Monthly Archives: April 2010

Having a Field Day

With the windows open I heard them before I stopped the car.  The field sparrows are back!

Field sparrows leave western Pennsylvania for the winter so their arrival in early April is a welcome sign of spring.  They don't have far to come -- just up the rivers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas -- but when they arrive, they're singing. 

Field sparrows have a distinct song, a rising voice similar in cadence to a ping pong ball being forced down.  The notes rise up the scale, bouncing faster and faster right up to the end.  

I heard at least four "ping-pong balls" at Bald Knob Road yesterday.  They were my first field sparrows of the year so I wanted to see them.  It should have been easy.  They were loud.  Hah! 

I figured they wouldn't be perched up high -- they're "field" sparrows -- but the bare trees were easy to check.  I wasted my time looking at trees.  Of course they weren't there. 

More intently, I scanned the shrubs for clear-breasted, long-tailed sparrows with gray faces, rusty heads, pink bills and beady black eyes.  (Their eyes look beady because of the white eye-ring.)

I looked directly at the songs.  I could not see the singers.  This went on for about five minutes.  I tried not to get frustrated.

Finally, one of them ended the suspense.  He flew toward me, perched high on a shrub and belted out his song.  

At last!  I was having a field day.

(photo by Steve Gosser, taken in the summer after a hard rain; the bird is wet.)

Gulf Tower: Dori’s first egg

At the Gulf Tower peregrine nest, Dori laid her first egg last night, Friday April 2, at 10:45pm.  She laid it in the same scrape where Tasha, the former resident female, had laid her two eggs before she lost the site to Dori.

According to Birds of North America Online, for peregrines “completed copulations begin at least 2 wk prior to egg-laying."  Dori won the site on March 20 so my mental calculation had her first egg arriving two weeks later.  This first egg is right on time -- even a little early.   

In the top photo, Dori is guarding the eggs.  In the bottom photo, a close-up:  two of the eggs are Tasha's, one is Dori's new one.  Thanks to all who sent me snapshots.

And thanks to Jennie and Michelle for posting comments when they saw Dori lay her egg last night.  Click here for a nighttime screenshot from Michelline, taken just after Dori laid her first egg.

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

Anatomy: Belly

Birds have bellies just like we do, low on their bodies just like ours. 

Occasionally the belly is a different color than the rest of the bird. 

Did you know that eastern bluebirds have white bellies?  My first field guide illustrated all the birds from the side, so I thought bluebirds had orange bellies just like robins.  I was quite surprised when I saw my first bluebird from the front.  The pink arrow shows you what I saw.

For really surprising belly colors, look at ducks.  When ducks swim their bellies are below the water line so you naturally assume their bellies match their breasts.  Not always. 

Check out the bellies on gadwalls, wigeons, and green-winged teal -- if they'll show them.  You're in for a surprise.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Yesterday at lunchtime Karen Lang and I saw a brief peregrine encounter at the University of Pittsburgh.

It started when I saw a peregrine circling very high above the Cathedral of Learning almost invisible against the bright blue sky.  Based on size I guessed it was a male.  I assumed it was E2 -- except it didn't act like him.

The bird dove obliquely toward Heinz Chapel without losing much altitude.  Dorothy came off the Cathedral and made a large, sweeping circle but didn't fly with the other falcon.  This was odd.

Was this bird E2?  Or was he on the eggs?  A quick check of the snapshot camera using my cell phone showed E2 still incubating. 

This peregrine was a third bird.

Peregrine falcons don't always fight when they encounter each other.  They can signal their status by the way they fly. 

The third bird stayed very high and made another small circle above campus.  At this point E2 came off the eggs -- he wasn't in a rush, he paused to stretch first -- and circled with Dorothy.  The third bird could see this territory was claimed.

E2 returned to the eggs and Dorothy to the top of the Cathedral of Learning.  The third bird circled once more, then set its wings and sailed toward Downtown Pittsburgh.  There was no sound during this encounter.  Later, Dorothy creaked a few times from her distant perch (heard on the video archives).  All was calm.

Who was this third peregrine?  Was it someone they knew?  A youngster from a prior year?  Or was it a visitor, checking the scene.

We'll never know.

(photo by Kim Steininger)