Birds Uncover Illegal Fishing

Wandering albatross (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As human population soars and fish populations plummet illegal fishing has ramped up in the world’s oceans. With 50% of the world’s fish population now gone, countries protect fish within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but dishonest fishing vessels sneak in to capture endangered species and overfish what’s left.

Catching the perpetrators, or even knowing they’re out there, has been quite difficult despite the ability to track them by satellite. That’s because dishonest vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite transponders so they can’t be seen. The boats travel safely without AIS; they use radar to avoid collisions and find fish.

In 2017 Henri Weimerskirch and colleagues at Centre of Biological Studies Chizé launched an innovative study to uncover the extent of illegal fishing. They equipped wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) with radar detectors that transmit location data to satellites. The research team then matches albatross radar sightings to AIS satellite sightings. If there’s a radar ping but no AIS, the boat is operating illegally.

Wandering albatross east of Tasman Peninsula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The research team expanded the study in 2019 by fitting 169 albatrosses from Crozet and two other islands with radar detectors (map below). From December 2018 to June 2019 the albatrosses encountered 353 ships, 37% of which had turned off their AIS.

Global Fishing Watch map highlighting Crozet Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (screenshot from

After a 6-month study with the large seabirds, the researchers estimate that more than one-third of vessels in the southern Indian Ocean are sailing undercover, confirming concerns about illegal or unreported fishing.

Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels

Armed with this new data, enforcement can now focus on the hotspots of illegal activity. Ideally it will lead to more arrests like the one pictured below in the North Pacific in 2008.

U.S. Coast Guard seizes a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal large-scale high-seas drift net fishing 460 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan. Coast Guard photo taken by USCGC Munro. 11 Sep 2008 (photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr)

Read more about the albatross project in Science Magazine: Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels.

See the full study at PNAS: Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, map screenshot from Global Fishing Watch; click on the captions to see the originals)

In Order, First To Last

Ostriches are oldest, closest to the dinosaurs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Which bird is closest to the dinosaurs? Which one is the newest species? The answer has changed in the last 30 years.

The taxonomic order of birds used to be rather stable. North American field guides, listed in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, had loons at the beginning and sparrows at the end. Then in 1991 everything changed.

Scientists began using DNA sequencing to see who’s related to whom. They learned that ducks and geese are older than loons, loons are related to penguins, falcons are related to parrots (not hawks), and grosbeaks are newer than sparrows.

The phylogenomic supertree below, current to July 2019, shows the new relationships in a clockwise spiral from the center. The first bird, closest to the dinosaurs, is the common ostrich (Struthio camelus), photo at top.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

The last and newest bird is the yellow-shouldered grosbeak (Parkerthraustes humeralis(*)), native to western Amazonia in South America.

Yellow-shouldered grosbeak, the ‘newest’ bird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As of February 2020 there are 10,928 species on the worldwide taxonomic checklist of birds. Regional checklists show a subset of birds, limited by geographical or political boundaries, so the first and last birds vary by checklist:

First and last in Pennsylvania: Black-bellied whistling duck and dickcissel (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Additional DNA sequencing will change the lists over and over again.

I wonder who will be first and last in 2050.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, phylogenomic supertree from MDPI; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. (*) DNA sequencing gave the yellow-shouldered grosbeak a new genus — Parkerthraustis — named for the late Theodore A. “Ted” Parker III, a superb field ornithologist who died in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993, age 40.

p.p.s. Click here to see a more detailed phylogenetic tree (in 2012 by University of New South Wales).

Peregrine Courtship Ramping Up

Terzo and Morela court at the nest, 8 Feb 2020, 8:24am (screenshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Though Pennsylvania’s peregrine falcons don’t lay eggs until March, pairs court at their nests nearly every day in February. The ritual, called a “ledge display,” is hidden at most sites but is easy to see on the National Aviary’s falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

This month Terzo and Morela have increased their ledge displays at the Cathedral of Learning. Their ritual follows the same pattern that all peregrines perform.

  • The male (Terzo) arrives first, swaggering in a high stepping tip-toe gait on his way to the scrape. The “scrape” is the bowl they dig in the gravel where she will lay eggs.
  • He bows and calls to his mate to join him.
  • When the female (Morela) arrives, they bow low over the scrape and say “ee-chup, ee-chup,” bowing repeatedly. The male usually bows lower than the female. Notice that she is much larger than he is.
  • As the female gets closer to egg laying, the ceremony lasts longer and becomes more intimate. They call softly, twist their heads to opposite sides, sometimes touch beaks.
  • The male always leaves the nest first, then the female.
  • As egg laying time approaches the female will linger to prepare the nest and dig the scrape.

You’ll see all these behaviors, though abbreviated, in yesterday’s three-minute visit at 12:55pm (17 February 2020).

We’re looking forward to eggs in March. Stay tuned at the National Aviary falconcam at the Univ. of Pittsburgh.

Here’s a tip on when to see Terzo and Morela on camera: For the past few days, 14-17 Feb 2020, they have visited the nest around 4:30pm or as late as 4:55pm. Will they show up at 4:30pm today for a ledge display? (I hope they cooperate!)

(screenshot and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Second Egg at Hays Eagle Nest, Feb 16

The female eagle at the Hays bald eagle nest laid her second egg of the season on 16 Feb 2020 at 6:30pm — exactly three days after the first one!

Audubon of Western PA spread the news at the Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebook page:

Watch this nesting pair on the Hays eaglecam at

(photo and text from Bald Eagles of Western PA — Audubon Society of Western PA Facebook page)

Show Kindness

African gray parrot (photo of a pet from Wikimedia Commons)

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Mark Twain

In a study reported widely last month, animal cognition scientists at the Max Planck Institute discovered that African gray parrots will share with each other even when the sharing individual knows it will get no reward.

This is a big deal because African gray parrots are the first birds observed to show kindness to others. Scientists tried the same experiment with blue-headed macaws but the macaws failed to share.

Here’s how the two species reacted to the experiment.

Some days it feels like we humans have forgotten how to be kind. Perhaps we could learn from African gray parrots.

Read more in Science Magazine: These parrots are the first birds observed showing kindness to others.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from Science AAAS)

Despite The Cold, An Early Spring

Honeysuckle buds March 2019 vs Feb 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

Except for a 10 degree cold snap in the last 24 hours, we’re having an early Spring.

So far this year temperatures in Pittsburgh have been 10-34 degrees above normal a third of the time. January 11 was 34 degrees above normal at 71 degrees F.

Honeysuckle bushes responded by leafing out. Last Monday (10 February 2020) I found open honeysuckle buds in my neighborhood. I took a similar photo last year on 11 March 2019 but it was whole month later and the buds were not as open.

According to the USA National Phenology Network, Spring is three weeks ahead of schedule in the southeastern US:

Spring leaf out has arrived in the Southeast, over three weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Charlottesville, VA is 24 days early, Knoxville, TN is 20 days early, and Nashville, TN is 18 days early.

Status of Spring

Here’s what it looks like on the map as of 14 February 2020.

Spring Leaf Index as of 14 Feb 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

Despite the cold, today will warm to almost 40 degrees in Pittsburgh and to 52 by Tuesday. I think we’ll still have an early Spring.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from

Happy Valentine’s Day

Terzo and Morela courting on 13 Feb 2020, 2:35pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Peregrine falcons Terzo and Morela courted yesterday at the Cathedral of Learning nest. Watch them at the National Aviary falconcam.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

p.s. In case you missed it, the Hays bald eagles have an egg!

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

First Bald Eagle Egg of 2020 at Hays, Feb 13

First egg at the Hays bald eagle nest, 13 Feb 2020, 6:35pm (photo from the Hays eaglecam at Audubon Society of Western PA)

Happy news on Valentine’s Day! Last evening the Audubon Society of Western PA (ASWP) announced:

[Pittsburgh, PA, February 13, 2020] – Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania confirms an egg in the Hays, PA Bald Eagle nest. The egg, laid at 6:30 pm this evening, is visible in the nest on the eagle cam when the incubating adult stands up: There is typically a 2-3 day span in between eggs being laid in a Bald Eagle nest. In 2019, the Hays Bald Eagles laid three eggs; two hatched and the juveniles successfully fledged the nest.

Bald Eagles in Western PA Facebook page

ASWP also posted this video of the first egg roll:

Join the conversation at Bald Eagles in Western Pennsylvania Facebook page.

Watch the Hays Bald Eagle cam at

(photos and video from Bald Eagles in Western Pennsylvania – Audubon Society of Western PA Facebook page)

Note: The photos and video are in black-and-white because the camera uses infrared to see the nest in the dark.

The Flamingo’s Closest Relatives

American flamingos in Celestún National Park, Yucatán, Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because they have long necks and long legs and stand around in shallow water you would think that flamingos are related to herons, but they’re not.

DNA sequencing has shown that the flamingos’ closest relatives are grebes.

Horned grebes in western PA, Feb 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Read more about their amazing relationship in this vintage article:

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser; click on the captions to see the originals)

Look For Peregrines Now Through March

Morela at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 10 Feb 2020, 16:15 (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

In the run up to egg laying, peregrine falcons perch prominently and perform stunning aerial courtship displays. February and March are the best months for confirming peregrine nest sites and discovering new ones. In southwestern Pennsylvania we need observers to look for peregrines. I hope you can help.

In 2019 we found 10 peregrine pairs in the Pittsburgh region. Two on buildings (red dots at Cathedral of Learning and Downtown Pittsburgh) and eight on bridges (blue dots).

Peregrine falcon pairs in southwestern PA in 2019 (map by Kate St. John)
Peregrine pairs at bridges in southwestern PA in 2019 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Two of the bridges, Ambridge and 62nd Street, were not(*) confirmed even though adult peregrines are regularly seen there. Nesting can’t be confirmed until someone sees a peregrine take food to a nest or a nestling/juvenile in or near a nest.

There are 10+ Peregrine Sites to watch in southwestern PA. Please leave a comment if you can help or if you’ve seen anything. (Confirmed nest sites in prior years are marked with #.)

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh #: This nest is on camera so we’ll easily confirm it this year.

Downtown Pittsburgh #: We know there’s a peregrine pair Downtown but we don’t know who they are (Louie died last summer) and we don’t know where they’ll nest. Lori Maggio is Downtown’s lead observer but the area is a big place to monitor. Help wanted!

Downtown Pittsburgh as seen from Mt. Washington near the Monongahela Incline (photo by Kate St. John, June 2016)
Downtown Pittsburgh as seen from Mt. Washington (photo by Kate St. John, June 2016)

OHIO RIVER, Monaca-Beaver Railroad Bridge -or- Monaca-East Rochester Bridge # Peregrines choose one of these bridges to nest on each year — it’s all the same territory. A pair was seen on the railroad bridge in November. Observers needed!

Monaca-Beaver RR Bridge + Monaca-East Rochester Bridge

OHIO RIVER, Ambridge Bridge: This site hasn’t been confirmed as a nesting site though peregrines are seen here often. Mark Vass saw one on 8 Feb 2020, Karen Lang saw two on 9 Feb and one on 10 Feb & 11. More observers needed!

Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge (image and map from Wikimedia Commons)

OHIO RIVER, Neville Island I-79 Bridge #: In use as a nest site since 2012, Jeff Cieslak photographed a peregrine on the bridge on 4 February 2020.

Peregrine at Neville Island I-79 Bridge, 4 Feb 2020 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

OHIO RIVER, McKees Rocks Bridge #: Even though this bridge has been a nest site since 2008 it’s hard to monitor because it’s 1.38 miles long. Peregrines are best seen from the McKees Rocks side. I haven’t heard of any sightings yet.

McKees Rocks Bridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Graff Bridge, Rt 422, Kittanning #: In use by peregrines since 2016, this bridge is best monitored from the bike trail under on the Kittanning side. I haven’t heard of any recent sightings.

U.S. Route 422 bridge over the Allegheny River at Kittanning, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Route 422 bridge over the Allegheny River at Kittanning, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Freeport Bridge: Peregrines haven’t been known to nest here but one was seen during the winter. Is this a new nest site? Observers needed.

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Tarentum Bridge #: The Tarentum Bridge, which has a nestbox, has been in use since 2010. Dave Brooke photographed a peregrine here on 30 Jan 2020.

Peregrine at Tarentum Bridge, 30 Jan 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Highland Park and 40th Street Bridges: These bridges may be too close to existing territories … or are they? Are peregrines hanging out at these bridges? Observers needed!

ALLEGHENY RIVER, 62nd Street Bridge: There’s been a nestbox on this bridge since 2007 but no peregrines on site until 2019 when a banded female was identified and a fledgling seen at Tree Pittsburgh near the bridge. I hear it’s easy to see the nest box from the Pittsburgh downriver side. Be the first to confirm nesting at this site!

62nd Street Bridge over the Allegheny River, 2007 (photo by Dan Yagusic)

MONONGAHELA RIVER WATERSHED, Westinghouse Bridge over Turtle Creek #: Peregrines have used this bridge since 2010. Dana Nesiti photographed one here on 9 Feb 2020.

Peregrine falcon at Westinghouse Bridge, 9 Feb 2020 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Look for peregrines in February and March. We need your help to re-confirm every site.

Please leave a comment if you can help, if you need directions, or if you’ve seen anything. Thanks!

(photo credits are in the captions)