Monthly Archives: March 2012

Feats of Engineering

If you look up at the corner of Fifth and Craig these days it's hard not to notice a pair of red-tailed hawks swooping around St. Paul Cathedral.

After two weeks of testing other sites the local red-tails have chosen the west steeple of St. Paul for their 2012 nest.

They have a thing for buildings.  Though most red-tailed hawks nest in trees this pair has nested on buildings for years, most notably on the roofs at Central Catholic High School and Carnegie-Mellon Fine Arts.  Their "kids" are often rescued.  I recognize the female by her light brown head and her crazy love for bad nest sites.

Peter Bell couldn't help but notice this when he stopped by with his camera on Thursday afternoon.  He was looking for peregrines and instead found the hawks yanking branches off nearby trees and carrying them to the steeple.  His photo below shows a hawk standing with sticks (red arrow) on a very narrow ledge -- probably too narrow for a red-tail nest.


What do Pitt's peregrines think of this development?  St. Paul is close to Pitt and a favorite hang out of their newly fledged young but so far Dorothy and E2 are unphased.  They know this red-tail pair is harmless.  They've  been neighbors for at least five years.

And this is the second time the red-tails have tried to nest at St. Paul.  Last year the experiment failed in a matter of days when strong winds blew the sticks off the steeple.

It will be interesting to see if they can pull off this feat of engineering.

(photo by Peter Bell)

Uh Oh!

Welcome to Day 11 of June-in-March.  The heat feels nice, huh?  What could go wrong?

Yesterday I found red oaks starting to bloom in Schenley Park a month ahead of schedule (photo above).  This should be happy but something is missing.  The rose-breasted grosbeaks aren't here to eat them.

Long ago I learned from Chuck Tague that rose-breasted grosbeaks move north as the oaks bloom, perfectly timing their arrival to coincide with their favorite migration food -- oak flowers.

But right now the grosbeaks are in Central and South America, waiting to fly across the Gulf of Mexico to arrive in Pennsylvania in late April or early May.  They don't know our oaks are blooming.  The flowers will be gone.

What will the rose-breasted grosbeaks do when they get here?

Uh oh!


(photo of oak flowers by Kate St. John. Photo of rose-breasted grosbeak by Chuck Tague)

Second Egg at Pitt!

Dorothy laid her second egg at 10:00am today but she exposed it only briefly, captured at this link by @PittPeregrines.

For two and a half hours she panted while she sheltered her eggs from the scorching heat -- probably more than 85 degrees at the nest in full sun.


Finally at 12:21pm she showed us both eggs.  Then at 12:30pm E2 brought food and took his turn at keeping the eggs cool. 

Whew!  When will this heat wave end??

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning)



Bonnies On The Move

Bonaparte's gulls are on the move.  Yesterday on PABIRDS Mark Vass reported a migrating flock resting on the Ohio River at Monaca and Scott Kinsey saw some at North Park.

I've only seen Bonaparte's gulls in fall and winter so I imagine they looked like the birds in Chuck Tague's photo above  -- pale gray backs, long white triangles on the leading upper side of their wings, black bills and white heads.

But maybe not.

In the summer Bonaparte's gulls lead very different lives.  Having spent the winter at the ocean they fly northwest to their breeding grounds in the taiga (boreal forest) of interior Alaska, north-central and western Canada.  There they nest in conifers.

And they change their appearance.  In breeding plumage they have black heads.  Perhaps this camouflages them while they sit on their nests in the trees.

So I wonder what yesterday's "bonnies" looked like.  Were their heads turning black?  Would they look familiar?

I think so.  I can always recognize them "on the move" by their delicate moth-like flight.

(photo of Bonaparte's gull flock in winter by Chuck Tague. Photo of Bonaparte's Gull on nest by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center, USGS)

The New Normal

One day does not a summer make but a week of June-like weather is mighty convincing.

Though I'm thrilled to be wearing summer clothes in mid-March it makes me very uneasy.  Our temperatures have been 20 to 30 degrees above normal.  In Minnesota the morning low in International Falls tied the previous record high on Monday!

The heat is unprecedented but the landscape is coping.  Last Sunday I found cutleaf toothwort (pictured above) blooming four weeks ahead of schedule and Ohio buckeye trees leafing out in Schenley Park (below).   The weather is three months early.  The plants are one month ahead.

Insects are responding as well.  Stink bugs are everywhere and I swear I heard a cricket last night.

Most birds can't keep up.  Those already here are moving north a bit early but the bulk of the migrants are in Central and South America and have no idea our weather is so far ahead of schedule. When they get here they may find their peak insect food sources have passed.

Meanwhile peregrines lay their eggs so that hatching will coincide with the push of northward migrants.  Dorothy's first egg is right on time though the heat is not.  It was sad to see her panting at the nest yesterday, trying to keep her egg cool so it won't develop out of synch.


With a warm winter here and a very cold winter in Europe, we're on the roller coaster of climate change.  Arguing about it is pointless now.  Ready or not, we're already coping with the new normal.


(Cutleaf toothwort photo by Dianne Machesney.  Ohio buckeye leaves by Kate St. John.  Dorothy panting at her nest on 20 March 2012 from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

First Peregrine Egg at Pitt

Dorothy laid her first egg last night at approximately 12:55am.  I was asleep but learned the time thanks to @BurghFan_OS who reported it on Twitter.

This morning I saw the egg briefly at 5:00am but was unable to capture a nice picture of it because Dorothy stepped off the perch to stand over it ... and fall asleep.

It took a long time to capture a picture.  I watched her for two hours to get this one!

Happy egg!  Happy First Day of Spring!

Later, 7:44am:

E2 brought Dorothy some breakfast and is guarding the egg while she eats.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

Where Are They??

Every March since 1991 this nest site has been abuzz with peregrine activity ... but not this year.

In a normal year the peregrines would appear on camera several times a day to court and dig the scrape.  Dori would spend more and more time at the nest as she got closer to laying eggs.  We'd hear Louie call off camera as he came in for a visit.

None of this has occurred since March 1.  Even before that date the peregrines visited very little this season and by now we're worried that they won't nest here at all.

What's going on?  Are Louie and Dori being challenged by other peregrines?  Have they chosen a different nest site?

The answers can't be found on camera.  We need some sharp-eyed observers Downtown to tell us what they see.  Here's what to watch for:

  • Where are the pigeons?  This might sound dumb but birds go where the food is and pigeons are peregrine food.  The hundreds of pigeons that lived at nearby Mellon Square have left because of reconstruction.  Louie and Dori's nearby food source has moved on so maybe they moved too.  Find out where the pigeons are now and you might find Louie and Dori.
  • Have you seen peregrines anywhere?  If so, where?  Keep track of location, date and time so you can see a pattern.
  • Have you heard any peregrines' screeching or loud wailing?  What location, date and time?  (The last "screeching" report was March 15, 7:20am near the Gulf Tower.)
  • A peregrine was seen twice in the same day (March 10) in the area bounded by Smithfield St, Boulevard of the Allies, Wood St and the Monongahela River.  This is a good area to check in case it's the new hang-out.
  • And finally, if you've seen a peregrine flying was it flapping the tips of its wings a lot?  This is a territorial signal that's usually done near the nest site.  If they're doing this in another part of town, maybe they've chosen that area.

So if you're in downtown Pittsburgh, please look for the peregrines -- and pigeon flocks -- and tell us what you see.

Where are they??

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

Spring Last Week

Spring came fast last week, as shown by the pictures I took at Schenley Park on Wednesday and Friday, March 14 and 16.

Spring morning with dew, Wednesday March 14.


Coltsfoot starting to bloom (Wednesday).


Magnolia bud opening (Wednesday).


Female flowers on red maple (Wednesday).

And by Friday....

Spicebush flowers are open.



...and Wednesday's magnolia bud is now a flower.


(photos by Kate St. John)

Snowy Owl in Warm Weather

We've had unseasonably warm weather but it hasn't prevented a snowy owl from visiting just south of Worthington along SR 3011 in Armstrong County.

First reported by Mark McConaughy on March 14, birders flocked to see the owl who quickly became one of the most photographed birds in western Pennsylvania.

Of the many beautiful photos I couldn't resist posting Shawn Collin's picture of the owl yawning from a porch roof yesterday.

Is the heat making the owl sleepy?  Or is he just bored with all this attention?

(photo by Shawn Collins)

March Madness

I thought March Madness was all about basketball until I stumbled on a recent RSPB headline, The Gloves Are Off at RSPB Reserves:

"With spring approaching, the brown hares of the UK are starting to ‘box’, and we're encouraging people to head to our nature reserves to see the opening bouts of these amazing seasonal matches.

Unlike the male parties of the well-publicised recent heavyweight fracas, the dramatic sight of hares ‘boxing’ is actually the females fighting off the unwanted attention of overly amorous males.

The males gather together vying for the female’s attention and if not impressed, she uses fisticuffs to fend them off."

The article was accompanied by a photograph but that was tame compared to this video from Scotland.

He chases, she boxes, they tumble, the fur flies.  She's really letting him have it!

Clearly he doesn't get it that when she says no she means no!

Mad as a March hare, no doubt.

(video by LuckyGavia from YouTube)