Archive for the 'Birds of Prey' Category

Dec 18 2015

Snowy Owls At Sea

Snowy Owl, Amherst Island, 2008 (photo by Kim Steininger)

Snowy Owl, Amherst Island 2008 (photo by Kim Steininger)

(A day late for Throw Back Thursday…)

Did you know that some snowy owls stay on the Arctic Ocean all winter?  Seven years ago satellite tracking technology revealed their unusual lifestyle.

Read more about the snowy owls who live on ice in the dark in this 2008 article:  Surprise! We hunt at sea.


p.s. Ever since the snowy owl irruption of 2013-2014, Project Snowstorm has satellite tagged and tracked some of the snowy owls who visit the Lower 48 States.  Click here to see maps and follow their stories of these amazing birds.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Dec 16 2015

Where Do The Golden Eagles Go?

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

In late autumn birders visit the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, hoping this iconic bird will fly by.  On a good day more than 30 golden eagles migrate past the site.

After years of observation we now take for granted that golden eagles use the Allegheny Front as a migration corridor but that wasn’t always the case.

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) occur worldwide in the northern hemisphere but their stronghold in North America is in the American West.  They’re rarely seen in the East so it was a surprise when people saw so many at the Allegheny Front.

Where were they coming from?  Where were they going?

The answers remained a mystery until 2006-2007 when Dr. Todd Katzner, Dr. Trish Miller and Michael Lanzone, fore-runners of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group (EGEWG), fitted a few eagles with satellite transmitters.  The data showed those birds bred in Quebec and spent the winter in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

This tantalizing information got a boost when the group upgraded their tracking equipment.  Beginning in 2008 most of the birds were fitted with GPS-GSM units that record more frequent data points and transmit over the cell network.

Here’s an EGEWG map from Katzner Lab showing movements of 14 golden eagles, Spring 2012 to Winter 2013.  These eagles were fitted with GPS-GSM units.  (Solid lines are winter/summer homes; dashed lines are migration.)

Golden eagle movements in eastern North America, satellite telemetry, Spring 2012-Winter 2013, part 2 (map courtesy of Katzner Lab)

Golden eagle movements in eastern North America, satellite telemetry, Spring 2012-Winter 2013, part 2 (map courtesy of Katzner Lab)

Thanks to many years of tracking, we now know that the golden eagles of eastern North America breed in Canada and spend the winter in the southern and central Appalachians.  This information, plus on-going research, helps protect the eagles and their habitat.

Click here to view maps at Katzner Lab and find out where the golden eagles go.


(photo by Michael Lanzone, Cellular Tracking Technologies)

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Dec 09 2015

Get Ready For Eagle Season

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald eagle at Hays, PA, 21 Nov 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)

Bald eagle at Hays, PA, 21 Nov 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)

Though it’s only December, Pittsburgh area bald eagles are getting ready for nesting season. They’re starting now because the females will lay eggs in February.

Those who don’t have a nest site are scouting new territories and those who do are staying near home to keep the scouts away.  Meanwhile the immature set, ages 1-3, are loafing where the fishing is good up and down the rivers.

At the Hays bald eagle nest site, Dana Nesiti has been photographing the eagles whenever he can.  He took this beautiful photo on November 21.  Click on it to see more of his work at Eagles of Hays PA Facebook page.

Up the Allegheny at Tarentum, observers have seen lots of peregrine-eagle interactions since a pair of bald eagles moved into the area.  Even though the female peregrine, Hope, left Tarentum for Pitt, a single peregrine is still present at the bridge.  Mary Ann Thomas wrote about it at TribLive here.

So if you haven’t already, now’s the time to start looking for eagles along our rivers.  Check out the established nesting territories at Hays, Dashields Dam, and Harmar.  Keep your eyes peeled for new pairs at Tarentum and beyond.

Get ready for eagle season!


(photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)

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Dec 03 2015

Bald Eagles Hunting

Published by under Birds of Prey

(Only a day late for Throw Back Thursday. It’s been a busy week!)

Back in November 2008 I wrote about PBS NATURE’s premier of American Eagle, an intimate look at our nation’s iconic bird.

American Eagle is rarely broadcast now and the full episode is no longer available online, but this segment is.  It shows bald eagles hunting waterfowl on the Upper Mississippi in the fall.

Coots have a bad time in the video but the eagles are stupendous. 🙂


(YouTube video from the PBS Channel)

p.s. Click here for more information at PBS NATURE.  You can buy the DVD here.

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Dec 01 2015

National Aviary Vulture On The Tonight Show!

In case you missed it …

On November 11 a black vulture from the National Aviary made her debut on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  Chris Packham introduced Jimmy to two hyenas and then at the 2:00 minute mark …

Woo hoo!


(YouTube video from The Tonight Show)

p.s. Congratulations to the vulture (I forget her name) who’s famous in the daily Flight Shows at the National Aviary and to all the people who made her debut possible.

p.p.s  I’m not so sure Jimmy Fallon likes vultures.  What do you think?

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Nov 07 2015

The Right Wind

The view from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (photo by Kate St. John)

The view from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (photo by Kate St. John)

Though many birds have migrated away from Pennsylvania our hawk watch sites are still going strong.  November brings more red-tails, sharp-shinned hawks, and this month’s main attraction — golden eagles.

The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, pictured above, was particularly good for golden eagles earlier this week (27 of them on Tuesday!) when the wind was from the southeast.


It doesn’t make sense that we’d watch hawks flying into a head wind until you realize that this beautiful view at the Allegheny Front is facing east.  There’s no mountain edge on the west, just the Allegheny Plateau, so the best winds for watching are those with an easterly component that create an updraft and lift the hawks right above our heads.

Yesterday the weather changed, so the wind is now from the west and north. Other sites will be better for hawk watching.

Today and tomorrow, 11/7 and 11/8, the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology is visiting Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch near Carlisle, PA.  This site is on a ridgetop with great views in all directions and lots of raptors passing through in November, especially on a northwest wind.  At this time of year Waggoner’s Gap often has the highest hawk count of any watch in the state.

For the best raptor viewing, pick a site with the right wind.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 30 2015

Bald Eagle Rendezvous

If you’re a fan of bald eagles, here’s a site to put on your travel plans for next month.

Every November bald eagles congregate on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam just south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland.  Eagles like the area because the fish are easy to catch after they pass through the dam’s gateway.  We like the area because there are so many bald eagles and it’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

As you can see from the video above, it’s a popular place for photography.

If you don’t mind crowds and want to see a wide selection of raptors, visit on Saturday November 14, 2015 for Conowingo’s Bald Eagle Day.

Here’s a video from last year’s event.  Yes, there are crowds but you’ll see cool birds, too.

For more information, follow Conowingo Bald Eagles on Facebook and click here for event information.


(videos from YouTube)

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Oct 26 2015

Up Close With Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Did you know that tiny owls are passing through Pittsburgh right now?

Northern saw-whet owls are 7-8″ long, weigh little more than a robin, and have big yellow eyes.  They live in wooded habitats where they’re fierce predators of white-footed and deer mice.  Though small (and cute) they have “attitude.”

Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

From mid October to December saw-whet owls migrate at night from their breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. to points south.  Each one travels alone but not very fast.  Individual owls average 10km (6.2 miles) per night and tend to reuse the same route year after year.  Every four years the species irrupts in large numbers.

We know this because of Project Owlnet, a continental network of researchers investigating owl migration, founded by owl researcher David Brinker in 1994.  In 2011 Brinker analyzed 10 years of fall banding data (81,584 owls banded!) and published his findings in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.   Click here to read the fascinating results.

Pittsburgh joined Project Owlnet in Fall 2013 thanks to ornithologist Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary.  Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night from mid October to early December — weather permitting — Bob and his volunteers set up mist nets and play the owl’s call from dusk to midnight at Sewickley Heights Borough Park.

Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)

Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)

Pittsburgh’s not a main migration corridor so there are nights when no owls show up but it’s exciting when they do.  Thursday October 21 was quite a success as Bob wrote on Facebook,

Our second night of owl banding produced our second owl of the season! And lots of folks on hand to be delighted by it! A few Orionid shooting stars, a continually calling Barred Owl, and a couple of coyotes howling in the distance made for another “Who knew urban ecology could be so wild!?” kind of night.

You’re welcome to attend Pittsburgh’s Project Owlnet. Dress warmly (bring a blanket!) and show up any time.  Be sure to read more here before you go!

Now’s the time to see saw-whet owls up close.


p.s. If you can’t make it out to the park you can still support the project by “adopting” a saw-whet owl on the National Aviary website.  Click here to read more.

(photo of owl in hand by Doug Cunzolo, photo of owl face by Bob Mulvihill, photo of Bob Mulvihill with owl by June Bernard)

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Oct 16 2015

Young Eagles Eat Junk Food

Juvenile bald eagle hunting in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

Juvenile bald eagle hunting for fish (photo by Chuck Tague)

For juvenile bald eagles the first year of life is the hardest.  Fresh from the nest where their parents fed them, they’re off on their own hunting for food with almost no practical experience.  Every day is a new challenge.

The first order of business is Learn To Fish, but that’s easier said than done. Fortunately they have other options. They can munch down on carrion, grab food from others, or even eat junk food.

Junk food?

In the September issue of The Journal of Raptor Research the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) analyzed the daily movements of 64 satellite-tagged bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region with an eye on their use of landfills.  With five years of data and 72 landfills the study found some interesting stuff.

A flock "Down in the dumps" at a Florida landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

“Down in the dumps” at the landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

For starters, 10% of the landfills were really popular and garnered 75% of the bald eagles’ use.  The landfills closest to eagle roosts were the favorites.  I imagine eagles like the convenience of a breakfast or bedtime snack.

Landfill use was much more common among the young.  Compared to adults, hatch year bald eagles visited 6 times as often, second year birds 4 times as often, and third/fourth year birds 3 times as often as adults.  Even so, there were individuals in various age groups who were obviously hooked.

It appears that bald eagles give up the landfill habit as they get better at fishing.

Junk food is for the young. 😉

Read more about the eagle study here at the Center for Conservation Biology.


(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 25 2015

Bald Eagle Takes Selfie on Stolen Camera

Bald eagle screenshot from Mason Colby's video on YouTube

More than a year ago Mason Colby decided to film bald eagles in Craig, Alaska by setting up his Go Pro camera next to some salmon heads.

Things were going well until an immature bald eagle stole the camera!  Mason wrote on YouTube:

Set up my go pro next to some salmon heads from the days catch to film the eagles eating and next thing I know, one of them swoops down and snags the camera right off the ground. It carried it up to a mile away and I lost sight of it. For four hours we searched in the rain until I finally found it and the camera was still intact. So glad I got the footage!

Click on the screenshot to see what happened.


(screenshot from Mason Colby on YouTube. This video was featured by JunkinVideo on 3 Sept 2015)

p.s. Bald eagles are more plentiful and gregarious in Alaska than in Pennsylvania except for this once-a-year exception: They congregate at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna in November, just south of PA in Maryland.

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