Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Winter Raptor Survey, Bus Tour Jan 31 & Feb 3

Bald eagle pair, Montour Preserve, 18 Jan 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Bald eagle pair, 18 Jan 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Winter is a great time to see raptors.   Bald eagles are nesting, northern hawks and falcons are visiting for the winter, and they're all easy to see against the snow!

Lauri Shaffer found these birds near her home in Montour County, but Pittsburghers don't have to go that far.

Come see western Pennsylvania's winter raptors in the comfort of a tour bus with the National Aviary's Bob Mulvihill.  All ages and experience levels are welcome.

National Aviary Bus Tour: Winter Raptor Survey
When: Two tours: Wednesday, January 31 + Saturday, February 3.   9am-4pm.
Cost: $95 nonmembers; $85 members (includes lunch and pocket Raptor field guide)
To register: or 412-258-9463

Join National Aviary Ornithologist, Bob Mulvihill, for a brand new winter adventure: the Hawk Migration Association’s annual raptor census. You’ll see up to ten different raptors including winter-only species like the Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Shrike. We’ll also visit Goddard State Park to see a Bald Eagle Nest!

I'm planning to join the tour on Wednesday January 31.  In addition to the bald eagle nest at Goddard State Park, here's what we hope to see:

Rough-legged hawks, below, only visit Pennsylvania in winter. They nest in the arctic.

Rough-legged hawk, January 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Rough-legged hawk, January 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)


Northern harriers are hawks of open country with owl-like faces, the better to hear mice on the ground.  This one might have dinner beneath his feet.

Northern harrier, pouning in snow (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Northern harrier, pouncing in snow (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

And did you know that one of our target birds, the northern shrike, is a predatory songbird? Here's a photo.

Sign up soon for the Raptor bus tour.  There's a lot to see in winter!


(photos by Lauri Shaffer)

p.s. I'm not promising a snowy owl but you never know -- we might get really lucky.  Becky Shott found this one last week.

Snowy owl in western PA, January 2018 (photo by Becky Shott)
Snowy owl in western PA, January 2018 (photo by Becky Shott)

Look For The First To Nest

Great horned owl on nest under the Homestead Grays Bridge, 30 March 2016 (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Great horned owl on nest under the Homestead Grays Bridge, 30 March 2016 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Great horned owls are the first native bird(*) to lay eggs every year.  During the Second Breeding Bird Atlas their nests were found with eggs as early as January 22.  This is earlier than any other raptor including bald eagles.

Look around your neighborhood.  Listen for hooting at night. (audio below of hooting great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), Xeno-canto #XC344952 by Ted Floyd)

There are more great horned owls than we ever suspect.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about the owl who is First to Nest.


p.s. (*)  Who is actually the first to lay eggs in Pennsylvania every year?  Feral rock pigeons!

The Second Breeding Bird Atlas reported their nests with eggs as early as January 9.  Birds of North America online explains:

"Winter breeding is possible because adults feed crop milk or seeds, and are independent of other animal populations for high-protein, high-fat diets for squabs. ... Bright, sunny weather following a Canadian cold front is characteristic stimulus for courting, copulating, and egg laying in midwinter, independent of temperature."

So now you have a second nest to look for.

Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)
Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)


(photo credits: owl by Dana Nesiti, pigeons by Chuck Tague)


Screech-Owls East and West

Eastern screech-owl in Pennsylvania, Dec 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Eastern screech-owl in Pennsylvania, Dec 2017 (photo by Tony Bruno)

No matter where they roost, screech-owls work to blend into their surroundings.

Above, Tony Bruno found an eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) in a sycamore in Pennsylvania.  Below, Donna Memon has a western screech-owl (Megascops kennicottii) in a saguaro cactus in her Arizona backyard.

Western screech-owl roosting in saguaro (photo by Donna Memon)
Western screech-owl roosting in saguaro (photo by Donna Memon)

These two species look very similar so how do you tell them apart?

By range:  Eastern screech-owls live east of the Rockies, westerns live in the Rockies and West but their ranges overlap a little, especially in Texas.  The best way to identify them is by voice.

By voice:  Eastern screech-owls make monotonic trills and whinny sounds: (Eastern Screech Owl at Xeno-canto #286959 by Tim Spahr)

Western screech-owls are known for their double bouncing-ball trill:  (Western Screech Owl at Xeno-canto #383075 by Lance A. M. Benner)


Listen at dusk and you might hear a pair serenading in late winter.


(photo credits: Eastern screech-owl by Tony Bruno, Western screech-owl by Donna Memon)

Back Into the Deep Freeze

Bald eagle with ice on his forehead and belly, Crooked Creek, Jan 2018 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Bald eagle with ice on his forehead and belly, Crooked Creek, Jan 2018 (photo by Steve Gosser)

After a balmy Thursday and Friday the temperature is plummeting tonight to 5oF.

During the last deep freeze, Steve Gosser photographed a bald eagle at Crooked Creek with iced feathers on his belly and head. Notice how his head feathers are standing up as if he used hair gel!

The eagle's ice shows the great insulation power of feathers and how extreme cold can form ice very quickly when the eagle lifts his head out of the water.

He'll be getting another chance to wear icicles this weekend.  Brrrrr!


(photo by Steve Gosser)

Rare Falcon of the Desert

Ornithologists used to think this slate gray falcon was comfortably abundant but no one had thoroughly counted them.  Now that they have, the bird's been listed as Near Threatened.

Slightly smaller than a peregrine, the sooty falcon (Falco concolor) nests from Libya to Pakistan and spends the winter at Madagascar and the east African coast.  Like a peregrine it eats birds it captures on the wing. Like a kestrel it also eats dragonflies and large flying insects.

Scientists didn't know much about sooty falcons because they nest in deserts where it's extremely hot and inhospitable to humans.  Their nesting colonies are located where daytime temperatures reach 122oF !     (50oC)

With renewed interest in this Near Threatened falcon, scientists used remote cameras to video them on a desert island in Oman.  Notice how much the birds pant in the heat.

Soon we'll know more about this rare falcon of the desert.


For additional information read Sooty Falcons in Oman: Reproduction and population dynamics of a poorly studied, Near Threatened, colony-nesting raptor.

(video trailer for The Migrant - The Sooty Falcon in Oman on Vimeo)

Happy New Year!

Crows harrass a white-tailed kite (photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Crows chase a white-tailed kite (photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wishing you many birds and spectacular bird moments in 2018.

Happy New Year!

Tomorrow I'll tell you about my First Bird of 2018.   (Think about sharing yours.)


p.s. This photo of crows chasing a white-tailed kite was taken by "stonebird" in October 2017 at Ballona Wetlands, Los Angeles, California.  What a thrill!

(photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Not A Peregrine. Whew!

Injured immature red-tailed hawk near Heinz Chapel, 22 Dec 2017 (photo by Jason Bratkovich)
Injured immature red-tailed hawk near Heinz Chapel, 22 Dec 2017 (photo by Jason Bratkovich)

Yesterday afternoon Jason Bratkovich took time out of his day to help an injured raptor on Pitt's campus.

Around 3pm he found this bird, gravely injured but still breathing, near the Bellefield Avenue sidewalk at Heinz Chapel.

What kind of bird is it? Everyone knows that peregrine falcons live on campus and this certainly resembles a falcon so Jason asked for help for a downed falcon on the PittPeregrines Facebook page (Peter Bell) and he called Pitt Police.  Good job!

Report of downed red-tail to PittPeregrines from Jason Bratkovich (screenshot courtesy Peter Bell at PittPeregrines)
Report of downed red-tail to PittPeregrines from Jason Bratkovich (screenshot courtesy Peter Bell at PittPeregrines)

Pitt Police know what to do for downed peregrines. They guarded the bird and called Animal Control to come pick it up for medical attention.

Word spread across campus that a peregrine was down.  Phil Hieber of Facilities Management (long time peregrine partner) called to let me know.  I wasn't nearby so I called others on campus to check it out.  Meanwhile, John Butchko was on the scene and texted a photo to Pittsburgh Falconuts admin Kim Getz.  Kim texted me with the photo and the bird's identity.

The photo is excellent! The raptor is an immature red-tailed hawk.  My guess is that it flew low over Bellefield Avenue and was hit by a car.  Animal Control picked it up shortly after John texted the photo.

Whew!  Sad as this bird's situation is, we were all relieved to find out it's not a peregrine.

Thanks to Jason Bratkovich, Pitt Police, Phil Hieber, John Butchko, Kim Getz, Peter Bell, and everyone at the University of Pittsburgh who keeps an eye out for the peregrines.


What to do if you find a downed raptor on Pitt's campus:

#1. Take a picture. A photo of the downed bird is the quickest way to assess the situation and identify the raptor before help arrives.

#2. Call Pitt Police: 412-624-2121

#3. Post the photo of the bird and describe the situation at PittPeregrines Facebook page  and /or
Post a comment anywhere on my blog with the situation + your cell number. I will call you back so that you can text me the photo.  (NOTE: I will not "approve" the comment so your phone number will be seen only by me.)

Do you need tips on telling the difference between a hawk and a falcon? Click on the photo below for a helpful article:  Falcon or Hawk?

Comparing juvenile red-tailed hawk to adult peregrine (red-tailed hawk photo by Katie Cunningham, peregrine photo by Kim Steininger)
Immature red-tailed hawk [left] compared to adult peregrine falcon [right] (photos by Katie Cunningham & Kim Steininger)

(photo of downed red-tailed hawk by Jason Bratkovich)

Get Ready For Bald Eagles

Bald eagle hunting (photo by Chuck Tague)
Bald eagle hunting (photo by Chuck Tague)

Bald eagle nesting season will be here before you know it.

This month the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania installed new cameras at the Hays and Harmar sites.  When indoor setup is complete we'll have a birds' eye view of both nests.

Meanwhile, here are some facts about bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) to get us in the mood.

  • Bald eagles are "sea eagles" whose primary food is fish so they always live near water.  Bald eagles are opportunistic and will eat carrion and steal from other birds, especially osprey.
  • Males and females look alike but the males are smaller.  Their dimensions are:
    • Wingspan: 6 to 7.5 feet
    • Height when perched: 3 to 3.5 feet tall
    • Weight:  8 to 15 pounds
  • Bald eagles begin nesting in November to April -- earlier in the south, later in the north.  For example, the webcam pair in Southwest Florida laid their first egg on November 20 while Pittsburgh area eagles lay their first eggs in February or March.
  • Bald eagles nest in trees or on cliffs and often return to the same nest year after year.
  • Their courtship includes adding sticks and grasses to the nest.  Consequently the nests can reach 7 feet across, 12 feet deep, and weigh more than 4,000 pounds.  This weight brings down the nest tree so the eagles pick a new tree and start over.
  • The female lays one to three eggs, a (variable) day or two gap between each egg.
  • She begins incubation as soon as she lays the first egg.  Incubation lasts 35-40 days.
  • Nestlings hatch consecutively, the oldest egg first.
  • Young eagles make their first flight 70 to 92 days after hatching.  (I have seen this described as "about 75 days after hatch.")
  • Bald eagles reach sexual maturity in their fourth year.  They can breed in year four but usually wait until year five.

Though we can't see it on camera, Pittsburgh's bald eagles are hanging out together and thinking about courtship.

If history is any guide, the first egg at Hays will appear February 10 to 20 and the first egg at Harmar on February 28 to early March.

It's almost Eagle Season.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

Cooper’s Hawk Family Life

  • Adult Cooper's hawk, 22 March (by BrockmeyerPhoto)

In 2016 a pair of Cooper's hawks built a nest outside Chris and Tom Brockmeyer's window in the City of Pittsburgh.

Over the spring and summer, Chris and Tom documented the nesting season in photographs.  Often the hawks were only 25 yards away.

Watch the slideshow for a unique look at these normally shy raptors.  Click on any image to see the slideshow full-screen.


Visit Chris and Tom's photo website for additional photos.

(photos by BrockmeyerPhoto)