Archive for June, 2009

Jun 29 2009

Second Brood? Or Third?

American robin nest with young (photo by Chuck Tague)Last week I discovered an American robin nest outside my study window. 

As I sit here and type, Mother Robin is making food deliveries to her tiny babies who are slightly older than the chicks pictured here.  This is probably her second brood this season.  If her first nest was very early or if it failed, this could be her third.

Now she pauses to brood her babies.  As she sits on the nest she makes a high-pitched “eeeeeeeeep” sound.  It’s a sound I wouldn’t associate with robins if I hadn’t seen one making it.  Is she calling her mate? 

Her chicks are silent, a good defense against predators at this age.  Even so, Mother Robin is wary.  My cat sits at the window as I blog and the robin is alert to Emmy’s pointy ears.  I don’t think Emmy’s noticed the robin’s nest because it’s far away and hidden by leaves.  (I use binoculars to see the babies.)  My cat is much more absorbed by the house sparrows sitting on the wire shouting at her. 

I hope all goes well for this robin family.  There are crows, grackles and blue jays on my street who would love to raid her nest.  Good luck, babies.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

4 responses so far

Jun 28 2009

June Blooms: Pink Lady’s Slipper

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Pink Lady's Slipper (photo by Dianne Machesney)

I almost missed my chance this month to show you the most beautiful flower I’ve ever found in the woods.  The last time I saw one was in late May of 2006.  They bloom in June as well.

This is Pink Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family that’s so rare it’s listed as endangered in some states.  That’s because it grows very slowly, deer love to eat it and people dig it up for their gardens.  Sadly, transplanting kills this plant because it won’t grow without a special woodland fungus in the soil around it.  If left alone these plants can live for 20 years.

Pink Lady’s Slipper is my secret plant.  Even where not endangered, I don’t tell the world its location because I’m afraid someone will steal it.  It’s a treasure in the woods.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

3 responses so far

Jun 27 2009

Do you know of a nest in an odd location?

Funky Nest (photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website)
In case you haven’t heard, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is collecting photos and stories of unusual nest locations – and there are prizes!

The contest is called Funky Nests in Funky Places.  Here’s one of them from their contest entry page.  Imagine nesting on a tire.

When I heard about the contest I couldn’t resist signing up the Don’t Walk Robin from last April.  Remember her?  She was the one who nested on a Don’t Walk traffic signal.  Not only did I make her famous here on the blog but she’s now Entry #107 in the contest.

Last night I looked at the contest entries online and some of them made me laugh out loud.  The Don’t Walk Robin is a serious bird compared to Entry #5 who is nesting next to the words “Slam It.”  Check out Entries #38 and #50 while you’re at it on the Funky Nest Entries Directory.

(photo linked from Cornell University, Funky Nests in Funky Places)

3 responses so far

Jun 26 2009

Life Skills

Published by under Peregrines

Prey exchange between an adult peregrine and his fledgling (photo by Kim Steininger)Sightings of the peregrine falcons born this year at the University of Pittsburgh are harder and harder to come by these days.

Now that they’ve learned to fly, they’ve ventured beyond the Cathedral of Learning to explore other buildings and other neighborhoods.

On a good day I see two out of a possible six peregrines in Oakland.  Often I see none.  One thing’s for certain.  They’re learning to hunt.

Young peregrines learn their life skills in at least two ways  The first is by play.  Only three days after fledging juvenile peregrines chase their siblings in a game that perfects their flight and maneuvering abilities.  Soon they add mock food exchanges to their repertoire.  Two youngsters fly together, one of them flips upside down with talons extended and they pretend to exchange food the way they’ve seen their parents do. 

Their parents teach them the serious lessons.  Pictured here is an adult peregrine holding prey down for his youngster to grab in a real life food exchange.  The young peregrine is learning eye-talon coordination and the ability to catch food while flying – something he’ll have to do for the rest of his life as he hunts on the wing.

When Erie was the resident male at Pitt, he taught his youngsters these skills in the airspace between Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning.  Digby, who used to work at Heinz Chapel, told me there were many times when a wedding party leaving the Chapel in June would be greeted by peregrines calling overhead and chasing their father to grab dinner.  Digby used to warn the wedding planners that if they wanted to release doves on the campus lawn, they shouldn’t expect to get them all back!

For the past two years I’ve noticed E2 prefers to mix it up a bit.  He starts teaching his offspring near St. Paul’s Cathedral perhaps because there are more pigeons over there.  When those pigeons become wary he moves to another location.  Yesterday he was back on campus in the Heinz Chapel airspace.

What luck that I got to see them at lunchtime!  The entire peregrine family was perched on the Cathedral of Learning facing Heinz Chapel.  The “kids” were obviously hungry and restless. Suddenly E2 dove straight down the face of the Cathedral of Learning and soared away on the hunt.  

I waited under a shade tree (it was hot!) and soon the youngsters flew off the building in excitement.  E2 was returning with food.  I missed the prey exchange (my shade tree blocked the view) but I saw the “kid” who caught the prey carry it to Heinz Chapel steeple, pursued by his sister. 

Another lesson learned.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

One response so far

Jun 25 2009

Not So Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawk (photo by Daniel Berganza, GNU Free Documentation License)For me the common nighthawk is an iconic species.  Its diving courtship display so fascinated me as a ten-year-old that I developed a lifelong interest in birds.

Nighthawks used to be easy to find in my Pittsburgh neighborhood in summertime. I live across the street from a floodlit ballpark where I could watch them hawking insects at dusk in the bright ballpark lights.

But not anymore.  Common nighthawks have declined precipitously in Pittsburgh and the eastern United States, so much so that some states list them as an endangered species.

Common nighthawks are not hawks but nightjars, relatives of the whip-poor-will, whose diet consists solely of flying insects including mosquitoes, moths and flying ants.  They’re incapable of torpor and must eat hundreds of insects per night so they require warm weather and plentiful bugs. 

Nighthawks range widely in the Western Hemisphere migrating from Argentina to Canada.  They used to arrive in Pittsburgh around May 5 and leave by September 5.  During fall migration hundreds of birds would pass through at dusk for two weeks starting at the end of August. 

Surprisingly, common nighthawks have not been well studied, though new efforts are underway.  What is known is that in the northeastern U.S. they used to nest in natural areas.  Then in the 1890s they began to nest almost exclusively on gravel rooftops in cities and towns.  In the 1990s people replaced gravel roofs with rubber roofs and nesting opportunities disappeared.  Meanwhile something must have gone wrong at their wintering grounds or in migration (probably pesticides) because year after year fewer migrants leave in the fall and even fewer return in the spring.

Ten years ago there were several nesting pairs in my neighborhood but last summer there was only a lone individual calling for a mate who never came.  This year he called for two weeks and was gone.  I don’t think I’ll ever again see them nest in my neighborhood.

Considering their rapid decline, I may live to see common nighthawks go extinct east of the Mississippi just as peregrine falcons did when I was young.

With human help peregrines came back.  Can we save the nighthawk?

(photo from WikiMedia taken by Daniel Berganza near Miami, Florida.  Click the photo to see the original.)

10 responses so far

Jun 24 2009

June Blooms: St. John’s wort

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Common St. John's wort (photo by Chuck Tague)

“This flower has your name on it,” said Chuck Tague when he sent me this picture of Common St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum.

St. John’s wort was imported from Europe where it got its name because it blooms in June and was traditionally harvested on St. John’s Day, June 24, to adorn homes and ward off evil.  It’s also an herbal treatment for depression and has been planted nearly worldwide. 

Unfortunately St. John’s wort has gone wild and is often considered a noxious weed.  It’s called Klamath weed out west and is known to poison livestock, making them photosensitive and causing restlessness, skin irritation and – ironically – depression before it kills them.  Too much is bad for people too.  Don’t go out in the sun if you consume a lot of it!

I’ve never seen an overabundance of St. John’s wort so I think of it as a pretty plant that shares my name. 

I even like the play on words it affords me.  I have a box of St. John’s wort herbal tea in my office labelled “St. John’s Good Mood.”  ;)

(photo by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

Jun 23 2009

On Edge

Published by under Peregrines

Juvenile peregrine falcon at University of Pittsburgh (photo by Colette Ross)

A juvenile peregrine falcon prepares to fly from the edge of the Cathedral of Learning, June 2009.

(photo by Colette Ross)

7 responses so far

Jun 22 2009

June Blooms: Moth Mullien

Moth Mullien (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Moth Mullien, Verbascum blattaria, is blooming now in waste places and along roadsides in western Pennsylvania.

Though non-native this biennial doesn’t tend to invade natural areas because it prefers disturbed soil.  Its five-petaled white or pale yellow flowers grow on a tall showy spike 2-4 feet high that blooms from bottom to top.  When blooming it’s hard to miss.

This month I’ve seen moth mullien in my neighborhood, in Schenley Park and along roadsides.  A big crop must have seeded two years ago.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

3 responses so far

Jun 21 2009

Sun Solstice, Sunbird

Published by under Phenology,Travel

Male Regal Sunbird, native of central equatorial Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the Summer Solstice, the day when the sun’s rays reach the furthest north and the sun shines its longest throughout the northern hemisphere.  Here in Pittsburgh we’ll have 15 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight.  For my friends in Finland, the sun will be above the horizon for 19 hours with bright twilight for the remaining five.  It’s a happy day in Finland.

Musings about the sun and thoughts about birds combined in my head into “sunbird.” 

Did you know there’s a family of birds called sunbirds, Nectariniidae, who live in Africa, southern Asia and northern Australia?  The one pictured here is a male Regal Sunbird, Nectarinia regia, native of central equatorial Africa. 

Sunbirds have a lifestyle similar to our hummingbirds because they feed primarily on nectar.  Though the two families are unrelated they’re an example of convergent evolution: their needs are so similar that they’re equipped with the same tools.

Like hummingbirds, sunbirds they have short wings and fly fast.  Some even hover, though most species perch as seen here.  They have long bills for collecting nectar but will also collect insects to feed their young.  The males are brilliantly colored, often in metallic hues.  And like our hummingbirds, sunbirds who live where it’s cold at night are capable of entering torpor. 

Except for his curved bill and long tail this sunbird looks a lot like a hummingbird.  Unlike our hummingbirds his equatorial range means he’ll never experience summer’s longest day. 

For more about summer and our longest day, see Chuck Tague’s blog.  For more about sunbirds, click here.

(photo of male Regal Sunbird from Wikimedia Commons)

4 responses so far

Jun 19 2009

Bag o’ Birds

Baltimore oriole nest (photo by Chuck Tague)If you’ve never seen one I’m sure you’re wondering… what the heck is this?

It’s a Baltimore oriole’s nest, a bag of birds.

If you look closely at the top of the nest you can see the tail and wing of the adult male.  His head and feet are inside the bag but his tail doesn’t fit.

Despite the leaf cover, these bags are noticable in western Pennsylvania right now because the baby birds are making a lot of noise inside.

Baltimore orioles are nothing if not noisy.  Only eight weeks ago the males came back to Pennsylvania, singing and chattering and claiming territory.  Soon the ladies arrived and the males displayed their beautiful orange feathers and made a lot of noise to attract their attention.  The females are impressed by this – and they’re noisy in return.  After they’ve chosen a mate, Baltimore oriole pairs stay in constant audio contact.

Shortly after pairing up, the female Baltimore oriole builds her nest at the tip of a drooping tree branch.  It takes 5-8 days of weaving plant fibers, string, grape bark, grasses and pieces of old oriole nests to make this bag.  She doesn’t engage in skillful weaving but her random method works nonetheless.

When she’s completed a hanging structure she lines it with feathers, soft grasses, wool, willow and dandelion fluff.  Her mate sings while she builds and she replies.  She then lays 4-6 eggs and incubates them alone for 12-14 days.  Her mate’s contribution is to sing nearby.  Lots of noise.

When the eggs hatch both parents feed the babies.  After about a week the nestlings take over in the noise department and become very vocal inside the bag.  I found three oriole nests at Schenley Park last week just by following the babies’ sound.  It’s usually a disadvantage for baby birds to give away their location but Baltimore orioles have always been noisy and it doesn’t seem to have to damaged their chance at survival.

As the nestlings get noisier their father sings less.  In 12-14 days they fledge and both parents feed them for about a week.  Then mom begins to molt and travels more widely.  Dad coaches the fledglings for a couple of weeks, then the youngsters disperse.  He stays on territory until he’s finished molting and leaves our area in late summer.

It all happens very fast.  From late April to mid-July there’s a lot of activity and then it’s over.

Now’s the time to look for a noisy bag o’ birds.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

5 responses so far

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