Aug 11 2014

Industrial Nesting

Juvenile opsrey flying at Duquesne, PA (photo by Dana Nesiti)

This year intrepid birders reported osprey nests in some unlikely places along Pittsburgh’s rivers.

Anne Marie Bosnyak monitored a nest near Neville Chemical on the Ohio River and last week Dana Nesiti followed up on a lead about a nest at the Union railyard in Duquesne.

On Thursday Dana went exploring and found the osprey nest atop an old power tower. There were three full grown youngsters in it.  Look at the cables draped beneath the sticks. Talk about industrial!

, Duquesne, August 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Though his photos don’t show it, this nest is in an ugly spot that’s off-limits to all but railroad employees.  To ospreys the lack of humans is just what they had in mind.

There are other advantages, too.  Look east of Kennywood on Google Earth and you’ll see the railyard is on the Monongahela River near the Braddock Locks and Dam. The dam provides a variety of fishing opportunities in a very compressed space. There are lake-like conditions upstream, very active fish feeding in the turbulence below the dam, and fish resting in the quiet pools downstream.  It’s a great spot for “fish hawks.”


When Dana arrived on Thursday he saw three juveniles in the nest but two of them could already fly.  They put on a show.

Osprey at Duquesne, August 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

…and flew by their nest-bound sibling.

Osprey at nest, Aug 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)


On Friday, Dana returned to the site and was lucky to see the last of the three juveniles make his first flight.  Here he goes!


Osprey flying for the first time, 8 Aug 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)


Osprey fledging, 8 Aug 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)


Osprey fledges, 8 Aug 2014 (photo by Dana Nesiti)



The two Neville Island ospreys fledged, too.  It’s been a successful year for “industrial” ospreys.


(photos by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. The Neville Island nest site is very close to the Emsworth Lock and Dam.  I see a pattern here.

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Aug 10 2014

Not a Hummingbird

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Hummingbird moth at wild bergamot (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s a moth that’s the same size and color as a hummingbird and it uses the same hovering technique.

The hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) even migrates — another bird-like trait.

Steve Gosser captured this moth sipping wild bergamot.

When you glance at your garden look carefully.  That hummingbird might be a moth.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 09 2014

August Nectar

Honeybee at blue vervain, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

August flowers have broken the nectar dearth.

This honeybee is feeding at blue vervain (Verbena hastata) in Schenley Park.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 08 2014

Barnacles Have Arms

Published by under Water and Shore

Barnacles in a Maine tidal pool (photo by Kate St. John)

August is beach month, so if you’re heading for the ocean here’s something to look for while you’re there.

Stop by a pier, check out a jetty or gaze into rocky tidal pools to find submerged barnacles.

When you find them watch carefully and you’ll see how they feed.  From the “mouth” at the top of the shell they extend their cirri to comb the water for food.

Click on the screenshot above to watch a quick movie of Semibalanus balanoides barnacles feeding in Greenland’s clear seawater.  This species is the only intertidal barnacle you’ll find on North America’s north-east coast.  It occurs as far south as Cape Hatteras.

Check out the barnacles.  They have “arms” and they’re waving.


(barnacles photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 07 2014

Fog Webs

Spider silk revealed by fog (photo by Kate St. John)

Monday morning’s thick fog held some surprises:  Pitt’s 40-story Cathedral of Learning “disappeared” yet all the spider webs stood out.

In Schenley Park diaphanous silk connected the flowers.  Where is the spider who made this?  Will he find the aphids sheltering under the flower head?

On the ground I found many small white “area rugs” like this one.

Funnel spider web (photo by Kate St. John)

These are funnel spider webs.  Mostly flat, they slope inward to a single hole.

Here’s a closeup of the hole beneath that horizontal blade of grass.

Funnel hole of the funnel spider web (photo by Kate St. John)

An even closer look reveals the funnel spider lurking inside.  The slightest movement on his “carpet” brings him out in a flash to capture his prey.

Funnel spider in his web (photo by Kate St. John)

I tried to make him emerge by touching the web but he knows the difference between a human touch and the struggling movements of prey.  He won’t come out for me.

And yes, it’s Throw Back Thursday.  Here’s a 2008 article with a lot more information on funnel spiders.  Read What’s This Cloud on the Ground?


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 06 2014

The Better To Eat With, My Dear

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Immature red-bellied woodpecker shows his bony tongue (photo by Kate St.John)

During the Neighborhood Nestwatch banding at Marcy Cunkelman’s last month I learned an amazing thing about the red-bellied woodpecker.  The tip of his tongue looks like a spear.

We saw this firsthand when an immature red-bellied shouted and displayed his tongue while he waited to be banded.

Here’s a closer look.  You can see that his tongue is pointed and bony and coated with inward-facing barbs.

Red-bellied woodpecker has a bony tongue (photo by Kate St. John)

Not only is the tip of his tongue very specialized, but the entire tongue is extra long and easy to maneuver.  Under his skin, his tongue begins in front of his eyes and wraps over his skull to emerge in his mouth. This gives it enough slack that he can stick it out 1 to 1.5 inches beyond his bill.

This long maneuverable spear allows him to capture bugs and larvae in deep crevices.  He hammers the crevice, sticks out his tongue, maneuvers it inside the crack and stabs his prey.  If he doesn’t completely spear it, no problem.  He has specialized mucus that makes his tongue sticky.

Click here to see an illustration and photo of the red-bellied’s amazing tongue.

The better to eat with, my dear.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 05 2014

The Rough Is For The Birds

Published by under Schenley Park

Schenley Park Golf Course, Hole 14, the rough is for birds (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Friday The Allegheny Front featured an article on the Audubon certification of Schenley Park’s golf course.  I’ve watched this transformation and can attest that the program has made a huge difference for birds.

The 18-hole Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park is more than 100 years old and has seen its ups and downs.  Years ago it was not well maintained, though certainly well mowed.  Then in 2007 First Tee of Pittsburgh took over golf course management and things really started looking up.

For starters, First Tee decided to enroll the course in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf that focuses on habitat management, chemical reduction, water conservation, outreach and education to improve habitat for birds.  It was a cooperative effort with many partners and volunteers which culminated in their first certification award in 2012.  This year the course was re-certified.

The project’s design team created bird friendly places and saved the golf course lots of mowing because the roughs are really rough.  Planted with native species they are intentional habitats for birds.

Shown above and below is the 14th hole, bordered on the left by thick vegetation and two bluebird boxes.  Front and center is a thick swath of tall grass.  No need for a sand trap.

Here’s a view looking at the hole over the left-side rough.

Schenley Park Golf Course, the rough is rough (photo by Kate St. John)


Birds really love the golf course, now.  Two years ago red-winged blackbirds returned to Schenley for the first time in my memory.  This swath of cattails, in the path of Holes #8 and #9, was claimed by several song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds this spring.
Schenley Golf Course cattail hazard (photo by Kate St. John)

This month American goldfinches are feasting on the native thistle and using the fluff to line their nests.  And it’s no accident that rusty blackbirds made a stopover at the golf course during migration last April.

The rough is really for the birds.

Click here to read more about the golf course’s success and listen to the podcast at The Allegheny Front.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 04 2014

Taking Flight in Pittsburgh

Published by under Books & Events

Green-winged macaw at the National Aviary (photo courtesy of the National Aviary)

I was sitting outdoors on Friday afternoon when a green-winged macaw flew over my head, then a scarlet and three hyacinth macaws. They circled over West Park, showing off their stunning colors and long streaming tails then landed nearby so I could see them up close.  What a thrill!

Ever since I saw Parrot Confidential on WQED I’ve wanted to see large parrots fly free.  My dream came true at the Taking Flight show at the National Aviary on Friday.

Twice a day during the summer the macaws join their bird colleagues in the rose garden to show off what birds do best.  They fly!

Parrots aren’t the only stars.  There are so many birds in the show that I can’t name them all, but I can tell you that the eagle owl’s “stealth mode” was truly impressive when Dumbledore narrowly cleared the rose garden wall and flew low over our heads.

The macaws are my favorites and they clearly had fun. They flew above the trees and then all three hyacinths landed on the perch for their reward.  With their clown-like faces they hammed it up for the cameras, then flew back to their indoor home.

Hyacinth macaws at the Taking Flight show at the National Aviary (photo by Kate St. John)

Later inside the Aviary I saw the macaws at their usual perches, preening and napping.  Mission accomplished, they were taking a break before the next excitement.  Very cool!

Summer will be over soon so don’t miss your chance to see these awesome birds in flight.  Taking Flight runs daily at the National Aviary at 11:00am and 2:00pm — weather permitting — through Labor Day, September 1.

Click here for information and directions.


(green-winged macaw photo courtesy of the National Aviary. Hyacinth macaws by Kate St. John)

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Aug 03 2014

With A Little Help From My Friends

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Butterfly on butterfly weed (photo by Kate St. John)

Last July I took this photo of a butterfly at the Montour Trail near Pittsburgh but even after searching I could not identify it.

I got close.  I guessed it was a crescent, maybe a northern crescent, but forgot to look up the species’ range.  Uh oh!  Range is important when identifying birds and even more important with butterflies.  Northern crescents are unlikely in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Field marks are important, too, but I didn’t have all of them.  My photo shows the upper side but the underside of a butterfly often holds the deciding field mark.

Puzzled, I emailed my butterfly friends Chuck Tague and Monica Miller.

Chuck told me that pearl and northern crescents look a lot alike but the location indicates this is a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), not a northern.  Monica added that “My understanding is you really can only reliably tell them apart upon dissection and the northerns would only be found in places north of us like Buzzard Swamp.”

Wow.  These butterflies are as hard to suss apart as chickadees!  I’m glad I didn’t find this one in their overlapping range.

I’ve got quite a lot to learn about butterflies.  In the meantime I’m getting by with a little help from my friends.

Thank you, Chuck & Monica!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 02 2014

Hummer Time

Published by under Songbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Did you notice that the hummingbirds “disappeared” in June?  And that they came back in July?

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds really didn’t go anywhere.  They were busy nesting and gathering insects to feed their young.  Since they don’t feed nectar to their babies there was little reason to visit hummingbird feeders.

But now the “kids” are grown and the hummingbird population has surged.  Mom, Dad and the kids are jostling for space at the feeders. Males perch high on dead snags to protect their nectar kingdoms.  Steve Gosser captured this beautiful male on his way to a feast.

Once again it’s Hummer Time!


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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