Archive for June, 2010

Jun 21 2010

Just checking

Published by under Peregrines

Traci Darin noticed activity at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest around midnight Saturday and sent me this photo.

She wrote,  "I’m up late getting ready for a yard sale tomorrow and heard the (peregrine) kids yammering – it’s around 11:30pm and fireworks are going off.  I captured this shot, I believe of Dori.  She popped into the nest box, then jumped to the pillar to the left foreground, then disappeared.  The remaining kids in the nest went back to sleep.  Very similar to what I’ve done with my son when a storm or loud noise has woken him…rather amazing."

How cool to see peregrine mothers react the same way human mothers do. 

When there's a loud noise, check on the kids!

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the Gulf Tower, captured by Traci Darin)

4 responses so far

Jun 20 2010


Published by under Plants

Yes, Columbo, but I'm not referring to the disheveled detective played by Peter Falk

Last weekend I traveled to a secret meadow to find this enormous plant in bloom. 

American Columbo (Frasera caroliniensis) is a member of the Gentian family and endangered in Pennsylvania.  Some people call it Monument Plant, an obvious name when you consider my bright green walking stick in this photo is 3.5 feet tall.  The plant is huge!   (See better photos here.)

American Columbo has an unusual reproductive strategy.  It's a monocarpic perennial that grows as a rosette of basal leaves for many years without flowering.  Then in response to an unknown trigger it shoots up a stalk 10 feet high, blooms and dies.  

When it will bloom is a mystery no one can predict by its size or age but botanists think individual plants may bloom synchronously with other Columbos nearby.  A solo plant transplanted by a botanist did not flower in 15 years of watching.  Was it lonely?

Do all the Columbos in a meadow bloom at once?  No.  The meadow has plants of different ages because Columbo seeds are fussy.  They won't germinate until they've soaked up water when the temperature is about 40o F (5o C).  Seeds that remained in the old seed head must wait for the right conditions to occur when they reach the ground so they won't germinate for another year or more. 

My visit to this mysterious plant ended in a bumbling detective adventure.  As I bushwhacked out of the meadow I dropped my bifocal sunglasses but didn't discover my loss until I'd hiked another half hour.  I returned to the meadow to find them but I my path was obscured.  I couldn't be sure I was retracing my steps. 

After a long search I found my sunglasses.  Broken.  Someone had stepped on them.  Who?  

Did I?  Yes, the sunglasses fell under my feet and I stepped on them just after they fell. 

Mystery solved.  Thanks, Columbo.

(photo by Kate St. John)

6 responses so far

Jun 18 2010

Peregrine updates: Pitt and Gulf Tower

Published by under Peregrines

At the University of Pittsburgh:
For the past week Pitt's young peregrines have been shuttling back and forth between St. Paul's Cathedral and Heinz Chapel -- if they're on campus at all.  The "kids" are now at the stage when one or more go off on their own to explore the area, returning only to chase their parents and whine for food.  

Three is the highest number of juveniles I find at any one time and only if their parents are nearby.  This morning two juvies chased Dorothy when she tried to capture a pigeon near the Community of Reconcilation tower.  The pigeon escaped because it heard them coming -- Dorothy with two whining kids in tow.  Karen and Coleen tell me they were doing this at lunchtime, too.

Sometimes the adults get a break.  Pictured above is one of the adult peregrines perched on the west face of the Cathedral of Learning in a quiet moment, as seen on the Tour Pitt camera.

At the Gulf Tower:
The youngsters here are about to fly but we won't be able to see it on camera -- the view is just too narrow. 

Last night before sunset all five were in the nest box, beginning to settle down for the night.  Today most of them were off camera but probably in the vicinity of the ledge. 

Some of you said you'll be heading to the Gulf Tower to watch this weekend.  Let us know what you see by posting comments below.

(first photo from the Tour Pitt camera captured by Jennie Barker;  second photo from the National Aviary webcam captured by Traci Darin)

p.s.  See news in the comments.  One of the youngsters has flown at Gulf Tower as of tonight at 8:46pm!

17 responses so far

Jun 18 2010

Anatomy: Preen Gland

Published by under Bird Anatomy

If you watch birds preening you'll often see them twist their necks over their backs, touch the tops of their tails with their bills, and groom their feathers.

The spot they're touching is the uropygial or preen gland.  It has nipple-like pores that secrete preen oil to keep their feathers supple and suppress parasites.

Preen oil also provides some waterproofing.  Perhaps that's why this gland is best developed in petrels, pelicans and ospreys.

Preening is vital for birds' survival.  Besides removing feather and skin parasites and spreading preen oil, birds do it to peel the scales off pin feathers and comb the feather barbules back into place.  Feathers must be in their original shape with all the barbules interlocking in order to fly well and stay waterproof.  Preen oil probably holds the feathers in their combed position just as our oily hair products keep our hair in place.

Not all birds have preen glands -- ostriches and emus don't -- but waterfowl do.  In this photo a female common eider is pointing her long white bill directly at her preen gland.  You'll see this often if you watch ducks.

You'll also see it if you watch peregrines because they must keep their feathers in tip top shape for precision flight.

Does preening waterproof them?  When my friend Karen sees the Pitt peregrines touch their preen glands she says, "It's going to rain."

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jun 17 2010


Published by under Peregrines

Portrait of a young peregrine, by Brian Herman.



And, unrelated to this photo, news of the Westinghouse Bridge peregrines:
Beth Fife and Doug Dunkerley banded three male chicks at the Westinghouse Bridge yesterday. The bridge is very high and it was very windy. As Beth wrote, she and Doug "Held on with our lives!!!!!!!! "

The mother peregrine, "Val" ("Storm" from Canton, Ohio, 2005), was present.  The father peregrine stayed away.  Neither bird was a problem compared to the scary winds on such a high structure.

(photo by Brian Herman)

10 responses so far

Jun 16 2010

Becoming Silent

Remember when the robins woke you up before dawn?  When they sang all night?  It was only last month.

Now that it's mid-June there's a lot less birdsong in the morning.  They still sing but they lack the frantic edge they had in May.

Their reason for singing is quickly disappearing.  They've established territory and found a mate.  They have eggs in the nest or babies to feed.  Some sing less when they have nestlings, perhaps to avoid attracting attention to their vulnerable family.

And if they haven't nested yet, they've given up.

I noticed a gap last week in yellow warbler song when I suddenly heard them again in Schenley Park after a three week hiatus.  Why did they stop singing?  I don't know, but their songs are half-hearted now.

The robins are half-hearted too.

By the middle of July the serenade will be over.

Alas.  Just as I got my ears in tune to identify birdsong there will be nothing to practice with.

(photo of a yellow warbler by Chuck Tague)

10 responses so far

Jun 15 2010

One, Two, Three, Go!

Published by under Peregrines

After spending a week at St. Paul's Cathedral, Pitt's young peregrines returned to campus yesterday.  I found three of them perched on Heinz Chapel steeple while their parents claimed the heights of the Cathedral of Learning. 

It was a role reversal, but one I could understand.  The "kids" have been on the wing for two weeks and they fly so well now that they can chase their parents everywhere.  In fact, they do.  Dorothy and E2 made it clear yesterday that for the moment they wanted to be left alone.  To emphasize her point Dorothy was roosting.

I'm amazed at how quickly young peregrines learn.  Only eleven days ago they were clambering on the 25th floor roof when Kim Thomas captured this photo of Green Boy with open wings and cocked tail.  He was ready to glide from his little hill of roof tiles and seems to be telling himself,  "One, two three, go!"

Now the Pitt youngsters are beyond this "toddler" stage and the Gulf Tower chicks are about to enter it.  Soon the Gulf chicks will be practicing on a roof Downtown.

One... two... three... Go!

(photo by Kimberly Thomas)

7 responses so far

Jun 14 2010

Like Butterflies

When does a bird look like a butterfly?  When it appears to be nectaring in mud.

Over the weekend I stopped at the Rt.528 bridge at Moraine State Park to see a colony of unusual birds who nest underneath it.  Cliff swallows hang their jug-shaped nests from the bridge structure so I go there to watch them pop in and out of the nests and wheel over the parking lot.

On Saturday they were busy building, carefully gluing mud daubs to the cement, then flying away for more.  Where did they get the mud?

I found half the flock in a mud puddle, packed closely together, tiptoeing through the muck and holding their wings and tails erect to keep them clean.  All their wings were quivering, just like butterflies.  Are these "swallowtails?"

Chuck Tague saw them too and photographed their mudfest.  In the process he documented a new behavior among cliff swallows -- they mix plants in the mud -- and wrote a blog about it.  His descriptions are better than mine.  See his blog here.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

2 responses so far

Jun 13 2010

Gulf Tower Antics

Published by under Peregrines

Traci Darin sent me this snapshot from the Gulf Tower webcam yesterday -- all five nestlings in one shot.

The young peregrines at the Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh are at the ledge-walking stage and are hamming it up on camera.  Where one goes the others follow, if only to look in wonder.

Sometimes they walk or jump off camera.  Where do they go? 

If they disappear at the lower edge of the photo, they're in the gully below the nest.  Here, two of them are on the ramp that goes there.

When they disappear to the right they're on the windowsill.  If they go to the left they're on top of the pillar (like their mother in this photo) or exercising their wings at the launch point.

In about ten days they'll be gone from the nest.  For now, you can see them here.

I'm sure their parents won't have Empty Nest Syndrome, but we will.

(photo from the Gulf Tower webcam, captured by Traci Darin)

5 responses so far

Jun 12 2010


Published by under Plants

Heal-all (Prunella Vulgaris) may be a weed but it's good for us.  Also known as Self-heal, it's a medicinal plant with antibacterial qualities that treats a wide variety of illnesses.

Newcomb’s Wildlfower Guide doesn't call it "non-native" because its presence in North America pre-dates known travel records.  Did it come here on its own or did people bring it?

Native Americans use heal-all as medicine so perhaps the first Americans brought it across the land bridge from Asia.  And now it's here to stay.

Watch for Heal-all blooming throughout the summer.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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