Monthly Archives: May 2012

Cool Facts About Black Kites

Did you know these facts about black kites?

  • They live on four continents -- Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia -- but not in North or South America.
  • Black kites are probably the most numerous raptor in the world.  (I'm not sure who's counting, so I'll have to take their word for it.)
  • They eat almost anything: lizards, birds, small mammals and insects.  They even scavenge at garbage dumps.
  • Unlike most raptors black kites form huge flocks, especially in winter.
  • In Australia black kites flock to eat grasshoppers when there's a grasshopper plague.  Gulls did this in Utah.
  • Black kites are also attracted to smoke and fires because they catch prey escaping the fire.

If you want to see black kites in Pittsburgh, your opportunity is coming soon. The National Aviary's Sky Deck show features trained black kites who swoop and wheel to catch food in the air.

Sky Deck opens Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day, weather permitting.

(photo of a black kite from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

Chickadee Nest

Last week several families of chickadees fledged in Schenley Park.  Because they keep their nests well hidden, I had no idea so many chickadees were nesting until I encountered hotspots of begging babies on my walks to work.

What does a chickadee nest look like?  Marcy Cunkelman sent me photos of one in her yard.

Chickadees build their nests in cavities using old woodpecker holes, birdhouses, or holes they excavate for themselves in soft rotting wood.  It takes a pair of chickadees 7-10 days to excavate a new hole 5" deep.  While digging they carry the chips away from the site.  Marcy's chickadees saved a lot of time and trouble by using the PVC-pipe birdhouse she provided.


When the hole is complete, the female spends 3-4 days lining it with wool, hair, fur, moss, feathers, fuzzy insect cocoons, and cottony fibers(*).  Then she lays 5-10 eggs.  Marcy's chickadee laid six.

The eggs are 15.2 x 12.2 mm -- smaller than a dime!  The female begins incubation after laying the next-to-last egg and incubates them alone until they hatch in 12-13 days.  Her mate feeds her on the nest so she doesn't have to leave the eggs.


When the eggs hatch the babies are naked and sightless but soon begin to grow feathers as shown below.  At this stage their big wide mouths are their most noticeable feature.  The babies keep their parents busy filling those mouths.


At 12 days old, the babies look like chickadees and are the same size as the adults.  They can fledge at this age if the nest is attacked but will wait until they're 16 days old if the nest is safe. Here the six babies are just a little too young to fledge.  They already look like chickadees.  Very cute!

Normally the entire brood fledges within 24 hours.  Marcy says hers fledged while she was out for the day.

Chickadees usually raise only one brood per year so this pair is done for now -- except that they have a big job ahead of them. They have to teach six juveniles how to stay safe.


(photos by Marcy Cunkelman.  (*) Information from the Petersen Field Guide to Birds' Nests by Hal H. Harrison)

p.s.  Black-capped and Carolina chickadees have mostly separate ranges (north and south) but on the chickadee border they hybridize.  Marcy's house is on the chickadee border so she can't say for sure which species nests here.

Speaking of Rare

Yesterday I wrote about a rare butterfly, today a flower that's rare in Pennsylvania.

Silverweed (Argentina anserina, formerly Potentilla anserina) is a low-growing plant of sandy soil that spreads by runners.  It's called silverweed because the hairs on its leaves give it a silver sheen. In Pennsylvania the only place it grows is Presque Isle State Park because that's the only location with suitable habitat.

On a worldwide basis silverweed is not rare at all.  It occurs in the northern hemisphere in Europe, North America and Asia.  It's as wide-ranging as Iceland and Tibet.

But for us it's a treat to see.  Dianne Machesney found only one plant at Presque Isle last Monday.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


Dependent and Extirpated

Lupine is a beautiful blue flower that's a symbol of summer in northern North America.  I used to believe (incorrectly) that it couldn't grow as far south as Pennsylvania. Here it is blooming at Presque Isle State Park earlier this week.

In a patch of wild lupine we could dream that the endangered Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) would take up residence here, but it would be an impossible dream.

The Karner Blue (shown below) is totally dependent on native wild lupine for its life cycle.  It lays its eggs on lupine.  Its larvae eat lupine.  It places its chrysalis on lupine.  Fortunately the adults feed on many flowers but there would be no adults without lupine.

Native wild lupine is not enough.  This butterfly prefers oak savanna or pine barren habitat.  Unfortunately many of these places were cut down for farming and development or became forests due to fire suppression or the disappearance of gazing animals (buffalo).  When the habitat disappeared, so did the butterfly.  It's now extirpated (locally extinct) through most of its range and listed as endangered.

Efforts have been made to restore the Karner Blue's habitat and the butterfly itself in Ohio and New Hampshire.  These have met with some success but the clock is ticking on this species because it requires one more thing.  Where winters are cold it needs snow cover to protect its overwintering eggs, but snow cover is becoming rare too because the climate is changing into volatile extremes of heat and cold that melt the snow, then plunge the ground into a deep freeze.

Dependent on lupine and snow, this rare butterfly is unlikely to take up residence in Pennsylvania ... ever.

(photo of wild lupine by Dianne Machesney. Photo of the Karner Blue from Wikimedia Commons; click on the butterfly to see the original photo.)

Sign Of A Peregrine Fan

I Love Peregrines bumper sticker
I Love Peregrines bumper sticker


The peregrine queen of the Cathedral of Learning, Dorothy herself, inspired me recently.

I wanted a cool birthday gift for my best friend Karen, who's a serious peregrine fan, and it had to have a peregrine on it.

Dorothy suggested, "Why not a bumper sticker that celebrates me?"

So I asked Pat Szczepanski for permission to use one of her beautiful photos of Dorothy and designed a custom bumper sticker at

Here's the finished result.

Maybe you'd like one too?  Click here or on the image to buy one for yourself.

Dorothy says, "I'm the sign of a peregrine fan."


(I Love Peregrines Pittsburgh bumper sticker at designed by Kate St. John. Dorothy's photo by Pat Szczepanski)

Save The Date: Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch

This morning I'm being lazy.  Every May I remind Pittsburgh's peregrine fans to Save the Date for the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch.  What I wrote last year is worth saying again this year, so here's the same text with new dates.  🙂


My favorite week of the year is coming soon:  Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch

As amazing as it seems, Dorothy and E2's youngsters will be ready to fly in early June. They'll lose their fluffy, white, Buddha-look and become sleek with brown and cream-colored feathers.  And then they'll learn to fly.

While they're learning, the young peregrines walk and flap on the ledges above their nest. It's easy to see them with binoculars so I sit at the Schenley Plaza tent (shown above) to watch the fun.

Come join me to see the youngsters exercise their wings.  Watch Dorothy and E2 show their kids how to fly.  Swap stories about peregrines and the nesting year.

Save these dates, weather permitting. (I guarantee the weather will change this schedule, so watch the blog for the latest updates.)

  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, June 4 - 6, 1:00pm to 2:00pm. The chicks will be walking on the ledges near the nest and easy to see from the ground.  I'll spend my lunch hour at the tent hoping my first-flight hunch is correct.  Will the first baby fly on June 5?  Come join me and see.
  • Thursday and Friday, June 7 & 8, noon to 2:00pm. I'm staying longer on Thursday and Friday because I think these will be the best days  (but I may be wrong).
  • probably Thursday and Friday evenings, 5:30pm to 7:00pm.  If midday is good, I'll be at the tent after work, too.  These times may change -- stay tuned.
  • Saturday June 9, 10:00am to 2:00pm. Almost all the chicks will have flown by Saturday but the family's focus may still be at the nest area.  Watch for news on the blog during the week of June 4.
  • Sunday June 10, no time set yet. This is a rain date whose schedule depends on what the peregrines are doing.

Don't miss the fun. Plan on joining me at the tent for Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch.

See these links (May 31June 3, June 4) for news of last year's fun and this Peregrine FAQ that describes what you'll see on camera as the young peregrines leave the nest.

(photo of the Schenley Plaza tent by Kate St. John)

A Day In The Life Of…

For those of you who aren't on Twitter you may have missed this cool video from @PittPeregrines.

As the Twitter persona of Dorothy and E2, @PittPeregrines has gathered a large following by keeping close tabs on Pitt's favorite peregrine family.

He/she is also something of a technical whiz who compiled all the falconcam's snapshots from Monday May 14 into one rapid YouTube video. The result, embedded above, is a day in the life of the Pitt peregrine chicks in only four minutes.

What's the trio's favorite activity this week? Sleeping!

What's our favorite activity to watch on camera?  Feedings!  The chicks were fed six times that day and it went by very fast.

Very ingenious video, @PittPeregrines. Thanks for sharing!

(video on YouTube published by @PittPeregrines)

Knock Down, Drag Out

If you think peregrine falcons are the only birds who fight, think again.

On May 6 at Magee Marsh I witnessed a vicious fight between two common grackles on the deck below the bird feeders at the Sportsmen's Migratory Bird Center.  They were the only birds on the deck.  Everyone else had fled.  And no wonder!

Grackles are powerful, muscular songbirds armed with long, strong beaks.  In this battle, beaks were their weapon of choice.  At the time, I was too stunned to use my cellphone camera so I'll have to describe the fight in words.  To make it easier to understand I'll label the combatants Jack and Joe.

When I first noticed them the birds were locked in combat.  Joe had grabbed Jack by the leg.  Then Jack got a hold of Joe's beak and held on tight.  They shifted and fluttered and Jack somehow used his leverage to flip Joe on his back.  Both had their wings open as Jack pinned Joe to the deck for at least 30 seconds.  Ow!  Another shift and flutter and Jack grabbed Joe by his neck.  Joe tried to take the offensive but Jack was clearly winning.

I felt bad for Joe except... this fight was keeping them from harming other birds.  Nesting songbirds, from warblers to robins, are well aware of the grackles' danger because grackles raid their nests and eat their eggs and chicks.  All the songbirds can do is scream, ineffectually try to hit the grackles, and watch in horror.  Perhaps this fight was weakening one of their enemies.

In the end Jack won and Joe escaped, much the worse for wear.  He was knocked down and nearly dragged out.

(photo of a common grackle by Steve Gosser)

Wearing Goggles

When the peregrine chicks were tiny, Dorothy used to "chup" at them to get them to open their mouths.  There's no need to encourage them now!  They crowd her at feeding time and whine and chup on their own.  And they actively grab the food she's offering.

In this action shot, notice that Dorothy's right eye looks almost closed.  During feeding time she covers her eyes with her nictitating membranes so a random peck from their sharp beaks won't ruin her eyesight.  It's an important safety mechanism.

Dorothy's wearing goggles.

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

Bittern In Motion

PixController, based in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, is famous for its wildlife video cameras, especially the Lily the Bear cam and Pittsburgh's peregrine streaming cams.

This month PixController set up a videocam in a Murrysville wetland to see what sort of wildlife used the area.  In just a week the camera recorded a great blue heron, a family of Canada geese, an American bittern, a mallard, and a raccoon.

An American bittern is a great find because these birds are rarely seen.  Notice in the video above that the bittern looks like a short, striped-brown version of the great blue heron and has a similar hunting style.


For an even better look at the bittern, Bill Powers put all the footage into one video, shown below.  Near the end of the video the bittern successfully catches a frog.


Though I've seen American bitterns in the wild I have never seen them move. I always find them hiding in the reeds, standing motionless with their beaks straight up.  These videos provide a window on their world.

(videos from PixController)