Hacking Young Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine hack box at New River Gorge National River (photo in public domain from NPS, annotated by Kate St. John)
Peregrine hack box at New River Gorge National River (photo in public domain from NPS, annotated by Kate St. John)

Many of you ask about the status of Dori and Louie’s peregrine chicks, taken from their Downtown Pittsburgh nest on 8 May 2018.  I have no news of the chicks, but I do know the PA Game Commission planned to hack them at an undisclosed location.  Based on the chicks’ age, I think this would have happened in early June.

What is peregrine hacking?

Hacking is a falconry term for the process of introducing captive chicks without parents to independent free flight. The Peregrine Recovery Program used this method to restore peregrines to the wild after they went extinct east of the Mississippi. Every wild peregrine in the eastern U.S. is descended from one or more hacked birds.

The Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Virginia has four decades of experience in hacking peregrines.  Please read their excellent description of hacking, complete with photos from their program.

This brief description, partly drawn from ccbbirds.org, includes National Park Service photos from the Shenandoahs and New River Gorge.

A hack box, above, is prepared and placed on the cliff.  It has:

  • Grill-work on the cliff side so the chicks can see the sky and valley,
  • A door that opens on a safe ledge for wing exercising,
  • A chute for delivering food to the chicks.

Young peregrines are placed in the box after banding and before they are old enough to fly.  The box is kept closed at first for the chicks’ protection from great horned owls and other predators.

Peregrine chick being placed in hack box (photo by NPS via Center for Conservation Biology)
Peregrine chick being placed in hack box (photo by NPS via Center for Conservation Biology website)
Peregrine chicks in hack box (photo by NPS via Center for Conservation Biology website)
Peregrine chicks in hack box (photo by NPS via Center for Conservation Biology website)

 

The chicks are fed using the chute. (They don’t see humans feeding them.)

Using the chute to feed the chicks (photo from National Park Service, New River Gorge)
Using the chute to feed the chicks (photo from National Park Service, New River Gorge)

When they are old enough to ledge walk, the door is left open so they can walk out and exercise their wings.  They are still fed using the chute.

Eventually the chicks fly and learn to hunt. Food is delivered to the hack box until they are self sufficient.

Young peregrines flying before they disperse from the hack site (photo from National Park Service)
Young peregrines flying before they disperse from the hack site (photo from National Park Service)

When the fledglings are self sufficient they fly away (disperse).

We know they disperse far.  Three hacked birds from the Center for Conservation Biology program have come to Pittsburgh to nest.

 

(photos by the National Park Service from the New River Gorge National River hacking program and via the Center for Conservation Biology website)

 

Let’s Go, Kids

  • Uh oh! We've been seen.

Last week in Schenley Park I heard unusual mewing sounds above me.  Three raccoon kits were whining as their mother assessed whether I was dangerous. She saw me before I saw her family.

Eventually Mama decided her kits should move up the tree for safety’s sake.  “Let’s go, kids!”

After they were safely (almost) hidden she looked down to see if I was gone.  That tiny tail in the last photo is one of her kits.

(photos by Kate St. John)

 

Pleated Leaves

False hellebore leaves, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
False hellebore leaves, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

In the spring I often see large pleated leaves in the same damp places where skunk cabbage grows. For years I didn’t know what they were and I was lazy.  I couldn’t see any flowers and I wouldn’t wade into the swamp to key it out with my Newcomb’s Guide.

This week Dianne Machesney put me straight. This is false hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore is blooming this month and now I know why I never saw the flowers from a distance.  They’re completely green!  Six hairy green tepals (petal-sepals) and six stamens with yellow anthers.

Flowers of false hellebore, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Flowers of false hellebore, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The leaves spiral up the stem. The entire plant, up to six feet tall, resembles hellebore so it’s called false hellebore.

False hellebore, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
False hellebore, 9 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Like all plants in the Veratrum genus viride is highly poisonous.  Deer leave it alone but cattle are sometimes fooled.

Amazingly, some Native American tribes used it as an initiation test. Like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, candidates to be the next leader would ingest false hellebore. According to Wikipedia, the one to start vomiting last would become the new leader.  (Ick!)

Look for false hellebore’s flowers from May to July. After it blooms, the leaves fade.

 

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Tarentum Peregrines: The Week To Watch

June 15, 2018:

The Tarentum peregrine family is already fun to watch and now the excitement is ramping up.

Back on June 5, Gerry Devinney captured this video of the adult peregrines escorting an osprey away from their nest.  On June 8 Mary Ann Thomas wrote about them here: Tarentum Peregrines Defend Their Nesting Success.

Last Tuesday evening, June 12, the first nestling ventured out of the nestbox to ledge walk and exercise his/her wings.

We don’t know the chicks’ exact ages but they’re somewhere between 32-36 days old. Young peregrines fledge at 38-45 days old.  These two will fly soon, maybe within a week!

Visit the Tarentum boat launch to watch the youngsters get ready to fly.  Click here for a map.

UPDATE, June 15, 6:10pm:  Rob Protz reports that there are three (3!) young peregrines out of the nestbox this evening.

 

(video by Gerry Devinney)

Two Goat’s Beards

Goatsbead blooming, Frick Park Nine Mile Run Trail, 1 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Goatsbead blooming, Frick Park Nine Mile Run Trail, 1 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here are two flowers that couldn’t be more different but they have the same common name: Goat’s Beard.

The Goat’s Beard flower above is Tragopogon dubius, introduced from Eurasia and named for its huge fluffy seed head.  It loves full sun and thrives in poor, disturbed soil so I often see it in former waste places planted with wildflower seed mix.  The flower above was at Lower Nine Mile Run on June 1.

The Goat’s Beard below, Aruncus dioicus, is a native of North America named for its fluffy male flowers. Four to six feet tall, it requires moist rich soil so I usually find it in the forest where a splash of sun breaks through.  Dianne Machesney found this one last week.

Goatsbeard, June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) blooming, June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The flower in her photo doesn’t look very fluffy.  Here’s a possible explanation.

Aruncus dioicus is dioecius — some plants are male, others female.  The male flowers are the showy ones. This showy flower from Wikimedia Commons may be male.

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), June 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), June 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons

Be careful if you tell a butterfly enthusiast that you’ve found Goat’s Beard.  The yellow-flowered Eurasian species is nothing to get excited about but Aruncus dioicus is the host plant for the rare Dusky Azure butterfly (Celastrina nigra).

Two “Goat’s Beards.”  Perhaps even more.

 

(photo credits:
yellow Goat’s Beard flower by Kate St. John
white Goat’s Beard flower by Dianne Machesney
fluffy white Goat’s Beard flower from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
)

Count Nightjars By The Light Of The Moon

Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)
Common nighthawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Next week the last survey window opens for counting nightjars by the light of the moon. It’s a fun way to go birding on a moonlit night — June 20 to July 6, 2018.

Nightjars are a worldwide family of nocturnal/crepuscular birds that eat flying insects on the wing.   They have long wings, short legs, short bills and very wide mouths. Two of these cryptically-colored species are found in Pennsylvania:

  • Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), in flight above, breeds in cities and open habitat, grasslands, dunes.
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus), roosting below, breeds in forests near open areas.
Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Whip-poor-will, 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Both populations are in steep decline and so are other nightjars in North America. Scientists don’t know why and they need more data.  That’s where we come in.

The Center for Conservation Biology set up the Nightjar Survey Network to collect population data about these birds. Their website describes how it works:

Nightjar surveys are easy to perform and will not take more than two hours to complete. Volunteers conduct roadside counts at night, on scheduled bright moonlit nights, by driving and stopping at 10 points along a predetermined 9-mile route. At each point, the observer counts all Nightjars seen or heard during a 6-minute period.

Wait for a moonlit night, drive your route, stop and listen. Count by sound!  Click here for their voices.

Register for the Nightjar Survey Network here, then select or create your own 9-mile route. For more information see http://www.nightjars.org

The Nightjar Survey needs volunteers across the continent — not just in Pennsylvania.  Here are the species to count.

  • Antillean nighthawk
  • Buff-collared nightjar
  • Chuck-wills-widow (named for its call)
  • Common nighthawk (named for its behavior)
  • Common pauraque
  • Common poorwill (named for its call)
  • Lesser nighthawk
  • Eastern whip-poor-will (named for its call)
  • Mexican whip-poor-will

 

p.s. While you’re out there you might hear owls. 🙂

(photo credits: common nighthawk in flight by Chuck Tague; roosting whip-poor-will by Cris Hamilton)

Tiny Rails

  • A Virginia Rail out in the open. Why is it visible? (Mittry Lake, AZ, 23 April 2018. photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)

The further south you go, the earlier the birds nest.  In late April we’re excited that Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) have just returned to Pennsylvania.  In southern Arizona they already have families.

Steve Valasek found this out when he went looking for black rails (a very rare bird!) at Mittry Lake in Yuma County, Arizona on 23 April.  He didn’t find a black rail but he did find tiny rails that were black.

When he spotted a Virginia rail out in the open he wondered, ” Why isn’t it hiding like they normally do?”  In this slideshow of his photos you’ll find out why.

Read about Steve’s adventure on his blog: Virginia Rails.  See full size photos here.

 

p.s. The Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania says the median egg date for Virginia rails in our state is 6 June. Since the eggs are incubated for 19 days and the chicks are precocial (they walk from the nest), the right time to see a Virginia Rail family in Pennsylvania would be early July. Good luck! They’re usually impossible to find.

(photos by Steve Valasek)

Purple Martins Sing

Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Purple martin male, singing near his nest, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t think of swallows as songbirds but indeed they do sing.  Our largest swallow, the purple martin (Progne subis), has a unique sound that carries far.  With practice, you can recognize their voices even when you can’t see them.

Purple martins nest communally so the best place to learn their song is near a purple martin colony.

As you approach you’ll hear them singing as they fly, a liquid gurgling warble with throaty chirps.  (This in-flight recording, Xeno Canto XC13689 by Chris Parrish, includes other bird songs in the background.)

 

In early summer near their nests, you’ll hear songs, creaky rattles and the sound of begging juveniles. (Purple martins vocalizing near their nest, including begging calls of young, from Xeno Canto XC139568 by Russ Wigh)

 

The throaty, gurgling chirps are unique to purple martins.  When you hear it overhead, look for a nearby colony and go see the swallows sing.

For more sound samples visit the purple martin sound page at All About Birds.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Audio from Xeno Canto; click the links for the original recording pages)

Amaze Your Friends

Yellow poplar weevil on black locust, Schenley Park, 8 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow poplar weevil on black locust, Schenley Park, 8 June 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

At this time of year the weevils appear.  I found one on black locust leaves in Schenley Park on Friday June 8.

At first, they hang out on plants but they can fly.  In a “big year” they spread everywhere, landing on buildings and people and just about anything.  By late June people are freaking out.  They think they’re ticks.

But you won’t freak out. You’ll know what they are.

This is a yellow poplar weevil (Odontopus calceatus), a vegetarian that feasts on yellow poplars, tuliptrees, sassafras and cucumber magnolia trees.  He’s usually kept in check by predatory insects but in “big years” there aren’t enough predators and his population goes wild.

The weevil’s body structure shows why he’s not a tick:

  • Ticks have 8 legs (they’re related to spiders). Weevils have 6.
  • Ticks don’t have wings.  Weevils have wings under their elytra (wing covers). Though they don’t fly much you may see one raise his wing covers and zoom away.
  • Ticks do not have snouts.  Weevils have snouts like inflexible elephants’ trunks and 2 antennas on the snout.
  • Ticks never swarm.  Weevils swarm in June because they’re mating.
Yellow poplar weevil is not a tick (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow poplar weevil is not a tick (photo by Kate St. John)

Later in June when the weevils swarm, amaze your friends . “Nope, it’s not a tick.”

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

False Indigo

False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Washington County, PA, 2 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Washington County, PA, 2 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a plant you don’t see every day in Pennsylvania.

False Indigo or Indigobush (Amorpha fruticosa) is a shrub-sized member of the legume family (Fabaceae) native to North America.  It normally occurs from south central Canada to northern Mexico but it’s cultivated for gardens and has escaped to the wild in New England and the Pacific Northwest.

Related to leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Illinois Wildflowers describes false indigo as “Leadplant on steroids.”

The escapees have caused problems.  False indigo is easy to grow and it tends to form dense thickets. Since each plant is 4-18 feet tall and even wider than tall, it’s a problem where it’s unwanted. Connecticut and Washington state have listed it as invasive.

False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), Washington County, PA, 2 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
False Indigo Bush (Amorpha fruticosa), Washington County, PA, 2 June 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The flowers are unusual for the pea family. The plant’s 3-8 inch racemes are covered in small purple or dark blue flowers with yellow anthers sticking out.  Unlike normal pea flowers false indigo’s have only one lip, hence the genus name for the plant: Amorpha, meaning formless or deformed.

Its common name is “false” indigo because it produces such a tiny amount of indigo pigment.

See a list of bees and moths that love false indigo and read more about it here on the Illinois Wildflowers website.

Dianne Machesney photographed it last weekend at Hillman State Park in Washington County, PA.  It would be a Life Plant for me.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)