Monthly Archives: April 2009

When?… Eggs began hatching at Gulf Tower yesterday ???

I haven't seen it yet but I heard from Ann Hohn at Make-A-Wish, whose offices are on the same floor as the nest box, that the chicks have begun to hatch at the Gulf Tower peregrine falcon nest.  We aren't sure when hatching began because Tasha has been clamped down on the nest so tightly.  Can you capture a picture of the babies?  (Use Save Image on this still-image page.)

UPDATE #1:  The first egg hatched yesterday, April 22, at 6:00am - possibly before dawn.  I captured a picture of Tasha sitting tight on the nest at 3:26pm and put it on my last blog saying how impatient I was for the eggs to hatch.  And there she was, brooding a chick, as I wrote the blog.  Silly me!

UPDATE #2:  Well now we are really wondering.  By late afternoon today (Thursday) Tasha had twice exchanged incubation duties and exposed the nest and twice several observers saw five eggs, no chicks.  This is puzzling.  Those who saw a possible chick yesterday - and there were several people who saw it - are wondering what it was.  It's hard to say what's going on but I guess we're still waiting.


Peregrine falcon, Tasha, incubating eggs at Gulf Tower (photo from National Aviary webcam)

The lady bird in this picture is keeping a secret she won't tell any of us.  When will her eggs hatch? 

Based on our best guess we predicted they would hatch on or after April 19th because the normal incubation period for peregrine falcon eggs is 33-35 days.  What we guessed was that she started incubation after she laid her third egg.  Well, maybe she didn't start until her fourth egg so I got out my calculator and was going to tell you a new date - but I thought better of it.

I had my heart set on April 19th and was prepared to wait until April 20th, but now I'm getting really impatient.  The worst of it is that I got your hopes up too.  No way am I going to predict a new hatch date!

Sigh.  We'll just have to wait.

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh)

Caught in the Act

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

I'm borrowing a title from Chuck Tague and a photo from Steve Gosser to tell you some of the interesting things I've seen birds do in the past week.

  • Isn't this a beautiful bird?  Of all the early arriving migrants, yellow-throated warblers are my favorite.  I saw them at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve last weekend, arguing about territory, singing and chasing.  They're usually at the tops of sycamores so I'm quite pleased Steve Gosser captured this image.  It's the best look I've had at a yellow-throated warbler for quite some time.
  • About a week ago I was driving north on Interstate 79 when I noticed two pairs of rock pigeons perched on the abutments of a bridge PennDot had just taken down.  Nothing was left of the bridge except its supports.  I imagine the pigeons had come home and were standing on the abutments wondering where the heck their nest site went.  They heard lots of banging and ... poof! ... it was gone.
  • The red-tailed hawks who nested on Central Catholic's roof last spring have chosen a new nest site, this time on a building at Carnegie Mellon.  That probably explains why I saw the male do such a splendid aerial display at nearby Flagstaff Hill.
  • Yesterday morning I walked to work through Schenley Park wearing my bright purple rain jacket.  The color attracted a ruby-crowned kinglet who flitted quite close, then flew into the shrubbery.  To his surprise another male kinglet was already there and raised his ruby crown like a mohawk.  I was astonished by how red and tall the ruby crown became.  The angry bird looked like a completely different species.
  • Last Sunday at Enlow Fork I saw a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers collecting nesting material.  The male looked especially snappy in his blue-gray plumage.  His black eyebrows made him look fierce and a little cross-eyed.  While observing the happy pair I noticed a female brown-headed cowbird was watching too, perhaps waiting to find the nest so she could lay an egg in it.  If she did so it would wreck the gnatcatchers' nesting season.  Suddenly the male gnatcatcher noticed the cowbird and while still carrying nesting material he began to dive-bomb her.  Over and over again he tried to knock the cowbird off her perch, but she wouldn't budge.  Finally in a parting shot he pooped on her.  Hah!

Every day there's something new to see.  Spend some time outdoors.  It's Earth Day!

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Pitt Alumna wins nest site in Rochester, NY

Female Peregrine born at Pitt, now in Rochester NY (photo by Jim Pisello)

It's been an exciting spring in downtown Rochester, New York - a little too exciting if you're a peregrine fan.   

Last fall the crumbling condition of the historic Kodak Building tower forced removal of the peregrine nestbox that was well used for 11 years.  Two other nestboxes were erected, one at the Powers Building, the other at the Times Square Building in hopes the local adult peregrines, Mariah and Kaver, would choose one of them.  Since both of them migrate everyone had to wait for spring to see what would happen.

Mariah returned from migration in early February and consistently hung out at the Kodak Building.  She's 13 years old, has always nested there, and didn't seem inclined to change.  Meanwhile her mate Kaver never returned.  Mariah attracted another mate, Tybropa-Cree, but his body was found next to a busy highway on March 17th.  Undaunted, Mariah stayed on and waited for yet another mate.

By early April a new male was seen mating with Mariah and hopes went up that soon she would lay eggs at one of the new nestboxes.  Rochester's peregrine watchers went to work to identify the male.  By April 17th they learned his name is Archer and he's from Port Colborne, Ontario, but by then things had gotten very complicated - and sad for Mariah's fans. 

On Easter Day peregrine watchers were dismayed to see Mariah repeatedly attacked by a new female and her mate, Archer.  Apparently the new female had injured Mariah on April 10th and won Archer's heart, so by April 12th they were determined to drive Mariah away.  True to her fighting spirit, Mariah tried to hold her ground but nearly died in the attempt.  Fortunately she was rescued and is now in rehab in Syracuse.

Again Rochester peregrine watchers went to work to identify this second new peregrine.  Joyce Miller took her picture and was able to read her bands: 81/Y.  Today the news reached me that she's someone I should know. 

I don't recognize her in Jim Pisello's photo (above) because the last time I saw her she was a gawky brown-and-white fledgling.  She's a University of Pittsburgh peregrine alumna, class of 2007, daughter of Dorothy and her first mate, Erie.  She was born the year the exterior of the Cathedral of Learning was being cleaned (remember that project?) so she has some experience with buildings under construction.  Still, I think she'll choose one of those nice new nest boxes. 

81/Y will soon get a name for her efforts.  She joins her brothers and sisters in the Pitt peregrine alumni "hall of fame" (i.e. the ones who are nesting).  Louie (2002) is the father bird at Pittsburgh's Gulf Tower.  Stammy (2003) is on territory in Youngstown, Ohio.  Hathor (2003) nests in Mt. Clemens, Michigan.  Belle (2003) nests in the bell tower at University of Toledo and Maddy (2004) nests on the Valley View I-480 bridge near Cleveland.

We wish 81/Y well and are looking forward to hearing about her.  You can follow her story on the Rochester peregrine journal:  Imprints   

And special thanks to Jim Pisello for his picture of 81/Y.  He writes a blog, too:  Peregrinations.

(photo by Jim Pisello)

Nest Building or What to Look for in Late April

Black-capped Chickadee with nesting material (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)We're already into late April, Chuck Tague has already published his "What to Look for," and I'm late publishing mine.  I hope we didn't miss anything!

Here's what I've seen recently and what I'm looking forward to in April's remaining days:

  • Songbirds are building nests.  Robins are already on eggs.  Other species will be carrying nesting material.  If you brush your dog, leave its fur in the back yard and birds like this black-capped chickadee will collect it for their nests.
  • Peregrine falcon eggs will hatch at the Pittsburgh nests.  This year the female peregrines laid earlier than usual so both nests will hatch in late April.  Watch them on the webcams here.
  • More migrants will return:  blue-gray gnatcatchers, pine warblers, northern parulas, chimney swifts, barn swallows, house wrens, hermit thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets.  I used to see my first ruby-crowned kinglet of the year exactly on Earth Day (April 22) in my back yard.  It was probably the same individual because the pattern ceased at about the life expectancy of a kinglet.  I remember him fondly.
  • Spring wildflowers galore!  Visit a nearby woodland to find violets, large-flowered trillium, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells and many, many more.  Go on a nature walk with the Wissahickon Nature Club or visit Enlow Fork on April 26 for the The Enlow Fork Total Ecology Extravaganza starting at 8:00am.  (Note as of 4/19/09:  The road to Enlow Fork is a dirt road and is torn up for construction of a coal conveyor belt.  It is passable but you must go slow!)
  • More leaves!  The trees will fill out as their leaves unfurl.
  • Listen for toads trilling and look for butterflies - spring azures, cabbage whites, eastern commas and mourning cloaks.
  • Be careful in the woods if you hear a turkey calling.  Spring Gobbler hunting season is April 18 for junior hunters, April 25 - May 25 for all.  Turkey hunters wear camoflauge and use turkey calls to attract the birds toward them.  There's plenty of safe time: the hunt stops at midday and there's no hunting on Sundays.
  • And Trout Season begins today.  Expect to see lots of fishermen at local streams.

Get outdoors and enjoy it.  As I said in my last phenology, April is the frenzied month.  My, how time flies in the spring!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Changing of the Guard

Dorothy and E2 at University of Pittsburgh (photo from National Aviary webcam)All is quiet at the peregrine falcon nest at the University of Pittsburgh.

Every day has the same routine.  Dorothy spends the night on the nest and wakes as the sun rises.  E2 roosts nearby and is already out hunting as she awakes.  When he returns he calls to her, then takes the prey to a cache area to pluck it.  He insists on preparing it himself and won't let her eat until it's ready.

Dorothy waits.  When her breakfast is properly prepared, E2 flies out with it and calls again.  She comes out to get it and he flies to the nest to take over incubation.  He turns the eggs and gets ready for a long sit.

After Dorothy eats and preens and flies a bit she's ready to sit again.  Sometimes when she comes back to the nest E2 doesn't want to leave and they "discuss" whether it's her turn.  Dorothy always wins these discussions.  E2 leaves and she resumes incubation.  In a few hours it will be his turn again.

This changing of the guard happens over and over every day during incubation (33-35 days) and brooding (about a week).  You can see a slideshow of it if you click on the picture above.

At the Gulf Tower the adult peregrines, Tasha and Louie, have nearly finished incubation.  Their eggs will hatch in a few days, approximately April 19th, give or take a day.  At Pitt the eggs will hatch around April 25th.  (This post was written in 2009.)

Watch the webcams at Gulf Tower and University of Pittsburgh nests.  Maybe you'll be the first to see the eggs hatch.

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

Don’t Walk

American robin on nest on traffic signal (photo by Kate St. John)
American robin on nest on traffic signal (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning when I got off the bus I looked at the walk signal even though I wasn't going to cross the street.

Why did I look up?  Did I see something move?  What didn't look right?

Aha!  An American robin is on a nest in front of the Don't Walk hand.

What was she thinking when she built her nest there?  I'm sure the traffic signal is warm and the metal hood provides a shelter but the hand cycles through blink/on/off and she's sitting right next to a loud mechanical cuckoo that calls every few minutes when the Walk signal lights up.

Maybe she wasn't thinking at all.  I've had some experience with robin nest site selection and have reached the conclusion that robins aren't very smart.  Inevitably they pick a site that has some safe characteristics but at least one glaring downside for baby birds.  This site has few predators but it's an asphalt jungle where the fledglings could fall in the street.

I hope this bird succeeds but she's facing tough odds.  Even if all goes well at the nest only 25% of American robins survive their first year.  The species makes up for it by laying three or four eggs per clutch and raising two - or more - broods per season.

Meanwhile the Don't Walk Robin sits patiently.  She'll incubate her eggs for 12-14 days and feed babies in the nest for 13 more.  If you want to visit her, look at the walk signal next to Starbucks at Forbes & Craig in Oakland.  If she's not there just wait, she'll come back soon.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Have you seen a nest in an unusual place?  Let me know by leaving a comment below.


Bloodroot, before it opens (photo by Marcy Cunkelman) the fitting name given to spring's woodland wildflowers.

Their blooming period is very short, timed to fall between the last frost and forest leaf-out. In southwestern Pennsylvania that's late April to early May - about three weeks. The flowers of some species may be present for only a few days so if you don't visit the forest every day you'll miss them.

I remember the first time I learned about spring ephemerals through a class in the 1990s at the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham College (now University). Until that point, spring for me was about about daffodils, tulips and lilacs. Suddenly a whole new world opened up, the world of the original flowers from which the rest were bred, the truly wild flowers that grow on their own without our intervention.

Some wild flowers, like the Bloodroot pictured here, take the chance of emerging when frost is still a real possibility. A member of the poppy family and one of the earliest to bloom, it's named bloodroot for the red sap in its root. The sap tinges the veins of emerging leaves a faint pick color, as you can see.

This is how I normally find bloodroot with leaves folded like hands around the flower stem and the flower closed. My timing is off. It is too cold or too early in the season to see the bloom. You can see it though, if you click on the picture.

I found a single bloodroot flower blooming at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve on April 5 but none on Easter a week later. I came at the wrong time; it was very cold.

They are truly ephemeral.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

Chipper’s back in town

Chipping Sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Chipping sparrows are unremarkable birds except for the one day per year when they come back to western Pennsylvania. At my house that day was last Wednesday.

Easily recognized by their springtime rusty cap and black and white eye stripes, they arrive with the first wave of warblers when the Spring Beauties are in bloom. They don't have far to come. Some of them spend the winter in Florida.

I usually find chipping sparrows singing in grassy areas so I used to think of them as field birds but they are actually "edge-y," preferring a mix of trees and forest openings. I remember how surprised I was when I found a family of them near a hiking trail in the heavily forested Laurel Mountains. Clearly the width of a dirt road is enough of an opening to please them. They like the suburbs too, often nesting in ornamental evergreens.

Now that I know the chippers are back I'm likely to find a Louisiana waterthrush and a yellow-throated warbler at Raccoon Creek State Park. Time for a field trip.

Happy Easter!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)