Monthly Archives: July 2010


So what happened after that young peregrine caught his supper? 

In my Lessons for Life blog Michelin was in the midst of a prey exchange with his mother Maddy.  He was excited and focused and posed upside down with his feet in the air.

Here's the last photo in the sequence.  

Michelin caught his meal and flipped right-side up.  Pumped with victory he's flying off to eat it, squawking all the way.


(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Feed your Nestcam Addiction

Sigh.  It's been four to six weeks since we had nesting peregrines to watch on the webcams. 

Many of us are going through withdrawal, but there's hope that we won't have to stop watching yet.  There are still a couple of active nests to feed our addiction.

On Friday I got a newsletter from Cornell Lab of Ornithology with a link to their nestcams.  Of their six active nests, my favorite is the Chimney Swift in New York state.  What a cool C-shaped nest of tiny twigs!   Click on the image above to see for yourself. 

And if you have another favorite nestcam let us know where it is by leaving a comment.

We have to watch birds on camera!

(Screen capture of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nestcam home page.  Click on the image to go to the site.)

Anatomy: How Birds Drink

If you have a bird bath I'm sure you've noticed a lot more activity there during these long, hot days.

Tuesday evening my bird bath was so popular that nine birds lined up waiting while a robin monopolized the water.  The group included song sparrows, mourning doves, starlings and house sparrows.

When the robin finally gave way it was fascinating to watch everyone drink.  All of the birds except the doves put their beaks in the water then turned their faces to the sky to swallow, just like the blue-winged goose pictured at left.

The doves were different.  They put their beaks in the bird bath and sucked up the water like the pigeon shown at right.

Why do they drink so differently?

The answer is complex and depends upon the species.  It's partly related to their anatomy (#4) and partly style.  Birds have at least five different ways of drinking:

  1. Sip and Tilt up:  Most birds use this method (and the next one) to collect water in their beaks.  Then they turn their heads up to send the water to the back of their throats.
  2. Suck and Tilt:  Looks a lot like the first method but is quicker because they collect a lot more water by actively sucking it up.
  3. Sucking without raising their heads:  This is the method favored by Columbiformes (doves and pigeons) and helps identify birds as members of this order.
  4. Tongue drinking:  Birds who sip nectar are experts at this method because their tongues are specially formed for their favorite food.  Watch hummingbirds and nectar eaters, such as lorikeets, and you'll see them use their tongues to drink.
  5. Drinking in flight:  Swifts and swallows skim the water with their lower jaw, scoop up the water and swallow.

Next time you quaff a cold beverage, think about which method you're using.  😉


(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click these links to see the original photos:  blue-winged goose and rock pigeon)

New Bird

What bird is this?

Drab gray with a plain head and chest, a dark stripey back and almost plain wings, he's not in my field guide. 

His large bill and upright, legless stance give me a hint but the real clue is to watch his behavior. 

This bird is noisy and rarely alone.  He chases and begs from red-bellied woodpeckers.  He doesn't have red on his head because he's a baby -- a fledgling red-bellied woodpecker.

He's not a new species, but he is a "new" bird.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Bottlebrush Buckeye

Now that the birds are harder to find I'm noticing plants more than ever.

Last week my favorite shrub started blooming in Schenley Park.

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a small buckeye that grows wider than tall.  Native to the southeastern US, it's planted as an ornamental.  That's why it's in the park.

Because the tree is small its long, feathery flower spikes are spectacular just above eye level.  The spikes resemble bottle brushes and gave the plant its name.

If you'd like to see for yourself, visit the wooded trail next to the pond.  You'd better hurry, though.  The flowers won't last long and I saw chipmunks climbing the shrubs and eating the blossoms.  Oh no!

(photo by Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)

Bad News For People Who Breathe

And that would be all of us. 

If you're not feeling well during this weather it's not just the heat, it's the air.

Bright sunshine and temperatures over 90 have brewed up some really bad air quality.

Shown above is our National Weather Service "1-hour average" ozone forecast for 5:00pm today.  Red means unhealthy air and as you can see it's not confined to cities. 

Ozone is cosmopolitan because it's formed in the sky and blows with the wind.  It's created when heat and sunlight cause nitrous oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to chemically combine into O3.   NOx and VOCs come from motor vehicles, power plants, industry and chemical emissions and from those new gas well compressor stations popping up in Pennsylvania.  That's why we're urged not to drive so much and to use less electricity on Ozone Action Days.

We're also told to stay indoors.  That may work for us but it doesn't help birds, animals and plants that have nowhere else to go.  Ozone is harmful to their respiratory systems, too, and it burns sensitive plants.

So we're all limiting our activity today - a sort of Ozone Inaction Day - and waiting for the weather to change.

Bad news for everything that breathes. 

(NOAA's 1-hour ozone prediction for the Eastern Great Lakes for 5:00pm July 6, 2010 (as of noon on July 5). Click on the image and the Loop Control arrow to watch the latest animation on the NOAA website.)

p.s. GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) is working for clean air in southwestern PA. Please join us.

Lessons For Life

I don't know about you but I'm going through peregrine withdrawal. 

On campus the Pitt peregrines are really hard to find.  Though I've seen the adults carrying prey and know they're still feeding their young, the "kids" are not hanging out near the Cathedral of Learning.

So what are they doing? 

They're learning to hunt.  If they don't master it, they'll starve.  If they aren't really good at it, they can't feed a family.

The lessons happen in the air:

  • The adult peregrine catches a bird (in this case a pigeon) and carries it in its talons to the vicinity of its youngsters. 
  • The youngsters are always on the lookout for a possible meal and immediately chase the adult, shouting for food. 
  • When a youngster catches up, the adult rises up and dangles the pigeon.
  • Sometimes the juvenile flips upside down, raises his feet and catches the prey as his parent drops it (shown here).  Sometimes he dives for it as it falls past him.
  • The lesson is always noisy.  The juveniles shout the entire time, even after catching the prey.  

Thankfully Chad and Chris Saladin saw this lesson in Ohio and were able to capture it on camera. 

Look at the surprise on this youngster's face! 

I wish our peregrines would do this while I'm watching.

(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)


p.s.  At this time of year the adult peregrines occasionally visit their nest (here's why).  At Pitt, you might see Dorothy sleeping at the nest here.

p.p.s.  Chad & Chris reminded me that the birds in this photo are Maddy (adult) and Michelin (juvenile).  Maddy was born at Pitt and nests on the I-480 bridge in Cleveland.  Michelin landed on a pile of old tires when he fledged - hence his name.  He's all grown up now and nests at the lake near Cleveland.

This Land

On our nation's birthday...

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
-- lyrics from This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, 1944

(photo by Brian Herman)


p.s.  Chuck Tague's blog has eagle photos for today's celebration (best viewed using Firefox).

Summer Beauty: Ragged Fringed Orchid

People think orchids are hothouse flowers but quite a few native orchids grow wild in western Pennsylvania.  The showiest are few and far between.  The inconspicuous are hard to find.

This Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera) grows in Allegheny County.

It's usually overlooked because its flowers are a creamy green color.  The plant itself is two feet tall.

Cool fact: It emits its fragrance at night to attract Sphinx Moths!   Click here to read more.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Anatomy: Parts of a Feather

Before we can go any further on the topic of feathers -- and there's a lot further to go -- we need to learn some terminology.

Feathers are made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails, but they seem a lot more complex because we don't live with them every day.  Fortunately this cool illustration from Wikimedia inspired me to delve into the parts of a feather.  And here they are:

Calamus or Quill:  (Pronounced KAL-e-mes)  The large hollow portion of the shaft that attaches the feather to the bird's skin or bone. It doesn't have any barbs on it. 

Vane: The plumed part of the feather that grows from the central shaft.  The vanes are like the canvas sails on a mast.  Notice that the two vanes of this feather are about equally wide.

Rachis or Shaft:  (Pronounced RAY-kiss)  The long, slender central part of the feather that holds the vanes.  It's like the mast that holds the sails.

Barb:  The barbs grow from the rachis.  Each barb is a feather within a feather with a little shaft and little barbs of its own called barbules.  When viewed as a whole the barbs are the vane. 

Barbules (too tiny to show above):  Barbules are mini-barbs that grow from the central shaft of each barb.  The barbules on one side of the shaft are smooth.  Those on the other side have tiny little hooks called barbicels that grab the smooth barbules that lie next to it.  When properly preened the barbicels all hook up to their nearby barbules and the feather vane is smooth.  I'm sure this has made your head spin but it will all make sense when you click here to see the zoomed-in illustration.

Afterfeather: The downy, lower barbs.  They lack barbicels and don't "hook up" because they're used for warmth, not flight.

I'll write more about feathers in the coming weeks, so you may want to bookmark this blog and refer to it later.

(image from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)