Jun 15 2014

King Devil

Published by under Plants

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

My neighbors will tell you I am not a gardener.  When the growing season arrives I spend all my time birding.  Around Memorial Day I glance at the garden and think, “Something must be done!”  I go out there with my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and identify what’s growing.  I pull out the noxious weeds and leave everything else in place.

That’s how I got King Devil.

Also called Field Hawkweed (Hieracium pratense), it’s a perennial creeping plant whose yellow flowers cluster at the top of a tall, hairy stem.  The leaves are basal, thin, hairy, untoothed and hardly noticeable compared to the flowers.

I find the flowers interesting in all their phases.

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

I left the King Devil where it sprouted.

Wikipedia says, “This species finds its habitat where the soil has been neglected.”  That’s a pretty good description of my gardening efforts.  The birds are luring me away from home.


(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Jun 14 2014

New Bird In Town

Juvenile European starling (photo by Emőke Dénes from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a new bird in town with a brown body, faint stripes on his brown chest, black beak, black eye, and a little black mask.

What is he?  A juvenile starling.

He’s confusing because he’s not in the bird guide unless you know to look for starlings.  He doesn’t look like his parents but his behavior is the same as theirs.  The big hint to his identify, if he’s still at the begging stage, is that he won’t leave his parents alone.

You can hear him begging, “Churrrr, churrrr, churrrr.”

Click here for a story about him that I wrote in 2010.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

One response so far

Jun 13 2014

Fledge Watch Opportunities This Weekend

Wtaching the eagles at Hays (photo by Kate St. John)

Want to see peregrine falcons or bald eagles?  This weekend four sites in the Pittsburgh area have young raptors ready make their first flight.

Watch Peregrines at …

  • Monaca-East Rochester Bridge:  Four juvenile peregrines are fledging at this site June 11-16.  The nest is over water so your watchful presence may save a young peregrine’s life if it lands in the river (you can alert a nearby boater).  There are no officially organized times to watch at this bridge though I can tell you I plan to stop by on Saturday.  Click here for a map.
  • Neville Island I-79 Bridge:  One female peregrine is due to fledge from this site June 14-19.  Anne Marie Bosnyak and Laura Marshall will be at the adjacent Port Authority Park-n-Ride and Fairfield Inn parking lots for much of the weekend. I plan to visit too at 9:00am Saturday.  Watch this blog or Pittsburgh Falconuts for dates and times.  Click here for a map.

Juvenile bald eagles at the Hays nest, 11 June 2014 (photo from the PixController eaglcam atHays)

Watch bald eagles at…

  • Hays eagle nest:  Three eaglets have been flapping like crazy on camera this week so it’s only a matter of time before one of them makes his first flight.  Dedicated eagle fans will be watching from the Three Rivers Heritage Bike Trail all weekend.  Bob Mulvihill from the National Aviary will be there on SUNDAY at 9:00am.  C’mon down any time.  It’s free!  Click on Bob’s name or here for a map.
  • Harmar eagle nest:  This nest is much harder to watch since the Hulton Bridge construction closed the small parking lot with the best view.  Eagle fans have been known to stand by the side of busy Hulton Road in Oakmont. (Yow!)  Before leaf-out there was a good, safe view from the patio behind Oakmont High School. Bring a birding scope and look for watchers on the Oakmont side of the river. If you find a good place to stand, leave a comment with directions.

The weather will be great for Fledge Watching.  Let’s get outdoors!


p.s. Happy news from Westinghouse Bridge:  On June 11 PGC’s Tom Keller found a day-old hatchling at the Westinghouse Bridge peregrine nest (two eggs still unhatched).  PGC will band the chick(s) in 18 to 22 days.  Peregrine monitor John English is looking forward to a Fledge Watch in mid July.

(photo of Hays Eagle Watch site by Kate St. John, photo of Hays eaglets from the PixController Hays eaglecam)

6 responses so far

Jun 12 2014

Why Are Warblers Yellow?

Published by under Songbirds

Kentucky warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Many warblers have olive-green backs, yellow breasts and black feather accents.  Think of hooded, prairie, Wilson’s and Kentucky warblers like this one.  Why are so many of them this color?

Steve Gosser’s photo shows why.

By the time a warbler nests in North America, the leaves are out and the forest’s light is soft yellow-green.  Seen by a predator from above, the warblers’ olive color matches the dark understory.  From below their yellow breasts match the light filtering through the leaves.  Their black accent feathers break up the colors and look like shadows.

In the winter the warblers live in leafy places in Central and South America where they continue to match the habitat.

Yellow is camouflage.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

No responses yet

Jun 11 2014

Protective Mothers

Published by under Mammals

Elk cow and calf, Benezette (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

June is “baby” time in Pennsylvania’s woods with fledgling birds, tiny rabbits, young groundhogs and cute fawns.

As I mentioned last week young animals found alone are not abandoned, they’re just waiting for mom.  You shouldn’t “rescue” fawns and if you’re lucky enough to see an elk calf in Pennsylvania, don’t go near it!

Just like white-tailed deer, elk mothers tell their calves to “Stay!” while they go off to feed.  White-tailed deer are afraid of humans and don’t raise a fuss about their fawns but elk cows are big and powerful.  If you approach an elk calf, its mother may attack.

An elk cow doesn’t have antlers, but she’s not something you want to tangle with.  She weighs about 500 pounds, stands 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder and is 6.5 feet long from nose to rump.  When she charges, you’re the one who’ll need to be rescued!

Paul Staniszewski is quite familiar with the elk herd near Benezette, PA and explains: “Although the elk are used to seeing people, they are still very much wild and will become unpredictable and aggressive when it comes to protecting their young.  If a protective female elk is endangering people in a public area, move away and call the PA Game Commission. They will temporarily close the area until the mother moves on with her calf.”

Just like humans, wildlife mothers do what they can to protect their young.  Hawks and peregrines swoop at humans, mother skunks spray, black bears and elk charge.  Yes, a sudden attack by a wild animal is frightening.  It’s meant to be!  You’re at the hands of an outraged mother and she wants you to leave.

When you’re outdoors be aware of your surroundings and watch for wildlife.  Remember that mothers are protective.  It’s all part of being a mom.


(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

9 responses so far

Jun 10 2014

Falcons Stick Together

American kestrel fledgling at Engineering Hall, Univ of Pittsburgh (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

This story has a sad ending but the middle is so amazing that it’s worth the telling.

At 10:00am Michelle Kienholz texted me with an odd sighting at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health: “Peregrine on GSPH? One of the Cathedral of Learning peregrines is yelling and dive-bombing it.”

Michelle sent a cellphone photo of the attacked bird perched on the windowsill but neither of us could determine the species.  Michelle didn’t have binoculars and her photo was tiny.

Forty-five minutes later she texted again after she saw it more clearly:  “Red-tailed hawk — taking quite a beating from E2 still.  Can’t tell if windows are affecting how wings held or if injured but I see red-tails on the building all the time.  45 minutes on the same cramped ledge with a crazed falcon seems odd.  … Doesn’t look especially stressed though.”

Almost an hour later at 11:30am:  “Red-tail moved to Sennott Building, so he can fly.”

But this was not the end of it.

At 1:30pm Michelle sent an email about another bird of prey perched at the entrance to the Engineering Building.  Observers had seen him hit a window in the early morning.  Melissa Penkrot at the School of Engineering was concerned because this juvenile male kestrel had been perched there since 7:00am.

Juvenile American kestrel at Engineering Building (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

In between meetings, Michelle ran down to check on the kestrel while Melissa called the Game Commission. The kestrel continued to stand in plain sight so Melissa put up a sign so folks would not try to touch it.  Interestingly, she could see the Sennott Building from the kestrel’s location.

Michelle returned an hour later and saw the kestrel hop up on the rust-colored sculpture and make a slow wobbly flight across the street.  Before she returned to work she told the security guard at the parking garage that the Game Commission was coming for the bird.  He assured her he’d be there into the evening and would keep an eye on it.  That was at 2:45pm.

Alas, when Michelle returned at 7:00pm the security guard told her the red-tail had barely waited for her to leave.  While the kestrel’s back was turned the red-tail swooped in and killed him.  Not a happy ending.

But there is a happy middle.

In the morning E2 spent at least 45 minutes attacking and finally moving that red-tailed hawk away from the area.  E2 was as focused and relentless as he is when his own fledglings are threatened.  Yet he has no babies this year.  Why did he attack the red-tail?

I think E2 recognized the fledgling as a baby falcon — not a peregrine, but certainly a falcon — and his protective instincts kicked in.  He doesn’t have his own “kids” this year but when he saw a dazed juvenile falcon he knew the red-tail was up to no good and did everything in his power to move the danger away.  He did a good job.  The red-tail was deterred.

Vulnerable American kestrels often fall prey to red-tailed hawks.  The kestrel’s own parents could not have protected him, but a peregrine did.

Falcons stick together.


p.s.  Kestrels are known to help peregrines: see this blog from 2012.

(photos by Michelle Kienholz)

4 responses so far

Jun 09 2014

Eats Tentworms

Published by under Bird Behavior

Yellow-billed Cuckoo eating a tentworm (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

Who eats tentworms?

Yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos do.  They’re fond of caterpillars, katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets and are happy to rid your trees of tent caterpillars and gypsy moths.

Bobby Greene captured this yellow-billed cuckoo in the act.

Sadly, our use of pesticides has contributed to rapid declines in both species during the last century.  Yellow-billed cuckoos used to be found across the continent.  They are nearly extirpated from the West.

(photo by Bobby Greene)


p.s. We saw a yellow-billed cuckoo at the edge of Chatham Village during the Emerald View BioBlitz.  They’re in the City in wooded habitats.

3 responses so far

Jun 08 2014

A Goat’s Beard

Published by under Plants

Yellow Goat's Beard (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning I helped count birds at the Emerald View BioBlitz with David and Colleen Yeany and Eva Simms.   Eva showed us the new trails in Olympia and Mt. Washington Parks.  What a lot of work they were, but well worth it!  Check them out on this map.

Above Route 51 in Mt. Washington Park we found unusual flowers three feet tall with daisy-like heads, thin leaves, and long puckered buds.  I used my photos to identify them when I got home.

Yellow Goat's Beard, Emerald View, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Yellow Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon dubius) is an introduced annual from Europe so I’m not surprised we found it growing in a sunny area reseeded by PennDOT several years ago.  It’s distinguished by the green bracts that show around the edge of the flower.  Fortunately we were there in the morning.  This flower closes in late afternoon.

None of the flowers had gone to seed yet so we didn’t see the reason this plant is called Goat’s Beard:  its huge seed head.  Click here for a look at it.

This is not the only “Goat’s Beard” and for a moment I was excited by the thought of another one, Aruncus dioicus, which hosts the rare Dusky Azure butterfly (Celastrina nigra).  Though similarly named they are unrelated and don’t even resemble each other.  Aruncus dioicus is a native in the Rose family and grows in shady and moist deciduous woods.

One of many goats’ beards, this one is yellow.

(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Jun 07 2014

What-Flowered? Valerian

Published by under Plants

Few flowered Valerian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

If you have Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, I can tell you this flower is not in the 1977 edition.

Back in the late 1990′s I bought a Newcomb’s Guide and learned how to key out wildflowers in Esther Allen’s class at the Rachel Carson Institute.  Pretty soon I thought I could key out almost anything.

Hah!  I found this flower blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve in early June of 1997.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Is it keyed as an irregular flower with opposite, divided leaves?   Or a 5-petaled flower?  No matter where I looked it wasn’t there.

Eventually at a Wisshickon Nature Club meeting I asked Esther about this mystery.  She immediately knew what I was describing.  “That isn’t in the book,” she said. “It’s Few-flowered Valerian, Valeriana pauciflora.”

I learned its common name from Esther’s translation of its scientific name — pauciflora means “few-flowered” — but on most plant databases it’s called Large-flowered Valerian.

Whatever the “flowered,” I drew it on page 286 of Newcomb’s in the section for 5-petaled flowers with opposite, divided leaves.

Look for it at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve in early June.


(photo by Dianme Machesney)

2 responses so far

Jun 06 2014

Peregrine News Around Town

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy at Pitt, no egg (photo from National Aviary falconcam)

Dorothy at Pitt, no egg (photo from National Aviary falconcam)


Peregrine activity at Pittsburgh’s two fledged nest sites has moved out of easy view but three locations still await the excitement of first flight.  Here’s the latest peregrine news in a long blog post.  Don’t miss the end as the best is always last.


Cathedral of Learning:

PGC's Tom Keller collects the unincubated egg at Pitt (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam)

PGC’s Tom Keller collects unincubated egg at Pitt (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam)

Yesterday Tom Keller of the PA Game Commission removed Dorothy and E2′s unincubated egg.  This was not to change Dorothy’s mind about standing at the nest but to test the egg.  Dorothy and E2 always visit the nest at this time of year and Dorothy loves to sunbathe there.

Some of you were worried that the peregrines were sad about the egg.  I don’t think so.  Not sad, just bored.

Meanwhile the infrared lamp that provides night vision has burned out so the nighttime video looks like “snow.”  We will replace the lamp before the next nesting season.


Gulf Tower:

Two fledglings exercise their wings on the Gulf Tower pyramid roof, 31 May 2014 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Two fledglings exercise their wings on the Gulf Tower pyramid roof, 31 May 2014 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Last Saturday at Fledge Watch we saw two juveniles on the Gulf Tower roof while the remaining three nestlings waited to launch.  By dawn on Wednesday only one female remained at the nest.  She looked as if she was ready to fly but she was cautious — a good trait in the urban environment where buildings, glass, and chimneys pose unnatural threats to survival.  She flew on Wednesday.
One juvenile at the Gulf Tower nest at dawn, 4 June 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

That same day at the U.S. Steel Tower, a friend of Steve Gosser’s sent him a mystery photograph, “What is this bird?”  A juvenile peregrine outside the office window!  The Gulf Tower “kids” are exploring Downtown.

Peregrine fledgling outside a window of the USSteel Tower, 4 June 2014 (photo by Anonymous)

Peregrine fledgling at U.S.Steel Tower, 4 June 2014 (photographer is anonymous)


Green Tree water tower:

Green Tree water tower, nesting territory of a pair of peregrines (photo by Shannon Thompson)

(photo by Shannon Thompson)

No peregrines have been confirmed at the Green Tree water tower for many weeks though several of us have looked while driving by. This site has been disappointing for two years in a row. If you do see a peregrine at the water tower, let me know.


Tarentum Bridge:

Peregrine "Hope" at the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Steve Gosser)

Mother peregrine, Hope, at the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Steve Gosser)

Though there were two fledglings at the Tarentum Bridge on May 29, only one has been seen since then.  Time will tell if the second one is merely hiding or gone missing. If you see one or both at Tarentum, let me know.


Westinghouse Bridge:

Westinghouse Bridge (photo by Joseph Elliott, Library of Congress)Tom Keller checked the Westinghouse nest on May 30 and found the female still on eggs.  He’ll check again in mid-June.


McKees Rocks Bridge:

McKees Rocks Bridge (photo by Robert Strovers on Wikimedia Commons)

McKees Rocks Bridge (photo by Robert Strovers on Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Old news, but good news…  On May 23, the PA Game Commission and PennDOT used the bucket truck to search for the peregrines’ nest at the McKees Rocks Bridge. Despite their efforts they were unable to locate the nest because the peregrines defended an inaccessible area. They confirmed that the female is unbanded while the male is still Bravo (V over H (blk/green)) from Cleveland’s Terminal Tower in 1999, son of Zenith and Bullet. He was first recorded at McKees Rocks in 2008. This year he’s 15 years old. His unbanded mate indicates that female peregrines from remote sites (or perhaps from man-made inaccessible sites) are finding homes in Pittsburgh.


Neville Island I-79 Bridge:

Magnum walks the I-beam toward her nest (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Magnum near her nest at Neville I-79 Bridge, 25 May 2014 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

At the Neville Island I-79 Bridge one female chick is getting ready to fledge.  She was 22 days old when banded on May 28 so she’ll probably fly June 14-19.  The nest location makes for an easy Fledge Watch so stay tuned for dates, times and directions. The Watch will probably begin on Friday, June 13th — perhaps sooner! Pittsburgh Falconuts, look for news from Anne Marie Bosnyak.


Monaca East Rochester Bridge:

Female peregrine at Monaca-East-Rochester Bridge, 2012 (photo by Steve Leiendecker)

Female peregrine at Monaca-East-Rochester Bridge, 2012 (photo by Steve Leiendecker)

Four chicks — three females and one male — were banded at the Monaca-East Rochester Bridge on May 21 at 18 days old.  They will probably fledge from June 11 to 16.  Start watching on June 10 (or earlier!) and you’ll see lots of activity beneath the bridge.  It’s easy to see the bridge from the community park on the Monaca downriver side.  Keep an eye out for the mother peregrine!  I hear she is very fierce.


(photo credits are in the captions except for: Westinghouse Bridge photo by Joseph Elliott, Library of Congress and Gulf Tower juvenile at the nest from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

20 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ