Archive for March, 2009

Mar 20 2009

Stonehenge at Home

Published by under Musings & News

Stonehenge (photo from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain)

Today at sunset the houses on my street will signal the equinox as they do every spring and fall.  If I'm at home I will pop out the back door to have a look.  It's quite impressive.  Our houses are like Stonehenge.

Built in approximately 2500 BC, the monoliths at the real Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England are positioned so that the rays of the setting sun at the winter solstice perfectly align with the entrance alley.  Archaeo-astronomers have even found alignments there for the equinox.

At home, I am impressed by a similar effect.  The houses on my block face west and are closely spaced - about five feet apart - and they line up so that the rays of sunset at the equinox fall directly between the buildings without touching the side walls.  At all other times of year sunset touches the buildings.  In winter it lights my home's south wall; in summer it lights the north wall.  At the equinox, the perfect alignment reminds me of Stonehenge.

I'm not sure the real estate developer intended this astronomical result when he laid out my street in 1905.  It's probably just a coincidence and there are probably many places where this sort of thing occurs, but no one notices.

Check around.  Maybe there's a Stonehenge in your neighborhood.

(photo of Stonehenge from Wikipedia, photo is in the public domain)

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Mar 20 2009

Four eggs at Gulf Tower

Four peregrine eggs at Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh (photo from National Aviary's falconcam)Tasha, the female peregrine falcon at Gulf Tower, got off her eggs long enough for us to see four yesterday.

Meanwhile, I was so busy writing Peregrine FAQs that I wasn't able to answer your questions on my last post until this morning.  Check the comments there and my FAQs for more peregrine information. 

(photo from the National Aviary's falconcam at Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh)

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Mar 18 2009

First Peregrine Egg at Pitt!

Female peregrine, Dorothy, with her first egg of 2009 at Univ of PittsburghDorothy sure surprised me!  All afternoon I thought she was spending a lot of time at her nest at the University of Pittsburgh, but it seemed way too early for her to lay an egg.  In her whole life, the earliest she ever laid was March 23.  I even commented on the previous blog that I thought she was just puttering. 

Surprise!  Here's her first egg of 2009.  I wish I'd been watching more closely and not gone with my own assumptions.  (Take a lesson, Kate!)

Click on her photo to watch her on the National Aviary's live webcam.

News update, March 21Dorothy's 2nd egg was first seen March 21 at dawn. 

News update, March 23Dorothy's 3rd egg was first seen March 23 at approximately 3:11pm.  If I have calculated correctly, she will lay her 4th egg in the early morning hours of March 25 (i.e. at night).


(photo from the National Aviary's falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 17 2009

How many eggs does Tasha have?

By now Tasha, the female peregrine falcon at Pittsburgh's Gulf Tower, should have three eggs. 

She laid her first egg on March 12th and we know she had two eggs by Saturday evening March 14th, but it is really hard to see the eggs on camera.

Anyone know how many eggs she has?

Click on the photo to go to the webcam and see for yourself.

News as of March 18:  There are now 3 eggs at Gulf Tower.


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

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Mar 16 2009


A Great-horned Owlet re-nested by Tri-State Bird & Rescue (photo by Kim Steininger)What do you do when a baby bird falls from the nest?  You - or the bird rescuers - put it back in the nest of course.

But what if the nest is too high to reach or it blew out of the tree?  The bird rescuers have an elegant solution.  It's called re-nesting.

Pictured here is a baby great-horned owl re-nested by Tri-State Bird Rescue of Newark, Delaware.  My friend Kim Steininger volunteers for them as a transporter and raptor re-nester.  She sent me her photo of a re-nested great-horned owl and told me how it's done.

When a raptor nestling is displaced, time is of the essence.  Many birds imprint on their caregivers.  If those caregivers are their parents, the babies learn how to communicate with their own species, what to eat and how to hunt.  If they imprint on humans, they never learn how to be a bird and die of starvation in the wild.  So it's important to return a nestling to its parents very quickly.

As soon as a displaced nestling is reported to TSBR they make sure of the location of its original nest.  After examining the bird to confirm it's in good physical condition, the rescue team goes into action.  Using bungie cords and a wicker basket, they secure the basket in a tree as close as possible to the original nest.  They line the basket with pine needles, then put the baby in a cloth bag and carefully raise it to the basket using a long rope as a pulley.  The baby is gently placed in its substitute nest.  Then everyone leaves the area, hoping the parents will find it and care for it.

If the area is left undisturbed, this usually doesn't take long.  The wicker basket doesn't matter to the parents.  Their baby does.  Kim tells me that last week her team re-nested a baby great-horned owl whose parents were so thrilled that they hooted a long duet.

The parents bring food to the baby in the basket and climb in the basket to shelter their nestling from the cold.  In cases where there are still babies in the original nest the parents divide their duties, one parent staying with the original nest, the other with the wicker basket.

In the end the baby grows up and walks the nest edge on its way to fledging.  You can see how they do this if you click on the picture.

Tri-State Bird Rescue cares for birds in Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania, southwestern New Jersey and eastern Maryland.  If you find an injured or displaced bird in that area, call TSBR at 302-737-9543.  If you're in the Pittsburgh area, call the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center at 412-793-6900.

(all photos by Kim Steininger)

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Mar 15 2009

Happiness is a Clear Sky

Published by under Hiking,Water and Shore

Ring-necked Ducks (photo by Kim Steininger)
This morning at dawn it was cloudy again - actually, I'd call it overcast - but I could see clear skies to the north and west so I figured we'd have a sunny day soon.  Two hours later it was still oppressively gray and the good weather was just as far away as before.

Since the edge of the clouds hadn't moved I decided it was time for me to move out from under them so I headed north to Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park.  Reports on Friday said there were tundra swans at Porter's Cove and though I didn't expect to find them two days later, I went there anyway.  Halfway to the park I passed the cloud boundary.  Clear skies ahead.

What a great day for a hike!  I headed into the woods, picking my way through the mud to the sound of spring peepers.  Deep in the woods I encountered a red-shouldered hawk calling and doing such obvious flight displays that I found its nest. 

The trail ended at a campground so I headed back.  To avoid the mud I tried a hilltop path that started off in the right direction but ended abruptly in a wall of brambles in the middle of nowhere.  Where am I now?  Maybe I'm lost.  I retraced my steps - over the mud - to Porter's Cove.

I was rewarded with a view of two beautiful white birds across the water.  Swans, but not tundras.  It was pair of trumpeters, one of whom was banded.  Trumpeter swans were reintroduced in Ohio so perhaps that's where these came from.  I hope they stay to nest.

As a further reward I sat by the lake in the sunshine and scanned the distant birds so hard to see through the heat shimmer.  Slowly I identified ring-necked ducks (pictured here), ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, a common merganser, a pair of American wigeons. 

At 5:00pm a huge flock of scaup rose from the lake, circled up and headed north, their bodies winking white in the clear blue sky.  Time to head home.

Back in Pittsburgh the clouds remained.  The western horizon showed a gleam of light as the sun set.  Only three minutes of sunshine at home today and then it was night.   So glad I went to the lake!

(photo of ring-necked ducks by Kim Steininger)

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Mar 15 2009

A Tribute to Matilda

Published by under Peregrines

Matilda completes a food exchange with her mother, Fancy (photo by Jeff Gilka)At the end of February I got a call from Wildlife Conservation Officer Beth Fife that a young peregrine was found critically injured in Connellsville.  Sadly, she had to be euthanized.  

Her bands indicated she was born in New York so the Game Commission reported her to NY Department of Environmental Conservation who emailed back that she was born in Syracuse last spring. 

George Marleau, who monitors the Syracuse peregrines, sent us news of her early life.   She was named Matilda for Matilda Joslyn Gates, a women's rights advocate from Fayetteville, a suburb of Syracuse.  He also enclosed two photos, one of which is shown here.

George wrote:

"I received the sad news from Barbara Loucks this morning that Matilda has been euthanized.  She was found Thursday, Feb. 26 in Connellsville, PA.  Her left ulna was broken in 3 places and she was blind in the left eye and had minimal sight in the right.  Given the extent of her injuries, she was put to sleep.  DEC is still trying to learn how she came to be injured.  The band number on her legs confirmed her identity.  She still had the blue electrical tape covering the USFWS band on her right leg which had to be removed to read the number on it.  While it is sad to hear of her departure under these circumstances, it is encouraging to note that she had made it as far as she did.  Her two brothers, Sirako and Maestro, and her sister Jean are still out there somewhere.  Hopefully we'll hear better news about them someday.
"Attached is a photo that Jeff Gilka took of Matilda taking food from her mother, Fancy.  The photo was taken in front of City Hall on July 8, 2008.  The second photo was taken at the nest box on June 20, 2008 when we returned Jean to the box after rescuing her from the State Tower Building.  Matilda was there at the box waiting her turn to fledge.
"As far as I know, we still have two Syracuse Peregrine Falcons from the 2005 group, Juliet and Thunder, who may be in the Toronto, Canada area, and Cade, from the 2006 group is still in Cleveland.  The only previous confirmed loss was Sojourner from the 2005 four."


While it's sad that Matilda died, I'm encouraged to learn how far she travelled and to meet the people who care about her.  I am impressed that she came here from Syracuse.  Thank you, George, for telling us Matilda's story.  

(photo of Matilda and her mother Fancy, by Jeff Gilka)

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Mar 13 2009

Coltsfoot or What to Look For in Late March

Published by under Phenology

Coltsfoot in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Coltsfoot in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring is really kicking in at last!  Here's a flower you can expect to see soon, a non-native species that arrived with European settlers, perhaps for use as a cough suppressant.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one of the earliest flowers to bloom.  It grows in waste places so you'll see it by the side of the road.

People sometimes mistake coltsfoot for dandelion but it blooms when no leaves are apparent. Its stems have tiny leaf bracts but its big basal leaves don't appear until the flower is gone.  They're shaped like a colt's footprint, hence the name "colts' foot."

There will be lots of other signs of spring in the next two weeks.  Chuck Tague listed many of them in his late March phenology.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Ducks, ducks and more ducks!  Look for these migrants on local lakes.
  • More songbirds will arrive including tree swallows, eastern phoebes, eastern meadowlarks and eastern bluebirds.
  • Watch for blooming forsythia, snow trillium, harbinger of spring, violets, and of course coltsfoot.
  • Frogs are singing and mating.  I heard spring peepers at Middle Creek last weekend.   And if you hear ducks quacking from the ground in a swampy area, it could well be wood frogs.  Years ago I was fooled by wood frogs at Friendship Hill as I searched and searched an empty wet field for ducks.  None.  Eventually it dawned on me.  Wood frogs!
  • Skunks and groundhogs are coming out of their winter dens and dining along the grassy roadside edges.  Watch out when you drive!  They move slowly.
  • American woodcocks (also called timberdoodles) "peent" and twitter in their aerial mating dance.  I heard one very close to my car before dawn at Middle Creek but could not see it.   Here's what I heard.
  • Peregrine nesting season is in full swing and I will do my best not to make this blog into "All Peregrines All the Time."  Oh, it will be hard!

Look for signs of spring in your neighborhood and let me know what you find.


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

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Mar 12 2009

The Pittsburgh Falconcams Are Up!

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, gazes at the webcam at Univ of PittsburghThe National Aviary's webcams are "live" at the peregrine falcon nests in Pittsburgh!

This year the big innovation is streaming video at the Gulf Tower nest in downtown Pittsburgh, home of Tasha 2 and Louie.  Watch to see Tasha lay her first egg sometime between March 10 and March 17.

At the University of Pittsburgh nest, home of Dorothy and E2, the camera is zoomed in so you can easily see egg laying and hatching.  When the nestlings start to move the camera will pull back for the rest of the season so you can see all the action.

Watch for Dorothy's first egg between March 23 and March 29.  For an added treat, click on the photo above to see a slideshow of her bowing at the nest with her mate E2.

Both falconcams are managed by the Department of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary.  Thanks to Dr. Todd Katzner for making it possible!


Those links again are:  The Gulf Tower nest and The University of Pittsburgh nest.

News updates!  Tasha laid her first egg on March 12 at about 2:30pm, second egg on March 14th.


(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 12 2009

Signs of Spring: Crocuses

Crocuses blooming at Schenley Plaza, March 11, 2009 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crocuses blooming at Schenley Plaza, March 11, 2009.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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