Monthly Archives: February 2012

Snowy Owl Fights Red-Tailed Hawk

While cruising the Internet I found a website by Paul Griffin who photographs birds near his home in Wichita, Kansas.

Just like the rest of the U.S., Kansas has seen an influx of snowy owls this winter.  On February 8 Paul Griffin was watching a snowy owl in Butler County, Kansas when he saw a red-tailed hawk try to take its prey.  This was too much for the snowy.  They began to fight!

To see the video, click here or on the screenshot above to visit Paul Griffin's website.  Scroll down to the bottom and read the narrative.  Then play the video in Quicktime.  (The video will not be visible if you don't have Quicktime installed on your computer.   If you have trouble seeing the video, visit Griffin's "Having Video Problems" web page for more information.)

(image from Snowy Fights Hawk video on Paul Griffin's Wingedthings website)

p.s. On the topic of snowy owls fighting, Peter Bell shared this link about a resident Chicago peregrine falcon attacking a snowy owl.

Are You My Mother?

Last month I was amazed when an American kestrel and a peregrine falcon both perched on the Cathedral of Learning.  The peregrines usually don't allow any other species up there.

When I reported the incident on PABIRDS Art McMorris, who manages the PA Game Commission's peregrine program, responded with an amazing story about the two species.

Seventeen ago peregrines were so rare in Pennsylvania that the Game Commission conducted a reintroduction program in the Allentown area.  Downy nestlings were placed in hack boxes and provided with food until they grew up and flew on their own.  Until they were ready to fledge the open side of the hack box was protected with bars.

Jeff Luzenski managed the hack boxes in Allentown and made sure the young peregrines had everything they needed.  The one thing they didn't have was a mother... until a female kestrel stepped in.

Art told me what Jeff saw:  "A female American Kestrel frequented one of the boxes, apparently attracted by the begging calls of the young peregrines and the sight of the downy young. She would walk into the box (she could fit through the bars), tear bits of meat from the quail provided for the peregrines, and feed them. The maternal instinct was that strong, and the begging calls and behavior of the young peregrines were that universal!  As the peregrines got older, larger and more rambunctious, the kestrel would stay outside the bars while feeding the young."

Though kestrels are smaller than peregrines (one quarter their weight) they share a family resemblance because both are falcons.  Apparently the resemblance extends to their cries for food.

I imagine the young peregrines asked her, "Are you my mother?"

She was certainly surprised by their size!

(photo of a female American kestrel by Chuck Tague)

Winter Tree Walk: Let’s Look at Bark

Sixteen of us gathered at Schenley Park yesterday for a walk among the trees.

As we left the Visitors Center we were treated to far away(!) views of Pitt's peregrines, Dorothy and E2, sunning on the south face of the Cathedral of Learning. The weather cooperated and the sun came out.

Here we are in the woods just before we began the mind-numbing task of keying out twigs using the Winter Tree Finder.  By the third twig we had had it!  We gave up on twigs and switched to bark.  Thanks to Debbie Bryant for bringing the Bark book.

Right off the bat I learned something new.  When I identified a tree as "ironwood" George Bercik said ironwood was a different tree.  We consulted our field guides and discovered that "ironwood" is the common name for two trees.  I call the eastern hophornbeam "ironwood."  George calls the American hornbeam "ironwood" (which I learned as "blue beech").   Both names are correct but confusing.  That's the problem with common names...

On our route we found black cherry's "burnt potato chip" bark, dark red oaks, pale beech trees, and hackberry's "pie crust" bark.  Birds were few but we saw an adult red-tailed hawk hunting in the woods and some gulls flying overhead.

Around 2:30pm the wind picked up so we returned to the Schenley Park Visitor Center for hot chocolate.   What a cozy end to our bark walk.  Thanks to everyone for coming.

p.s. Spring must be coming soon.  The daffodils are up at the Visitors Center.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Beauty Injured in Rochester, Feb 10

This news is a week old but I missed telling it while I was away in Florida.

Peregrine falcons are jousting for territory now that nesting season is only a month away.  On February 10 Rochester, New York falcon watchers reported that Beauty, the queen of the Times Square nest, was found injured on the ground near the Xerox Tower.  She'd been in a fight.

Beauty was taken to a rehabber and is undergoing treatment.  By now her wing no longer droops and the vet has confirmed that the vision in her injured eye is OK.  She just needs time to heal.

Meanwhile, Rochester falcon watchers are trying to determine who won the site from Beauty.  The new female is banded black-over-red with the same red "H" as Unity, a female who attempted to nest four miles away at Kodak Park.

If the new female is Unity, it would be a twist in the saga of Dorothy's offspring.  Beauty is Dorothy's daughter, hatched at the Cathedral of Learning in 2007.  Unity is Dorothy's grand-daughter from Toledo, Ohio, making her Beauty's niece.  Both of them mated last spring with Archer, Rochester's resident male peregrine, but neither nest was successful.

Eventually someone will identify the new female peregrine at the Times Square Building.  Only then will we learn if this is another chapter in Peyton Place for Dorothy's girls.

(photo of Beauty on Mercury's fist by Carol Phillips, winter 2009-2010)

Confirming: Winter Tree Walk Tomorrow

The Winter Tree Walk is "on" as planned, 1:00pm to 3:00pm tomorrow, February 18.  Click here for directions and details.

Expect overcast skies and temperatures 43-45 degrees with some wind and a slight chance of rain.  It will feel like 38-40 degrees.

Dress warmly.  Wear boots.  Most of our route is sidewalk or crushed gravel but be prepared for one 60-foot muddy stretch.  (Route is shown above in red.  See map key below.)  Feel free to bring a hiking stick.  I'm bringing mine for walking and for pointing out trees.

Bring quarters for parking!  Parking rates are $0.25 for 7.5 minutes = $2.00/hour.  For 2 hours you'll need at least 16 quarters.  More is better.  Note: The white laminated "No Parking" signs attached to the meters ask you not to park from 5:00am - 9:00am because of CMU buggy practice.  Our outing is 4 hours after the "no parking" time, so don't worry.

Post a comment if you have a question (comments send me email) or call me at 412-622-6558.  I'll be checking for comments & messages until 1:00pm on Saturday.

See you tomorrow.

(screenshot of Schenley Park from Gmap Pedometer.  Pink circle is Schenley Park Cafe & Visitor Center.  Red is our route.  Green line is location of free parking with dots indicating walking route to the Visitor Center.)

Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb 17-20

Today's the first day of the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17-20, 2012.

It's easy and fun to participate.  Just count birds for at least 15 minutes during the four-day period.  (You can count for much longer than that if you wish.)  Keep track of the highest number of each species you see.  Record your count here.  Ta dah!

Last year participants counted over 11 million birds and many of them took photographs.  Submit your photos and you may win a prize.

You can count birds anywhere --  in your backyard, in a park, at the shore, or on a hike.  Don't like the weather?  Stay indoors and count the birds at your feeders.

Click here to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Someone, somewhere, will be lucky to count this uncommon bird in their backyard this weekend.  Though the range map indicates that red-headed woodpeckers live in Pennsylvania year-round, they're unusual in southwestern Pennsylvania in the winter.  Marcy Cunkelman was lucky to see this one at her suet feeders in the spring.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Best Birds

Last April I wrote about the Best Birds on my trip to Nevada.  Now I'm back from Florida and happy to report many Best Birds there too.

  • Most beautiful: Painted buntings at Merritt Island Visitor Center.  Last Sunday it was very cold and windy so three male painted buntings stayed close to the feeders. Their blue, red and green colors (shown above) glowed in the nearby bushes.
  • Best raptor was a peregrine falcon at Daytona Beach Shores who hazed the gulls loafing on the sand, then flew to the tallest building to wait and watch for another opportunity.  By focusing on the peregrine I missed seeing the jaegers.   Oh well.
  • Most amazing flock:  The 30+ American white pelicans who herded fish at Merritt Island.  They swam in tight formation stirring the water with their feet, drove the fish ahead of them, and gulped them up.  Overhead a flock of gulls kited in the wind, hoping for an easy catch. From a distance the gulls looked like flags waving above a grandstand.
  • Crowd Pleaser:  Without a doubt the vermilion flycatcher at Orlando Wetlands Park was a crowd pleaser.  It was a life bird for me in Nevada last year but this time I had a much better look at it.  What a cooperative bird!  Like all flycatchers he perched on a branch, made forays to catch bugs, and often returned to the same branch.  Everyone on the Halifax River Audubon outing got good looks at him.

Thanks to Chuck and Joan Tague for showing me so many wonderful birds!

(...and thanks to Chuck Tague for these photos)

Winter Trees: Sycamore

From a distance this massive white tree looks like a ghost in the valley.

It's an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also called buttonwood or American planetree.  In Pittsburgh we call it a sycamore but in other countries this name can be confusing because it refers to other trees.  In Europe the "sycamore" is a maple.

American sycamores are native to eastern North America from Maine to Texas, from Ontario to Florida.  You'll find them along creeks and rivers, in bottom land but not in swamps.  They like to be near water, but not in it, because they'll die if their roots are submerged continuously during the growing season.

Sycamores are easily identified by their bark which flakes off in big chunks to reveal the pale new bark beneath.  They do this because their bark cannot expand as the tree grows.  Look up the tree trunk and you'll see the characteristic ghostly white color.


In rural settings you can safely identify the flaky bark as a sycamore but in town we've planted London planetrees, a hybrid of the American sycamore and Oriental plane tree.  The new bark on London planetrees is greenish-beige where the sycamore is white.

The seed balls of both species stay on the tree through the winter, breaking up in early spring. Each seed has a bit of fluff attached to help it disperse by wind or water.

One way to tell the difference between American sycamores and London planetrees is to look at the seed ball stems.  On sycamores there is generally one seed ball per stem.  On London planetrees two or three hang from the same stem.


Sycamore twigs zigzag from bud to bud. The buds form underneath the petioles (leaf stems) during the growing season and don't appear until the leaves fall off.  Each bud is encased in a single scale and surrounded by the leaf scar.


Sycamores (and London planetrees) are both noted for their very large trunks which often become hollow with age.  Champion trees have been measured at 167 feet tall with trunks 13 feet in diameter.  The oldest trees are the largest.  They can live for several hundred years.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Reminder: Meet me at Schenley Park Cafe &Visitors' Center at 1:00pm this Saturday for a Winter Tree Walk to practice your winter tree identification skills.  So far the weather looks good (above freezing with no precipitation!).  Click here for more information.