Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Prairie Falcon Remembered

Prairie falcon in Colorado (photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Prairie falcon in Colorado (photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There are six falcons native to North America -- gyrfalcon, peregrine, prairie falcon, aplomado falcon, merlin and American kestrel -- but back in 2010 I had seen only four of them because I hadn't traveled west or south to the places that prairie and aplomado falcons call home.

That year I didn't need to leave Pennsylvania to find a prairie falcon.  Since 2005 a single bird had spent the winter near Mud Level Road in Cumberland County.  In November 2010 I decided it was time to chase that Life Bird.

Prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) range in North America from the Great Plains westward to the Pacific coast.  They move in spring and winter but normally travel north-south or up-slope/down-slope.  Pennsylvania is not only wetter than their usual habitat but is very far away.  The purple squares below show where they were reported on eBird, 2015-2017.  The darkest purple is their most frequent location.

eBird range map of Prairie falcon, 2015-2017
eBird range map of Prairie falcon, 2015-2017; click on the image to see the original

When a prairie falcon was first noticed at Mud Level Road in late fall 2005, birders assumed it was an escaped falconer's bird though it showed no signs of a former life, no jesses, no radio tracking antenna.  They soon found out it roosted overnight at a nearby quarry. Then year after year the bird came back in November and left in early spring, obviously migrating.  From the winter of 2005-2006 through the winter of 2013-2014 he returned for eight more years.

Like the peregrines I can identify as individuals because they're the only two on territory at Pitt, this prairie falcon was unique because of his location.  He was not just any falcon.  He was the prairie falcon.

On Throw Back Thursday read of my near miss in finding this unique Life Bird three hours from my Pittsburgh home:  Prairie Falcon at Mud Level Road.

 

(photo of a prairie falcon in Colorado by Pat Gaines on Flickr, prairie falcon range map via eBird sightings, 2015-2017.  Click on the images to see the originals)

Don’t Miss! H is for Hawk: A New Chapter

Helen Macdonald with goshawk (photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)
Helen Macdonald with young goshawk (photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)

If you love raptors don't miss H is for Hawk: A New Chapter premiering Wednesday November 1 on PBS NATURE.

The program follows Helen Macdonald, author of the award-winning book H is for Hawk, as she decides that now's the time to train a new goshawk. But this will be different.

Ten years earlier while mourning her father's death she acquired and trained a goshawk named Mabel. Goshawks are so difficult to work with that most falconers do not take them on.  The book tells of Macdonald's journey through grief and healing as she bonds with her fierce, inspiring hawk.

Mabel died before the book was finished and Macdonald thought she'd never have a goshawk again, but now things have changed. "After a big bereavement you fall apart and have to remake yourself," she says. "The person in the book isn't really me anymore."  Indeed this chapter is a journey of joy.

Beautiful and evocative, we thrill with Macdonald as she watches goshawks nesting in the wild and cheer as she and her new goshawk, Lupin, grow and bond.

Don't miss H is for Hawk: A New Chapter  on Wednesday November 1 at 8pm ET on PBS. Check your local listing. In Pittsburgh it's on WQED.

Click here for the video preview.

 

(photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)

We Migrate Five Days Later Now

Golden eagle at Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Golden eagle at Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Twenty-one years ago I attended my very first hawk watch on a spectacular golden eagle migration day -- 26 October 1996 at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.

Nowadays when I want to see a lot of golden eagles I visit the Allegheny Front in early November because that's when the eagles fly by.  Is it my imagination or are the birds migrating later than they used to?   A new study published last month in The Auk: Ornithological Advances confirms that raptors' autumn migration has shifted later.

The study, conducted by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, analyzed hawk count data for 16 raptor species from 1985 to 2012 at 7 hawk watch sites in eastern North America:  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (Kempton, PA), Hawk Ridge (Duluth, MN), Holiday Beach (Ontario, Canada), Lighthouse Point (New Haven, CT), Montreal West Island (Québec, Canada), Mount Peter (Warwick, NY), and Waggoner's Gap (Landisburg, PA).

The 16 species included both long distance migrants traveling to South America such as broad-winged hawks, and short distance migrants that stay in North America such as sharp-shinned hawks and golden eagles.  Each species adjusted its peak migration, but the delays were pronounced for short distance migrants.

To parse out the reason why raptors stay north longer, the study compared climate and air temperature data in the birds' breeding areas to the timing of migration during the 28 year period.

As you can see from this NOAA map from October 2012, the climate warmed in the breeding zone in eastern North America (marked with a yellow square).  Click here to see the details on the study's map.

Land & Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1981-2010, NOAA (image from NOAA) Yellow square shows region of the hawk migration study.
Land & Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1981-2010, NOAA (image from NOAA) Yellow square shows region of the hawk migration study.

Because the warming climate delays the first frost, plants and insects remain abundant later in the year. This abundance ripples all the way up the food chain to raptors who postpone their fall departure.  The study found that the shift in migration matches the pace of warming climate.

Golden eagles demonstrate the trend. Between 1985 and 2012 they waited an additional 0.16 days/year before moving south.  By 2012, the delay was 4.48 days.   Extrapolating to 2017, golden eagles are leaving 5.12 days later now than they did in 1985.

Whats' more than five days after October 26?   November 1.  So I'm going to the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in November.

Click here to read about the study and download the full report.

 

p.s. Three species have delayed autumn migration even more than golden eagles: Sharp-shinned hawks added 0.2 days/year, northern goshawks added 0.21 days/year and black vultures added 0.40/year.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

In November: Bald Eagles at Conowingo

Screenshot of video, bald eagles at Conowingo Dam, fall 2016 (from video by Gerry Devinney)
Screenshot of video, bald eagles at Conowingo Dam, fall 2016 (from video by Gerry Devinney)

Want to see a lot of bald eagles?

Make a trip to Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Maryland, just south of the PA border on the Susquehanna River.  There the dam's tail-waters attract hundreds of bald eagles in November.

Last year Annette and Gerry Devinney captured great footage of adult and juvenile bald eagles fishing and chasing below the dam.  Click here or on the screenshot above to see Gerry's video.

If you don't mind crowds, join the fun at Conowingo Bald Eagle Day on Saturday November 4, 2017.  Conowingo Bald Eagles and Support Conowingo Dam on Facebook posted this:

SAVE THE DATE: Eagles Day 2017 is here! Join us Saturday, November 4th 10:00am to 3pm at the Conowingo Dam Pavilion. This is a great opportunity to learn about breeding, nesting, and foraging of bald eagles around Conowingo Dam as well as the overall environmental impact of the dam. Exciting vendors and presentations throughout the day! If you plan on attending, please call 410-457-2427 or email takeaction@supportconowingodam.com. We hope to see you all there!

If you miss November 4, don't worry.  The eagles stay at Conowingo for many weeks.

Make a trip any time next month to see them here on the Susquehanna.  Click here for a larger version of the map below.

 

(screenshot from video by Gerry Devinney,"Gerry Raptor" on Facebook)

Autumn Raptors

Peregrine falcon, Hillary, in autumn in Ohio (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)
Peregrine falcon, Hillary, in autumn in Ohio, before 2011 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Today, three scenes of raptors in autumn.

Above, a peregrine falcon flies over the Rocky River.  This photo of Hillary, who nested at the Hilliard Road Bridge in Rocky River, Ohio, was taken by Chad+Chris Saladin prior to 2011.

 

A bald eagle ascends at Glade Dam Lake, Butler County, October 2017.  Photo by Steve Gosser.

Bald eagle at Glade Dam Lake, October 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Bald eagle at Glade Dam Lake, October 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

A red-tailed hawk migrates south past the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, October 2012. Photo by Steve Gosser.

Red-tailed hawk flies by the Allegheny FrontHawk Watch, October 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-tailed hawk flies by the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, October 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin and Steve Gosser)

Thank A Vulture

Turkey vulture (photo by Chuck Tague)
Turkey vulture (photo by Chuck Tague)

Have you ever smelled a dead animal rotting in the summer heat?  Even if you don't know where the smell is located you give it a wide berth.

Humans eat dead things but we can't eat spoiled dead things.  In the 200,000 years of our species existence those who were not repulsed by or could not smell rotting food did not live long.  Refusing to touch spoiled meat is a life-saving trait.

Sadly vultures get a bad name for removing the very things we can't afford to touch.  "Eeeww," we think, "that bird is eating something vile."  But it's actually a good thing that they do this.

Vultures are nature's clean up crew. They can safely eat rabid and anthrax-infected carcasses because their stomach acids kill the deadly toxins, removing them from the environment.

What would happen if there weren't any vultures?  India knows what it's like.

99.9% of the vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal died off in the last 25 years due to diclofenac, a painkiller given to cattle that’s deadly to vultures.  Since then rotting carcasses have infected drinking water and the rat and wild dog populations have soared.  However, unlike vultures the mammal scavengers contract rabies, anthrax and plague from the carcasses they eat and then spread the diseases to humans.  30,000 people now die of rabies in India each year.

Thankfully our vultures are alive and well in North America and tomorrow's a good day to learn about them.  Saturday Sept 2, 2017 is International Vulture Awareness Day.

Logo of International Vulture Awareness Day 2017

Click this link for a list of activities planned around the world including a celebration hosted by the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia at Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia.  Stop by the parking lot/pavilions near the Gift shop to join the fun.

Thank a vulture this weekend!

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

 

On Silent Wings

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I mentioned that seeing a barn owl in flight was the visual highlight of my trip to England.  Today I'll give you a taste of what it was like to watch this beautiful bird.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) live around the world (see map) but declined 50-70% in parts of their range after World War II due to intensive farming practices, the conversion of farmland to housing, and the introduction of pesticides.  In the U.K. the population fell 70% by the 1980s.  In North America they're now endangered in Vermont, Connecticut and the Midwest, including Ohio.

Because barn owls are so secretive and rare in the U.S. I had seen only one in the wild -- and it was roosting.  I had never seen a barn owl fly.  What a thrill it was to see one hunting the tall grass near the River Wensum in England.

The short video below is similar to my experience, though not the same owl.

 

I know I wouldn't have seen a barn owl in Britain if it weren't for the decades-long efforts of local wildlife agencies and trusts working to restore this bird to the English countryside.  One such group is The Barn Owl Trust located in Devon near Dartmoor.  Since 1988 they've worked to conserve barn owls and educate the public about these beautiful birds.  Learn more in their video below.

 

Thanks to conservation efforts around the world, we're still thrilled to see barn owls float by on silent wings.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flight sequence video from the BBO Wildlife Trust on YouTube. Video on the history of The Barn Owl Trust UK from YouTube)

Catching Up With The Harmar Eagles

Juvenile bald eagle flies near the Harmar nest, July 2017 (photo by Annette Devinney)
Juvenile bald eagle flies near the Harmar nest in Allegheny County, PA, 9 July 2017 (photo by Annette Devinney)

While I was on vacation I lost track of local news.  Today I'm catching up with the Harmar bald eagles.

It's been more than a week since the two young eagles from the Harmar nest made their first flight.  Annette Devinney and her husband Gerry captured photos and video last Sunday July 9.  The juvies are looking good!

HARMAR BABY from Gerry Devinney on Vimeo.

 

 

I hope to have a look at them this weekend from the Harmar end of the Hulton Bridge if they're still near the nest.

Meanwhile, read their happy news and see more of Annette's photos in Mary Ann Thomas's TribLive article from Monday July 10 (click here).

 

(photos by Annette Devinney, video from Gerry Devinney on Vimeo)

Do You Have A Hobby?

European hobby (drawing by Jos Zwarts via Wikimedia Commons)
European hobby (drawing by Jos Zwarts via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you have a hobby?

Jos Zwarts of the Netherlands has a hobby of drawing birds.  He drew this bird.  It's a hobby (Falco subbuteo).

Native to Europe and Asia, the Eurasian hobby is a bit larger than a merlin.  North America has kestrels, merlins, peregrines and gyrfalcons but nothing like a hobby.

Click on the screenshot below to see a video of two Eurasian hobbies at Arkive.org.

Screesnhot of Eurasian hobby video at Arkive.org
Screenshot of Eurasian hobby video at Arkive.org

 

(drawing by Jos Zwarts via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Video screenshot from Arkive.org)

Osprey Family of Four

Ospreys at their nest near Duquesne (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Ospreys at their nest near Duquesne, 19 June 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The young Hays bald eagle (H7) has flown but another fish-eating bird still has chicks in a nest near the Monongahela River.

Early this week Dana Nesiti (Eagles of Hays PA) visited the Three Rivers Heritage bike trail in Duquesne to check on a long-time osprey nest.  The ospreys return from migration every March to set up housekeeping on an old power pole in a railyard.  During the nesting season the adults are easy to see but the chicks aren't visible until they're almost ready to fledge.

On 19 Jun 2017 Dana wrote, I "stopped at the Osprey nest this evening and when the male flew past two little ones poked [their heads up] and when he brought a fish back only saw two again. I think we can confirm two this year."

Osprey nest with two young near Duquesne (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Osprey nest with two young near Duquesne, 19 Jun 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

 

It's always cool to see a fish delivery. "Incoming!"

Incoming! An adult osprey brings fish to the nest near Duquesne, 19 June 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Incoming! An adult osprey brings fish to the nest near Duquesne, 19 June 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

 

Thanks to our cleaner rivers, there are plenty of fish for this family of four.

 

See photos of the Hays Bald Eagles and other local birds of prey on Dana Nesiti's Facebook page: Eagles of Hays PA.

(photos by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)