have been new arrivals, refueling after a long leg of their migration (they come from as far south as Argentina). Bobolinks breed in northern Illinois, but their breeding range goes as far north as the Canadian border and beyond.

female Bobolink
Female Bobolink

Bobolinks pass through Florida on their journey in both directions, but I have not been able to add one to my state list so far. Maybe, if I’m very lucky this September…

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Reverse migration

Gearing up to move from Chicagoland to central Florida in mid-June might seem like a case of reverse migration, but that’s exactly what we’re planning on doing in just under three weeks. I’m looking forward to this new adventure but I’m also terribly sad to leave behind so many good friends and my family. Between the packing and the planning, stay tuned for more news on our big move.

Cattle Egrets at Viera Wetlands, April 28 2011

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Finding Loons in Lake County

Common Loons migrate through Lake County here in northern Illinois in early spring. I grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs, but until I became a birder I had no idea that loons passed through our lakes during migration. It wasn’t until 2009 that I saw loons for the first time.

Common Loons by Gary J. Wege
Common Loons by Gary J. Wege by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region, Creative Commons on Flickr

Judging from some of my blog visitor statistics, there are more locals interested in finding loons during the brief time they visit our part of the state. I’m no expert but I do have some tips for finding loons in Lake County, Illinois.

When can birders find Common Loons in Lake County? The time to look for Common Loons in Lake County is right now. At least two area bird clubs offer annual loon-finding trips. These trips are free to everyone – you don’t have to be a member. The trips run as caravans and you can end your day after any stop on the route. Last week we joined Lake-Cook Audubon on their Loons of Lake County trip. Dave Johnson leads a Looney Trip each year for the Evanston North Shore Bird Club (we joined the Looney Trip in 2009). This year’s trip will take place April 2nd. These trips generally occur during the last week of March or the first week of April. With migration, anything goes, but generally this time period will be your best bet to find loons.

Where is the best place to find Common Loons in Lake County? You don’t have to join a club outing to find loons (although both clubs mentioned above are a lot of fun!) in Lake County. While there are a few glacial lakes that are probably good bets year to year, if you’re limited in time it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what other area birders are seeing before venturing out on your own. There are a few great resources for this. One is the Illinois birding mailing list (listserv) IBET. You don’t necessarily have to subscribe because recent posts are archived to the public online: Recent Postings from The Illinois List. At the time of this writing, I see posts from other birders reporting loon sightings in Cook, Jasper, and Winnebago counties, plus a few posts about a “Loonapalooza” in the Chain-o-Lakes area (Lake & McHenry counties).

Common Loons
Breeding plumage Common Loons on Diamond Lake, photo by blogger

Another great place to check is eBird. A quick look at the eBird entries for Common Loon in Lake County, Illinois in March and April over the last five years reveals a few hotspots and recent sightings: Fox Lake; Long Lake; Independence Grove; Butler Lake; Lake Zurich; and Diamond Lake. If you’re going out on your own, keep in mind that loons (also known as Great Northern Divers) prefer larger, deeper lakes.

Why do birders look for Common Loons in Lake County during spring migration? Loons are considered medium-distance migrants, spending the winter in coastal areas of North America and breeding across much of Canada and far northern areas of the Great Lakes in the United States. In the spring, they take on their beautiful, striking black-and-white breeding plumage. Loons are typically easier to find in Lake County during the spring migration; fall migration is more protracted so you’re less likely to find them in quantity during the fall. And while loons can be vocal all year, you’re more likely to hear their haunting wail calls during the spring as breeding season approaches.

Common Loon at Gloucester Harbor
Common Loon at Gloucester Harbor by Dendroica cerulea, Creative Commons on Flickr

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Posted in Illinois, Lake-Cook Audubon, LCFPD, Migration | 5 Comments

Fatten up and go!

During our recent visit to Holland, I had a free afternoon on my own in Leiden. I visited one of my favorite museums in the world, Naturalis, the national natural history museum of the Netherlands. The museum is always a treat to visit, but I really lucked out because one of the special temporary exhibits was an excellent study of bird migration.

The exhibit, Opvetten en wegwezen (Fatten up and go!), was presented in one large exhibit room. There were cases of mounted birds arranged by average migration distance. Information provided by each case showed the route each of the birds takes during migration.

Migratory Birds
Display case with short-distance migratory birds

Fatten Up and Go!
Display cases with migratory birds

Migration Routes
Migration routes of birds that travel through the Netherlands

Between these cases were various migration topics explained, like how birds navigate, the dangers birds face during their long travels, and how they prepare for the journey.

Display on the timing of migration behind more bird cases

“Natural dangers” display behind more bird cases

Fatten Up!
The different fat levels in a Barn Swallow as it prepares for its journey

There were also several points where current bird research being conducted in the Netherlands was explained. A written interview with the involved scientists was shown, along with supplemental media. Here, the current work being done with Eurasian Spoonbills is explained by Ornithologist Tamar Lok. Small text (click to see full size at Flickr) reads, “The protection of birds in the Netherlands started with (Eurasian) Spoonbills. The Naardermeer was declared a nature reserve for this bird species. Later on, more marshes and coastal areas were declared protected.” I had no idea that the spoonbill was a ‘spark bird’ for Dutch bird conservation!

Spoonbills in the Netherlands
All about Eurasian Spoonbill research in the Netherlands

I was particularly interested in bird banding endeavors. A short video showed how Barn Swallow researchers work, and I was kind of wowed by the amount of birds caught in their nets.

Barn Swallow banding
Lots of Barn Swallows in mist nets

The last bird cases were reserved for the birds with the longest migration routes. The final bird was the Arctic Tern, with a migration journey of 15,000 kilometers.

Arctic Tern migration
The Arctic Tern travels over 9,000 miles during migration!

Arctic Tern at Naturalis
Arctic Tern, the migration champion of the exhibit

Opvetten en wegwezen will continue at Naturalis through February 20th, 2011. I highly recommend it!

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Migration Awareness 9

This morning Arthur and I are walking our Rescue & Recovery route to look for fallen injured or dead birds that have struck buildings in Chicago during the night and early morning. This is our fifth week volunteering for R&R this fall (we were off last week). During these weeks, I’d like to highlight some of the perils birds face on their migration by sharing a website or information about migratory birds.

This week has been rough on birds migrating through Chicago. The teams out earlier this week had large numbers of birds that hit windows in the city. Tuesday was particularly heavy, and a local news station picked up the story.

We prepared extra paper bags last night in anticipation of what may be another heavy wave of migration Wednesday night. We’ll be in the city by 4am Thursday morning.

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Migration Awareness 8

Fall is here and that means many of our feathered friends are headed south. It also means that a new migration Rescue & Recovery season has begun. This morning Arthur and I are walking our route to look for fallen injured or dead birds that have struck buildings in Chicago during the night and early morning. This is our second week volunteering for R&R this fall, following our first season during last spring’s migration. During these weeks, I’d like to highlight some of the perils birds face on their migration by sharing a website or information about migratory birds.

Last week, twin columns of light shone above the former site of the World Trade Center in New York. The Tribute in Light attracted an estimated 10,000 birds who were in the midst of migration. The phenomenon resulted from a sort of perfect storm of conditions. The recent poor weather for migration changed on the night of September 11, 2010, and a large amount of birds who had been waiting out bad weather were suddenly on the move. Some of the birds’ normal methods of navigation were obscured: there was just a sliver of new moon and an overcast sky blocked the stars. The birds became confused by the huge beams of light and ended up flying in circles. You can see them in the video below. Note that the video will start at 0:35, which is shortly before the birds are first seen in the clip.

When the lights were turned off for 20 minutes, the birds moved on. But when the lights were turned back on, more birds became confused and trapped in the light. You can read more about the birds caught by the Tribute in Light here.

This sort of problem is not limited to big light beams as seen with the Tribute in Light. Blog readers know that big buildings with brightly-lit windows cause similar problems.

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