On Tuesday morning I got a phone call from University of Pittsburgh Facilities Management that made my heart fall to the floor.
Phil Hieber said that an injured baby falcon, possibly a peregrine, had been found at the Posvar Hall garage. The people who found it had put it in a box and wanted to know what to do.
My first thought was, “Oh no!” and then I remembered that people often mistake other birds of prey for young peregrines. And I reminded myself that I’d seen all three juveniles high on the Cathedral of Learning only two hours earlier and they had not been lower than the 30th floor for days.
I couldn’t afford to leave work Tuesday morning but if this was one of our “juvies” I would drop everything and run to Pitt. How could I tell it was a peregrine over the phone?
Was the bird banded? Phil said it was not so I knew it wasn’t one of our peregrines. (Whew!)
I urged them to call the ARL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Verona, 412-793-6900, and drive the bird over there. Then I emailed Jill Argall at the Wildlife Center to let her know an injured bird was on its way, and I asked her to let me know what it was.
Later that day Jill replied that it was a kestrel and it was doing fine.
Indeed it was a “baby” (small) falcon.
American kestrels are our smallest falcon so they do resemble peregrines. I know they’re in Oakland because I’ve seen them on campus. Last Saturday an adult male kestrel flew by the Cathedral of Learning and perched on the flagpole at Carnegie Museum.
I’m glad to know the kestrel is doing well. Sighs of relief all around!
(photo of a kestrel on a flagpole (though not at Pitt) by Brian Herman)
In April it seemed there were no peregrines at the bridge. Now there’s a family of four.
In late May, Rob Protz reported peregrines going in and out of the bridge structure near the New-Kensington-side pylon.
On June 1 the PA Game Commission confirmed two adults and one feathered chick too old to band.
On June 10 Amy Henrici and Pat McShea saw one fledgling.
Rob Protz confirmed two fledgings on the evening of June 11.
And on June 12 Marge Van Tassel photographed the family of four.
The peregrines were there all the time but the adults hid their nest for as long as possible until the demands of their two chicks gave them away. Now you can see them up close from the Tarentum side boat ramp.
Marge’s photo below shows what the area looks like without magnification. There are four peregrines on the near pylon (red arrows).
But they aren’t always that far away.
Marge and Rob both report that the father peregrine likes to hunt for pigeons in the box girder cubbyholes. Pigeons are plentiful on the landside span so “Papa” perches above the boat ramp area and waits for a tasty meal.
Here he is. I sure wish we could read his bands from this photo!
His “kids” beg from above while their mother, nicknamed Hope, watches nearby. (I’ve brightened this photo of one of the fledglings so you can see it better. The backlighting makes it tough!)
They’re a busy family right now and will be easy to see in the next few days.
If you’re in the area, stop by the Tarentum Bridge to watch peregrines.
To get there from Route 28 Expressway: The Tarentum Bridge carries PA 366 over the Allegheny River. From Rt 28 expressway, take the exit for “PA 366 East. New Kensington, Tarentum.” In 1 mile you’re in the heart of Tarentum at the bridge. Take the First Avenue exit (it’s the first off-ramp just as you start onto the bridge). First Avenue is under the bridge. Ta dah! You’re there.
(first photo (of the whole bridge) by Kate St. John, all other photos by Marge Van Tassel)
In June I can hear the locations of red-tailed hawks before I see them, not because the hawks are making any noise but because they’re surrounded by crowds of small birds who are shouting at them.
The hawks are huge, the songbirds small, so the birds of prey try to ignore their tormentors and find food — a mouse, a rabbit, an exposed fledgling songbird — but that’s exactly why they attract a crowd.
Tom Merriman found this red-tail in Mount Oliver with his back turned to the shouting. Did it work?
Probably not. It’s mighty hard to hunt by stealth when everyone knows you’re there. If the songbirds sustain their attack the hawk usually gives up and leaves without catching anything.
Peregrines attack bald eagles. Robins harass red-tails. Chickadees chase blue jays. All of them shout, “I don’t care how big you are. Stay away from my babies!”
In Schenley Park on Saturday I found this not-quite-fledgling Baltimore oriole perched low near the trail. I noticed him only because his father made a warning sound and leapt away from the area.
The father bird distracted me (on purpose) but I remembered where he’d made the sound and looked when he left. His baby was among the leaves, immobile and stoic. The little bird didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t make a sound. His survival depended on it.
When I saw him I stepped way back and used binoculars to view him. I knew not to stare.
Only a few days ago a young man had asked me about a nest of baby birds he’d found in a shrub in his yard. Day after day he had moved the leaves to look at the babies. Then one day the nest was knocked down and all the babies gone without a trace. He knew they were too young to fly and wondered where they went. Sadly the young man’s attention probably revealed the nest to a predator.
I didn’t want my attention to end this tiny oriole’s life so I quickly snapped his picture and hurried down the trail.
On my return trip three hours later I didn’t pause but a quick glance assured me his strategy was working. He was still perched, motionless. He looked like a leaf.
Yesterday at Fledge Watch we often saw all five peregrines at the same time: Dorothy, E2 and the three “kids.”
The youngsters practiced flying (above) and one even tried a prey exchange with Dad … which he missed and dropped to the ground. I missed it, too. I was at work.
In the evening Dorothy demonstrated how to kite from the lightning rod (below). She hung onto the perch and opened her wings in the steady wind, practicing balance and control without having to go anywhere. In a couple of days the fledglings will copy Mom and try this exercise.
Fledge Watch is no longer a scheduled event but you can find out when the falcon watchers will be at the Schenley Plaza tent by checking Pittsburgh Falconuts on Facebook for dates/times. Some of us will be there at mid-day today.
(top photo of juvenile flying by Peter Bell, bottom photo of Dorothy kiting on the lightning rod by Sharon Leadbitter)
This week it’s been “All peregrines, all the time” but falcons aren’t the only birds of prey nesting around Schenley Park.
Down the road on the other side of Phipps Conservatory there’s a red-tailed hawks’ nest with two young birds that soon will fly. If you’ve walked near the pond under the Panther Hollow Bridge you’ve probably heard their whistle-whine. “Come feed me!”
In late April they hadn’t hatched yet when I encountered Gregg Diskin with his camera in Schenley Park. He told me he planned to photograph the nestlings as they matured.
Because their stick-nest is deep it wasn’t possible to see them until they were tall enough to look over the rim. At first they were fluffy white, just like baby peregrines, but now they’ve grown feathers to match their parents’ coloration. In Gregg’s photo above they’re about halfway there.
At last they are full grown. When I saw them yesterday they were at the gawky stage – fully feathered with downy fluff on their heads — and they were whining loudly. Their voices echo under the bridge.
If you’d like to see them, walk the valley under the Panther Hollow Bridge and look up. But don’t pause on the path where there’s a lot of bird poop. You don’t want to be in “poot” range. (Click here to see.)
If you live on the coast you probably see bald eagles all the time but here in Pittsburgh it’s astonishing to see one in the city, especially in June, especially at the University of Pittsburgh a mile from the Monongahela River.
So imagine our amazement at the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch yesterday when an immature bald eagle appeared over Schenley Plaza riding a thermal.
Everybody had just focused their binoculars on the eagle and I was explaining why it didn’t have a white head and tail (they don’t turn white until the eagle matures at age four to five) when … Bang! A peregrine came out of nowhere and attacked him.
It was the eagle’s turn to be astonished. Dorothy zoomed up and dove again. Bang! “Stay away from my babies!”
The eagle tried to lose altitude to get out of her way but he maneuvered like a C-130 cargo plane versus Dorothy, the fighter jet.
She was relentless, fast and dangerous. The eagle flipped upside down to show his talons, hoping to fend her off, but he made a mistake. He kept flying toward the Cathedral of Learning where Dorothy’s three youngsters waited and watched.
Again and again she dove on him, driving him past the Cathedral of Learning toward Downtown. “Move it, buddy!”
Just before they disappeared she came close for good measure.
A minute passed.
Dorothy returned to the Cathedral of Learning victorious.
It was all in a day’s work for a mother peregrine falcon. Go, Dorothy!
Over the years I’ve watched peregrine parents use food to encourage their chicks to fly. Those who haven’t flown yet don’t get much to eat. Those who have flown get a big reward.
Yesterday at Fledge Watch Dorothy showed how this is done.
By 1:00pm two chicks had fledged, one chick had not. The fledgling on the 38th floor ledge (see arrow) needed a reward so Dorothy flew out, caught a meal, and made a big show of plucking it in mid-air for her “kids” to see.
The chick on the railing flapped his wings to get Dorothy’s attention. He thought it worked. She brought the prey to him at the nestrail.
But this chick wasn’t hungry enough and his newly fledged brother needed a reward. Dorothy picked up the prey and delivered it to Yellow on 38. Sharon Leadbitter recorded it on video here.
Yesterday’s Lesson For Young Peregrines: You Get Food If You Fly.
(arrow-photo and video by Sharon Leadbitter, all other photos by Peter Bell)
p.s. Here are a few of the many people who’ve come to Fledge Watch this week. Peter Bell (far left with camera), John English, Anne-Marie Bosnyak, Rob Protz, and Sharon Leadbitter (far right, capturing that video). Come join us at the Schenley Plaza tent. Click here for the schedule or follow @KStJBirdlog on Twitter or Kate StJohn on Facebook for Fledge Watch updates.