Jul 24 2014

TBT: V is for Vulture

Published by under Birds of Prey

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Now that the Hays bald eagles have flown from the nest, many of us watch the skies for a glimpse of them.

Did you know there’s another large raptor in Pittsburgh that can fool you into thinking it’s an eagle?

Learn how to identify soaring turkey vultures.  Believe it or not they’re more common here than eagles.  Click to read: V is for Vulture.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jul 23 2014

Coming Soon?

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Eurasian collared-dove (photo by Chuck Tague)

PABIRDS was a-buzz this month about a non-native species that’s rapidly expanding across North America.  Though not yet established in Pennsylvania this bird has been seen in New York City.   Will it get here soon?

Originally native to India, the Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is non-migratory but habitually disperses northwest when its population expands.  It began its conquest of North America by human accident when a breeder released his flock of 50 birds in the mid 1970s after some escaped during a burglary in New Providence, Bahamas.  As the population expanded in the Bahamas the doves looked northwest and found … Florida!  180 miles of ocean was not a barrier.  Eurasian collared-doves were found nesting south of Miami in 1982.

By now the Eurasian collared-dove is resident from Florida to Seattle, from southwestern Canada to northeastern Mexico.  The Northeast is the only chunk of the continent they haven’t conquered yet.  Considering that they prefer urban and suburban settings with bird feeders and trees, it’s only a matter for time before they completely cover the U.S.

How do you recognize a Eurasian collared-dove?  They’re similar to mourning doves, pictured below, but bulkier with a black collar, a squared-off tail and, unlike escaped turtledoves, gray undertail vent feathers.  Here’s a photo of a Eurasian collared-dove in flight and here’s a mourning dove.  Notice the difference in tail shape.  The collared-dove’s three-coo song is different too.
Mourning dove (photo by Chuck Tague)

Some worry that Eurasian collared-doves will displace mourning doves but it doesn’t seem to be the case — at least in Florida where Cornell Lab’s Project Feederwatch studied both species in 2011.  Careful counts revealed that “Contrary to expectations researchers found that the abundance of native dove species was generally greater at sites with collared-doves than at sites without collared-doves.” Click here to read more.

What does the future hold for us?  Eurasian collared-doves are resident to the south and west.  They’re working their way up the coast and have made it to the Outer Banks of North Caorlina.  This month Vern Gauthier saw a pair in Lancaster County, PA.  They’ve been spotted in New York City.

Are they coming soon to Pittsburgh?  We should start watching!


(photos by Chuck Tague … who lives in Florida where Eurasian collared-doves are well established)

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Jul 22 2014

You Can See Her Egg!

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Gravid female northern cardinal, held for banding by Bob Mulvihill (photo by Kate St. John)

We learned a lot about bird anatomy, at the Neighborhood Nestwatch banding on Saturday.  Did you know that …

  • When you blow on the belly feathers of a songbird during the breeding season you see bare skin underneath.  This is the brood patch for incubating eggs and keeping nestlings warm.
  • Songbirds have translucent skin.  The red color is muscle under the skin, yellow is stored fat.
  • You can see the egg under the skin of a “pregnant” bird!

Even before he checked her belly, Bob Mulvihill could tell this female northern cardinal was gravid when he held her.   When he blew on her belly feathers we saw the white oval of the egg near her tail, circled below.

Gravid female northern cardinal, egg under skin (photo by Kate St. John)

This lady must have come out for breakfast before laying her egg and was delayed by the mist nets near the feeders.  She needed to get back to her nest soon(!) so Bob quickly banded, weighed and released her.  She immediately flew to the big maple and disappeared.

She weighed about 47 grams — 5+ grams heavier than normal because she was carrying the egg.  That’s a significant load to carry.

I hope she deposited it safely and that her morning turned out better than it began.  :o


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 21 2014

Bird Banding At Marcy’s

Hey! says this female northern cardinal on banding day (photo by Kate St. John)

Yo! says this wet northern cardinal.  She was about to be banded at Marcy Cunkelman’s last Saturday.

After a week of gorgeous weather July 19 brought all day rain.  At 7:00am Bob Mulvihill (lead bander), Matt Webb, Amy Feinstein and Becca Ralston were all set up for the National Aviary’s Neighborhood Nestwatch bird banding.  Here they are in a photo from Marcy. It was only drizzling at that point.

Banding Day at Marcy Cunkelman's, 19 July 2014, Amy, Matt, Bob, Becca (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

I arrived around 7:30am and soon there were 14 of us under the shelters.  The birds were wet, we were wet, but we were all well fed at Marcy’s delicious buffet.   During downpours we closed the nets and watched the weather radar on our cellphones.

The target species were eight classic backyard birds — robin, cardinal, mockingbird, catbird, chickadee, song sparrow, Carolina wren, house wren — but Marcy’s yard had many more than that.

Highlights included this immature male northern cardinal. He’s being given something to bite so he’ll stop complaining.  This is safe to do with immature cardinals because they don’t have the gripping power of adults.  His bite is a tight pinch but not painful — I know from experience.  Look closely at the top of his beak and you’ll see a bulge on his upper mandible.  That’s avian pox, a common contagious ailment among birds. (Humans are not at risk.)  Bob said it looked like his pox was healing and would fall off.

Immature male northern cardinal is distracted by biting someone's finger (photo by Kate St. John)


Our Best Bird!   This beautiful male scarlet tanager was a big surprise because the nets were set up by the bird feeders and scarlet tanagers aren’t “feeder” birds.  They normally stay high in the trees eating fruit but the rain brought him lower, trying to stay dry.  (He was soaked just like we were.)  He was probably caught when he tried for the fruit on Marcy’s viburnum shrubs near the feeders.

Best bird -- scarlet tanager -- Banding Day at Marcy's, 19 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


Red-eyed vireos were caught for similar reasons.  Here are two males showing off their red eyes.

Two male red-eyed vireos (photo by Kate St. John)

Becca stroked the birds to keep them calm.  This red-eyed vireo responded by bending over backwards.  Who knew they could do this!

The red-eyed vireo has a flexible neck (photo by Kate St. John)


Here Marcy holds a red-eyed vireo just before she releases it.  We were all as wet as the birds but happy to be with them.

Marcy Cunkelman, ready to release a banded red-eyed vireo, 19 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


The tally for the day was 67 birds.  It was a great day for bird lovers despite the rain.

Thanks to all!


(Banders’ photo by Marcy Cunkelman.  All other photos by Kate St John)

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Jul 20 2014

The Helleborine

Published by under Plants

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Dick Nugent pointed out — and I’ve noticed too — that this is a particularly good year for Helleborine orchids in western Pennsylvania.

Dick wrote:

This year we have a Helleborine Orchid blooming in our yard. It magically appeared in one of our flower beds. Helleborine is one of the most common orchids in PA. It is an alien species and may be slightly invasive (I have trouble thinking of an orchid as being invasive)[*].  I have been finding them all over western PA in a wide variety of habitats. They are blooming right now and frequently grow on the shoulder of roads and trails.  Like many orchids, I suspect that this one has tiny seeds which are spread by the wind. It is a small flower with many flowers on one stalk. Through a magnifying glass the flower is really pretty.

Dianne Machesney photographed these at McConnell’s Mill State Park.  Here’s a close-up of the flower.

Helleborine Orchid, McConnell's Mill (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The common name got me wondering… Is “Helleborine” a reference to the Greeks as in “Hellenic?”  No.  The name means “like Hellebore,”  a European genus in the buttercup family.  The word began as “ellebore” and acquired a leading H.  Though it doesn’t refer to the Greeks, both Hellebore and Helleborine are foreign plants to North America.

I’m always thrilled to see an orchid, even if it’s an alien.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

[*]  p.s. The species at this link Epipactis helleborine is invasive.

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Jul 19 2014


Published by under Plants

Thimbleweed, Armstrong County, 12 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

There aren’t many flowers that bloom in the woods in the summer, but you might find this one.

Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) stands 2-3 feet tall in the sun-splashed forest.  The flower has an elongated central disk surrounded by large white petals and is noticeable because it’s alone on a long stalk above the leaves.

When the flower is fertilized, the petals fall off and the central disk becomes a seed pod.  It looks like a thimble, hence the name.

I found this one blooming at the Roaring Run Watershed in Armstrong County last weekend.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 18 2014

Cute Gray Kits

Published by under Mammals

Gray fox kits, Allegheny County, June 2014 (image from Tana A's video)

Last month when I wrote about red fox kits in Calgary, Tana left a comment that she had gray fox kits in her suburban backyard north of Pittsburgh!  Her discovery is especially cool because gray foxes are said to be less tolerant of civilization than red ones.

Filming from her upstairs window, Tana captured the gray fox family on video on June 21.  The screenshot above shows only four but click on it to watch the entire 16 minutes and you’ll see seven!  Don’t forget to read her description below the video for the background story.

Meanwhile here are some cool facts about gray foxes:

  • Unlike the red fox, which was imported around 1750 for the fox hunt sport, the gray fox is an expert at climbing trees.  It easily shinnies up trees and nimbly jumps from branch to branch.
  • Gray foxes eat the same foods as red foxes but make their home in deciduous forests with rocky, brushy terrain while the red fox prefers old fields and rolling farmland.
  • Gray foxes are monogamous and pair for life.  Both parents raise the family of 4-6 kits during the spring and summer.  (Seven is a big litter!)
  • The family group stays together until the juveniles disperse in late fall. The youngsters may later make their home as much as 52 miles away from their birthplace.
  • Predators of the gray fox include humans (people hunt them), great horned owls, domestic dogs and sometimes coyotes. Unfortunately vehicles kill them, too.

Tana was lucky to see the kits.  Within days their parents taught them to conceal themselves as they move about.  She only gets an occasional glimpse at dusk or hears a parent make a warning bark.

What a privilege to see them.  So cute!


(screenshot from video by Tana on YouTube)

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Jul 17 2014

TBT: New Tenants?

Pigeon at the Pitt nest box, 21 June 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT), a 2014 replay of something that’s happened only three other times since 2008…

Word must have gotten out that the Pitt peregrine nestbox wasn’t used much this spring. Some surprising new tenants stopped by last month.

On June 21 a pair of pigeons inspected the site for three hours.

“Wow, honey!  Look at this perfect location.  I’ve heard it’s dangerous up here but this area looks completely safe.  What a cool place to nest.  We could move in immediately!”

Pigeons at the Pitt peregrine nest, 21 June 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

After three hours they began to wonder… “Did you hear something? I have a creepy feeling we’re in danger.”

Cathedral of Learning pigeons on alert (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)


The pigeons never moved in.  ;)


Click here for a story about pigeon nest-shoppers in 2008.


(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

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Jul 16 2014

Bridge Gone, But Not Its Peregrines

Published by under Peregrines

I-90 Inner Loop Bridge demolished in Cleveland, Ohio, 12 July 2014 (screenshot from cleveland.com video)

(screenshot from cleveland.com)


Perhaps you saw the news Dick Rhoton sent me of the I-90 Inner Belt Bridge demolition in Cleveland last Saturday, but you might not have realized its significance to birds.

The bridge is gone, but not its peregrines.

The old span, built in 1959, was home to a pair of peregrines for all their productive years but was also rusty, corroded and becoming dangerous.  Pictured below on a foggy day in a 2012 by Chad+Chris Saladin, you can see a pier of the new I-90 bridge being built to its right.   The new span is finished now, carrying traffic in both directions while it waits for the eastbound lanes to go up where the old bridge stood.

Underside of old I-90 Inner Loop span in 2012 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Though a nest box was provided on the new span, Newt and Bolt chose the old bridge as usual this year and raised one juvenile who fledged at the end of June — all this despite the fact that demolition contractors were taking apart the bridge around them.   By the time of the final implosion, their home was a gap-toothed structure with four of its five spans already gone.

Here’s a photo of the nest site in 2012 by Chad+Chris Saladin.  Look at the condition of that bridge!  Traffic was still using the bridge when this picture was taken.

Peregrine nest at old I-90 Inner Loop span, 2012 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Everyone worked together to make sure the peregrines were safe.  As demolition day approached, Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW), Ohio Dept of Transportation(ODOT) and the demolition contractor discussed the peregrines’ status and decided that with two weeks of flight experience the juvenile would be able to get out of the way.  The remaining danger was that the birds might be perched on the old structure during the explosion so the contractor scheduled a warning blast to tell the birds to evacuate.

Saturday morning Laurie and Jenny from DOW were stationed with binoculars and spotting scope to watch for the peregrines.  The warning blast went off five seconds ahead of the main blast and then ….  BOOM!  Click here or on the screenshot at top to watch the bridge collapse.

After the dust cleared at least two, maybe all three peregrines, were found.  As Chris Saladin wrote:

“I’m thrilled to report that the juvie and at least one adult were spotted by DOW’s Laurie and Jenny following the explosion of the remaining parts of the dismantled old I-90 Bridge this morning!! We would assume that both adults are probably okay, since two of the three peregrines were spotted (and if the juvie “sensed” her need to leave the structure one would assume that each adult would have an even more developed sense of danger and would know to depart). … [Laurie] let us know that after the “dust cleared” she and Jenny were able to see the juvie through the spotting scope and then saw an adult fly by the juvie. Additionally, Tom from ODOT let Laurie know that as DOW was moving to a different angle for viewing he saw one adult plucking prey on a top beam of the fallen span, about 30 feet off the ground!”

We hope Newt and Bolt will find the nest box on the new bridge just as inviting as the old one.  It will be impossible to “go home” next spring.

(top photo is a screenshot from cleveland.com.  Click on it to read the whole story.  Remaining two photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)

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Jul 15 2014


Published by under Songbirds

Downy woodpecker "teenager" (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Songbirds grow up so fast that within days of fledging they aren’t babies anymore.

Suddenly they are teenagers — able to find their own food, almost independent of their parents, a little cocky and a little unsure of the world.

Marcy Cunkelman captured these photos of teenage woodpeckers in her garden.

Above, a young downy woodpecker looks like an adult except for the colors on his head.  He fledged with a splash of red on top but that will soon be replaced with black feathers and the red will move to his nape.  Meanwhile he shows off an intricate black-and-white pattern on his forehead as he looks calmly at the camera.

Below, a young red-bellied woodpecker has subtle colors on his face and head with dull gray cheeks and faint orange on his nape. He looks startled. “What is a camera?  Is it dangerous?”

"Teenage" red-bellied woopecker (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Perhaps your backyard has more starlings than woodpeckers.  (Mine does.)  Click here to see what teenage starlings look like.


(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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