Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Hays Bald Eagle Hatch Watch

Bald eagle near the nest, 25 Mar 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook)
Bald eagle near the Hays nest, 25 Mar 2017 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook)

Six weeks ago on February 13, the Hays bald eagle nest tree blew over in a storm while the female was incubating her first egg.  Within a week the pair built a new nest nearby and, though they can't be seen on the webcam, observers on the ground can tell the eagles began incubation on a new egg on February 19.

Bald eagle eggs typically hatch in 35 days.  Today, March 26, is the 35th day.

Eagle fans don't wait until hatch day to begin their vigil.  Yesterday Dana Nesiti (Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook) arrived before dawn and captured the photo above. I stopped by at 3pm and found Eaglestreamer and LFL on duty.

Eaglestreamer and LFL at the Hays bald eagle viewing site, 25 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Eaglestreamer and LFL at the Hays bald eagle viewing site, 25 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eaglestreamer has tracked the Hays eagles for years and told me that their first hatch date is often Day 37 so there's still time to be there for the big event.  (See Eaglestreamer's hatch website here.)

Even if you miss the hatch, the eagles will be exciting in the days ahead as they bring food to the nest.

Click here for directions to the Hays viewing area.  On Facebook, see Hays bald eagle photos by Annette Devinney, Dana Nesiti, Dan Dasynich ... and many of their friends.


UPDATE MARCH 28: HATCHED!  Without a webcam on-the-ground observers look for parents-feeding-young behavior.  This behavior was confimed on 28 March 2017.  Eaglestreamer writes:  "2 fish delivered back to back as was finally able to get a peek at small bits of food being torn and offered with lowered beak."

(bald eagle photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook. Eaglestreamer and LFL photo by Kate St. John)


Swallow-tailed kite in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Swallow-tailed kite in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We use words like powerful, strong or fierce to describe raptors but this one is different.  The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is truly graceful.

Named for their beautiful black tails, their flight is so buoyant that they barely flap as they swoop and turn to grab food from the air or the treetops.  They seem to be moving in slow motion and it's true.  They can fly slowly because their wings and tails are so long.

Swallow-tailed kites live year round in South America but only visit the southern U.S. and Central America to breed. They eat mostly insects which they capture with their feet but supplement their diet with frogs, lizards and nestling birds during the nesting season.

I've seen solo kites returning to Florida in late February but my best experience was last month on the Road Scholar birding trip to Costa Rica.  We saw flocks of swallow-tailed kites and they were spectacular!

At a pond near the road to Agua Buena, three kites skimmed the water, drinking and bathing, as graceful as swallows.  They flew so low that we could see the bluish sheen on their backs.  Jon Goodwill photographed them in the flight.

Swallow-tailed kite, bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Swallow-tailed kite, bathing or drinking in flight (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Swallow-tailed kite bathing (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Swallow-tailed kite lifting off from its bath (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Swallow-tailed kite lifting off from its bath (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Later we took a detour ... and we were lucky.  Our guide Roger Melendez saw a pair of kites building a nest.  Bert Dudley zoomed his camera for this video of the female arranging the sticks. (You can hear us talking in the background.)



I would love to show you the beautiful flight of these graceful birds. This video of three man-made kites flown by Ray Bethell is the closest approximation.

Swallow-tailed kites are so graceful.


(top photo from Wikimedia Commons, bathing and drinking photos by Jon Goodwill, video by Bert Dudley. Click on the images to see the originals)

Golden Sky Dance


Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are the most widely distributed eagle on earth, found in North America, Eurasia and even northern Africa.

During the nesting season they perform a climb-and-plunge "sky dance" to warn other eagles away from their territory. This video from Cornell Lab shows a spectacular sky dance filmed in the western U.S.

Golden eagles prefer to nest in wide open habitats without humans.  They don't breed in the eastern U.S., probably because it's too densely populated.  So when you see the "sky dance" in Pittsburgh you're watching a male red-tailed hawk claim his territory.

Red-tailed hawks are closely related to golden eagles but neither one of them is related to bald eagles.  Click here to find out why.


(video on YouTube from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology channel)

The Falcon’s Laugh

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)
Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

On my trip to Costa Rica I wanted to see a laughing falcon. And then I wanted to hear it.

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) are very vocal birds that live in Central and South America from Mexico to northern Argentina.  They specialize in eating snakes -- even poisonous ones -- which they kill by biting off the heads.  Ch'ol Maya legend says the birds can cure themselves of snake bites. And yet, the birds sound spooky.

At dusk laughing falcons raise their voices in advertisement calls or duets.  They start with a gwa call, getting louder and louder, that usually morphs into two syllables: gwa co.

One evening before dinner at Las Cruces Biological Station, Bert Dudley filmed this laughing falcon warming up at dusk.  Click here to hear.

The two-syllable call gave the bird its common name, halcón guaco, but those calls don't sound like laughing.

Here is his laugh:

"Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans)" from xeno-canto by Mario Trejo. Genre: Falconidae.


The falcon only "laughs" when he's worried or upset.


(photo and video by Bert Dudley)

Red-tailed Hawks Adjust Their Plans

Red-tailed hawk (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Red-tailed hawk, 2012 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

If you don't look at all the data you'll probably be fooled.

For the past 30 years the number of red-tailed hawks migrating past hawk watches has declined across North America except at certain western sites.  With only this information to go on, you'd think that the species is in trouble.

But Neil Paprocki of HawkWatch International and his colleagues looked further. They compared hawk watch counts to the data gathered during Christmas Bird Counts in December-January and found that since 1984 red-tailed hawks have stayed in northern latitudes in much greater numbers.  They noted that red-tail counts declined at 43% of the hawk watches and increased on 67% of the Christmas Bird Counts.

As the climate warms and the winters are milder there's less snow cover in the northern latitudes so it's easier for the hawks to find food.  Fewer of them are bothering to travel south.

Red-tailed hawks are adjusting their plans.


Read more about the study here in The Condor: Combining migration and wintering counts to enhance understanding of population change in a generalist raptor species, the North American Red-tailed Hawk.  Laurie Goodrich of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was a member of the study team.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

Ornate From Head To Toe

Ornate hawk-eagle legs, Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)
Legs of the ornate hawk-eagle, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Museums inspire me.

The first time I saw the ornate hawk-eagle specimen at Carnegie Museum I didn't even know the bird existed.  Its beauty impressed me (ornate legs shown above) and that was before I learned what he can do with his head feathers!  (photo below from Wikimedia Commons)

I hoped to see this bird in the wild some day, but I never expected it would happen.

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagles (Spizaetus ornatus) live in the rainforest from southeastern Mexico to Colombia but are rarely seen.  Their numbers are declining because of deforestation, so it was quite a thrill when our Road Scholar birding group saw one at San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica on 4 February 2017.  We learned afterward that none had been seen in the area since a flyover two years before and prior to that 10 years.  We were very lucky.

This video tribute to Dr. Alexander Skutch displays the beauty of these majestic birds as they nest in Costa Rica.  The video text is in Spanish. Thank you to our guide, Roger Melendez, for assisting with the English translation below.


Ornate hawk-eagle voices are similar to those of bald eagles and ospreys.  The chick in the video, like other raptor fledglings, begs with the familiar open-wing-whining stance.

Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary is a 192 acre reserve in Costa Rica that once served as the home and outdoor laboratory of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch.

Translation of Spanish text in the video:

  • "Rapaces ..."   Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica: For Knowledge and Conservation of Birds of Prey
  • "Así ..."   So, when the coffin [of Dr. Skutch] approached Los Cusingos, on the branch of a tree at the side of the road was a most beautiful hawk [an ornate hawk-eagle] with outstretched wings.
  • "Ave muy ..."  [This] bird is very difficult to see in this area, for which Dr. Alexander felt a particular affection.  -- Luko Hilge, 2004, regarding the death of Alexander F. Skutch ("Farewell of birds"), from Alexander Skutch, The Last Great Naturalist?
  • "Dia" means Day.   Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 ... since the egg was laid.
  • "Compartimos ... "  We share with you a fragment of the life of the ornate hawk-eagle, from its incubation to its first adventures around the nest, always with the hope of passing on to the viewer that "spark" of appreciation and conservation of our wonderful birds of prey.
  • Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica.
    • Video and Editing -- Chris Jiménez
    • Collaboration -- Pablo Comacho


(video by Chris Jiménez on YouTube)

Hays Eagle Nest Tree Went Down In Storm

A hole in the view where the Hays eagle nesting tree used to be (screenshot from the Hays Eaglecam via ASWP's Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebok page)
There's a big gap where the Hays eagle nest tree used to be, 12 Feb 2017, 10:00pm (screenshot from Hays Eaglecam via ASWP's Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebook page)

Hays bald eagle news flash!

Last night around 9:34pm the Hays bald eagle nest tree fell during a terrific wind storm.

The female bald eagle was on the nest at the time, incubating the egg she laid last Friday evening.  Archived video shows she flew away before the tree fell. Reports from the trail, awaiting confirmation, say that both eagles were seen flying so they are fine.

We are waiting for dawn to find out more.

ASWP will visit the site and provide news updates at the pittsburgheagles Facebook page here: Bald Eagles in Western Pennsylvania - Audubon Society of Western PA.

My thoughts about the timing of this incident:  It is good news that this happened very early in the nesting season. There were no chicks in the nest and it is so early that there is still time for the adults to re-nest nearby.

ASWP Press Release and Facebook updates as of 6:30am, 13 Feb 2017:

[Hays, PA, February 12, 2017, approx 10:00pm] – It appears that the tree that is home to the Hays Bald Eagle nest has been damaged in tonight’s wind storm. From our Bald Eagle camera view, at, the tree is no longer visible.

“The tree was impacted by tonight’s storm and we will need to wait until daylight to get onsite and determine what has happened,” says Jim Bonner, executive director, Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. The status of the nest and the eagles cannot be verified until daylight, when Audubon can safely visit the site.

We will continue to keep the media updated on the status of the nest and the Bald Eagles. Please see below a screen shot of the current view from the camera. The tree and the nest are not visible.

[Update from ASWP at approx. 11:00pm via Facebook]

Update: Just reviewed the archives, the tree fell at 9:34 pm. Looks like the female was on the nest. She was awake at the time and flew off of the nest as the tree fell out of view. These are admittedly not the world's best screen grabs, but you can see the eagle awake just as the tree starts to go, then getting off of the nest as the tree goes down.

[Update from Annette Devinney via Facebook, 13 Feb 2017, 7:15am]

Hays bald eagle nest tree blew over at its root (screenshot from
Hays bald eagle nest tree blew over at its root (screenshot from

The tree fell over at the root ball.  My comment on this: The ground was extremely soggy after 4" of snow melted all at once on Saturday.  It's very common for trees to fall like this when the ground is soggy.


Update from my visit to the Hays Trail, Mon Feb 13, 4:20pm:

Many people are visiting the Hays Eagle Viewing Site to check out the eagles' status. About 8 people were in the vicinity when I arrived at 4:00pm. I'm happy to report that the eagle pair is doing well and easily seen flying, perching, hunting and mating. The male brought sticks in his talons a couple of times while I was there so they are already thinking about a nest. If I was to lay bets ... I bet that a month from now they'll have a new nest in the vicinity of the old one and she'll lay eggs again. I'd also bet (based on the lack of big trees within nestcam view) that we won't be able to see it on camera. Hopefully they'll pick a site we can see easily from the trail.



(screenshot from Hays Eaglecam via ASWP's Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebook page. Screenshot from PixController via Annette Devinney)

A Falcon That Eats Bats

Bat falcon (photo by Joao Quental via Wikimedia Commons)
Bat falcon (photo by Joao Quental via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

There are more members of the Falcon family here in Costa Rica than in North America (*). Though some species are the same I expect to see at least three Life Bird Falconidae while I'm here: the yellow-headed caracara, the laughing falcon, and the bat falcon.

Like other members of the family, bat falcons (Falco rufigularis) capture birds and flying insects in mid air but they also capture bats. This earned them their name even though bats make up only 14% of their diet.

About the size of merlins, bat falcons live in open woodlands and tropical forests from Mexico to Brazil.  Because they hunt for bats they're often seen at dawn and dusk perching high on conspicuous snags and bobbing their heads as they look for prey. Their flight is so fast and direct that they focus on eating the fastest birds:  swifts, swallows and hummingbirds (oh my!).

During the breeding season bat falcons are very vocal and sound almost like kestrels.  Hear their calls in these videos at the Handbook of Birds of the World.

So in the days ahead I'll be checking all the bare treetops for a charcoal gray falcon with a dark face, white neck, and strikingly reddish belly, legs and undertail coverts.

Bat falcon in Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bat falcon in Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I'll be extremely lucky if I see one catch a bat.


12 members of Falconidae in Costa Rica: 3 Forest-falcons (barred, slaty-backed, collared), 3 Caracaras (red-throated, crested, yellow-headed), 1 Laughing falcon, 5 Falcos (American kestrel, merlin, aplomado falcon, bat falcon, peregrine).

7 members of Falconidae in North America: 1 Caracara (crested), 6 Falcos (American kestrel, merlin, aplomado falcon, peregrine, prairie falcon, gryfalcon).


(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Day 2: Tárcoles River birding

Seasonal Movements: One Owl

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I mentioned that a pileated woodpecker lives in Schenley Park, but only in the winter.  Here's another bird that seems to do the same thing.

On sunny days this eastern screech-owl perches motionless in an unusual tree opening.  He's not there every day in winter, but he's never there when spring comes.

Though the range maps says eastern screech-owls live in Pittsburgh year round, this individual bird probably lives in Schenley during the winter and goes somewhere else to nest.

Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)
Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)


Sorry ... I'm not going to tell you exactly where he is because too much public attention will scare him off.  And if you find him, please don't publicize his location for the same reason.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  In January this blog has 400-700 readers a day.  That's a lot of public attention.

Eagle Season Is Warming Up

Bald eagle pair at their nest in Hays, 11 Jan 2017 (photo from the Hays Eaglcam thanks to PixController and ASWP)
Bald eagle pair at Hays nest, 11 Jan 2017 (photo from Hays Eaglecam at ASWP's Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page)

Pennsylvania's bald eagle season is warming up.  Eagle pairs are visiting their nests and the first egg in Pittsburgh is only four weeks away.  Here's how to stay in touch while we wait for that happy event.

Two Pittsburgh eaglecams -- Hays and Harmar -- are up and running thanks to the collaboration of Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP), PixController and the PA Game Commission.  The cams are on ASWP's Eaglecam website including links to Bald Eagle Q&A and Educator Resources.

  • The Hays eaglecam in the City of Pittsburgh is broadcasting all day but not overnight until February because its solar batteries aren't getting enough sun. (No surprise in Pittsburgh's overcast winter.)
  • The Harmar eaglecam above Route 28 near the Oakmont Bridge is currently running overnight but may need to go into No-Night mode for the same reason.
  • You can Chat about eagles with other watchers by clicking on the chat button to the left of the camera views.

If you missed a few days of activity and want to catch up, visit ASWP's Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page for recent news.  The Hays photo (above) and screenshot (below) are from their January 11 Facebook post.

Screenshot from Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page (click on the image to see the post on Facebook)
Screenshot from Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page (click on the image to see this post on Facebook)


The eagles aren't always on camera, though, and the nestcams don't show them in flight.  When the weather's fine you can see a lot from the ground.  Click here for directions to the Hays viewing area or see excellent photos online by Annette Devinney and Dana Nesiti, two of the many photographers who visit our Pittsburgh area eagles.

So keep on watching in the days ahead.  If history is any guide, the first egg will appear at Hays February 14-20.

It won't be long now!


(photo and screenshot from ASWP's Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page; click on the images to see the Facebook post)