Archive for April, 2011

Apr 17 2011


Published by under Birds of Prey

At the end of last week the pair of red-tailed hawks who live near WQED started to build a new nest.

Most red-tails nest in trees but the female who lives near my office always chooses to nest on a building, usually in a gutter.  She nested in the gutter of Central Catholic High School's roof in 2008 and in the gutter of CMU's Fine Arts Building in 2009 and 2010.   I recognize her because her face is unusually pale.

She chose neither of those places for her first nest this spring but I'm sure she had one because I saw her mating in early March.  By now she should have eggs to incubate.  Instead she was carrying nesting material. 

Why is she building a nest now? 

Because the first one probably failed.  I can guess why.

Last Tuesday it rained and rained.  The rain caused flooding of streams and rivers and even flooded WQED's Studio A, so I'm sure it flooded the gutter where this female hawk had placed her nest.

Hawk eggshells are not waterproof so when the eggs get too wet they "drown."   By Wednesday the old nest was a failure.  By Thursday mother hawk had picked a new nest site and was starting to build.

You'll be happy to know that she didn't pick a gutter this time.  Her new site is certainly well drained, perhaps a little too steep and well-drained.  She chose the very highest possible spot on one of St. Paul's Cathedral steeples.

I don't hold out much hope that this will work but she's making the attempt anyway.

(photo of a red-tailed hawk by Chuck Tague)

p.s.  Update on Monday 4/18:  Last weekend's heavy wind blew all the sticks away so the hawks have had to pick another place.  See the comments below.

p.s. Update on Tuesday 4/19:  Peter Bell took photos of the pair's new nesting attempt.  His photo links are in the comments.

21 responses so far

Apr 16 2011

Look But Don’t Smell

Published by under Trees

Ornamental pear trees are blooming along the sidewalks in Pittsburgh right now.  How pretty they look!

I sniffed the flowers and ... eeeewwwww!  They don't smell nice.

These are Callery pears whose most common cultivar is called the Bradford pear.  Originally from China, they're bred for their pleasing shape and size, beautiful flowers and red autumn foliage.  They always look good and looks count more than scent, so the breeders didn't bother to try for sweet-smelling blossoms.

Their scent must appeal to something because the trees produce small hard pears that the birds eat after frost softens them.  I imagine the pollinators are flies attracted to unpleasant, slightly putrid smells... but I don't know.

So enjoy the flowers.  Look, but don't smell!

p.s.  Choke cherries are starting to bloom in the woods and along our hillsides.  They smell nice!

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

3 responses so far

Apr 15 2011

Also seen in Nevada

On my last day in Nevada, I encountered this critter slithering across the trail while I walked the dikes at Henderson Bird Preserve.  He was brown and gold and five feet long!

From a distance he didn't look like a rattlesnake, but I carefully examined his head and tail.  (Binoculars are so useful!)  No rattles, no diamond-shaped head.  I felt fairly sure he wasn't venomous so I got a little closer than this to take his picture.

Later I showed my cellphone photo to a Bird Preserve volunteer who told me he's a gopher snake.  The snake wouldn't hurt me as long as I didn't mess with him.

No chance of that!

Click here for a close-up of a gopher snake.

(photo by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Apr 14 2011

Best Bird

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Travel

Fifteen years ago I learned about Best Bird from Chuck Tague when I took his Spring Warblers class at Presque Isle State Park.

As the class wrapped up two intensive days of birding Chuck asked each of us, "What was your best bird?"  Mine was a least bittern, a life bird(*) who flushed from the reeds when I stepped alone to the edge of the marsh.

Best Bird is now a tradition with me.  At the end of every outing I think back on the birds I've seen and their behavior.  Who was most beautiful?  Who did the most interesting thing?  Which bird took my breath away?  I enjoy thinking back on the birds that made the outing worthwhile.

My trip to Nevada was so full birds that it's hard to pick the best.  I saw 127 species, nine life birds and thousands of individuals.  Rather than pick a single Best Bird, here are some of the many "bests" of my trip:

  • On my first day, in my first hour of birding I saw a peregrine falcon hunting the ducks at Henderson Bird Preserve.
  • There were two beautiful "gray ghost" northern harriers at Duck Creek Wetlands last Saturday.  I was glad to be watching them in 75 degree weather on the east side of the valley.  Through my binoculars I could see it snowing in the west.
  • At Corn Creek I saw a Swainson's hawk (another life bird) when a raven hassled it until it flew away.
  • Most unusual was a group of great blue herons and great egrets roosting on an unfinished roof near Floyd Lamb Park.  The home's roof was tar papered and stacked with ceramic tiles, waiting for the roofers to begin.  The herons and egrets perched among the tiles.  I would never have seen them but one of the herons perched on the crest and I saw his silhouette.
  • On Sunday at Corn Creek there were phainopeplas perched on every available high spot.  They like the place because there is so much desert mistletoe there.
  • Thanks to a helpful local birder, I saw a vermilion flycatcher for the first time in my life.  It was at Corn Creek, a beautiful male bird like the one pictured above.  There was even a Pittsburgh connection: the birder who showed me the vermilion flycatcher grew up in McKees Rocks.
  • Amazingly, I saw more ravens than crows.  Crows are uncommon in the desert.

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

(*) A life bird is a species seen for the first time in my life.

9 responses so far

Apr 13 2011

Graceful Black and White

My two favorite species at Henderson Bird Preserve are American avocets and black-necked stilts.   Both are long-legged wading birds with delicate bills but the stilts' bodies are so small and their legs so long that they look fragile.

When I visit Henderson in April the avocets and stilts have arrived from their wintering grounds and they're courting.  They fly by, ignoring me, so intent on their social interactions that I'm able to get quite close.

This video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives you an idea of what it's like to be at the Bird Preserve on an April morning (though I've never encountered a flock as large as shown here).  It perfectly captures the beauty and grace of the black-necked stilts.

I'm glad I came to Nevada to see them.  And now I'm coming home.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

3 responses so far

Apr 12 2011

Festive Head Gear

We have lots of upland game birds in Pennsylvania but none of them have head plumes like this.  I had to visit the western U.S. to find birds with topknots.

Gambel's quail (Callipepla gambelii) live in the southwest, including southern Nevada.  Though they can fly they prefer to walk or run away from danger, their topknots bobbing as they go.  It makes them look kind of festive, almost silly.

What are the head plumes for?

I read that during courtship the male stands high on his legs, puffs himself out and bows to the ground bobbing his head.  This makes his head plumes quiver and shows the rusty top of his head to his potential mate.  You'd think this would impress his lady but studies have shown the plumes themselves make no difference in mate selection.

So the question is still open:  Why do they wear deely boppers?

Maybe they just like to have fun. 😉

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

One response so far

Apr 11 2011

Mt. Charleston: Western Bluebird

On Friday I mentioned that lazuli buntings somewhat resemble western bluebirds. 

Well, here's a western bluebird...  what do you think?

In southern Nevada I can find western bluebirds and lazuli buntings within a few miles of each other because the mountains and valleys provide such strikingly different habitat.

In April the temperature can reach 80oF in the desert valley of Las Vegas but there's still snow on Mt. Charleston whose summit is at 11,918 feet.  (It snowed up there on Saturday.)

Weather permitting I usually find western bluebirds partway up the mountain.  They look a lot like their eastern cousins except that their entire head and throat are blue and they have rusty orange-blue on their backs or shoulders. 

Since they're migrating right now, it's hard to tell if the bluebirds plan to stay on Mt. Charleston or merely pass through on the way from their wintering grounds in Mexico to some location north of here. 

Perhaps they'll go to the Seattle area where this one was photographed by Bill Parker.

(photo by William Parker)

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Apr 10 2011

Branching Out

I couldn't resist sharing this beautiful photo Cris Hamilton displayed on her Facebook page last week. 

Cris photographed this Anna's hummingbird in British Columbia, Canada.  I saw several of them at Clark County (Nevada) Wetlands Park yesterday.  One hundred years ago both sightings would have been impossible. 

Until the 1930's Anna's hummingbirds were found only on the Pacific slope from San Francisco to Baja California, but around that time they began branching out.  

They're surprisingly hardy birds and quite willing to go where the food is.  They eat insects and nectar and are regular visitors to hummingbird feeders.  The feeders allowed them to expand their range northward to British Columbia and southeast to eastern Arizona. One even spent last winter in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, nabbing insects at a nearby sewage treatment plant and sipping from heated hummingbird feeders, our first Pennsylvania record.

I'm usually lazy about identifying hummingbirds because we have only one species in Pennsylvania in the summer -- "No need to look closely, it's a ruby-throat." -- but when birding in southern Nevada I really have to look at them. It's possible to see five species.  Costa's are resident, black-chinned and Anna's breed here, and calliope and rufous pass through in July. 

Now that an Anna's hummingbird has graced Pennsylvania for the winter and rufous hummingbirds regularly visit PA in the fall, I ought to pay more attention at home, too.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

4 responses so far

Apr 09 2011

One of a Kind

Though this bird looks like a shiny black cardinal he's really in the silky flycatcher family (Ptilogonatidae), the only one of his kind in North America.

This is a phainopepla (fay-no-PEP-la) and he doesn't fit into any mold.  His behavior is like several songbirds rolled into one.

He perches high and flicks his long tail like a phoebe but he also makes somersault flights and flashes the white in his wings like a mockingbird.  Sometimes he even mimics other bird calls.

When he can, he eats flying insects but otherwise he feeds on the berries of desert mistletoe, a lifestyle quite similar to his closest relatives the waxwings.

He's one-of-kind in his breeding habits too, choosing two different habitats based on time of year.  From February to April he breeds in the desert, from May to July he moves to the forest and breeds in oak and sycamore canyons. 

He's always easy to find at Corn Creek, Nevada in April.

So where did he get his one-of-a-kind name?

Phainopepla is Greek for "shining robe."

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

10 responses so far

Apr 08 2011

Red-tails on webcam

Published by under Birds of Prey

Michelle Keinholz passed along this news from The New York Times. 

City Room: Hawk Cam | Watching Bobby and Violet
Boy hawk meets girl hawk on N.Y.U. rooftop. They set up house on window ledge. First come the eggs. Then the Web cam. Due date: April 22.

I've seen peregrine, eagle, owl and bluebird webcams.  Now the red-tails have one, too.

7 responses so far

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