Archive for the 'Birds of Prey' Category

Sep 14 2015

In Powered Flight

Merlin, eastern US (photo by Wm.H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

Merlin, eastern USA (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

This year in Maine I was lucky to see two merlins (Falco columbarius), each one a fleeting glance as the bird zoomed by on a mission.

The first one zipped past the Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch, pumping his wings the entire time.  We watchers had to think quickly.  His shape said “Falcon,” his size and dark color said “Not kestrel,” his powerful flapping said “Merlin!”  He was gone before we could say his name.

Merlins rarely pause and almost never soar.  Their flight style is a constant powerful flapping and they’re always very fast.  Compared to merlins, peregrines seem laid back and almost lazy.  Peregrines conserve energy for the split second when they need it.  Merlins burn energy all the time except for the moments they perch.

My second merlin offered a good comparison to a peregrine.  At low tide I visited the South Lubec sand flats to watch shorebirds.  A peregrine and merlin showed up to eat them.

The peregrine hazed the sand bar until all the flocks were airborne in tight evasive circles.  Then he flew through the flocks until he separated a bird alone and grabbed his dinner on the wing. He stopped to eat it on an island in the bay.

The merlin came out of nowhere.  Using the grass and goldenrods as a blind he pumped fast, low, and straight along the water’s edge.  The shorebirds were so surprised that most had no time to fly.  The merlin caught a slow bird and just kept going.  In powered flight, he didn’t stop to eat.


(photo by William H. Majoros, Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 05 2015

Today Is International Vulture Awareness Day

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, the day when we remember vultures under threat and thank them for saving us from disease.

International Vulture Awareness Day, 2015 logo

Originally founded by Birds of Prey Programme in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England this annual event teaches the benefits of vultures and our actions that threaten them.

The most famous vulture crisis happened at the turn of this century when public health officials, conservationists, and birders became alarmed that 95% of the vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal had died-off in only 15 years.  It was the fastest bird decline in history and became painfully obvious when the landscape was swamped by decaying animal carcasses.  Research revealed that the solution was rather simple: Ban diclofenac, a painkiller given to cattle that’s deadly to vultures.  The drug was banned in 2006 but vulture populations are severely damaged — down 99.9% — perhaps irretrievably.

Vultures in Africa and Europe are declining as well and could face extinction within our lifetime.  In Africa the threats are complex; click here to learn more.

If you think our vultures are secure, think again.  The largest land bird in North America, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), is a vulture and is so critically endangered that they’ve been captive-bred since 1987.  Every California condor you see today comes from that program.

California condor in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

California condor in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And in South America Andean condors are near-threatened.  You can see and learn about them at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary.

Thankfully our turkey and black vulture populations are stable, but we often don’t realize the good work they do for us.  They usually eat carcasses before we smell them and save us from the diseases harbored in rotting meat.  Did you know vultures can eat anthrax safely because their powerful stomachs protect them?  Thank you, vultures!

So when you see a vulture today give him a nod and thank him for his efforts.

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day!


(turkey vulture photo by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 04 2015

Well Over 1,000 Birds

Broad-winged hawks are on the move.  By the middle of this month their numbers will peak at Pennsylvania hawk watches.

In summer broad-winged hawks are secretive but by late August the birds have finished breeding and are ready to start their journeys to Central and South America.

Unlike most raptors, broad-wings travel in flocks, rising together in thermal updrafts, gliding out toward their destination.  At the bottom of the glide they find another thermal and rise again.  From a distance they look like rising bubbles so the flock is called a “kettle.”   The video above shows them gliding. Click here to read more about kettles.

Thermal updrafts are best over sun-heated land so the hawks avoid flying over lakes and oceans.  As they move south, the flocks grow in size and become concentrated at the northern edges of the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.  By the time they reach South Texas there are hundreds of birds per kettle and half a million broad-wing hawks per day.

To really see the sky filled with birds, visit the hawk watches at Corpus Christi, Texas or Veracruz, Mexico’s River of Raptors in the last week of September and the first week of October.

The video below shows broad-wings over Corpus Christi.  One kettle contains well over 1,000 birds!


(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo to see more information about the video)

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Aug 10 2015

Ospreys Getting Ready To Go

Immature osprey flying over the Duquesne nest (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Immature osprey flying over the Duquesne nest, 19 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The nesting season is over for most ospreys in Pennsylvania and some are already on the move.

In early August young ospreys stay close to home and practice their fishing skills under dad’s watchful eye, but it’s likely their mother has already left on migration.  This osprey family in Duquesne, PA is a case in point.

On July 19 Dana Nesiti photographed them when only two had fledged and their activity was still centered on the nest.

Immature osprey coming in for a landing at the Duquesne nest (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Immature osprey landing at the Duquesne nest while mom & siblings watch, 19 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

When Dana returned on July 25, all three had fledged and competition had intensified for their parents’ handouts.  Below, the youngster at right has food while two others squabble over a fish. The bird on the far left grabbed his sibling by the wing to pull him away. “Give it to me!”

"Give it to me!" juvenile osprey grabs his sibling's wing to get the fish (photo by Dana Nesiti)

“Give it to me!” juvenile osprey grabs his sibling’s wing to get the fish, 25 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The winner flew off with the live fish.

Juvenile osprey flies off with the prize -- a live fish (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Juvenile osprey flies off with the prize: a live fish, 25 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

But now more than two weeks later, the nest is not the focal point and the family will be hard to find.

Ospreys live in family groups during the breeding season but otherwise live alone.  The family starts to break up shortly after the young fledge.  Mom leaves before the kids are independent while dad stays behind to feed them for 10-20 days or more.  When the youngsters are self sufficient they leave, too.  Finally their father departs, 7 to 39 days after his lady left town.

Because they eat live fish North American ospreys don’t dare to linger where the water will freeze.  They spend the winter in Central and South America and the Caribbean, each at his own favorite place.  The adults won’t meet again until they return to their breeding territory.  The juveniles will stay south for two to three years before they come north to breed for the first time.

After this family has left Duquense we’ll see other ospreys passing through but “our” birds will be gone until next spring.


(photos by Dana Nesiti)

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Jul 24 2015

Learn About Burrowing Owls

This week a cute video of burrowing owls in Florida went viral on the web and prompted some questions about these adorable raptors.

Where do burrowing owls live?  What do they eat?  Was the Florida video taken in the wild?

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) range from North to South America in dry, open areas with short vegetation and no trees.  In the U.S. they live year-round in Florida, the Southwest and California and breed in the Western dry plains and high plateau.

These owls need wide open spaces but are not picky about humans nearby.  They’ll happily dig or take over an existing burrow in remote locations as well as parks, vacant lots, pastures and campuses (Florida Atlantic University).  So yes, that video in Florida with people in the background was taken in the wild.

Burrowing owls eat insects, rodents, snakes and whatever they can catch, but they are small so they are wary.  They look cute when they stand tall but they’re actually watching for large raptors and mammals that might eat them.

How small are they?  The video above shows a research project last summer at Boise State University in which the students learn to hold, measure and band the owls.  What a privilege to learn about burrowing owls up close!

Don’t miss the end of the video when the owlets are released near their burrow.  Yes, they really are cute.


p.s.  Click here if you haven’t seen the Florida video.

(YouTube video from Boise State University, Boise, Idaho)


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Jul 13 2015

Father-Daughter Pair in Norfolk

'Dad' and 'tHE Missus', Norfolk, Virginia (photos by Mike Inman, used by permission)

‘Dad’ and his mate ‘HE’ in Norfolk, Virginia, 2015 (photos by Mike Inman used by permission)

In a recent Peregrine FAQ I described how peregrine falcons are not social creatures like we are.  In fact most raptors don’t hang out with their relatives, so that siblings from different years and birds separated by more than one generation can’t know that they’re related.

Since they don’t know their relatives, how do raptors avoid interbreeding?  By traveling.

Young raptors naturally disperse far from home and females typically travel twice as far as males, thereby mixing the gene pool.  Here’s how far some of Pittsburgh’s peregrines traveled from where they were born:

  • Downtown Pittsburgh: Louie dispersed 2.3 miles, Dori traveled 93 miles from Akron, Ohio
  • Cathedral of Learning: E2 dispersed 2.3 miles, Dorothy traveled 450 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Neville Island I-79: Beau dispersed 10.7 miles, Magnum traveled 79 miles from Canton, Ohio

Bald eagles are much more social than peregrines. They fish and roost together in early winter but when it comes time to breed they disperse far and wide.  Close interbreeding among bald eagles is rare.

That’s why it was such a surprise to discover that this year’s pair nesting near Norfolk Botanical Garden is father and daughter.

The male is not banded but he has a unique tiny black dot in his left iris, called an inclusion, that’s visible in good photographs. This identified him as the 25-year-old male that used to nest in the Garden.

His mate is banded with the code “HE,” a band she received six years ago when she was a nestling at Norfolk Botanical Garden.  Yes, she’s his daughter.

Their close relationship was reported this spring by the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) that monitors bald eagles in Virginia and banded “HE” in 2009.   CCB’s blog article provides details and photos.

It’s unusual for a female to settle so close to her birthplace but this location has had many challenges.  After the old female was killed by an airplane at nearby Norfolk International Airport in 2011, eagles were no longer allowed to nest at the Garden.  The male and all his potential mates were harassed away.  Nine nests were destroyed.  All the females left. The male didn’t nest for three years.  (Click here for the story.)

Unusual as this pairing is, the good news is that he finally found a mate, they found a safe place to nest, and together they fledged one eaglet on May 29.

It all worked out in the end.


(photos of the NBG pair courtesy of Mike Inman,

p.s. As part of their monitoring efforts CCB recently identified a female bald eagle with an unusual story. Click here to read about ‘Dolly’, born at the Birmingham (Alabama) Zoo to injured, unreleasable parents, she now nests along the James River in Virginia.

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Jul 10 2015

Baby Owls in a Bird Bath

Published by under Birds of Prey

This week on PABIRDS Carole Winslow described a family of six eastern screech-owls roosting in her barn in Clarion County.  Right now the family is sticking together because the youngsters haven’t learned to hunt yet.

Carole’s report reminded me of this video of screech-owls at a bird bath.  Filmed in Texas in 2011, it shows an adult at the bath first, then a baby, then …  it’s a party.

It was 105 degrees that day so the owls stopped by for a drink.  Who knew that they bathed!


p.s. Both eastern and western screech-owls occur in Texas. Sibley’s Guide says they are similar and best identified by voice.  Tony Bledsoe listened to the video and identified the faint screen-owl voice as an eastern screech-owl.

Note:  The adults have lighter faces and ear tufts. The babies have round dark heads and faces.

(YouTube video by TexasChickens)


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Jul 04 2015

277 and Counting

Hays bald eagle carrying nesting material, March 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Hays bald eagle carrying nesting material, March 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

277.  That’s how many bald eagle nests there are in Pennsylvania this year. What an improvement since the time when there were only 3 nests back in 1983!

As the PA Game Commission explains:

“So far this year, 277 bald-eagle nests have been documented in Pennsylvania, with nesting eagles present in at least 58 of the state’s 67 counties.  That shatters the 2014 preliminary number of 254 nests, which also was an all-time high. And more nests remain to be counted as the year goes on.”

The count will go up, not because bald eagles are building new nests in July, but because observers will report additional nests in the days ahead.

Many people don’t realize that the nest count starts over every year. Nests that are used year after year must be reported again to be included in the count.

Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds section, says, “Even if nests are well known locally, please don’t hesitate to report them. You might be adding a new nest to the list, or making certain that one reported in a previous year is accurately counted this year.”

It’s easy to report a nest. Just email the Game Commission at with “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject line, or phone it in to your Game Commission Region Office or the Harrisburg headquarters.

Perhaps your report will help bald eagles break the 300 mark.


(photo of a bald eagle at Hays by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. Peregrine falcons are rare compared to bald eagles. There are only 45 peregrine nests statewide this year.

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Jun 23 2015

Another Piece of the Puzzle

Peregrine chick on the lawn with a red-tailed hawk (photo by Mike Meucci)

Red-tailed hawk looking at the Peregrine chick on the lawn, 21 June 2015, 11:26am. The lawn is big!  (photo by Mike Meucci)

What did the Pitt peregrine chick do when he flew on Sunday June 21 and when did he do it?

Yesterday I received some photos that filled in a piece of the puzzle.

On Sunday morning Mike Meucci was on campus near Heinz Chapel when he saw two birds of prey on the lawn. The two looked like an adult and youngster but they were actually a red-tailed hawk with Silver(*), the Pitt peregrine chick.  Unaware of their identity, Mike took several pictures.

The photos indicate that some time before 11:26am Silver had flown from the nest and landed with amazing accuracy in the roped off area where humans aren’t allowed to walk.  In the first photo you can see Fifth Avenue, Tennyson, and Alumni Hall in the background.

A red-tailed hawk came down to see the peregrine.  Notice the size difference.  Peregrine falcons are indeed smaller than red-tailed hawks.  And notice that their faces differ.  The peregrine has a malar stripe.

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

Fledgling peregrines are curious, not threatening, but Dorothy and E2 beat up the campus red-tailed hawks if they dare to fly above the treetops.  This hawk knows Silver’s parents well and keeps a low profile.

The red-tailed hawk scanned the sky a lot.  “I hope your parents don’t see me!”

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

“Just thinking about peregrines makes me raise my head feathers!”

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

Red-tailed hawk with Pitt peregrine chick, 21 June 2015, 11:27am (photo by Mike Meucci)

Unfazed by this encounter, Silver later walked to Heinz Chapel and climbed the steps where he was reported to and guarded by the Pitt Police.

When Fledge Watchers heard the peregrine chick was on the ground at 2:30pm we were temporarily confused because we never saw him fly.  (Of course! He was on the lawn more than half an hour before we began our watch at noon.)  And we wondered if the report was about a red-tailed hawk since they often stand on the ground.

Well, yes, there was a red-tailed hawk on the ground near Heinz Chapel … but that was three hours earlier.


(photos by Mike Meucci)

(*) A NOTE ABOUT THE BIRD’S NAME:  If you have questions/comments about the temporary name “Silver”  first read the information at these links: How peregrine chicks get temporary names and adults get permanent names, and How the name does not affect the bird’s destiny.  Please be sure to read the all comments at these links — all the way back to June 1 — as well as the name comments here before posting your own comment about names.  My apologies in advance, but if your comment was already asked/answered it will not be posted here.

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Jun 18 2015

TBT: Food For Thought

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Why are songbirds angry at squirrels?

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT), here’s some Food For Thought from June 2008.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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