Archive for May, 2009

May 22 2009

It’s Getting Crowded

Six peregrines at the nest (photo from the National Aviary webcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Sometimes it takes two parents to feed four hungry peregrine chicks.

Here are Dorothy and E2 crowded at the nest with their four growing babies at the Cathedral of Learning.  Both of them were offering food and the kids could not decide which direction to face.   For a while all four faced Mom… but one of them is wondering…

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

p.s.  I’ve added new entries on the Peregrine FAQs page.  Check it out.

7 responses so far

May 21 2009

Blue Budgie in the Backyard

Published by under Musings & News

Blue Budgerigar (photo from Wikipedia Commons)For the past three days – maybe longer – there’s been a blue budgie at my backyard bird feeder.  She has a small blue/gray band on her left leg and looks like the bird in this Wikimedia picture except she has pale skin above her beak.  I’ve read that males have blue ceres and females have pale ones, so I am guessing she’s a female.

Budgerigars – nicknamed budgies – are originally from Australia but have been bred in the U.S. as pets for many years.  My backyard budgie is obviously an escapee so I can’t count her on my Life List.  Alas.

Her pet-store origins show.  She is not particularly wary.  Unlike wild birds who constantly watch for predators, she feeds with her head down and barely looks up.  Fortunately she hangs out with a family of mourning doves so someone is always watching, but mourning doves fly faster and wait longer to flush than she should.  Sometimes the doves are frightened of things she doesn’t care about – like grackles – so she ignores them.  Sadly she’ll probably become hawk food unless she’s lucky.

I thought of trying to rescue her but she won’t let me come within six feet before she flies into the trees.  Her owner – if I could find him – might be able to pick her up, but not me.

How do I find out who lost her?  I am writing & calling as many places as I can think of.

In the meantime I’m keeping my feeders filled and hoping the mourning doves warn her of danger.  With a flock to keep her company she’ll enjoy her freedom for a while.

(photo of a male budgie from Wikimedia Commons)

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May 19 2009

Two peregrine chicks banded at Gulf Tower

Peregrine falcon chick at Gulf Tower on banding day, 2009 (photo by Kate St. John)If you were watching the Gulf Tower webcam around 9:00am today (Tuesday), you saw Beth Fife of the PA Game Commission fend off the mother peregrine falcon and collect her two chicks in a cardboard box. 

Tasha is such a fearless mom that she rushed at Beth and had to be captured so she wouldn’t hurt herself.

Meanwhile the father, Louie, buzzed past the banders closer than he has ever come before.  He kakked and whooshed and made a special loud shout every time he nearly hit them.  When his entire family disappeared indoors he perched above the nest area and continued to kak, then made a single ee-chup call.  Ee-chup is a sound usually made between mates.  I wondered if he was calling to Tasha.

In the banding room Tasha and her babies were given thorough health checks.  All were found to be in good health and very well fed.  The veterinarian gave Tasha and Louie high marks for being such good parents.

Female peregrines are a third larger than males so the chicks were weighed to determine their sex and the proper bands to apply.  The two Gulf Tower chicks were deemed to be females.  The older chick was just above the male/female weight line and the younger was 80 grams heavier even though she is four days younger.  You can see how big she is from my photo. 

The two remaining unhatched eggs were brought in from the nest box and will be candled to see if a live embryo ever developed in them.  Beth also collected the small amount of garbage at the nest.  Tasha is a better housekeeper than Dorothy so there wasn’t much to examine but we did determine the babies had been fed two kinds of woodpeckers and a lot of pigeons.  One prey feather was a mystery – probably a duck.

After the banding Tasha and her chicks were returned to the nest.  Louie and Tasha calmed down and the babies finally slept.  I’m sure the entire peregrine family is glad that banding is over for another year.

For media reports on the banding, see the Tribune-Review or KDKA

You can watch the peregrines at their nest on the National Aviary’s webcam.

(photo from Kate St. John’s cell phone)

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May 19 2009

To-may-to, To-mah-to

Male Pileated Woodpecker (photo by Darryl Ford Williams)

So how do you say his name?

Darryl Ford Williams called the other day to tell me she had the largest “Woody Woodpecker” she ever saw making mincemeat of a stump in her back yard. 

Based on her description I suspected it was a pileated woodpecker.  Not only are they large but they resemble the famous Woody Woodpecker cartoon character, though Woody’s supposed to have been modeled on the acorn woodpecker who doesn’t even have a crest. 

Darryl sent me a picture and my hunch was right – a beautiful male pileated.  I can tell he’s a male because he has a red moustache.

But having to tell her his name threw me into a quandary.  I had just had a conversation with another birder about pronunciation of bird names and I knew that I probably pronounced this one incorrectly … or did I?  I couldn’t remember.

I say ”PILL-e-a-tid” but I’ve heard “PIE-lee-a-tid” and “PIE-lated” as well.  Since I’m from Pittsburgh and have a Pittsburgh accent (when I don’t concentrate on what I say), I usually doubt my own pronunciation.  Before I even opened my mouth I was stuck in the classic “tomayto, tomahto” problem.

Google to the rescue where I found this humorous article on how to pronounce bird names.  Apparently there are two valid pronunciations for pileated so I can have my choice.

Or to paraphrase a Gershwin song, “You say pie-lee-a-tid and I say pill-e-a-tid.  Let’s call the whole thing off.”

(photo by Darryl Ford Williams)

6 responses so far

May 18 2009

May Flowers: May Apple

Published by under Phenology,Plants

May Apple (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The green umbrellas you see in the woods right now are May Apples.  They only produce a flower on the plants with a double umbrella.  The flowers sprout at the “Y” where the umbrellas join and hide beneath them, bowing their heads toward the ground.

The flowers appear in May, then the seed pods form in their place looking like a green “apple.”  Hence the May Apple name.

Take a peek under the umbrellas and you’ll see them blooming now in western Pennsylvania. 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

May 17 2009

Dead Water

Published by under Musings & News

Acid mine drainage at Jennings fountain (photo by Kate St. John)Everything is connected to everything else. What happens when one part gets damaged?

When this spring-fed fountain was built years ago at Jennings in Butler County the water was clear and clean. Now, like many waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania, the water is orange and smells like sulfur, a victim of acid mine drainage.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a coal country problem that’s especially acute in southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southeastern Ohio. It comes from primarily two sources: abandoned coal mines and mine tailing piles. While a coal mine is active, the mine operator pumps water away from the coal but after the mine closes or the mining company goes defunct the mine fills with water and the chemical reactions begin. Nearby, coal waste piles are left exposed to rain and runoff. Soon the water supply is orange and the streams go dead.

In both cases the water is reacting with pyrite, a ferrous mineral found with our coal, that forms sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. The process is exacerbated if the pyrite was crushed, as it is during mining, and if the water contains an iron-oxidizing bacteria called thiobacillus ferrooxidans.

As the water becomes more acidic it dissolves heavy metals including lead and mercury. These precipitate out on stream bottoms when cleaner water joins the flow.

It’s a nasty brew. Aquatic insects and invertebrates die, fish disappear and the birds who depend on both abandon the waterway.

Even warblers are affected by dead water. The Louisiana waterthrush eats aquatic macroinvertebrates (clams, snails, worms and nymphs) and cannot thrive in the presence of acid mine drainage. Powdermill Nature Reserve conducted a study in the late 1990s which showed a dramatic difference in Louisiana waterthrush nesting success on two adjacent streams: Powdermill Run, a clean stream, and Laurel Run, polluted with acid mine drainage. The clean stream hosted nearly three times the number of nesting pairs.

Throughout our area many AMD sites are being cleaned up using passive treatment with constructed ponds and wetlands. Some of these sites are visitor-oriented where you can learn how it works. There is one such site at Jennings Environmental Education Center and another at the Art and AMD project in Vintondale. Unfortunately AMD treatment costs money to construct and maintain so many waterways continue to suffer.

I hope that money will become available in the future to clean up more AMD sites.  Not only will we benefit from it but the herons, kingfishers and Louisiana waterthrushes will thank us.

(photo by Kate St. John)

One response so far

May 16 2009

May Flowers: Fairy Bells

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Fairy Bells (photo by Dianne Machesney)

I love the name of this flower: Fairy Bells (Disporum lanuginosum). 

The plant is about 30 inches high, the leaves droop and the pale green flowers hide beneath the leaves.  The flowers are so delicate they are aptly named fairy bells.  They are actually an Appalachian flower and are hard to find in Pennsylvania unless you’re in the mountains. 

For Dianne Machesney these Fairy Bells were a “life flower” when she took this picture last weekend in the Laurel Highlands.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

One response so far

May 15 2009

Save The Date: Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, June 2-6

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon about to fly (photo by Kim Steininger)Some time between June 2nd and 6th the peregrine falcon nestlings at the University of Pittsburgh will take their first flight.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be there to see it.  Perhaps you will be too.

Fledging is one of the most dangerous times for a young peregrine.  He has never flown before and must learn on the first try how to steer and land.  His nest is several hundred feet up so he has a lot of air space, but he has to stay high because he doesn’t yet have the wing strength to rise from the ground.  If he lands on the ground that first day, he just stands there.  If he’s in the street he could be killed by a car.

In the early days of the Peregrine Recovery Program (1990′s) volunteers organized Fledge Watches at urban nest sites to monitor the fledglings and return them to the heights if they landed on the ground.  Since that time adult peregrines have adapted to urban sites and seem to be teaching their offspring to stay high.

There are fewer fledging accidents at the established sites and peregrines aren’t so rare any more, so the remaining Fledge Watches have morphed into social occasions and an opportunity to see peregrines do exciting things … which is why I plan to be at Schenley Plaza before and after work on June 2-5 and on the morning of Sat June 6th – weather permitting.

You’re welcome to join me.  I’ll post more details as the time approaches.  Save the Date.

(photo of a fledgling peregrine falcon by Kim Steininger)

18 responses so far

May 14 2009

I un-retract that Blackpoll

Blackpoll Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)Those of you who read PABIRDS may remember how I reported hearing a blackpoll warbler in Schenley Park on April 30 and how I retracted my claim the next day.  I decided to retract because I hadn’t actually seen the bird, I thought it was too early in the spring for a blackpoll to be in Pittsburgh, and the tree I heard it in was full of yellow-rumped warblers who can vary their songs a great deal.

But now I’m back from four days at Magee Marsh, Ohio where the warblers come so close you could touch them.  I saw and heard hundreds of warblers including quite a few blackpolls and yellow-rumps.  I heard both warblers over and over again and now I have no doubt I heard a blackpoll on April 30.

As warbler song goes, the blackpoll’s is quite distinctive and I’ve never seen (emphasis on “seen”) another warbler sing it.  The song is very high pitched, all on one note and very rhythmic:  zeet zeet zeet zeet zeet zeet.  It sounds like a squeaky bicycle brake on a fast-moving bike, a similarity I noticed when I first heard these warblers at Presque Isle State Park.  I was standing in the middle of the bike lane at the time and thought I was hearing a bike braking to avoid hitting me.  I jumped out of the way – and no bike was there.  I looked up and saw the blackpoll singing.

Blackpolls winter in South America and breed in the coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska.  They’re called blackpolls because their “poll” (the crown of their heads) is all black.  They have black and white striped wings, white faces and bellies and bright orange-yellow legs. Compared to hyperactive warblers like the American redstart they’re usually easy to observe – once you find them – because they don’t jump around a lot.

The blackpoll is notable for its astonishing fall migration route.  Every fall they mass on the coast of North America and wait for a very strong north wind.  When it comes, they launch themselves over the Atlantic and fly non-stop to South America.  The journey takes 88 hours, first sending them far offshore to the east, then southwest on the trade winds which push them back toward land.  Many of them return by the overland route, taking their time to move north as spring comes to our continent.  Their slow progress gives them the appearance of being “late” migrants, but it’s just that they linger.

So I reinstate my blackpoll to good standing.  So what if he was early.  He was there.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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May 13 2009

Foster Mom

Great-horned Owl fosters 3 babies at ARL Wildlife Center (photo by Galen Grimes)Humans aren’t the only ones who raise foster families. Right now a great horned owl named Martha is raising three foster chicks at the Animal Rescue League (ARL) Wildlife Center in Verona.

Martha herself is a rescued bird. She came to ARL five years ago when she was found starving and unable to fly because her wing had broken and healed in the wrong position. Her wing can’t be repaired so she’s a permanent resident at the Wildlife Center. Most of the time she’s an educational bird, teaching people about owls, but in the spring she becomes a foster mother.

This year Martha is especially busy raising three owlets. Jill Argall, Director of ARL Wildlife Center, told me their stories.

The first baby great-horned owl was from a nest in an old structure being demolished in Penn Hills. The nest was so high and the structure so unstable that the Game Commission had to use a lift truck to rescue the owl.

The second was rescued in Sarver when his nest fell out of a tree. His nestmate died in that incident and he was lucky to survive.

The third nestling was found on the ground in Fox Chapel. The people who found him waited and watched for his parents to tend to him but for two days the baby owl never moved and his parents never came so he was brought to the Wildlife Center.

Martha is in her glory right now teaching owlets how to be grown up owls. When their flight feathers are fully grown they will move to the flight cage where they’ll have room to learn to fly and hunt. When they’ve mastered both skills each owl will be taken back to his original home and released into the wild.

To read more about Martha at the start of her fostering season, see page 5 of ARL’s Sunny Gazette, Spring 2009.

And if you find a baby bird and don’t know what to do, read ARL Wildlife Center’s advice here or call them at 412-793-6900.

(photo by Galen Grimes)

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