Welcome to the Birds In Flight Project! The purpose of this website is to teach birders about the identification of birds in flight.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

First Flight Calls of Fall 2011

This morning I heard my first decent flight of nocturnal migrants.  I listened for flight calls from 4:30-5:30am.  Here are the call totals:

Hermit Thrush-1

Friday, March 11, 2011

Waterfowl Identification

For birders in the mid-Atlantic region, March is well-known as spring duck migration season.  Many species of ducks that either overwintered in the area or farther south are heading north through the region.  Many species of ducks and other waterfowl fly past quickly sometimes providing only a quick glance.  Here are some waterfowl flight photos, most of which I observed and photographed during the winter of 2010/2011.

Although seen through thick fog, these Snow Geese are clearly identifiable by the black wingtips.  These migrant geese are becoming increasingly common in this region during the winter and spring.  As they fly, Snow Geese make squeaky honks and whistled notes.  This photo was taken at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a major Snow Goose congregation area.

Snow Geese often travel in unorganized flocks.  Unlike the structured "V" flight formation of the Canada Goose, Snow Geese fly loosely together or in a "U".

Canada Geese are very common.  They are around all year and are easily found near most bodies of water.  Unlike the Snow Goose, the Canada Goose has solid colored wings and a grayish brown body.  The neck is back with a characteristic white neck/chin marking.

As mentioned before, Canada Geese often fly in an organized "V" formation.

Tundra Swans, like these four, are always a treat to find during migration.  This species tends to congregate in reservoirs and lakes, so it is difficult to find just a few.  This photo was taken at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania, where there is a reservoir that attracts tens of thousands of Snow Geese and thousands of Tundra Swans.

 Although most commonly encountered on the large bodies of water where they rest, Tundra Swans can occasionally be seen flying overhead.  Since these swans are not nearly as numerous as the geese previously mentioned, this is an unusual sight in most places, but be sure to check out any interesting-looking "goose" flock.  Tundra Swans make a series of high-pitched honking and rolling calls.  This photo was taken over my yard in Kunkletown, PA, where I almost dismissed this as a Snow Goose flock until I heard them calling.

Common Mergansers are a common sight on rivers and lakes during the winter and early spring.  The males of these long-necked, long-billed ducks are easy to identify in flight by their white bodies, dark heads, and flashing black-and-white pattern on the top of the wings.  This photo was taken at Green Lane Reservoir, where many Common Mergansers winter on the lake if it does not freeze completely.

Female Common Mergansers are not as distinctly patterned as the male, but the white patch on the wing and long neck (for a duck) make the identification fairly straightforward.  These birds were photographed at Middle Creek WMA.

Like the Common Merganser, Common Goldeneyes are diving ducks.  This species is often found on lakes as well as on rapids in rivers.  The head shape, stubby body, and white and black patterning on the wing makes these easy to identify.  The white spot on the male's face may be another key to identification.  Upon looking at this picture, you may notice that the center bird is different than the rest.  This Harlequin Duck was associating with these Common Goldeneyes in the Delware River near Riverton, PA.  The face pattern on this species is very distinctive.

Compared to the "diving" ducks mentioned above, the head shape on this species is different.  Based on the gray head and pattern that is visible on the head, these ducks can be identified as American Wigeon.

One of the more distinctive ducks in flight is the Northern Pintail.  The males are obvious with brown heads and a white line along the neck.  The long, pin-like tail is also distinctive.  Females (second from left) are plain brown and similar to other female ducks.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

An unidentified flight call

On August 27, 2010, around 4:30 am, I was in my yard in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania recording flight calls.  Most of the calls were of the common Swainson's Thrushes and Veeries, but there was one flight call that stood out.  One expert of the subject gave a possible identification, but I was curious what others thought.  The quality of the recording is not the greatest, so you may have to strain your ears to hear the call, but please take a listen if you are knowledgeable about nocturnal flight calls!  Thanks!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Big Sit!

The Big Sit starts on midnight of October 10.  I will be out listening for flight calls at my spot around midnight!  The Big Sit is a great opportunity to look for birds in flight, since many of the birds observed on these counts are flying.  Good luck if you are doing a Sit!  The migration forecast looks good!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Morning Flight 10/3/10

This past Sunday (10/3/10) I counted birds engaging in morning flight over my yard. The flight has definitely shifted away from the warblers and towards the larger migrants.  The following birds were engaging in morning flight behavior:

Canada Goose 45
Osprey 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Mourning Dove 1
Northern Flicker 2
Blue Jay 310
American Crow 3
American Robin 19
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 16
Cedar Waxwing 34
Yellow-rumped Warbler 2
Blackpoll Warbler 3
Dark-eyed Junco 1
Purple Finch 33
House Finch 7
American Goldfinch 4

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Morning Flight 9/11/10

This morning I did a morning flight count in Kunkletown with Terry Master. We counted migrating birds, starting at sunrise (6:37am) and ending two hours later. After the large migration last night (see previous post), the birds were definitely moving. We found 43 species, 23 of which were in morning flight. We ended with a total of 184 morning flight birds.

Species in bold were observed in morning flight:

American Kestrel 2
Mourning Dove 2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 3

Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 2
Pileated Woodpecker 4 

Eastern Phoebe 1
Red-eyed Vireo 10
Blue Jay 4
American Crow 3
Black-capped Chickadee 8
Red-breasted Nuthatch 2
House Wren 1
Veery 1
Swainson's Thrush 15
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 6
Gray Catbird 1
Cedar Waxwing 25
Tennessee Warbler 1
Northern Parula 1
Chestnut-sided Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 6
Cape May Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 4
Blackburnian Warbler 1
Prairie Warbler 1
Bay-breasted Warbler 4
Blackpoll Warbler 3
American Redstart 3

Common Yellowthroat 1
Hooded Warbler 1
Canada Warbler 1

Eastern Towhee 2
Field Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4
Indigo Bunting 2
Bobolink 14
Purple Finch 4
American Goldfinch 16

Unidentified warbler 66
Unidentified passerine 2

Many of the warblers were flying high today, but some allowed for photos.  This warbler shows a yellow underside and an all-dark tail.  These characteristics, combined with other observations in the field, help identify this Tennessee Warbler.

Many field marks are visible on this Northern Parula, including the bluish head, strong white wingbars, and yellow throat.

A few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were in the trees during the morning, but near the end of the count, I spotted this one flying west.  Note white crescents and the pink under the wings.

One of the last birds of the count was this Cape May Warbler.  Note the face pattern and the streaking on the side.

This is a spectrogram of the flight call that an American Redstart uttered while flying over during morning flight.

This is a spectrogram of a Chestnut-sided Warbler's flight calls from this morning.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Migrant push

Tonight there seems to be a strong push of migrants moving south.  A check of the NEXRAD radar is quite impressive.  I will out tomorrow (9/11/10) listening for flight calls and counting birds in morning flight!  I am sure the numbers will be impressive.

A look at tonight's radar shows an impressive number of birds migrating.  (National Weather Service, http://weather.gov)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Morning Flight

This morning I counted birds that flew over my yard during "morning flight" for the Northeast Morning Flight Project.  I counted for two hours (starting at sunrise).  I recorded 180 birds of 22 species engaging in morning flight.  Since most of these were identified on the wing (a few stopped to briefly before continuing) there were several unidentified birds seen.  The list is below:

1    American Kestrel
1    Mourning Dove
1    Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1    Red-headed Woodpecker
1    Red-bellied Woodpecker
1    Eastern Phoebe
1    Red-eyed Vireo
1    Red-breasted Nuthatch
1    Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
2    American Robin
70    Cedar Waxwing
3    Black-throated Green Warbler
3    Blackburnian Warbler
9    Bay-breasted Warbler
6    Blackpoll Warbler
1    American Redstart
1    Hooded Warbler
1    Scarlet Tanager
5    Bobolink
2    Purple Finch
2    House Finch
19    American Goldfinch

45    unidentified warbler
6    unidentified small passerine

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tonight is the night

Often after a cold front passes through, bird migration really picks up.  Today, one of these fronts passed through.  After days without decent migration, it is possible that tomorrow and Friday will be great birding days.  Get out birding!  Don't forget about flight calls and birds flying over!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Updates 9/6/10

Today, I added a Woodpecker ID page

I also photographed this Scarlet Tanager in flight, which will appear on an identification page shortly.

The yellow coloration and solid black wings are distinctive to a Scarlet Tanager.

Woodpecker Identification

Northern Flickers are easy to identify by their brown coloration and yellow under the wings.

Although facing away from the camera, this Red-bellied Woodpecker is fairly easy to identify.  The "zebra" pattern on the back is distinctive.  

Even though this photo is blurry, it is still possible to tell that the beak on this bird is quite long, separating this Hairy Woodpecker from the similar Downy Woodpecker.  Listening for the call note can be important when separating these two species in flight.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A new warbler

Today I photographed this Hooded Warbler in flight.  This is a bird of dense undergrowth in forests, so it was neat to see one against the sky!  This bird was also calling as it flew past, uttering a little buzz somewhat similar to the flight call of a Common Yellowthroat.

This image also appears on the Warbler ID page.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Some new photos

Here are a few new photos of birds in flight:

Northern Flickers are one of the larger woodpeckers in the region.  Flickers are brown with lots of dark spots.  Note the black malar ("mustache") making this a male.

Blue Jays often flock up in the fall and fly over during the day.  They are often noisy while flying.  Their flight and color pattern are distinctive.

Black-capped Chickadees do not usually fly long distances, but when they do, their black and white head pattern makes them easy to identify.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Website to check out

I strongly encourage you to check out the Cape May Bird Observatory's View from the Field.  The site is mostly daily data and counts from the various research projects run by CMBO (morning flight, hawk watch, seawatch, and Monarch migration project).  Lately, the morning flight reports have been interesting!  All of the birds recorded by morning flight are identified as they fly past.  This year's counter, Tom Johnson, does a great job of identifying birds as well as photographing them.

Semipalmated and Baird's Sandpipers flying past the Morning Flight count.  Photo: Tom Johnson.

 Northern Waterthrush as it flies past the dike at Higbee's Beach, the site of the Morning Flight count.  Photo: Tom Johnson.

Warbler Identification

This warbler clearly shows a bright yellow face and strong wingbars.  Upon closer inspection, this bird appears to have a dark throat.  These characteristics fit a Black-throated Green Warbler.

This birds appears to be black with and orange belly, however, the photo was taken just at sunrise.  When the sun is low, be careful that the colors are not being altered before making a positive identification.  Although the underside may appear orange, it is actually white.  The pattern on black on the face and the band down the side are characteristics of a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

At first, this warbler had me stumped.  I knew it was a warbler based on flight, tail pattern, and flight call (which I was unfamiliar with), but I could get it down to species.  After studying the photo and consulting a few friends, I have come to the conclusion that this is a Cape May Warbler based on the streaking on the underside.

Note the face pattern and the streaking on the side of this Cape May Warbler.

This male Hooded Warbler is unmistakable in flight.  The yellow body and face and the black chin really stand out.  This guy was uttering its flight call, which is a distinct buzz, similar to the flight call of a Common Yellowthroat.

This warbler shows a yellow underside and an all-dark tail.  These characteristics, combined with other observations in the field, help identify this Tennessee Warbler.

Many field marks are visible on this Northern Parula, including the bluish head, strong white wingbars, and yellow throat.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Check the radar!

A look at the radar indicates that there are birds flying!  I will be up early tomorrow listening for migrants, but unfortunately I cannot do any birding after sunrise.  Get out and listen!

Flycatcher Identification

Eastern Kingbirds are one of the most abundant flycatchers during migration.  The neat thing about kingbirds is that they can be aged and, if an adult, sexed. The way to tell is by primaries 9 and 10.  In young birds, these feathers are blunt. In adult females, these feathers have a slight notch at the tip. In adult males, like the one above, the tips of these feathers are deeply notched.

Eastern Phoebes can be identified by their lack of wingbars and eyering.  They are smaller than an Olive-sided Flycatcher which might seem similar in appearance.

This flycatcher shows broad white wing bars and no distinct eye-ring.  Those characteristics along with the fact that it sang its "whisper song" while flying, make this an Eastern Wood-Pewee.  The Empidonax flycatchers are similar in flight.

During migration, there is always the possibility of finding an unusual bird.  This Olive-sided Flycatcher was identified by the dark "vest" and by its lack of strong wingbars and eyering.  This bird eventually perched and called confirming the identification.

Listening for Flight Calls

During migration season, I often wake up early in the morning to listen for flight calls.  Flight calls are short vocalizations given by birds as they fly over duting their nocturnal migration.  These calls are often unique to each species (although some are very similar), so identification is often possible.

Flight calls are an under-appreciated part of birding.  First of all, few people are willing to spend several hours outside in the pitch dark hoping to hear a peep that only lasts 50 milliseconds.  Also, many flight calls can be difficult to learn.  Warblers in particular are known for their difficult flight calls; the calls are short, high-pitched, and are often very similar to other species.  However, the flight calls of thrushes, cuckoos, and other similar species are fairly easy to learn.  The calls of these larger birds are often longer, lower-pitched, and more distinctive.  Although it may turn many away, the challenge of flight calls is what lures birders who are dedicated and curious.  Here are some common questions I have been asked regarding flight calls:

What is a nocturnal flight call?

Basically, a nocturnal flight call is a short (often between 50-200 milliseconds) vocalization given by nocturnally migrating birds.  It is believed that these calls are used as contact calls to keep a flock of birds together.

When is the best time during the night to listen for nocturnal flight calls?

Migrating birds will call throughout the night, but the highest frequency of calling occurs in the hour before sunrise.  This may be because the birds are changing altitude and are making sure they stay together, or it may be that when the birds are higher up it is more difficult for humans to hear the calls.

What time of year is best for listening?

Since birds make these calls as they are migrating, the best time to listen is during the migration seasons.  For songbirds, the best times are April-May and late August-mid October.  Other birds, such as ducks and geese often make flight calls as well.  For these species March and November have been the most productive for me.

Are some days better than others?

Yes.  Bird migration is very dependent on weather patterns.  The best nights for listening to migrants is the night after a cold front has passed.  Sometimes huge numbers of birds migrate on nights like this, making listening very worthwhile.  Before heading out to listen, I often check the NEXRAD radar.  Migrating birds are visible on this weather radar, so I can determine whether there is a good flight or not.  A good site for checking this radar is the NCAR radar site.  For more information on using radar to view bird migration check out woodcreeper.com.  Finally, windy nights are not the best for listening.

Here is an example of a good migration night.  From rap.ucar.edu/weather/radar

This is what the radar might look like on a night with few birds in migration. From rap.ucar.edu/weather/radar

Where should I go to listen for flight calls?

Since nothing stops birds from spreading out once in the sky, so in theory, flight calls could be heard from anywhere on land.  However, certain factors make some locations better than others.  Human-created distractions are often the biggest problem.  Busy roads can be a pain while listening.  Cars passing by will limit the number of birds you hear.  It is best to pick a spot set back or away from any roads that have a lot of early morning or late night traffic.  It is also good to be set back from any buildings.  Walls can create annoying echos which can be confusing.

It is also good to stay away from forests.  As well as muffling the calls, trees can bring unwanted annoyances (tree crickets, tree frogs, katydids) which can make listening close to impossible at times.  A large field or other open area is great as it eliminates many of this unwanted noises.  Finally, positioning yourself on the top of a hill, ridge, or mountain can be very helpful.  The higher up you are, the closer you are to the calling birds.  Also, these high areas are often the first places birds land when coming down from the sky.  Once the sun comes up, ridgetops are sometimes hopping with migrants!

Here is my Big Sit spot.  The Big Sit is a birding competition where birders stay at one spot for a day and find as many birds as they can.  Nocturnal flight calls are an important part of the Big Sit.  As you can see, my spot is in an open field away from any roads and trees.  Although not visible from this photo, my spot was at the top of a ridge.  There is a larger mountain in the distance, but since there are no good clearings there, I decided to pick the next best ridge.  Photo ©David Husic

Ok, so I know where to go and when.  What do I do once I get to my listening spot?

Listen and enjoy.

I have no clue what I am hearing and I want to identify the calls.  What should I do?

The easiest way to help identify the calls is by recording them.  I record calls using a Zoom H4 recorder.  While out listening I record the calls in case I hear something unfamiliar.  I also record the calls for part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center's Sound Field Guide.  Once the calls are recorded, I download them to my computer.  Using the program Audacity, I cut out calls and amplify them so that they are easier to hear.  Then I use Raven Lite to create and adjust the spectrogram of the call.  Both Audacity and Raven Lite are free software.  Then, to identify the calls, I use a CD from Oldbird.org.  This valuable resource has recordings and spectrograms of almost every bird in eastern north america that makes a nocturnal flight call.  It is available from the Oldbird website.

 Here is an example of a sonogram opened in Raven Lite.  The program allows you to adjust the image so that it is easier to see the call .  There are several calls in this image.

I would love to record flight calls, but do not want to get up every morning at 4:30am.  What should I do?

The best way to get around this problem is by installing the microphone unit as designed by the Oldbird team.  Detailed instructions on how to make a relatively inexpensive microphone can be found on the Oldbird website.

If you have any other questions, feel free to leave a comment.

Veery Flight Call

Here is a spectrogram of two Veery flight calls.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Savannah Sparrow Flight Call

I mentioned in the introductory post about flight calls.  Here is an example of a spectrogram of a Savannah Sparrow's flight call that I recorded yesterday morning from my yard.