May 23 2015

Best Bird This Week

American white pelican in breeding plumage (photo by Pat Gaines)

American white pelican in breeding plumage (photo by Pat Gaines)

Normally when I visit Magee Marsh in May the Best Bird is a warbler, but not this year.

I struck out on two Life Bird warblers — the Kirtland’s at Oak Openings and the Connecticut warbler at the Estuary Trail — and that took the wind out of my sails.  However, on my last day in the northwestern Ohio I visited East Harbor State Park and found three white pelicans in Middle Harbor.

American white pelicans spend the winter in California, the Gulf states, Mexico and Central America. Those who breed in the prairie potholes and lake regions of central and western North America rarely stop at Lake Erie on migration, but these three apparently spent the night at Middle Harbor.  They were preening before continuing their journey.

In early breeding plumage they have bright orange bills with a laterally flattened “horn” on top.  This looks odd to us but sexy to other white pelicans.

American white pelicans migrate during the day because they need thermals for lift.  By 10:00am the air had heated up and the three pelicans circled up and headed northwest.

They were my Best Bird this week — other than peregrine falcons, of course.


(photo by Pat Gaines)

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May 22 2015

Downtown Peregrines Found!

Peregrine nest, Downtown Pittsburgh, 19 May 2015 (photo by Larry Walsh)

Peregrine with chicks in background, Downtown Pittsburgh, 19 May 2015 (photo by Larry Walsh)

Late Tuesday Art McMorris* and I got an email from Larry Walsh, Pittsburgh Principal & COO of Rugby Realty at the Gulf Tower, “Are you aware that the Peregrine (presumably the one from Gulf) has a nest with babies?”

My gosh, Larry has found them!

It turns out that he was visiting an office across town and the staff said, “We have a peregrine family near us.”  He thought they must be mistaken until he saw the birds. The peregrines and their nestlings are well known and loved by the entire office.  The nest was only a secret by accident because the staff didn’t know anyone was looking for it.

On Wednesday morning Larry introduced me to the staff and the viewing zone.  Using binoculars I read the parents’ bands and confirmed that they are indeed Dori and Louie from the Gulf Tower with three nestlings that hatched on May 6.

Dori with three chicks, 20 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Dori with three chicks, 20 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The nest site is perfect with shelter, deep gravel, and no human intrusion but it has one enormous flaw.  It is only on the 7th floor — way too low for the nestlings to fledge successfully.  They will surely land on the street and will only survive with the help of Fledge Watch volunteers.

Right now, while Art McMorris is figuring out if the nestlings can be banded, I am purposely vague about the nest location and the wonderful people I met on Wednesday.  Soon, however, I’ll tell you where it is because this peregrine family desperately needs Fledge Watch volunteers on the street, June 10 to 20!

Mark your calendar and stay tuned for more news including beautiful photos from Matt D.


(photos by Larry Walsh and Kate St. John)

* Art McMorris is the PA Game Commission’s Peregrine Coordinator.

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May 21 2015

What To Expect in Late May, Early June

Published by under Phenology

Chestnut-sided Warbler, female (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday:  A Southwestern Pennsylvania Phenology for Late May and Early June

As we head into late May and early June the natural world is gearing up for the solstice.  Here’s a hint of what you’ll see and hear:

  • Long daylight as we approach the summer solstice. Today in Pittsburgh is 14 hours, 36 minutes long. By June 15th we’ll have 15 hours and 4 minutes of daylight.
  • Nesting! Everywhere birds are singing, courting, defending their territory, carrying nesting material, carrying food, feeding fledglings, warning of danger.  Chestnut-sided warblers like this one are nesting in the Laurel Highlands.  Canada warblers jump out of the bushes to yell at me when I hike at Quebec Run Wild Area. Not to be missed!
  • New flowers blooming, especially long-tubed flowers that feed hummingbirds and butterflies.
  • Fireflies, crickets and dragonflies.  When will you hear the first crickets?
  • Mosquitoes :-(
  • Baby bunnies, baby birds, babies of all kinds.
  • And my personal favorite:  Fledging time for young peregrine falcons, the best time of all to watch peregrines.  Stay tuned to this blog for Fledge Watch dates which I’ll announce soon.

Now’s the best time to observe Nature and, frankly, I’d much rather be outdoors than at my computer. So I’m going out to enjoy it!


(photo of a female chestnut-sided warbler by Chuck Tague)

p.s. When I wrote this article in 2009 we didn’t have the crazy weather we’re experiencing this spring: temperatures in the 30’s, then the 90’s, then back again to the 30’s this weekend.  What a Weather Yo-yo!

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May 20 2015

Descended From The Terror Birds?

(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Peregrine falcon (Stellar) in Youngstown, Ohio (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Last month brought news of the best-preserved skeleton ever found of a South American Terror Bird.  When Audubon’s Science News compared the fossil to modern birds I made the connection to peregrine falcons.  Can you guess why?

Terror Birds were a genus of large, flightless, predatory birds that thrived in South America from 60 million to 2.5 million years ago.  Found at a coastal cliff in Argentina, the skeleton of Llallawavis scagliai shows he was four feet tall, had a face like a hatchet (literally!) and a low voice like an ostrich. Though he couldn’t fly he could run 60 miles an hour and capture anything he wanted to eat.

Skeleton of Llallawavis scagliai on display at the Museo Municipal de Ciencias Naturales Lorenzo Scaglia, Mar del Plata.Credit: M. Taglioretti and F. Scaglia

Skeleton of Llallawavis scagliai on display at the Museo Municipal de Ciencias Naturales Lorenzo Scaglia, Mar del Plata. Credit: M. Taglioretti and F. Scaglia
Image Linked from Science Daily

He hatcheted his prey with his enormous beak! Click here for an artist’s rendition of what he looked like.

The Terror Birds’ nearest living relative is the seriema, also native to South America.

Seriema at Whipsnade Zoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Seriema with snake (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At three feet tall, seriemas can fly but they prefer to walk and can run at 40 miles an hour when they need to.  They forage on the ground for plants, lizards, frogs, rats and smaller birds and kill large prey by slamming it against the ground and ripping it with their sharp claws.  That snake (above) doesn’t stand a chance.

Seriemas are related to Terror Birds and recent DNA tests have shown that peregrine falcons are closely related to seriemas.  (Click here for their family tree. They’re at the top.)

So I wonder … are peregrine falcons descended from the Terror Birds?

If not in body, certainly in spirit!


(photo credits:
Peregrine falcon photo by Chad+Chris Saladin
Skeleton of Llallawavis scagliai linked from the Science Daily; click on the image to read the article
Seriema photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original

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May 19 2015

Feathering Their Nest

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

Tree swallow nest with guineafowl feathers (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Tree swallow nest (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Whose feathers are in this nest box?

Last week when Marianne Atkinson checked on the 12 bluebird boxes she maintains near DuBois, Pennsylvania, she found this tree swallow nest in one of them.  She could tell tree swallows built it because they adorn their nests with feathers; bluebirds don’t.

The black polka-dot feathers caught her attention because they showed where the swallows had been.

A quarter of a mile away as the swallow flies, one of Marianne’s neighbors keeps helmeted guineafowl that make their presence known every day.  Marianne says, “We can hear the guineafowl shouting for many hours a day, since the wind blows from that direction and carries the sound! [Even] when the winds are calm, they are easy to hear.”

Though guineafowl have never visited Marianne’s nestbox field, her tree swallows apparently visited the guineafowl and used their distinctive black feathers with white polka dots.

They feathered their nest with style.


(photo by Marianne Atkinson)

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May 18 2015

The Sagebrush Sea: PBS NATURE May 20

Published by under Books & Events

For those of us who live among forests and fields, the western sagebrush country seems empty and lifeless … but it isn’t.

Stretching across 11 western states, it’s a high cold desert that’s home to pronghorn deer, golden eagles, hawks, prairie dogs, and a beautiful, fascinating bird — the greater sage-grouse — that lives nowhere else on earth.

Most of the year greater sage-grouse are hard to find but in the spring they gather in leks (courtship grounds) where the males strut and call to attract the females.  The ladies are so picky that nearly all of them mate with only one or two of the males, then nest hidden in the sagebrush and raise their precocial chicks in the harsh environment.

But humans are changing the sagebrush sea.  The greater sage-grouse population has declined 90% since European settlement and soon may be on the brink of extinction.  Will the greater sage-grouse be snuffed out?

Watch PBS NATURE‘s season finale, The Sagebrush Sea, on Wednesday May 20 at 8:00pm EDT. In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.


p.s.  The show was filmed and produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click here for their program website or here for the Facebook page.

(The Sagebrush Sea trailer from PBS NATURE)

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May 17 2015

Peregrine News: Tarentum and Pitt

Published by under Peregrines

Young male peregrine at Tarentum Bridge (photo by Steve Gosser)

Young male peregrine at Tarentum Bridge, 9 May 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Dorothy isn’t the only falcon who’s making the news.  Yesterday the Tarentum Bridge peregrines were featured in the Valley News Dispatch.

The PA Game Commission found no evidence of a nest at the Tarentum Bridge this month, but there are peregrines there so why no nest?  Steve Gosser’s photos from May 9 helped solve the mystery.  Read more here in Mary Ann Thomas’ article at TribLive.

Meanwhile, Dorothy couldn’t help making the news when Kara Holsopple interviewed me on WYEP’s Allegheny Front: Dorothy Becomes a Mother Again.


p.s. On Friday one of Dorothy’s remaining three eggs broke to reveal a dead chick, not fully developed.  She checked to make sure it was dead and then took it away from the nest.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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May 16 2015

Peregrine Falcon Coloring Page

Peregrine falcon coloring page (illustration by Mark Klingler, text by Cathy Klingler)

Peregrine falcon coloring page (Illustration by Mark Klingler, text by Cathy Klingler)

This week the happy news of Dorothy’s hatchling revived an educational project that celebrates her nesting.

Mark Klingler of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a scientific illustrator whose work appears in many publications and last year won first place for Illustrated Text by Large Non-Profit Publishers at the Washington Book Publishers’ Awards.  You may be familiar with Mark’s illustration of Anzu wyliei, the Chicken From Hell, that made the news in March 2014.  When the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has dinosaur news, Mark’s work illustrates the stories.

As a sideline Mark and his wife Cathy produce educational coloring pages for children.

More than a year ago Mark drafted a peregrine falcon illustration using photos of Dorothy, E2 and their chicks and Cathy wrote educational information for the back of the page.  They intended to complete it last spring but Dorothy’s nest failed (she was egg bound) and it was too disappointing to continue.

This week’s happy news prompted Mark and Cathy to complete their project and offer it as a gift to the public.

The illustration, dedicated to the late G. Alex “Doc” Stewart of the University of Pittsburgh Honors College, is an annotated illustration of Dorothy, E2 and their chicks.  The back of the coloring page describes the recent history of peregrines in the eastern U.S. and Pittsburgh and provides tips on how to protect them.

Mark writes, “It’s our public sharing. Cathy and I like to create these pages to handout at talks.  As long as the credits are left on it people can copy and share with their schools, activity groups, etc.”

Click here or on the image above to download your own copy of the Peregrine Falcon Coloring Page.


(illustration by Mark Klingler, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Text by Cathy Klingler)

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May 15 2015

Dorothy Is A Rock Star

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy feeds her nestling, 12 May 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy feeds her nestling, 12 May 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

This week Dorothy made the news when she defied the odds and hatched a nestling on Mother’s Day.

At 16 years old she overcame a host of age-related issues including lower fertility, reproductive complications from being egg bound last spring, and potential rivals for her nest site.

Here success was a popular topic with media coverage at …

Dorothy is a Rock Star!   (…but we knew that)


p.s.  Various numbers were listed in the news articles. Here are Dorothy’s statistics:  At age 16 she has laid more than 55 eggs of which 44 have hatched and 42 have fledged (flown from the nest).  We don’t know the exact count of her eggs because her first nest was hidden.  This chick will be counted as her 43rd fledgling when it flies.

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at University of Pittsburgh.  Click on the image to watch the webcam)

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May 14 2015

Nowhere To Stand

Common grackles contempplating the Mon River (photo by John English)

Common grackles contemplating the Monongahela River (photo by John English)

These common grackles appear to be inspecting the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow. Perhaps they want to touch the water but there’s nowhere safe to stand.

Though grackles aren’t water birds they’re known to dip their food in water, a trait they may have inherited from their ancestry.

On Throw Back Thursday, watch a video of grackles dunking their food even when it doesn’t need it in this article from 2012: Dunkin’ Peanuts.


(photo by John English)


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