Monthly Archives: April 2010

Eggs In Progress

If you've been watching the peregrines at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, you may have the false impression that all peregrines are incubating right now and their eggs will soon hatch.

Not so.

Some peregrines, even in Pittsburgh, are still laying eggs.  That's what Steve Gosser found out in Tarentum last Sunday after a chain of events that put him at the bridge with his camera at just the right moment.

It started last December when Dan Yagusic identified a pair of peregrines at the Tarentum Bridge.  Steve confirmed the same pair in February.  Then I visited the bridge April 4 and after a boring hour of nothing but pigeons, I was rewarded with 10 seconds of excitement:  a peregrine loudly chased a red-tailed hawk away from the bridge.  That bird must be nesting there!  

On the strength of these observations Steve visited the bridge last Sunday hoping to photograph the falcons.  He only had to wait 10 minutes before they appeared, courting loudly.  They flew away but soon returned and mated on a bridge beam.  Steve took a lot of pictures.

Peregrines mate prior to egg laying and until incubation begins, so this pair hadn't completed their clutch yet.

I hope they're successful.  You see, I have a special interest in them.  The male was born at the Cathedral of Learning in 2008, the son of Dorothy and E2, so his babies will be their "grandkids."  Oh boy!

(photo by Steve Gosser)

An April Hike

Last year, WQED's Web Department made three videos for me to post on my blog:  An April Hike at Raccoon Creek State Park, the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, and a third (not yet edited) film of Marcy Cunkelman's garden in August.

Though it was filmed last year on April 23, the Web Department had to wait until their summer intern, Christa Majoras, was available to edit it.  Christa did a fine job and completed the video in July, but by then these scenes of April were out of season so I saved the video for this week.

My plan was to show you a preview of flowers-to-come but life is full of twists and turns.  Who could imagine we'd have a spring so warm that the plants would be two to three weeks ahead of schedule?  This video is again out of season -- late by two weeks.

Use your imagination as you watch.  Go back in time to March 31 and remember what the landscape looked like.  Or watch this video for signs of just how far ahead this spring is compared to April 2009.

Sit back and enjoy An April Hike.

(video filmed by Joan Guerin, edited by Christa Majoras)


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Signs of Spring: Redbud

It's been a spectacular year for redbud in Pittsburgh.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an understory tree whose flowers bloom in clusters from its leafless branches -- even from its trunk.  Redbud is found throughout the eastern U.S. but hardly ventures north of Mason-Dixon in Pennsylvania.  Allegheny County is about as far north as it gets in the wild.  (See the Comments for more on redbud's range.)

Redbud flowers are showy and attract bees who have tongues long enough to reach its nectar.  This floral strategy keeps carpenter and bumblebees very busy with a selection of complicated spring flowers: redbud, Dutchman's breeches and Squirrel corn, to name a few.

After the flowers fade redbud's large, heart-shaped leaves unfurl and long, bean-like seed pods form on the branches where the flowers had been.  By June the tree looks odd compared to its April beauty.

Take some time to look for redbud.  Right now it's gorgeous in this too early spring.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


And on the subject of Too Early Spring:  I saw my first tent worms in Schenley Park last evening, three to four weeks earlier than they normally appear.  Tentworms coincide with black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo migration, but the birds aren't due back until early May.  Will the cuckoos have enough to eat if our tentworms are past their prime?

New Arrivals

The weather in western Pennsylvania was great last weekend so I ignored my chores and spent both days outdoors.

I'm glad I did.  Spring migration is gearing up and I saw a several new arrivals.

On Saturday I went north to Jefferson County and hiked near the Clarion River.  The woods there are full of yellow-bellied sapsuckers (they nest there) and I saw two species who had just arrived from the south:  blue-headed vireos and a broad-winged hawk.  The vireos traveled from Florida or the Gulf coast to get to northern Pennsylvania, but the broad-wing made quite a long trip -- from South America -- and he was still traveling when I saw him.

Yesterday I went south to Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County along the Youghiogeny River.  The wildflowers are gorgeous at Cedar Creek and so are the birds.  The streams and the river attracted three new arrivals:  yellow-throated warblers sang from the sycamores, Louisiana waterthrushes sang in the stream valleys and a northern parula (shown above) sang from the top of an oak.

It's always exciting to see new birds.  How quickly they become "old" to me!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Signs of Spring: Hepatica

The wildflowers bloomed and faded so quickly last weekend that it may be difficult to find this one in our area now, but it's worth a try.

Hepatica is a delicate little white or lavender flower with basal leaves. 

The leaves grow directly from the base of the plant instead of on the stem.  They often hide under last autumn's leaf litter but you'll have to find them to know which variety of Hepatica you've found:  Sharp-lobed Hepatica or Round-lobed Hepatica.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Another strange night at Gulf Tower

It was another strange night at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest in Downtown Pittsburgh.

As I mentioned yesterday, Dori and Louie were active the night before, unexpectedly on and off the nest.  Then yesterday afternoon I received a clue.  Barb Becker at Make-A-Wish told me that Louie and Dori were both at the nest when a third peregrine wailed in the distance.  Hmmmmm!  Sounds like Tasha is still in town.

This morning I checked last night's video archives and saw that Louie incubated most of the night.  It's highly unusual for the male to do this, so something odd must have been going on.  Here's the sequence of events:

  • At 1:25am Dori looked around.  There was a high wail in the background.  Who?  Dori got up and left the nest.  (00:20 in the archives)
  • Within two minutes Louie "eep"d off camera and arrived to incubate the eggs.  Other than this it was silent.
  • An hour and a half later, Dori returned and asked to incubate the eggs but Louie would not get up.  Dori stood at the nest near him for more than ten minutes but didn't force the issue.  Eventually she left, shown above.  (1:40 through 2:00 in the archives)
  • Finally at 6:20am she returned and stood over him making a lot of noise.  She seemed to be saying, "Get up!"   Louie left.  (5:20 archive)

These two are dutiful parents.  The temperature dropped yesterday in Pittsburgh from the high 70's during the day to the 30's last night.  Perhaps Louie knew Dori had some unfinished business that could take her away from the nest unexpectedly so he decided to incubate all night ... just in case.

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at Gulf Tower)

Anatomy: Side and Flanks

I have two easy anatomy terms for you this morning.

The side of a bird is on the side of its breast.  Here's a female chestnut-sided warbler, with chestnut colored sides.  There used to be a bird called a rufous-sided towhee but it was renamed to "eastern towhee."   He still has rufous-colored sides.

The flanks of a bird are on the sides of its lower belly. Here, a tufted titmouse illustrates this body part by showing off its rusty-colored flanks.  Titmice are white underneath except for this rust color which matches the brown dead leaves that hang on beech trees in winter.  I've read that this color helps camouflage the titmice.

(Chestnut-sided warbler photo by Chuck Tague. Tufted titmouse photo by Marcy Cunkelman. Both photos are altered to illustrate anatomy.)

What were they doing last night?

Yesterday afternoon Dori laid her third egg so this morning I looked through the video archives for footage showing all five: the two eggs laid by the previous resident (Tasha) and Dori's three.  I looked especially for nighttime images because the eggs show up so well under infrared light. 

What I found was a surprise.

Around 11:15pm last night, Dori was incubating the eggs when something flew by and caught her attention.  She got up and trotted to the left, out of camera range.  I could hear ee-chupping, then little eee sounds, then a distant wail.  Silence.  For more than ten minutes there no bird sounds except one or two distant wails.  No birds on camera. 

After ten minutes Louie appeared, walked to the scrape and adjusted the eggs.  Male peregrines don't usually incubate at night.  What was going on?

Louie spent about 5 minutes with the eggs, standing over them, peeping softly.  A peregrine wailed in the background.  Louie left the eggs and walked down the ramp where he paused to listen (pictured here, approx 11:39pm).  Then he was gone.

I wonder what happened.

We'll never know.  The archives broke after that for the next two hours (they saved the same two seconds with a new time stamp) and when they resumed at 2:00am all was calm and Dori was incubating.

Another night in the life of peregrines.

p.s. I did find a photo of Dori with all 5 eggs.  See below.

(photos from the National Aviary webcam at Gulf Tower)

Too Early Spring

When I took this photo on Saturday, I was excited to see Pittsburgh's northern magnolias starting to bloom.  But now only four days later their flowers are full-blown, the petals are starting to fall, and this picture no longer applies. 

Spring is happening too fast this year.  The weather is too hot.  It will be in the 80's again today.

I don't keep an accurate record of blooming times but it seems to me that all the flowers are early this year.  Have you noticed it? 

Can you tell me how many weeks ahead the blooms are? 

(photo by Kate St. John)

Lots of Sap Means…

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Chuck Tague)

...a lot of sapsuckers?

The weather has been gorgeous lately so I've spent a lot of time outdoors.  Everywhere I go, every time I look around, I see a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

To me, this is unusual.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers normally migrate through our area right now on their way to their northern breeding grounds and, yes, I usually see one at this time of year.  But do I see one every day?  No.  Do I see more than one a day?  Never.  Until this spring.

Why are there so many?  Did the sapsucker population explode last summer and now we're seeing the results?  Did they change their migration route so that more of them are coming through Pittsburgh?  Are the early arrivals lingering as the later ones catch up to them?

I've developed a theory.

Yesterday morning in Schenley Park I watched a sapsucker move from tree to tree, drilling for sap.  Eventually it landed on a beech whose trunk was completely wet.  The sapsucker licked moisture from the furrows.

I didn't think about where that much sap could have come from until a few steps later when I heard water dripping on dry leaves.  I looked down and found the wet spot, I looked up to see the snow-damaged crown of the tree where the main trunk had snapped off during the heavy snow we had in February.  So much sap was pouring out of the break that it dripped on the ground.

Lots of trees were in this condition.

So maybe the yellow-bellied sapsuckers are lingering here.  Maybe winter's damage has a bright side and a lot of sap means a lot of sapsuckers.

(photo of a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Chuck Tague)