Monthly Archives: July 2009

Harried Mom


Three eastern bluebirds beg from their mother (photo by Kim Steininger)

Poor Mama Bluebird!  Which mouth should she feed?  No matter which one she picks the other two will still be begging.

Despite appearances, having three fledged babies is a great sign of success.  As I've learned from watching robin nests it's a huge challenge to get a baby bird to this stage.

People who tend bluebird boxes know exactly what I mean.  At the start of the season there's the threat of cold, wet weather that suppresses their food supply (insects) and causes the babies to starve.  Then there are blowflies and other nasty parasites who kill the young.  Snakes, raccoons and cats take their toll, and bluebirds, like tree swallows, face competition for nest sites.  Since they're the least aggressive of the cavity nesters, bluebirds take it on the chin.  The worst are the house sparrows who claim all the nest sites in their territory and kill bluebird adults and young, even in boxes the sparrows don't intend to use.

Fortunately for bluebirds, people watch out for them and help by removing whatever threats we can.  It's a symbiotic relationship in which bluebirds nest successfully and we get the enjoyment of watching a very sweet and beautiful bird. 

If your neighborhood doesn't have open fields to support nesting bluebirds, you can now watch them nesting online.  Check out the PA Game Commission's bluebird nest box camera at their Harrisburg Headquarters.  You won't see this fledgling activity but you'll get a glimpse inside the box. 

So congratulations, Mama Bluebird!  Soon your babies will be on their own.  Whew!

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Summer’s Here: Rhododendron

Rhododendron blooming (photo by Chuck Tague)

If you've never been to Pennsylvania's mountains in early July, here's a surprise for you.  The Rhododendron is in bloom.

Rhododendron maximum comes from a large family of flowering plants that includes azaleas.  There are over 1,000 species and 28,000 cultivars.  In early May our cultivated azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed.  Now it's time for the natives to get into the act.

There's an added bonus when you're surrounded by beautiful, blooming rhododendrons in the Laurel Highlands.  You're likely to see a bird that loves to nest among them -- the black-throated blue warbler.   

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Eagle Day

Adult Bald Eagle at Crooked Creek (photo by Steve Gosser)

The Fourth of July is the one day every year when you're certain to see a lot of bald eagles -- on Tshirts, on banners, as statues on flagpoles, and as images superimposed on waving U.S. flags.

The patriotic illustrations are just an idea of bald eagles.  Fortunately it's getting easy to see the real thing in western Pennsylvania nowadays.

Back in November 2007, I blogged about our bald eagle comeback after DDT caused a severe population decline.  In the 1980s the PA Game Commission conducted a reintroduction program.  Twenty years later the eagle population is growing throughout the state as you can see by the sightings posted in that blog's comments.

The eagle pictured here is from Armstrong County.  I learned about him from Steve Gosser who made several visits to Crooked Creek Lake last winter to photograph birds.  Steve always found bald eagles there so when he heard they were nesting nearby he lugged his camera more than half a mile (uphill!) to try to get a picture of the nest.  After a half-mile walk the nest was still not close, but one of the adult bald eagles flew near him.  Nice picture!

Steve returned from time to time as winter turned to spring, hoping for another glimpse of the eagle family.  By June the young eagles were ready to fledge, walking all over the nest tree and flapping their wings.   Though the nest was far away, Steve took a picture and digitally zoomed it so you can see the young eagles.  Click on the photo to see for yourself.  The picture is grainy because it's zoomed.  Notice that juvenile eagles are all brown!

If you hanker to see bald eagles this weekend there are many western PA counties where you can.  The best place by far is Pymatuning State Park in Crawford County.  In 2002 there were 14 bald eagle nests that fledged 20 young in Crawford County for a total of 48 eagles.  There are even more eagles today.  Back then there were only 67 eagle nests statewide.  This year there are 170 nests in Pennsylvania!

When you go to Pymantuning, stop by the PA Game Commission Wildlife Learning Center just past the spillway (where the ducks walk on the fishes' backs).  Even if the Learning Center is closed on the day you visit, their patio has a great view of the lake where the eagles hang out. 

And take your binoculars.  I'm sure you'll see a bald eagle.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Milkweed or What to look for in early July

Common Milkweed close-up (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

If you've never looked at milkweed up close, this is the month to do it.

All across western Pennsylvania a wide variety of milkweed is blooming and with it come the insects who depend it, most notably monarch butterflies.

What else can you expect to see this month?

Here are the highlights for early July.

  • Most birds have fledglings or second broods.  Most bald eagles fledge in early July.  Robins are on their second or third set of eggs.
  • Cedar waxwings and American goldfinches are just starting to nest.
  • Some shorebirds begin their fall migration.  Watch for short-billed dowitchers and yellowlegs at pond edges.
  • The first cicadas begin calling.  In Pittsburgh they used to emerge around July 15th but I've noticed that date has moved up in the last 10 years.  How early will they be this month?
  • Katydids will start to "sing."  As a child I never heard katydids but I often heard about them as joke on my first name.  They're a much better bug than the jokes were.
  • Look for flowers, fruits, dragonflies, butterflies and moths.
  • And don't forget to look closely at milkweed.  If you find small white dots on the underside of the leaves, they're monarch butterfly eggs.

Read more in Chuck Tague's July phenology here.


(close-up of Common Milkweed by Marcy Cunkelman)

Tree Swallows at Home

Tree Swallows (photo by Kim Steininger)

True to their name, tree swallows nest in hollow trees - or in the next best thing, bluebird boxes.

When they arrive in early spring, their first and most important activity is to find a nest hole.  Suitable nest sites are scarce, so tree swallows are aggressive about claiming them and will fight - even kill - another tree swallow of the same sex who dares to claim their nest hole.  At this stage it can get gruesome.  If a site has nestlings and the male dies, the new male may kill the widow's young.  Females have been known to kill the young of others to make the site become available.  So much drama!

But there are other challengers who want nest holes.  House wrens, house sparrows and northern flickers will destroy tree swallow eggs and nestlings if they can.  Eastern bluebirds also want nest holes but they get along with tree swallows if two boxes are provided near each other, one for each species. 

Aside from nest site competition, tree swallows are very social creatures and tend to nest near each other if enough sites exist.  Once a site is selected the female builds a nest inside it and adorns it with feathers.  Even if she arrived weeks earlier, she waits to lay her eggs in May so the babies will hatch around June 1.  Both parents feed the young, making 10-20 trips per hour to keep those yellow mouths filled! 

Now it's July and all the tree swallows are about to fledge.  Next month they'll be on the move in large flocks, headed for Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. 

Watch them while you can.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Season Highlights

E2 visits the empty nest on June 27 (photo from the National Aviary webcam)

While many birds still have babies in the nest, the season is over for our peregrine falcons.  Their nestlings fledged in early June and their young will soon be off on their own.

In July the webcams show us nothing but shadows, weeds and old feathers.  Rather than pay to broadcast an empty nest the Pitt webcam stopped streaming in mid-June and the Gulf Tower camera will stop soon.

It's a shame to have nothing to watch.  To fill this gap - and because I miss seeing the peregrines myself - I made a slideshow of Pitt's season highlights for my blog and for the Aviary's website.  Click here or on E2's picture for the blog slideshow.  The Aviary's will be slightly different.

Meanwhile, I'm sure you're wondering how I got this recent close-up of E2 since I just said nothing's on the webcam.

All year long E2 avoids the limelight.  Unlike Dorothy, E2 prefers not to perch near windows.  He avoids having anyone see him up close and this makes it extremely hard to read his bands and confirm that he is indeed the peregrine father at Pitt.

The solution is rather simple.  In July E2 likes to visit the empty nest - who knows why - so we zoom the webcam and use the motion-detection snapshots to read his bands.   Here he is four days ago blatantly presenting his banded leg to the camera.

If I go by his appearance I'm sure it's E2 with his white forehead and swaggering stance, but his bands are a little hard to read.  I'll have to wait for another good snapshot to be sure.

(This and the slideshow photos are from the National Aviary's webcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)