Monthly Archives: March 2009

Immediately Airborne

E2 goes airborne as he leaves the nest (photo from National Aviary webcam)This afternoon I found this photo in the webcam archives from the University of Pittsburgh peregrine nest.  I love the action in this shot!

Though I know E2 (the adult male peregrine) is the first to leave the nest after he and his mate Dorothy bow together, I never see him actually doing it.  Finally a webcam shot captured the action. 

Here you see Dorothy still bowing in the back and E2 just leaving.  He's so fast he's a blur.  Immediately airborne!


(photo from the National Aviary webcam)

p.s. Sorry the Aviary falconcam website isn't up yet.  I'll let you know when they're live.

Love Conquers All

Lesser black-backed gull, F05 (photo by Chuck Tague)Pictured here is another Life Bird I saw in Florida last month - a lesser black-backed gull.  He is in fact my exact Life Bird because I remember his green band: F05.

Lesser black-backed gulls breed in Iceland, Greenland, and Western Europe and winter on both sides of the Atlantic as far as Africa and the Gulf of Mexico.  They are basically coastal birds though a few wander down the St. Lawrence River to Lake Erie each winter.

This particular gull is different, and it’s why he has a green band.  He winters on the Florida coast where we expect him to be, but he doesn’t go back to Europe to breed.  He’s only the second lesser black-backed gull ever to nest in the United States.  Even more amazing is his choice of a mate.  She’s a herring gull and their babies are hybrids.

When I read F05’s story I’ll admit the scientific side of my mind shut off and romance took over. 

Can a young European find love in an American mixed marriage?  Apparently so. 

Though this next bit is totally fictional, imagine if you will….

Born in Iceland our young hero joins his cohorts as winter approaches, leaving for points south and west.  He ends up on the coast of Florida and for three years he spends his winters lounging and having a good time.  As he approaches his fourth birthday he matures and starts to think about finding a mate.

One day at the Volusia County dump he meets her.  She looks a little different - much paler - but she says he’s just her type: tall, dark and handsome. 

“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Appledore,” she replies.
“Wow,” he says, “It sounds just like a place in Harry Potter.  I’d love to see it.”

They spend more time together and before you know it they fall in love.  He notices her courtship customs are similar to his but she doesn’t throw her head back as far during the “long call.”  There are other little differences but it doesn’t matter.  They’re in love.

He follows her home to Appledore Island, Maine.  That was three years ago.  They’ve nested successfully and raised three kids since 2007.  Though humans watch them all the time and band the babies, it’s a good life. 

“No complaints,” he says.  “She’s the best.”

....No more fiction!...  

For their real - and scientific - story and for pictures of F05, his mate and offspring, click here.

(photo by Chuck Tague, who also blogged about this gull)

How many?

Snow Geese take off from Middle Creek (photo by Kim Steininger)
Look closely.  These aren't just random black and white patterns.  These are snow geese taking flight. 

Kim Steininger took this photo at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area at the peak of spring migration.  There were probably 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese there that day.

This weekend I've rolled the dice and driven five hours to Kleinfeltersville, PA hoping to see the same thing.  On Friday the snow goose count was only 25,000 but the numbers change every day in early March.  There's been a south wind, and I'm hoping there'll be a lot of birds when I get there. 

A flock of 100,000 birds of any kind is exciting and with snow geese it's truly exhilarating.  I always arrive before dawn, walk to Willow Point and wait.  The geese murmur in the dark.  Slowly the sun rises and the birds prepare to leave.  If I'm lucky, a bald eagle will fly by and the geese will rise up all at once. 

That must have been the situation when Kim took this picture.  The geese on the ground are craning their necks, looking worried.  The rest are jumping into the sky.  It's a wonder that amidst all the flapping and honking they don't knock each other out - but they don't. 

I love to watch the chaos and patterns of snow geese.  I just have to be lucky with my timing and be there when they are.

(photo by Kim Steininger)


For months the crows have been loud and obnoxious while red-tailed hawks have been present but not particularly noticeable.  This month they switch roles because it's courtship time.

Birds' courtship rituals often exaggerate what the species does best.  To attract a mate, some species sing or dance, others display their feathers.  Birds of prey show off their flight skills.

That's why we're seeing a lot of red-tailed hawks lately.  In winter they don't care to be noticed but now they're conspicuous, soaring to claim territory, chasing each other in powerful flight displays.

Mated pairs soar high together with wings outstretched.  You might hear them make sharp, shrill "chirps" or see them drop their legs to show their talons.  Watch for the male to do his Sky Dance in which he folds his wings and dives down, then zooms up in undulating flight like a woodpecker.  If his lady is in an amorous mood she'll head for a perch near the nest and wait for him.  When he makes a beeline to join her, mating follows.

And they are loud.  During territorial disputes red-tailed hawks soar with exaggerated wingbeats and scream in a sound so blood-curdling that foley editors sometimes use it (incorrectly!) as the voice of the bald eagle on videos.

Meanwhile the crows go silent.  It's hard to believe but there will be a day when you just won't notice crows any more.  As soon as they nest they become very secretive, switching from obnoxious to oblique behavior.  You might see them but you won't hear them unless they're upset by a predator.

Will we notice when the crows change their ways?  It usually takes me a while.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackbirds or What to Look For in Early March

Brown-headed cowbird flock (photo by Chuck Tague)

3 March 2009:


This morning it was 6oF outdoors with a wind chill of -8.  Today I'm wishing especially hard for spring.  When will I be able to put away my parka and wear a jacket instead?

Chuck Tague gave me a hint when he published his phenology for early March.  It spurred my appetite and made me wish for...

  • The First of Year common grackles arriving with the blackbird flocks.
  • Especially large flocks of robins singing at dusk and dawn for about two weeks this month.
  • More sunlight in the evening after we turn the clocks forward for Daylight Saving Time. This year it's on March 7 so sunrise on March 8 will be at 7:45am, sunset at 7:16pm.
  • Intensive peregrine courting and the start-up of the Pittsburgh falconcams.
  • Mud Season: I'll switch from snow boots to mud boots.
  • and Jacket Weather!  (Thanks to Joan Tague for telling me about this celebration.)

Spring is just around the corner.

I gotta believe!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

The Last Tree

The last spruce being cut down in my neighbors' yard (photo by Kate St. John)On Saturday I heard the sound of buzz saws.  I never like that sound.  It means a tree is coming down.

As it turns out, all of the spruces in my neighbor's yard were doomed.  By the time I looked out the window a man was cutting the limbs off the last tree.  It was nearly gone.

There used to be five spruces, home to many roosting birds and nests of grackles, cardinals and mourning doves.  Before the power company cut down the locust trees at Magee Field's edge two years ago, a pair of eastern screech-owls courted in those spruces in late winter.

Not any more.  Slowly the trees closest to the alley died of road salt.  Two of the five were gone by the time a storm blew through on February 11 and toppled one of the remaining three.

The fallen spruce was cleared out within days but when one tree "misbehaves" the others better watch out.  The tree cutters must have argued that the remaining trees would die some day and have to come down too, so why not take them all.

Alas.  It'll be hot in my backyard this summer and there will be fewer birds.

My neighborhood isn't called Greenfield for nothing.

(photo by Kate St. John)


p.s.  How ironic that today is Dr. Seuss' birthday who wrote:  "I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees."

Coastal Hunter

Peregrine Falcon with Ring-billed Gull prey (photo by Chuck Tague)
Peregrines are everywhere, or so it seems if you’re birding with me.

Because I see peregrine falcons every day in Pittsburgh my brain locks on immediately when I see one, no matter where I am.  It’s second nature.

Last weekend Chuck, Joan and I went to a restaurant called Our Deck Down Under in Port Orange, Florida.  The deck overlooks the Halifax River under a bridge spanning the intracoastal waterway.  It’s a great place to see American oystercatchers, night-herons and the birds that roost on Pelican Island.  As we sat down to eat Chuck mentioned a peregrine falcon was reported in the vicinity, but we saw no sign of him.

It was late afternoon and the brown pelicans, great egrets and white ibises were performing their evening ritual, arriving from the feeding areas, loafing on the shoals, flying to roost on Pelican Island.  Black-crowned and yellow-crowned night-herons perched on the eastern shore waiting for night to fall.  A few red-breasted mergansers fished near the islands.  The gulls wheeled overhead.

We chatted over our beer and watched the birds.  Suddenly all the gulls left in a rush.  On the sand of the nearest shoal I saw the arc of a dying wing.  Standing on that dying bird was a peregrine falcon.  He had struck!

Too bad we missed the hunt.  The falcon must have flown fast and low over the water, then pounced on a stationary ring-billed gull.  What a different hunting technique this is from what I see at home!  Our peregrines stoop from above or chase prey in the air.  This unbanded bird, probably a coastal or tundra peregrine, hunted low and killed prey on the ground.  Surprise was his best weapon.

Chuck ran to get his camera.  When he returned, the peregrine looked nervous while Chuck took his picture even though he was more than 200 feet away and across the water.

The falcon evaluated the situation.  The next island was 150 feet away and his prey was heavy.  Could he make it?  He decided yes.  Picking up the gull in his talons he flapped hard, barely keeping the gull above the water, and landed safely on the next island.   Click on the photo to see a slideshow of this amazing feat.

Safely on the next island the peregrine plucked and ate the gull.  Soon the other birds returned, knowing that a peregrine with prey won’t need to hunt again until he’s hungry.  Considering the size of this kill they’ll be safe for at least two days.

(photos by Chuck Tague)