Mar 06 2015

What’s Up With These Peregrines?

Magnum perched at Neville Island while her mate flies by, 28 Feb 2015 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

February and March are great times to watch peregrine courtship in Pittsburgh.  Unfortunately our two sites with webcams — Pitt and the Gulf Tower — have little or no courtship activity.  What’s up with these peregrines?

Nearly every day I visit the University of Pittsburgh to check on Dorothy and E2.  They’re usually perched on the Cathedral of Learning but they don’t make courtship flights like they did in the old days.  This is probably because, at age 16, Dorothy isn’t interested anymore.  She seems to be in “hen-o-pause” since her egg bound episode last spring.

Sadly this means the pair is rarely on the webcam.  Twice last week E2 tried to lure Dorothy to the nest but she visited only once.  This is in stark contrast to her prior habit of sitting at the nest for hours and courting several times a day, even in February snow.  I don’t expect any peregrine chicks while Dorothy is in charge.

At Gulf there’s a beautiful new HD webcam — and no peregrines!  They visited the nest on February 7 and 20 but Ann Hohn at Make-A-Wish confirms what the camera says:  No peregrines have been there for two weeks.  This is highly unusual if they intend to nest at Gulf.  I wondered if they’d gone back to their old 2012-2013 nest site near Point Park University so I checked it last Saturday.  No peregrines there.  No peregrines anywhere Downtown.  What’s up?  I don’t know.

The bright spots have been the bridges.

I’ve only been to the Westinghouse Bridge once this year, but I saw a peregrine perched on it when I drove by on February 22.  At Tarentum I saw both peregrines in courtship flight on nestbox-installation day.  And at the Neville Island I-79 Bridge, Anne Marie Bosnyak saw the peregrines court and mate last Saturday.  They even stayed long enough for Anne Marie to go home for her camera and take these beautiful photos of Magnum and her mate.  Love is in the air at Neville.

Magnum at Neville Island, 28 Feb 2015 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

So far there are no sightings at the Monaca-East Rochester Bridge, the McKees Rocks Bridge, and the Greentree water tower — though that doesn’t mean there aren’t peregrines.

If you have any news, post a comment to let us know … What’s up with these peregrines?

 

(photos of Magnum and her mate by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

p.s. Folks in Johnstown are hoping their lone male peregrine on the First National Bank Building attracts a mate soon.

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Mar 05 2015

Cover Your Ears

Published by under Mammals

Opossum in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

After Tuesday night’s high of 49oF we’re headed for 1oF tonight.  Everything that lives outdoors is in for a huge surprise.  Opossums, in particular, should watch out.

Opossums’ thin ears and naked tails are prone to frostbite.  Though normally nocturnal, they come out during the day when they’re hungry.  That’s how Cris Hamilton photographed this one at her bird feeders in early 2011.

And yes, her backyard possum had a hard winter that year.  His ears are pink because they’re frostbitten.

Opossums! Cover your ears tonight … or stay indoors.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

 

 

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Mar 04 2015

Selective Attention In Chickens

Chicken (photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez via Wikimedia Commons)

I love the title but … What the heck is Selective Attention and who cares about it in chickens?   (Don’t worry, there’s fun at the end.)

Selective attention — the ability to focus in the midst of distractions — is something we humans do well.  For instance, we can listen to one person in a crowded noisy room and focus completely on what they’re saying, tuning out everything else.  This is useful!

Selective attention has been studied extensively in primates.  Do birds possess this skill?

Anecdotally, I’d say “Yes.”  I’ve watched red-tailed hawks keenly focused while hunting next to busy roads.  They tune out all the traffic and successfully catch their prey.  Unfortunately some are way too good at ignoring traffic and are struck and killed by vehicles.

No one had proven selective attention in birds until researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine gave chickens quick visual cues to see if they would peck outside the (virtual) box.  Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, “The results show that chickens shift spatial attention rapidly and dynamically, following principles of stimulus selection that closely parallel those documented in primates.”

Watch the chicken peck the X in the middle. Then a quick flash of light attracts his attention.  Birds and primates both inherited this cognitive skill.

And now a quiz for you:  Remember how I said red-tailed hawks are sometimes hit by cars because they’re focusing so much?  Watch this video to test your own selective attention.

… and you’ll understand the red-tail’s problem.

 

(chicken photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Mar 03 2015

A Mimic On Two Levels

Published by under Mammals

Margay cat or "tree ocelot" (photo from iStockphoto/Jeff Grabert via Science Daily)

One glance tells you this wild cat’s fur mimics his dappled forest habitat.  Amazingly, he can mimic on another level, too.

The margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a nocturnal feline of Central and South America that looks like a small ocelot.  Longer and lighter weight than a pampered house cat, he weighs 5.7-8.8 pounds and is 32-51 inches long (including his long tail!).

The margay lives in trees in the tropical forest and rarely comes to the ground because he doesn’t need to.  He’s so well adapted to climbing that his ankles rotate 180 degrees so he can walk down trees head first.  He can also leap 12 feet straight up to capture small mammals, birds, lizards and tree frogs.

In Brazil one mammal on the margay’s menu is the pied tamarin (Saguinus bicolor), a small primate the size of a squirrel.

Pied tamarin (photo by Whaldener Endo via Wikimedia Commons)

Native Amazonians have long known that the margay can mimic the sound of this monkey, but it wasn’t recently that the rest of the world found out.

In 2005 researchers watched a group of eight pied tamarins feeding high in a ficus tree when a margay, hidden in dense liana vines, tried to lure them by mimicking the call of a tamarin pup. A tamarin “sentinel” climbed down to investigate the noise, then started to warn the rest of the group, but four other tamarins were so confounded by the baby tamarin sound that they too climbed down to see.  At that moment, the margay emerged from the foliage, walking head first down the trunk, and jumped toward the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and all the tamarins fled. (*)

The Wildlife Conservation Society reported this incident in 2010, the first recorded instance of a wild cat species in the Americas mimicking the calls of its prey.

Pied tamarins are endangered and the margay is “near threatened.”  Large primates (humans) have killed the margay for its fur and the pied tamarin for food.  We’re lucky to have heard of this mimickry trick before it disappeared.

Read more about it here in Science Daily.

 

(Margay photo from iStockphoto/Jeff Grabert via Science Daily. Pied tamarin photo from Wikimedia Commons/Whaldener Endo, Creative Commons license. Click on the images to see their originals.)

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Mar 02 2015

Heads Up!

Published by under Weather & Sky

Icy sidewalk,2 Mar 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains in Alaska?  No, my icy sidewalk.

Yesterday more than three inches of wet snow fell across Pittsburgh.  Sometimes it changed to rain.  Overnight it froze.

Expecting dangerous footing, I put on my ice cleats and went out to see.

Stabilicer ice cleats (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Under light snow on the sidewalk … Viola, a glacier!

Icy sidewalk, 2 Mar 2015 (photo by Kate St. John

That’s not all.  Last night I noticed that my car, parked on the street, was standing in three inches of water because ice dams prevented the water from draining.  In the dark I heaved snow and water to the storm drain, hoping to prevent my tires from being locked in ice this morning.  What do you think? Am I stuck?

Tire in ice (photo by Kate St. John)

I spread salt and came indoors, feeling a little smug that my ice cleats worked so well.

But the ice has one more trick up its sleeve.

Warning sign, Montreal, falling snow and ice (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Heads up!

 

(all photos by Kate St. John, except the ice warning sign in Montreal is by Paul Joseph via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the sign to see its original)

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Mar 01 2015

Poised To Drop

Published by under Plants

Wingstem seeds poised to drop, Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In two months of freezing weather the wingstem’s papery seed pods have worn away.  The seeds are exposed and the heads are bowed, poised to drop.

I know they’ve changed because the pods stood straight up on January 1.

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The seeds are ready for Spring … when it arrives.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 28 2015

New Nest Box at Tarentum

Tarentum Bridge nestbox project, The Bucket Truck, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The PennDOT Bucket dips down to the middle pier at the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Kate St. John)

If you saw the peregrine banding at the Tarentum Bridge last May, you’ll remember the nest was in a dangerous place.  The entrance hole pointed down over open water and there were no perches nearby.  After banding the chicks the PA Game Commission placed them on the mid-river pier where they learned to fly in safety.  (Click here to see last year’s site.)

Thinking ahead to this year, it’s no wonder the Game Commission decided to place a nestbox on the bridge. Rob Protz, Marge Van Tassel and I braved 9oF to watch the installation yesterday morning.

Brrr!   Marge took our picture with one of the PennDOT crew.

PennDOT bridge worker + Rob Protz + Kate St. John (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

PennDOT bridge worker, Rob Protz and Kate St. John at Tarentum Boat Ramp, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Before the installation began we saw two peregrines!

Around 9:00am the female 69/Z, nicknamed Hope, flew from the bridge.  Rob Protz saw her land in a tree so we went over and Marge took her picture.  (This was one of the few times I’ve ever seen a peregrine perched in a tree.)  Within a half hour, Hope’s mate came by for a courtship flight and the pair disappeared upriver.

Female peregrine, Hope, perched in a tree in Tarentum, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Female peregrine, Hope, perched in a tree in Tarentum, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Meanwhile PennDOT District 11 blocked a lane of traffic on the bridge, set up the Bucket Truck, and delivered PA Game Commission biologist Tom Keller to the catwalk.  While he climbed down the ladder to the mid-river pier, Hope returned and noticed something was up. She watched the project from the upriver navigation light.

Female peregrine, Hope, watches the nestbox project from the upriver navigation light (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Female peregrine, Hope, watches the nestbox project from the upriver navigation light (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

The Bucket delivered tools, gravel and the new nestbox to Tom.

Tom Keller guides the nestbox as it drops from The Bucket Truck (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

Tom Keller guides the nestbox as it drops from The Bucket Truck (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

While he cleared ice from the pier he was joined by another member of the PennDOT crew.

PGC's Tom Keller and  PennDOT worker installing nestbox on Tarentum Bridge (photo by Kate St. John)

PGC’s Tom Keller and PennDOT worker install nestbox at the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Kate St. John)

They positioned the box with its back to the prevailing wind, drilled holes to anchor it, added a perch pole, and filled it with gravel.

Tarentum Bridge nestbox (photo by Tom Keller)

Tarentum Bridge nestbox (photo by Tom Keller, PA Game Commission)

Ta dah!

Tom Keller, PGC, and PennDOT worker District 11 next to new peregrine nestbox on the Tarentum Bridge (photo from Tom Keller)

Tom Keller and Steve from PennDOT with new peregrine nestbox at Tarentum Bridge (photo from Tom Keller)

Now we wait and see, and hope that “Hope” will use it this year.

 

(photos by Marge Van Tassel, Kate St. John and Tom Keller.  See captions for photo credits)

p.s. Steve, picture above on the bridge with Tom, is the one who built the box of cedar to PGC’s specification.

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Feb 27 2015

Coming Soon: Spring Walks in Schenley Park

Northern magnolias blooming in Schenley Park, 18 Apr 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is coming next month and when it does, let’s go outdoors!

From March through June I’m leading bird and nature walks once a month in Schenley Park.  Come out with me to see birds and blooms, trees and bees.

On each walk we’ll travel at the speed of botany (slowly!) keeping our eyes and ears open for the latest flora and fauna.  Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes that aren’t afraid of mud.  Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.  The walks will last two hours, but you can bow out early.

Here’s the schedule:

As each date approaches I’ll post a reminder on the blog — or visit my Events page any time for directions and up-to-date information including cancellations and rain dates.

Hope to see you in Schenley Park.  I can hardly wait for Spring!

 

(photo of a northern magnolia blooming in Schenley Park by Kate St.John)

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Feb 26 2015

Ice Jam Season

Published by under Weather & Sky

Ice and gulls on the Monongahela River, 25 Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning the river at Duck Hollow was so icy that the gulls could walk across it.

With temperatures as much as 33 degrees below normal, western Pennsylvania is swamped in ice and long overdue for a warm spell.  When the weather breaks, so will the ice.

In some places we’ve already seen some flooding.  On Tuesday February 24 The Weather Channel wrote:

In western Pennsylvania, flood warnings have been issued for Armstrong and Clarion counties due to an ice jam that is blocking the Allegheny River, creating a backflow of water into Parker, according to an AP report. The warning is in effect until 7 a.m. Thursday. State Route 268 has been flooded and at least two people have been rescued from the floodwaters in Parker.

In February 2009 I was hiking at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve when the ice broke and jammed in front of me.  Click here or on the gray-brown ice photo for my in-person (Throw Back Thursday) report.

Ice jam on Raccoon Creek (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photos by Kate St. John: Ice and gulls on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 25 Feb 2015.  Ice on Raccoon Creek, 8 Feb 2009)

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Feb 25 2015

Peregrine Nesting Season is Almost Here!

Peregrine nestlings, two weeks old at the Gulf Tower, 7 May 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Though the Hays bald eagles are incubating eggs in their icy nest, Pittsburgh’s peregrines are hanging back — but that’s about to change.

Peregrines in western Pennsylvania lay eggs from mid-March to early April.  In late February they make courtship flights together when the weather is good (when has it been good?!).  Then in early March they bow at the nest.

You can watch this up close on the National Aviary falconcams:

Drama is possible at any site in March. Younger peregrines arrive to challenge the older ones.  (Not only is Dorothy 16, but Louie at the Gulf Tower is 13 this year.)  Nevertheless by mid-May there will be bright-eyed nestlings on camera.

To get you in the mood for nesting season, click here or on the photo above for nesting highlights from last spring at the Gulf Tower.

Peregrine nesting season is almost here!

 

p.s.  Pittsburgh’s six other peregrine sites can be monitored from the ground:

  • Tarentum Bridge: PGC and PennDOT will install a nest box this Friday 2/27 at 9:00am.  Come watch from the boat ramp under the bridge.  There were 2 chicks here last year.
  • Monaca-East Rochester Bridge: 4 chicks in 2014
  • Westinghouse Bridge: 2 chicks in 2014
  • Neville Island I-79 Bridge: 1 chick in 2014
  • McKees Rocks Bridge: Nest could not be found
  • Green Tree water tower:  No nest in 2014

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

p.p.s.  Right on schedule, guess who came to visit at the Cathedral of Learning nest this afternoon … E2 calls, “Hey, Dorothy!”

E2 calls for Dorothy to come bow at the nest (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Pitt)

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