I am not a morning person, but I want to be, so I get up an hour before I need to, drink a mug of coffee, and I wait to wake up.
Sometimes – even in cold weather – I sit on the front porch and watch the birds go by. Their rush hour happens overhead.
In winter the first to fly over are the crows, northeast to southwest. This morning the first flock numbered more than 300 and passed by before dawn. Crow flocks continue at mid-altitude throughout bird rush hour.
The cardinals and song sparrows wake up next and exchange a few contact calls. No flocking for them. They just want to make sure their friends made it through the night.
Then mourning doves wake up and zoom by in small, fast groups.
Next come the starlings and robins. The starlings roost at the Birmingham Bridge and fan out in all directions at dawn, moving fast just above the rooftops. The robins roost near the Bloomfield Bridge and fly in loose flocks at high altitude.
Normally the birds manage to avoid congestion by picking different altitudes but this morning it was foggy. A couple of starling flocks and robins had to divert to avoid the crows. I could hear the robins commenting about it. “Watch out there,” they seemed to be saying.
And by then I was awake. Time to join the human rush hour. (That’s the Parkway East pictured above via my cell phone.)
…but not so fine for humans.
I went to Moraine State Park today because I read on PABIRDS that the edges of the lake were frozen, so the ducks would be concentrated in one area and easy to see.
As I arrived at the lake the first bird I saw was a beautiful red-shouldered hawk – a good omen – then a family of four tundra swans who flew away almost immediately. I had been waiting to see tundra swans since early November. Finally!
There were many ducks on the lake: common and hooded mergansers, horned and pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, greater scaup, redheads, canvasbacks, gadwall, and mallards.
Best Birds were the canvasbacks. They have three crisp colors – white, black and rusty red – and a long sloping forehead and bill. The canvasback pictured here was photographed a few years ago by Chuck Tague at the South Side landing. (It is unusual to see them in the city.)
In field guides, canvasbacks and redheads are on the same page because they look similar. Today I had the opportunity to compare them and they are noticeably different, even from a distance, when you see them side by side.
After standing in the cold for an hour I thought I’d go hiking but it began to rain and the fog closed in. It was good weather for ducks but pretty depressing for a hike, so I went home.
The good part about banding birds is that you find out where they end up. The sad part is you sometimes find out they are dead.
Last spring Scott Gregg found a pair of peregrine falcons breeding in Beaver County. This was a first for the county and generated excitement among us peregrine fanatics.
The good news: The adult female’s bands indicate she is Kelly, born in 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mate is unbanded so we don’t know his origin.
This spring the pair raised two chicks, a male and a female, photographed on their banding day by Todd Katzner. Based on the size of the chicks, the male is on the left.
The sad news: Last month the young male peregrine was found dead beneath an electric pole on a farm in Louisville, Ohio with prey in his talons. Perhaps he had landed on the pole to eat dinner and accidentally made contact with two bare wires.
Because he had bands, the farmer who found him reported him to Ohio DNR and they contacted the PA Game Commission to trace the bird.
So we know where he died. I wish he’d been found under happier circumstances, but at least we’ve learned a little more about the movements of young peregrines.
Last night I went to Three Rivers Birding Club to hear Dr. Todd Katzner of the National Aviary give an excellent presentation on “Migrating Eagles and Wind Turbines: Resolving Conflict in an Information Void.” The project is a multi-year study of the migratory paths of eastern golden eagles. Its goal is to provide information so that wind turbines can be sited properly and not cause bird mortality.
Wind energy is being heavily promoted and developed in Pennsylvania. I’m sure you’ve seen windmills if you’ve driven east on the Turnpike. Many more wind farms are planned.
Some wind turbines are highly lethal to birds. Some don’t kill any. It turns out that turbine placement is the key. If we find out where the birds usually fly, the turbines can be placed outside that path. Sometimes only a few hundred feet makes all the difference.
The coolest part of the project is the telemetry data and maps. It’s impressive how far golden eagles travel in a day (more than 200 miles) and how fast they go when the wind is good (60 miles per hour!). On the Aviary website you can see where all seven eagles have been and you can watch the day-by-day movements of each eagle.
The project needs to tag more eagles with telemetry units but the units are expensive. The Aviary and their partners are working at raising funds to buy telemetry units. Contact Dr. Todd Katzner at the National Aviary if you wish to help.
It snowed here all day until sunset. By lunchtime there was more than an inch of snow. Over at Pitt the only birds I saw were pigeons and they were doing something unusual. They were foraging on the sidewalk instead of on the grass.
I pay attention to pigeons because they are the peregrines’ favorite food. A scared flock of pigeons often alerts me to the presence of the peregrines. Today it was apparently too snowy for the falcons to hunt so the pigeons were safe out in the open.
But why were they on the sidewalk? It finally dawned on me. The sidewalk was the only snow-free area where they could see potential food. Perhaps they were eating the de-icing salt.
The snow was beautiful, but it’s a pretty quiet birding day when the best bird is a pigeon eating rock salt.
Anyone who talks to me about birds knows that I am fascinated by peregrine falcons. This obsession started with the individuals pictured here.
On the left is Erie. Born on the Rhodes State Office Tower in Columbus, Ohio in 1998, he made his home at University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in 2001. We know who he is because he has bands on his legs. You can see them in the photo snapped by Ed Malarkey.
His mate is Dorothy, photographed by Jack Rowley attacking with her talons. She was born on the Firstar Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1999 and may have flown to Pittsburgh even earlier than Erie did. She has bands too.
The fact that these birds have bands and names and were born on buildings makes it sound like they are tame. Far from it! They just happened to choose a building for their nest because the Peregrine Fund used urban sites for peregrine reintroduction after they became extinct east of the Rockies. (A long story for a later blog.)
Peregrines are rare and charismatic birds. I had hardly ever seen them when Dorothy and Erie captured my attention by doing a courtship flight in January 2001. I reported what I’d seen on PABIRDS (a mailing list for bird sightings in Pennsylvania) and Dan Brauning of the Pennsylvania Game Commission urged me to look for their nest.
It changed my life forever. I can’t stop watching them.
Dorothy and Erie’s nest failed that year but the next winter a nest box was installed on the Cathedral of Learning and that year was a success. Since 2002 Dorothy and Erie have raised 22 young peregrines at Pitt. Four of their offspring have established their own nest sites in Michigan, Ohio and downtown Pittsburgh. Our pair are grandparents.
Winter is here and they are courting again. Since mid-November when the weather is good or the wind is strong, I see Dorothy and Erie in courtship flight at the Cathedral of Learning. Erie sometimes brings food to Dorothy to prove he’s a good provider. She knows he is, but they still go through the ritual. It strengthens their pair bond and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
For me it means spring is already on its way.
6:45am. Sunrise was still 45 minutes away. “I hear crows,” said my husband.
I looked out the window, trying to see black birds in a dark sky. I could hear it was a large flock just in front of our house, but I couldn’t see them.
Then they turned. I swear there were 300 crows. The flock turned back on itself twice. In the dark it looked like a black flapping ball. And they were loud.
This was the vanguard flock, the first to leave the roost, the noisiest, and the one that looks as if it can’t make up its mind where to go. This indecision is probably true.
The vanguard is made up of the cocky, the brave and the adventurous, some of whom are wise enough to know where there’s a lot of food. The wise ones want to get an early start at the good feeding grounds without a lot of competition. The cocky follow them closely. The flock wheels in the air while they all figure out where the lead birds are going and who’s in the lead.
They flew southwest. A pause.
Ten minutes later the sky is lighter and a noisy flock of a hundred crows flew over. And then another.
Our house is in the flyway today. If I’d been on my game this morning I could have been up and outdoors counting crows, trying to estimate the size of the winter roost. But it’s Saturday and I have too much to do.