May 16 2017

Peregrine Banding Events: Today and Tomorrow

Dori feeds three peregrine chicks at the Gulf Tower, 15 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

Dori feeds three peregrine chicks at the Gulf Tower, 15 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

Today, 16 May 2017, is banding day for the peregrine falcon chicks at the Cathedral of Learning (10am) and Gulf Tower (2pm).  These two events are closed to the public but you can come to an open event tomorrow.

The excitement begins today at 10:00am at the Cathedral of Learning when Dan Brauning of the Pennsylvania Game Commission goes out on the ledge to retrieve Hope and Terzo’s three chicks.  They’ll receive health checks and leg bands and be returned to the nest in less than half an hour.  UPDATE: 1 male, 2 females.

Hope feeds three chicks at the Cathedral of Learning,15 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope feeds three chicks at the Cathedral of Learning,15 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

 

This afternoon it’s the Gulf Tower’s turn at 2:00pm when Dan retrieves Dori and Louie’s three chicks, pictured at top.  The camera is zoomed too close for this event so you’ll miss some of the action but you’ll certainly hear it on the falconcam.  As you can see below, there’s a lot of nest area at the Gulf Tower that we can’t see.  We’ll zoom out the camera this week.

Ooops! The Gulf Tower falconcam will have to be zoomed out soon (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Ooops! We can’t see the entire scene. The Gulf Tower falconcam will be zoomed out soon (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

UPDATE: 3 females at Gulf.

 

Tomorrow, with PennDOT’s help and a bucket truck, Dan will band peregrines at the McKees Rocks Bridge (9:30am) and the Neville Island I-79 Glenfield Bridge (UPDATE! approximately 1:00pm, after lunch).

You’re welcome to view the I-79 Glenfield Bridge banding from the park-n-ride below the bridge on Neville Island.  Click here for directions.

 

Curious about what banding is and why peregrine falcons are banded in Pennsylvania? Click here to read more.

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning)

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May 15 2017

This Week: Flycatchers and More Warblers

Published by under Migration

Least flycatcher, near Point Pelee, Ontario (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Least flycatcher, near Point Pelee, Ontario (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bird migration continues in western Pennsylvania. Here’s what’s on tap this week.

Flycatchers wait until warm weather brings out the flying insects so we should expect them soon. On Wednesday it’ll be 90 degrees!

Watch and listen for Empidonax flycatchers:  least, acadian, willow and alder.  All of them are small, drab olive birds with wing bars.  They look alike but you can tell them apart by voice.   Included below are summary descriptions from Cornell’s All About Birds.

Pictured above is the least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus), the smallest of the four.  All About Birds calls him “a small drab flycatcher of open woods.”  He sings, “Che-BEK”

 

The acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) looks like the least flycatcher but he’s larger and greener.  Find him along streams and in deciduous forests. His voice is an explosive “PEET sah!”

 

The willow flycatcher (Empidonax trailii) prefers wet brushy sites and sings “fitz-bew.”    On Sunday I checked for willow flycatchers at one of their favorite sites, the Duck Hollow end of Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run Trail.  They hadn’t arrived yet.

 

And finally, the alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum) is so similar to the willow flycatcher that they used to be the same species.  The only way to tell them apart is by voice.  All About Birds describes the alder’s song as “a harsh, ripping “f-bee-oo.”  Good luck!

 

We’ll also see some “eye candy” this week.  Here are two warblers to watch for.

Mourning warbler, Forest County, PA, 13 May 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Mourning warbler, Forest County, PA, 13 May 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

This mourning warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia) was already in Forest County, Pennsylvania when Tony Bruno photographed him last weekend.  Mourning warblers prefer to skulk in dense vegetation so you’ll hear them before you see them.

 

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) could be confused with black-and-white warblers but they have solid black caps and solid white faces.  No stripes there!   Blackpolls sing a high pulsing song which All About Birds calls nature’s hearing test. I’ve included the sonogram below so you can see when it plays. Can you hear it?  I can’t any more. (There’s a Swainson’s thrush in the background of this recording.)

 

 

(photo credits:
least flycatcher from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
mourning warbler by Anthony Bruno
blackpoll warbler by Chuck Tague
)

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May 14 2017

No Birds Here

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Early this month I wrote about the decline of nighthawks, swifts and swallows and the parallel decline of their food supply, flying insects.  Why are insects declining?  In a comment Gene suggested that, in addition to insecticides, herbicides play a role.  Here’s why that makes sense.

I’m a city person so farm practices are somewhat mysterious to me.  Nonetheless, in the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in how the fields look in the spring.  They used to green up with the rest of the landscape but now most of them are brown and as empty as parking lots like the one shown above.  There are no birds here, no swallows wheeling overhead.

The fields look different because herbicides are used to control the weeds. There are different poisons for different crops — for instance one for soybeans, another for corn — and the crops are engineered so they can grow in the presence of specific poisons.

Herbicides are a very labor saving device.  When applied in the fall they keep the fields weed free all winter right up to spring planting.  Consequently, the fields don’t have to be tilled (that’s why they look like parking lots).  The absence of plants means there are no insects, another benefit for the crop.

As the growing season begins you can tell where herbicide has been used because there’s a stark mechanical line between treated fields and the neighboring untreated landscape.

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Here’s a field where there are birds.

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, those plants are weeds.  They will probably be treated with herbicide soon and the field will turn from green to yellow as they die.

Because of herbicides and insecticides, large scale farming takes less work.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are truly empty now.  No plants.  No insects.  No birds here.

 

p.s. As I say, I’m a city person and don’t know much about farming so if I’ve got it wrong please leave a comment to correct me.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 13 2017

This Is Not Bamboo

Published by under Plants

Horsetail stems, Equisetum hyemale, Enlow Fork, 28 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Horsetail stems, Equisetum hyemale, Enlow Fork, 28 Apr 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

If you search Google using this image it returns photos of bamboo, but that’s not what it is.  This Pennsylvania native is one of the oldest species on earth.

Scouringrush horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) is one of 20 species of Equisetum, the only remaining genus in an ancient class of plants. According to Wikipedia, the plants of Equisetopsida were much more diverse during the Paleozoic era when they dominated the understory ranging from small plants to large trees.  Most went extinct during the Permian–Triassic extinction event that occurred long before the dinosaurs.  Through it all, Equisetum survived.

Equisetum hyemale‘s hollow evergreen stems grow three feet tall with longitudinal ridges that are high in silica.  This makes them useful for scouring and polishing pots and pans, giving the plant additional names such as rough horsetail, scouring rush, and pewterwort.

Horsetail tip, Equisetum hyemale, Enlow Fork, 28 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Horsetail, Equisetum hyemale, Enlow Fork, 28 April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Believe it or not, the plant has tiny leaves at the joints (between the green sections) and reproduces from spores, not flowers.  It also spreads aggressively in dense stands via underground runners.  Above, you can see a stobilus that creates the spores.

Native to the northern hemisphere this useful plant was transported to South Africa and Australia to scour pots and pans.  Instead it became invasive.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 12 2017

Falcons Help Farmers

How Falcons Protect Vineyards (screenshot from CBS)

How Falcons Protect Vineyards (screenshot from CBS. Click on the image to see the video)

If you grow a crop that tastes good to birds how do you protect it?  Hire a falcon!

Last month CBS News featured a video about an innovative way to chase starlings out of a vineyard.  The falcon in the video was specifically raised as a falconry bird.  It’s a hybrid gyrfalcon-peregrine.

Click here or on the screenshot above to see “How falcons protect vineyards” on CBS News.

Note: There are 15 seconds of promotional video ahead of the falcon piece.

 

(screenshot from CBS News. Click on the image to watch the video)

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May 11 2017

Tents In The Trees

Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

On Throw Back Thursday:

In May we see white tents in the trees made by some incredibly social caterpillars.

“Social” caterpillars?  Find out more in this vintage article from 2009.

Tents

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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May 10 2017

Watch Robins Nesting

Father robin looks at his nestlings (screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab). Click on the image to watch the nestcam

Father robin looks at his eggs and nestlings, 8 May 2017 (screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab). Click on the image to watch the nestcam.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) live and nest near us but they’re so common that we often don’t notice them.  Here’s an opportunity to watch a robin’s nest up close.

On Monday May 8, Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the first hatchling at its American Robin Nestcam in Ithaca, New York.  Baby robins take only 12-14 days to fledge so there will be lots of activity between now and May 20-22.

When I tuned in this morning before dawn there was no adult on the nest.  I know so little about robin behavior that I was full of questions.  Are the chicks already past the brooding stage so they don’t need an adult overnight? Was the mother up early to look for food? Or did something happen to her?  I’ll have to watch and find out.

Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab’s Sapsucker Woods.  The wesbite includes screenshots and videos of their daily activity.

 

p.s. You can tell the male and female apart using this subtle characteristic: The male’s head and face are very black. The head and face of the female is much less black, shading toward brown.

(screenshot from American Robin Nestcam at Cornell Lab’s Sapsucker Woods. Click on the image to see the nestcam)

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May 09 2017

Pittsburgh Peregrine News, 9 May 2017

Feeding time at the Gulf Tower, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

Feeding time at the Gulf Tower, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

News from Pittsburgh’s two “on camera” peregrine falcon families:

  • Dori and Louie + 3 chicks (G1, G2, G3) hatched 19 April at the Gulf Tower,
  • Hope and Terzo + 3 chicks (C6, C7, C8) hatched 25 April at the Cathedral of Learning.

 

The Gulf Tower chicks are three weeks old and growing their juvenile feathers.  Because of this they now have “faces” and pin feathers visible on the edge of their wings (above).

Are you worried that the parents aren’t nearby because you can’t see them on camera?  In Lori Maggio’s photo (below) Louie and Dori are both looking at the nest on the left but you can’t see them on camera because it’s zoomed in.  No matter how widely we zoom the camera view, you’ll never see Dori when she’s perched on top of it.

Louie and Dori perch near the nest but you can't see them on camera, 3 May 2017 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Louie and Dori perch near the nest but you can’t see them on camera, 3 May 2017 (photo by Lori Maggio)

 

 

Across town at the Cathedral of Learning the chicks are two weeks old and very well fed. They’re getting feather tracts under their down which makes them look as if they have lines under the white fluff.

Feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

Feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

Above, one chick is full so he’s “excused himself from the table.” Later he changes his mind and comes back for more.

Feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

Feeding time at the Cathedral of Learning, a few minutes later on 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

Last weekend a reader asked if Terzo ever comes to the nest.  Yes he does. Often.  At the end of this feeding, Terzo arrived to shelter the chicks while Hope took out the garbage.

After the feeding, Terzo arrives and Hope takes out the garbage (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

After the feeding, Terzo arrives and Hope takes out the garbage (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

You can tell this is Terzo by looking at the white patch on his face. Terzo’s patch is all white and shaped like a heart.  Hope’s is “muddied” by gray at the top of the white.

Terzo with the chicks after they've eaten, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Terzo with the chicks after they’ve eaten, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

 

 

And finally, this Gulf Tower photo can teach us four things about young peregrines.

Four things to learn about peregrines, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Things to learn about peregrines, 7 May 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

  1. The chick who is still being fed is nearly full. His crop (in his throat) is bulging so much that it shows bare skin. Later in life his crop will still bulge when he’s full, but it will be covered with feathers.
  2. Two of the chicks have eaten enough and are no longer hungry. #2 is standing by, posed like a downy Buddha.
  3. Chick #3 is so full that he’s left for the opposite corner. Yes, the chicks can walk.
  4. Notice the two #4s by their feet:
    1. On the left, you see that the chick is resting on his heels rather than standing up on his toes like his mother does. This is normal for his age.
    2. The chick’s legs and toes are pale yellow. His mother’s are orange-yellow. Immature peregrines retain the pale color until they’re old enough to breed.

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning)

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May 08 2017

Birds On The Way This Week

Published by under Migration

Red-eyed vireo (photo by Shawn Collins)

Red-eyed vireo (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last weekend’s rain and north winds may have slowed down migration but the birds have to get here eventually.  Here are five of the many species to look for thanks to Birdcast’s Upper Midwest and Northeast forecast.

 

A few red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) are already here but the bulk of them are arriving this week. Warbler-sized with plain olive backs and white chests, their distinguishing feature is a charcoal eye line.  They do have red eyes, as shown in Shawn Collins’ photo above, but it’s unlikely you’ll see this because vireos are usually high among the leaves.  Listen for their relentless song, “Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?”

 

Black-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) nest in contiguous forest but you might find one anywhere on migration. I saw one in Schenley Park last week.  About the size of a robin with a very long tail, they have plain taupe backs, plain white chests and black bills that set them apart from their yellow-billed cousins. Black-billed cuckoos have red eyes, too, but you’ll have to be as close as Steve Gosser’s photo if you want to see them.

Black-billed cuckoo (photo by Steve Gosser)

Black-billed cuckoo (photo by Steve Gosser)

How will you find a black-billed cuckoo? They often sit silently among the leaves but they move like no other bird.  Perched in a hunched position they jump from branch to branch with awkward flapping as they search for caterpillars.  If they were as large as the squirrel cuckoo of Central and South America, you’d say they move like squirrels.  Here’s the black-billed cuckoo’s song:

 

At last we’ll see a shorebird that’s easy to identify!  Dunlin (Calidris alpina) are due here this week. Most of the time dunlin are so plain that you have to identify them by size, shape and habits but in May they stand out as the only small rusty-backed shorebird with a black patch on its belly.

Dunlin in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dunlin in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch for bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) or you’ll miss them!  They nest in Canada so they’re only here for a few weeks in May.   With dark backs, black faces, cream-colored necks and a splash of rusty-red bay on their throats and sides these birds are truly “eye candy.”  Their song is so high-pitched that it’s almost beyond my audio range.  Click here to hear.

Bay-breasted Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Bay-breasted Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

Canada warblers (Cardellina canadensis) are arriving, too, but you’ll have a longer chance to see them.  As their name suggests they nest in Canada but they also breed in the forests of northern Pennsylvania and the Laurel Highlands. Look for their charcoal gray backs, yellow throats and bellies, and black necklaces. Unlike magnolia warblers they have no white accents.  Their song says, “Chip chuppety, swee ditchety.” Click here to hear.

Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Canada Warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

 

The birds will be hard to see now because the trees have so many leaves … but leaves attract bugs and that’s why the birds are here.

 

(photo credits:
red-eyed vireo by Shawn Collins,
black-billed cuckoo by Steve Gosser,
dunlin from Wikimedia Commons
bay-breasted warbler by Chuck Tague,
Canada warbler by Cris Hamilton
)

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May 07 2017

Tulips in the Trees

Published by under Trees

Tulip tree leaves and flower, 2 May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tulip tree leaves and flower, 2 May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

When a wind storm blew down a tuliptree branch in Oakland it gave me an opportunity to look at the flowers.

Tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are sometimes called “tulip poplars” but they’re actually in the magnolia family.  They’re one of the tallest trees in North America — up to 160 feet — and by the time they’re old enough to bloom at age fifteen they have no branches in the first 80-100 feet so we rarely see their flowers.

Like magnolias, tuliptree flowers are showy and attractive to bees — so attractive that they’re considered one of our major honey plants.

Here’s a closeup of the flower.

Closeup of tulip tree flower (photo by Kate St.John)

Closeup of tulip tree flower (photo by Kate St.John)

The petals are called “tepals” because they’re combined sepals+petals, the ancestral form of flowers.

Notice that they’re orange on both sides.

Side view of tulip tree flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Side view of tulip tree flower (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Why orange?  Bees can’t see red so why do the flowers have orange accents?  Are the flowers hoping for hummingbirds?

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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