October is a very special time of the year in Pennsylvania. The first week of the month there are still a ton of neotropical migrants around, but then their numbers start to drop off drastically. Coming to the rescue are the sparrows and raptors, which really excel during the second half of the month. Waterfowl also begin to trickle through the state and more northern counties begin to see their first winter visitors from the tundra and the northern forests. With so much diversity, the possibility of racking up a nice month list is really astonishing – if you had gotten out birding a fair amount during the beginning of the month, you probably saw a nice variety of the birds that made September so much fun plus you still have time to see a lot of the early winter birds that begin to come in during the last two weeks of the month.
I went through the eBird bar charts for the PA and attempted to make some predictions on what species should start to show up, start to leave, and begin to reach peak numbers during the last week or so of October. This is not comprehensive obviously. My goal with this is to help PA birders be better prepared for the 2012 fall migration and know what to be on the look-out for while in the field, birding. Remember that these predictions are based entirely on eBird bar charts for the state of PA, which you can help to make better and more accurate by using eBird yourself.
This is the first part of multiple posts, so check back for the next one soon! Please follow links below to various other resources such as past Nemesis Bird posts, eBird checklists, other photos, maps of birding hotspots, etc.
September and early October started to show the early signs of waterfowl migration. Blue-winged Teal in particular really peaked during that time, but now their numbers will begin to drop throughout the state. Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Ruddy Ducks, and Lesser Scaup area already making appearances state-wide, and will continue to become more and more abundant. The first Surf Scoters of the fall have also been reported recently as well as some Black and White-winged on Lake Erie. Any storm system, in combination with decent winds out of the north, could cause waterfowl fallouts on large bodies of water throughout the state, including potentially large numbers of the previously mentioned species.You probably have also noticed that migrant Canada Geese have increased in number and it is not uncommon to see multiple flocks fly over during a day of birding. Be sure to carefully scan through the geese for early rarities like Cackling and Greater White-fronted, both of which have been reported recently across the state.
Both Common and Red-throated Loon will increase in numbers throughout the state during the first half of October. If you have spent much time at a hawkwatch recently, you have probably seen a few flyover Common Loons while scanning for raptors. Pied-billed Grebe are most likely at peak levels throughout the state now and you may want to start looking for Horned Grebes mixed in. Goofy American Coots are becoming more and more common. During the beginning of their migration through the state, while they are still in low numbers, they can be found as singles or pairs in sheltered areas of ponds and lakes but as their numbers build, anticipate seeing large rafts that could number 100+ after rainstorms. Double-crested Cormorants are moving out of the NE right now, to find warmer locals with bodies of water that don’t threaten to freeze up. The first Great Cormorants should also start showing up at hotspots along the Delaware River near Philadelphia such as Pennypack on the Delaware. As with the waterfowl, other migrant waterbirds are often forced down to bodies of water during storms.
Herons and Rails
The possibility of finding uncommon and rare herons and egrets has dropped considerably since the beginning of the month. In fact, most of our common breeding species are on the decline as well. Great Egret and Green Heron have moved out of most areas of the state and can really only be found in the SE corner, particularly along the lower Susquehanna River. American Bittern is still a possibility at locations with proper habitat. This last half of the month is also your last chance to pick up Virginia Rails and Sora in many areas of the state and birders should keep their eye out for secretive Yellow Rails.
For hawk-watchers, October is a great month – there is so much diversity! The last of the Broad-winged Hawks have mostly moved through the state but numbers of other Buteos are on the increase. Red-tailed Hawks make up the bulk of many day’s totals for hawk watches around the state with occasional Red-shouldered Hawks mixed in. Feisty accipiters, particularly Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s, are also abundant plus the possibility of an early, juvenile Northern Goshawk is also in the minds of many hawk watchers. Osprey, who are 100% fish-eaters must evacuate the northern portion of their range and move to southern locations with water that doesn’t freeze over. Most Osprey will leave the state by the end of the month. Meanwhile Bald Eagles, who would rather just eat a dead deer than put in the effort to catch itself a fish, are able to overwinter throughout the state and numbers of winter residents should start to build at large lakes and along major rivers. Perhaps the most exciting species to begin its descent on the mountainous portions of the state are Golden Eagles. This past week, many hawk watches around the state reported their first Goldens of the season. Their numbers will continue to build around the state. If you want to see Golden Eagles up-close and personal, I recommend visiting the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in Bedford County.
October is a great month for falcon diversity as well, with all three species moving through in good numbers. Peregrine Falcons peeked during the first week of October but the chance of seeing one pass a hawk watch is still very high. Merlin and American Kestrels are also pushing through the state in good numbers and many will end their migration here, taking up a winter territory. While out driving around, keep an eye on telephone wires for kestrels and the tops of telephone poles for Merlin.
Ruffed Grouse and Wild Turkey are fairly easy to see this time of the year throughout the state. Ring-necked Pheasant sightings will increase since most areas had thousands of birds released for the hunting season – be sure to wear orange when birding game lands!
Sadly, shorebird season is pretty much done for. Most of the exciting species and big numbers have moved through but there are still a few species to come. Wilson’s Snipe will build in number throughout the rest of the month and into November – look for them in flooded pastures, wet fields, and roadside ditches. Long-billed Dowitcher is also a possibility this time of the year, so don’t assume every fat-looking, long-billed shorebird is a snipe. Dunlin are late migrants, peaking in November, but the first migrants of the year have been seen throughout the state already and should become more abundant at shorebird hotspots. Most Solitary Sandpipers have moved through the state already, but keep an eye out for rarities – this past week a Wood Sandpiper (an almost identical species to Solitary) was found in Jamestown, Massachucetts – only the 7th record for the lower 48! Both yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpipers could be found throughout the rest of the month but numbers of Black-bellied, American Golden, and Semipalmated Plovers should decrease. As with the waterbirds, look for shorebirds pushed down by rain.
Gulls and Terns
Mid-October begins the accumulation of winter gulls at hotspots around the state. Numbers of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls are beginning to increase dramatically. Large rivers and lakes should also begin to see good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls now, as they make their way south. Look for early Lesser Black-backed Gulls (especially immatures) among groups of large gulls. Caspian Tern and Common Tern are becoming harder and harder to find, but Forster’s Tern is still a possibility throughout the state.
The big push of Northern Flickers throughout the month of October can be incredible, particularly as seen from hawk watching sites. Most flickers have moved through the northern portion of the state by now, but watch for them to be moving in large numbers through the southern counties. Look for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-bellied Woodpeckers mixed in with passing flickers. Pileated Woodpeckers are starting to move around now as well.
Birds are on the move! Get out and do some birding! If you want, leave me a comment letting me know if my predictions are holding true for your area of the state. Also, if you haven’t started using eBird, right now is the perfect time to start – help make your bird sightings count and become part of a massive citizen-scientist effort to monitor and conserve birds and their habitats. Good luck and be safe out there! Remember to check back for part 2 (and possibly 3).