For Pittsburgh residents, the coming of spring signals the arrival of warmth and sunshine, and the departure of the drudgery of a Western Pennsylvania winter. For those of us amongst the city’s birdwatchers, however, spring is much more than that. For us, spring means the return of our best friends, migrant birds.
Wintering as far south as South America, and breeding as far north as the Canadian tundra, these spring migrants bring a stunning ornamentation of song and color to our region. Whether you’re a binocular-toting, veteran birder, or just someone who wants to add another layer of fun to their springtime strolls, here are five bird species to look out for, as well as some hints on where to find them.
While most birders associate spring migration with the month of May, it is actually a protracted process starting in late February and continuing through early June. American Woodcocks are one of the first species to arrive in Pennsylvania, showing up as early as the last week of February and often touching down while the ground is still covered in snow. The weather doesn’t seem to put them off much and they quickly set about doing what Woodcocks are most famous for: sky dancing.
Just after sunset, the courtship display of a male American Woodcock begins. The bird sits on the ground in an open area and issues a nasal “PEENT!” sporadically. Next, the Woodcock launches itself skyward, the whirr of its wings generating a distinctive whistle. Upon reaching the apex of this ascent, the Woodcock begins to tumble back towards the earth in a controlled spiral, twittering as it goes. After landing, silence ensues for a few seconds. Then another “PEENT!” and the whole process repeats.
Where to find them: Upper Fields of North Park, Boyce-Mayview Park
One of the next species to arrive is the Louisiana Waterthrush which shows up during the first week of April. These birds are specialists of fast-flowing streams where they poke around rocks and debris for aquatic invertebrates to eat.
Largely brown, they may not look like much at first glance, but watching them bob their tails as they hop around the rocks of a babbling brook is incredibly charming. Best of all is their rich, ringing song delivered from the streambed or tree branches above it.
Where to find them: Walker Park, Falls Ravine Trail in Frick Park, any wooded, fast-flowing creek
The first couple weeks of May is when the floodgates really open, and brightly-colored songbirds arriving from the tropics adorn every tree. Most famous amongst the migrants are the Warblers, a family of small, vibrant birds named for their warbling songs.
Hooded Warbler is one of the best examples. These are one of the most common warblers that will stick around to breed in Allegheny County, filling local woods with song all summer long. Brash and bold, often hanging out in the understory, and obvious with their loud warbling song, Hooded Warblers are one of the first migrants a birding beginner is likely to encounter.
Where to find them: Frick Park, Schenley Park, Harrison Hills County Park, Boyce-Mayview Park, Sewickley Heights Park
A bright red flame accented by black wings, the sight of a Scarlet Tanager is thrilling no matter how many times you see it. Arriving in early May from the South American Andes, this is perhaps the most unmistakable bird in Western Pennsylvania. They’re common, too, with their burry song seeming to drift from every corner of the woods.
Where to find them: Any park or greenspace
A relatively late arrival, showing up the third week of May, the song of the first Common Nighthawks is one of the most iconic sounds of spring. A blaring “Peent!” (not unlike that of the American Woodcock) rings out as these birds soar the night skies in search of winged insects.
A species that is declining in number across the continent, Pittsburgh is blessed with an unusually high concentration of Nighthawks, and they can be easily seen in any neighborhood in the city. Watch closely for migrant Nighthawks roosting during the day, sitting perfectly still and camouflaged on a tree branch.
Where to find them: Anywhere in the city. Look for roosting birds in Frick Park or Schenley Park.