Archive for July, 2010

Jul 21 2010

A New Nest in Pennsylvania

Published by under Peregrines


There’s great news about peregrines coming from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania this week. 

Meredith Lombard reported on PABIRDS that for the first time in 60 years peregrine falcons have nested successfully in Lancaster County.  This raises the number of nests in Pennsylvania to 22, the highest number we’ve had since the days before DDT.

Like me in Pittsburgh, Meredith monitors the peregrine falcons in York and Lancaster Counties.  After months of checking potential nest sites and many disappointments she thought the season would end — again — without any nestlings.  Then she noticed the pair at the Route 462 bridge mating in mid-May. 

Pictured here is the male of this pair.  He hatched in 2004 at Southmarsh Island WMA in Maryland and was hacked from Harper’s Ferry National Park by Craig Koppie.  The female hatched on a building in Virginia and was hacked from a cliff.  They’ve now claimed the arched bridge that crosses the wide and shallow Susquehanna River between Columbia and Wrightsville. 

Apparently their April nest failed but the May nest didn’t.  By late June Meredith saw them delivering prey to the bridge and in early July she heard the unmistakable sound of begging peregrine nestlings.  (Remember that sound from the webcams?)

On July 13, Art McMorris and Jeff Musser visited the bridge and banded two chicks — one male (white tape on USFW band) and one female (blue tape).  At that time they were about 24 days old so they’re expected to fledge in early August.  We wish them a safe flight.

Thank you, Meredith, for your dedication to these birds.

See Meredith’s pictures of York, Lancaster and Susquehanna bridge peregrines here

(photo by Meredith Lombard)

21 responses so far

Jul 20 2010

Summer Beauty: Black Cohosh

Published by under Plants


Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is blooming now in Pennsylvania’s woods.  The flower is white, it’s the root that’s ”black.”

The plants are three to nine feet tall topped by a spire of branching, fuzzy-looking flowers.  The spire makes up a third of the plant’s height and normally stands straight (this specimen is leaning) so the flowers appear to float high above the vegetation. 

I encountered a large stand of Black Cohosh a week ago at Moraine State Park.  Amazingly, I didn’t notice it at first.  I bent over to identify another flower and when I straightened up I saw the cohosh everywhere like a ghostly army of flowers, white against the cool green of the forest.

Black Cohosh flowers look beautiful but they smell bad.  The purpose is to attract flies, gnats and beetles for pollination. 

If you ever have a doubt about identifying this plant, take a whiff.  Eeeeew!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jul 19 2010

Please show me your bands!

Published by under Peregrines


Finally some news from Tarentum! 

On Friday evening Steve Valasek visited the Tarentum Bridge and spent 90 minutes observing and photographing this peregrine perched on the upstream side. 

Back in April Steve Gosser saw a pair of peregrines mating at the bridge, the same pair that was identified last winter.  The male hatched at Pitt in 2008 (son of Dorothy and E2), the female in Hopewell, Virginia in 2008.   

On the strength of this great information we assumed there would be a nest on the bridge but Beth Fife from the PA Game Commission looked for a nest in May and could not find one. 

Two months passed.  No one reported peregrines at the bridge.  I checked the bridge twice when I happened to be out that way.  No birds.  Did they nest elsewhere?  Did they nest at all?  Or weren’t we watching enough?

On June 25th Steve Valasek saw a peregrine at the bridge so he returned last Friday to watch and take some pictures.  He was in luck. 

The light wasn’t good but the bird was there and cooperative, at least to the extent that he stayed in one place. Sometimes the peregrine called but no other bird appeared.  Which peregrine was this?  Despite his best efforts, Steve never saw his bands.

Hey, Peregrine!  Please turn around, stretch out that leg you’ve raised and show me your bands!

(photo by Steve Valasek)

5 responses so far

Jul 18 2010

Kings and Queens in Marcy’s Garden

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs


Yesterday I visited Marcy Cunkelman in Indiana County and toured her beautiful garden.   

Her whole yard is planted for nature, especially birds and butterflies.  She uses all natural fertilizer and balances the plants for pest control.  No chemicals in her yard!  They would kill the very insects she is trying to attract.

Did you know butterflies are picky about where they lay their eggs?  They choose the plants their caterpillar larvae like to eat. 

Marcy knows which plants host the various butterflies and cultivates them to attract the species she desires.  Her favorite is the monarch butterfly whose host plant is the milkweed.  Her garden has lots of it and many nectar plants for the butterflies to feed on.

Marcy fosters monarchs and tags them in late summer before they migrate.  Every day she checks the undersides of the milkweed leaves to see if monarchs have laid eggs there.  She knows from experience that female monarchs prefer tender young leaves.  When the plants bloom, the leaves are too tough though the flowers provide a good nectar source.  

What a great place to be a butterfly: food and drink, meet and greet, mate and lay eggs.   

Marcy’s garden is a posh resort for butterflies.  The monarchs are its kings and queens.

(photo of a monarch butterfly on a thistle by Marcy Cunkelman)

4 responses so far

Jul 17 2010

Another Quiz

Published by under Quiz


I have a couple of mystery birds up my sleeve.  Here’s the second one.

Keep in mind that it’s harder to identify a bird from a still photograph than it is when you see it move.  Behavior, posture and eating habits are huge clues to a bird’s identity. 

However, this bird has several characteristics that help identify it.  Notice…

  • The size and color of its beak
  • The size of the stripe above its eye
  • The brown patch on its face
  • Its brown wings and odd wing bars
  • The faintly striped beige area around its neck
  • The fluffy look of its head.

What species do you think this is?  Can you tell anything about its age and sex?

Let me know.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

12 responses so far

Jul 16 2010

Anatomy: Feather Shapes

Published by under Bird Anatomy


Have you ever noticed that feathers are different shapes depending on their location on a bird’s body?   This is especially true of flight feathers: remiges (wings) and rectrices (tails).

Shown above are six primary and six secondary feathers from a sharp-shinned hawk.  The feathers are lined up in the order they appear on the bird’s wing with the wingtip at left.  

Notice how each feather is a slightly different shape than the one next to it.  This difference allows each feather to contribute its own contour to the overall flight surface of the wing.  In this illustration there’s a contour gap after feather P5 because only six of the sharp-shin’s ten primaries are shown — P10 to P5 — before jumping to the secondaries. 

Look closely and you’ll see that the edges of the sharp-shin’s primaries are not uniformly curved. (Click here for close-up.)  Instead they have notches on the wide vane and emarginations on the narrow vane. 

Sharp-shinned hawks pursue small birds through the forest and make quick turns through narrow openings to avoid obstacles.  This means their wings are short and their primaries are deeply notched and emarginated to accommodate their hunting style.

Peregrines’ flight requirements are much different.  They dive at top speed in the open air to capture their prey.  They don’t need to avoid trees so their wings are long and their feather edges are nearly smooth for rapid dives and precision flight.  Click here to see that peregrines’ primary feathers are less curved the sharp-shins’.   Only their P10 feather has a noticeable notch.

You can examine the feathers of many birds at The Feather Atlas website where I found this photo.  It’s a National Forensic Laboratory project of U.S. Fish and Wildlife in which they make high-resolution scans of the primaries, secondaries and tail feathers of each species.  There are separate scans for juveniles and females/males if the feathers look different. 

I’m sure you’ll enjoy browsing the site and learning more about feather shapes.

(photo from The Feather Atlas. Click on the photo to see the original webpage.  NOTE: It is illegal to possess any feather without a permit.  Click here for details.)

One response so far

Jul 15 2010

Through The Roof!

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park


It’s not every day you can see an indoor plant bust through the roof and keep on going.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Century plant (Agave americana) at Phipps Conservatory has done just that.

Century plants grow as a rosette of leaves without flowering for 10 to 60 years (depends on climate).  When the plant is ready to bloom it shoots up a stalk as much as 26 feet tall, then produces flowers and dies.  The stalk on the plant at Phipps is so tall they had to remove part of the glass roof to let it keep growing.

In this photograph it wasn’t flowering yet, but I hear it’s doing so now.  That means you don’t have much time left to see it.  Just like the American Columbo, it will die after it blooms.

To see the entire plant you’ll have to visit two places at Phipps.  The bottom of the plant is in the Desert Room, the top is visible from the Japanese Garden.

Though this particular plant is less spectacular from a distance, you can see it from the street at Schenley Park Visitors Center.  Here’s what it would probably look like if it grew outdoors.

Visit Phipps Conservatory to see it.

(photo by Bonnie Jeanne Tibbetts)

p.s. Do you see the bird? Look at the lower branches on the left side of the Century plant.  Does that bird have a crest?  Is it a cardinal?

8 responses so far

Jul 13 2010

Blue, we hardly knew you, and now you’re gone

Published by under Peregrines


More sad news. 

The young peregrine in this photograph is dead.  

Beth Fife called this afternoon to tell me she was dispatched downtown to pick up a dead peregrine.  As she made the trip, she hoped it had been misidentified. 

Alas, it was Blue, the bird who caused such a stir by perching near the ground during rush hour on June 22.  Jim Altier photographed her on the railing at the Federal Reserve Bank. 

Blue slammed into the Grant Building around midday today.  She was probably learning to hunt or playing a Chase Me game and not paying attention.  Witnesses say she crumpled and fell to an upper roof of the Grant Building where her body was retrieved. 

There are now only three youngsters at Gulf Tower for Dori and Louie to feed and teach — all of them male.  Since June 24th Dorothy and E2 have had only three youngsters at Pitt: two males and one female.  However, there is one bright spot.

The two young female peregrines in rehab – one from Gulf, one from Pitt - are graduating to the Flight Pen at the rehab center this week.  They’ll tone up their wing muscles and be ready for release next week if all goes well.  They are:

  • White, the Gulf Tower female who banged her head.  (This sounds eerily similar to Blue’s accident.)
  • Yellow, the University of Pittsburgh female who was trapped in the chimney at Webster Hall and became dehydrated.

These two birds will rejoin their families where I’m sure we’ll see them begging for food. 

Karen and I saw four peregrines at Pitt just yesterday.  The gang’s still here.

(photo by Jim Altier)

23 responses so far

Jul 13 2010

Summer Beauty: Yellow Coneflowers

Published by under Plants


Now that the weather is cooler the plants look happy again.

Here’s a picture from Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in Indiana County.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

No responses yet

Jul 12 2010

How to Swat a Fly

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs


The other day I had a Buick-sized fly buzzing around my office and banging against my window.

House flies inevitably show up when the loading dock door stays open for a long delivery.  I don’t know why we have such enormous flies but they wander in, get lost in the dark hallways and fly up to the light.  Eventually they make it to my office. 

I try to swat them and fail.  I miss them nearly every time.  Am I uncoordinated? 

Actually flies are masters at avoiding swats.

Back in 2008 researchers at Caltech used high speed, high definition video to record the movements of fruit flies to see how they avoided a swat threat.  Amazingly, the flies positioned themselves for escape within 100 milliseconds of noticing the approaching swatter.  It didn’t matter if they were eating, resting or walking, they shifted their weight and were ready to escape with a mere flex of their legs.

The researchers concluded that fruit flies have fast-acting brains and the ability to plan ahead.  I can’t say this is true of house flies, but it seems so.

So how do you successfully swat a fly?  According to Michael Dickson of Caltech, you should creep up on it slowly because it doesn’t register slow movement, then “aim a bit forward of its location and try and anticipate where the fly will jump when it first sees your swatter.”

It seems a waste of my brain power to do this, but I’ll try it on the next one.

(photo of a house fly by Alvesgaspar from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

6 responses so far

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