Archive for July, 2009

Jul 20 2009

Heading for the Shore?

Lesser Yellowlegs in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s vacation time and many of you are heading for the beach.  Some of you have a favorite shoreline you visit every year.  So do these guys.

These are lesser yellowlegs, some of the first birds to migrate in the fall.  They’re already on the move, passing through western Pennsylvania right now.

Fall migration in July?  That’s right.  These birds are full of surprises.

  • Lesser yellowlegs are shorebirds but you won’t find them on the sand.  The shores they look for are muddy.
  • They spend the winter at wetlands and salt marshes along the U.S. coast and throughout Central and South America, but they nest in boreal forest wetlands in Alaska and northwest Canada.
  • They hide their nests on the ground under dense, low vegetation.  They’re not out in the open.
  • Their young are precocial and walk off the nest as soon as all of them have hatched and dried.
  • The first birds we see on migration - in mid-July - are likely to be female.  Mother yellowlegs leave the breeding grounds only a few days after their babies have walked off the nest.  It’s up to dad to protect and guide the young until they fledge 22-23 days after hatching.
  • Dad leaves them too.  Only a few days after they fledge their fathers depart on migration, so only juvenile birds are on the breeding grounds at the end of the season.  The young gather at staging areas until they get the urge to leave.

If you live far from the ocean, as I do in western Pennsylvania, it's a treat to see these shorebirds near home.  And if you’re on your way to a sandy beach, keep in mind you’ll have to find a muddy one if you want to see the lesser yellowlegs.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jul 19 2009

Summer’s Here: Swamp Milkweed

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Swamp Milkweed (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Here's another butterfly pleaser in the milkweed family:  Asclepias incarnata or Swamp Milkweed.

I found it blooming last week at Raccoon Creek State Park's Wetland Trail - which is no surprise.  This flower's favored habitat is wet ditches, wet meadows and shorelines. 

Swamp Milkweed flowers have a pretty two-tone effect.  The top is white and the lower petals are rosy purple.  They're especially beautiful when Great Spangled Fritillaires are sipping their nectar.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jul 17 2009

Golden-winged Warblers on The Allegheny Front

Published by under Songbirds

Golden-winged Warblers (painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in the public domain)Golden-winged warblers are declining throughout their range, due in part to competition with blue-winged warblers and in part to habitat loss.

This week The Allegheny Front highlights a study in Pennsylvania which hopes to increase golden-winged warbler breeding habitat and halt their decline. 

Click here to listen to the show.


(painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from WikiMedia, in the public domain in the U.S.)



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Jul 16 2009

Update on Gulf Tower peregrines and CMU red-tails

Peregrine falcon - probably Tasha - at the Oliver Building (photo by Heather Jacoby)Over the past few weeks I've put updates in the comments of other posts so you may have missed them. Here's the latest on these two raptor families. 

Gulf Tower peregrine falcons
On Tuesday Heather Jacoby saw a peregrine falcon perched on a windowsill at the Oliver Building downtown (click here and here to see her photos).  Interestingly, Heather sent me this picture of Tasha doing the same thing a year ago.  For some reason the Queen of the Gulf Tower likes this spot in the summer.

Tasha's two youngsters are doing well.  The young peregrine who hit her head and was rescued from the street on June 10th has fully recovered and was released on July 8th.  Beth Fife said, “She flew very nicely, circled and flew off.” I don’t know where she was released but it wasn’t downtown. She is now independent and on her own.

The other juvenile is also doing well. Around July 7th she was spotted perched on a high windowsill of the Frick Building, looking into an office to see what was going on. This is typical behavior for the downtown juvenile peregrines as you can see here.

CMU red-tailed hawks
The young red-tails born on the Fine Arts Building at Carnegie-Mellon University are almost independent now.  They're flying well and able to chase their parents to beg for food.  During my lunchtime walk on Tuesday I saw both juveniles perched in a dead tree on Flagstaff Hill.  They were preening and sleepy but one of them whined occasionally just in case their parents needed an audio reminder.

I'm glad everything's going well.

(photo by Heather Jacoby)

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Jul 15 2009

Serious Games

Published by under Peregrines


Juvenile peregrine falcon plays among rooftop rubble (photo by Kimberly Thomas)

Look closely and you'll see a juvenile peregrine falcon spreading her wings among the rooftop rubble. 

This picture was taken in early June when the young peregrines were staying very close to home.  Nowadays they're usually away from the Cathedral of Learning, exploring western Pennsylvania and making wider and wider forays away from town, so when I saw three in the past two days I was quite pleased. 

On Tuesday at lunchtime the youngest of the four peregrines was perched low on Heinz Chapel roof looking hard at the treetops nearby.  I could tell who she was because she has green tape on her FWS band.  And I could tell she was hunting because she bobbed her head as she scanned the trees.  The robins warned, "Danger! Peregrine!" but some of the other birds didn't believe it.  "Danger?" they thought, "From her?"  Sure enough she swooped off the roof, grazed the treetops and grabbed a bird for lunch.  Good job!

Then yesterday morning at work I looked out the window as I walked down the hall.  Way out there I could see two peregrines flying around the top of the Cathedral of Learning.  They acted like juveniles so I ran to get my binoculars.  Yes!  Two young peregrines were playing Chase-me and Talon-touch games.  What joy to see them having fun!

Soon the young peregrines will leave Pittsburgh for good.  They'll benefit from these serious games that prepared them for life.

(photo by Kimberly Thomas at the University of Pittsburgh)

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Jul 14 2009

Leaving for Home

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Male Yellow Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yellow warblers are in Pennsylvania only 10 weeks and in that time they claim territory, build a nest, lay eggs, incubate, hatch eggs, feed young, guide their young to independence and begin to molt.  And now in mid-July they're leaving for home.

A yellow warbler's annual time budget is amazing.  Six months of the year, from October through March, these tiny yellow birds live in Central and South America, as far north as the Yucatan, as far south as Amazonian Brazil, Bolivia and central Peru.  They spend four months of the year migrating - about two months each way - and only about two months on their breeding grounds in North America from Alaska to North Carolina.  No wonder their breeding season is frantic!

The females are the ones on a tight schedule.  The males arrive at the breeding grounds 10 days ahead of the ladies and spend that time staking out their territories.  When the ladies arrive they find a mate within one day of arrival.  Imagine choosing that fast!

I think they have no time to be picky.  The females do all the early work alone.  They build the nest, lay the eggs and do all the incubation.  By the time the females have been on their breeding grounds for 24 days they have nestlings begging for food.  Both parents feed the babies and in 8-10 more days the young have fledged.

Cowbirds cause delays.  If a cowbird lays an egg in a yellow warbler's nest, the female warbler recognizes the problem and builds a new nest on top of the old one, burying the cowbird egg so that she can start over.  Other than that she's in a rush.

Right now she and her mate are getting the kids ready and packing to leave (figuratively speaking).  Yellow warbler fall migration peaks around July 31 at Presque Isle State Park, even earlier at Powdermill.

This is a bird in a hurry to get home.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jul 13 2009

A Rare Sight


Common Nighthawk on nest with young (photo by Paul Leverington)

Look closely under this mother's breast feathers and you'll see two babies, one of whom is yawning.

This common nighthawk is nesting on a roof and was found by Paul Leverington who owns a roofing business in Euclid, Ohio.  He's also a fine photographer. 

Last month I wrote about the decline of common nighthawks, so I know how lucky Paul was to see one nesting.  A rare sight indeed!

(photo by Paul Leverington)

6 responses so far

Jul 11 2009

Summer’s Here: Turk’s Cap Lily

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Turk's Cap Lily (photo by Dianne Machesney)

This stunning flower is not only beautiful, it's big.  Lilium superbum ("superb lily") is well named, standing 3-7 feet tall with a flower 3-4 inches wide and many flowers per plant.  Unlike the non-native Tiger Lilies you see blooming by the road, the leaves of this plant are whorled around the stem and the petals curl back in the Turk's cap shape that gives it its name.  This picture shows two flowers, one behind the other.

Turk's Cap Lilies are not common so when you find one you remember it.  The first one I ever saw was blooming along the banks of the Youghiogeny River at Ohiopyle, July 1994.  I'd love to see one this year.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Jul 10 2009


Tricolored Heron nestling (photo by Kim Steininger)That's a pretty good translation of what this bird is saying.

He's 5-11 days old and spends a lot of time shouting for food.

His noise would be a life-threatening disadvantage except that his nest is part of a community, so even if his parents are away collecting food there are other adults around to keep the colony safe.

At this age he looks wild and crazy.  His juvenile pin feathers are tipped with white down and his head is covered with rusty feathers.  At 24 days he'll look a little less crazy and be walking so well that he won't stay in his nest at all.  At that point he'll be a few days away from fledging - and he'll still be shouting.

Fledging doesn't shut him up.  He has to learn how to feed himself and will be almost 60 days old before he can do that on his own.  Two and a half months from egg to independence is a long time in the bird world.  Compare that to 25 days for a robin and his parents' commitment is truly amazing.

So what bird is this?  He's a tricolored heron.

You won't see this chick in Pennsylvania - they nest in Florida and along the Gulf Coast - but after the breeding season some birds fly north as far as Canada.  Tricolored herons hunt small fish by stealth so they have to leave before the ice comes.

Pennsylvania is just a lark for a kid like him.  Yo!

(photo by Kim Steininger)

6 responses so far

Jul 09 2009

Summer’s Here: Bee Balm

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Bee Balm (photo by Chuck Tague)

It's a red flower with a Bad Hair Day.  It's a favorite in gardens, it's a favorite with hummingbirds and it blooms in July.

It's Monarda didyma, otherwise known as Bee Balm.

Native Americans used it as an antiseptic and made it into tea, hence its other name: Oswego tea.

See the shape of the nectar tubes?  Chuck Tague says they fit a hummingbird's face like a glove.

Click the photo above for a more distant look, so you can identify them from afar.

(Cover photo by Chuck Tague. Click-through photo by Dianne Machesney.)

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