Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night

Common blackbird singing, Germany, April 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

— 1st stanza from Blackbird by The Beatles

The Beatles’ Blackbird song, recorded in June 1968, always left me with more questions than answers.

  • What is the song about?
  • Who is the blackbird?
  • How could the bird be singing at night when North American blackbirds don’t do that?

At the end of The Beatles recording you can here a blackbird singing. Listen below.

Find out who the blackbird is and what inspired the song at this vintage blog: Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night?

Birding In Someone Else’s Shoes

Kate St. John birding in Florida, Feb 2010 (photo by Chuck Tague)

3 June 2020

Have you ever felt threatened by humans while birding in a public place? It shouldn’t happen and it rarely does to most of us. I can count the few incidents I’ve experienced on one hand.

During Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas, 2004-2009, I surveyed an under-reported block in Somerset County, walking the edge of a public road. I listened for birdsong and scanned the adjacent open field with my binoculars. I was startled when a resident from the other side of the road started up her car and began following me slowly, creeping behind me at my walking pace. She pulled alongside, drove next to me, and stared hard. She never spoke. Her threat was clear. I left immediately and I never went back.

That incident 15 years ago was one of the few times I felt threatened by humans while birding. I take my own safety for granted but some people cannot. This week I’m learning what it’s like to go birding in someone else’s shoes.

Birding by kayak in Florida (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife via Flickr)

On Memorial Day in Central Park a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the cops on black birder Christian Cooper (no relation) when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. That incident, and many others, became the catalyst for #BlackBirdersWeek organised by #BlackAFinSTEM May 31 to June 5, 2020.

The event aims to increase visibility of Black birders, who face challenges and dangers that non-Black people do not experience when recreating or conducting fieldwork in the outdoors.

To many Americans, wilderness represents freedom and a space that should be open to all. In reality, it is not. Black Birders Week is a way for Black birders, who may have not seen another Black birder, to join together and encourage more participation and diversity in outdoor spaces.

Forbes, Magazine, Opening the Outdoors: Inaugural Black Birders Week.

It’s already Wednesday (sorry I’m late reporting this!) but there’s more coming up this week.

As @Ologies said on Twitter: “If this initiative has opened your eyes to how our Black friends feel unsafe in outdoor areas, how that impacts the fieldwork they do, the careers they choose: tweet about it. Follow them. Cheer them on.” It’s #BlackBirdersWeek.

This is the week we go birding in someone else’s shoes.

(photos by Chuck Tague and Florida Fish and Wildlife on Flickr Creative Commons license, #BlackBirdersWeek schedule via #BlackAFinSTEM)

Baby Birds Jump Into Life

Merganser chick contemplates his launch (screenshot from PBS NATURE video)

Across Pennsylvania breeding birds are hatching eggs and feeding young. As the nestlings grow the nests become crowded, a sure sign that the babies will leave soon.

Baby birds in hollow trees have an amazing way of leaving the nest: they climb up the inside of the hole and jump! This is true of chickadees, screech-owls, woodpeckers and wood ducks. But ducklings have no flight feathers and they jump away. That’s OK, they’re built for it.

This 3.5 minute PBS NATURE video shows a family of common mergansers (Mergus merganser) taking the plunge.

Though the video doesn’t show it, the ducklings waddle to the water where their mother calls and waits for them.

(screenshot and video from PBS NATURE)

Terzo On Camera

Terzo at the Pitt peregrine nest, 31 May 2020, 12:23p (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

1 June 2020

Yesterday Michael Potoski remarked that he hadn’t been watching the falconcam often “but when I do look it seems the eggs keep moving to different positions with no sign of Morela, Terzo or Ecco.” A mystery! So I looked into it.

Sunday 31 May 2020 was a very active day at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest even though the eggs are no longer incubated. In this Day-in-a-Minute video you can see Morela come to the nest at 9:20am and move the eggs into a pile. Then at 10:05am Terzo shows up for one of many visits.

It was chilly yesterday with a northwest wind but the nest side of the building was out of the wind and in full sun. At 12:15pm Terzo arrived to sunbathe for about an hour.

Terzo sunbathing at the Pitt peregrine nest, 31 May 2020, 12:51pm

Then at 1:50pm Morela came too and bowed with Terzo for more than 4 minutes. This is the longest time they’ve spent together at the nest since Ecco, his rival, made Terzo so cautious. This video includes the full 4.5 minutes even though there’s not much action.

Terzo was on camera a lot yesterday. Ecco was absent, at least for the day.

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

Remember When: The Car-Surfing Peregrine

Peregrine fledgling on the roof of a pickup truck, 30 May 2013 (photo by Ericka Houck, National Aviary)

When a young peregrine lands on the ground on his first flight he doesn’t yet have the upper body strength to flap and get airborne. He has to be rescued and put on a high perch to start over.

In Downtown Pittsburgh the Third Avenue nest site is so low that fledglings land on the ground every year. Thankfully, passersby call the PA Game Commission at 724-238-9523 to rescue the downed birds.

Downtown’s fledglings are often found on the sidewalk but sometimes a bird gets creative. Last year one waited at the bus stop. Seven years ago a fledgling landed six feet off the ground on a pickup truck roof rack. Then things got interesting.

Read about 2013’s car-surfing peregrine in this vintage article: Fledged For A Ride.

(photo by Ericka Houck, National Aviary, 30 May 2013)

A Few Plants Seen This Week

Corn speedwell near the road (photo by Kate St. John)

Everything’s green and the leaves are big. Suddenly the woods feel closer, shadier and sometimes dark. This week a just few plants attracted my attention.

Above the alien “weed” corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis) has a delicate beauty when seen at close range. It blooms in fields and rocky places from spring through fall.

Below, a small tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) at Deer Lakes Park has leaves almost larger than the tree itself.

This tuliptree has leaves that seem larger than the tree itself, Deer Lakes Park, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) bloomed in the City of Pittsburgh last week and some have already begun to drop their flowers. This bunch caught the early morning light on Tuesday in Greenfield.

Black locust flowers in Pittsburgh, 26 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Peregrine Chicks At Westinghouse

Two chicks peer from the nest area at Westinghouse Bridge, 27 May 2020 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Dana Nesiti has been keeping up with the peregrine family at the Westinghouse Bridge by photographing them every few days. On Wednesday 27 May 2020 he saw the chicks for the first time, pictured above near the edge of the nest area.

Their success is due to the care and feeding supplied by their parents, Hammond (male) and Ms. Indiana (banded female from South Bend, Indiana, 2016). This slideshow of Dana’s 17-24 May photos shows how the pair cooperates to bring in food.

  • Hammond delivers prey to Indiana at the Westinghouse Bridge, 17 May 2020 (photo by Dana Nestiti)

Thanks to Dana Nesiti for the photos!

This Is The Week!

2 of the 4 young peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 May 2020

If you want an easy look at young peregrine falcons the next week is the time to do it. Four youngsters at the Tarentum Bridge are ledge walking and will make their first flight some time between May 31 and June 7.

Yesterday I visited the Tarentum Boat Ramp and digi-scoped these photos with my cellphone. All four youngsters were preening fluff from their feathers and walking along the middle bridge pier. The top photo has three birds in it; the third is hidden behind his siblings.

Peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The fourth youngster walked over from the nestbox and jumped up to the step.

Ledge-walking peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile their mother watched from the far pier. She turned her head away just as I snapped this photo.

Adult peregrine on the far pier, babysitting from a distance, 27 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The youngsters are changing fast. Just two days earlier they were much whiter as seen in John English’s photos from Memorial Day, 25 May 2020. Next week they’ll be completely brown.

Three young peregrines visible near the Tarentum nestbox, 25 May 2020 (photo by John English)
The Tarentum Bridge nestbox and two young peregrines from slightly upriver, 25 May 2020 (photo by John English)

The youngsters will fly soon so visit the Tarentum Bridge now through June 7. Click here for a map. This is the week to see them!

Learn more about the process of first flight at Peregrine Progress: First Flight.

(photos by Kate St. John and John English)


Eastern whip-poor-will at Magee Marsh, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 May 2020

Last evening six of us stood in a dirt parking lot deep in the woods of Washington County and waited for the whip-poor-wills. Twenty minutes after sunset they started to sing.

The eastern whip-poor-will says its name: “whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL.” If you’re close enough you can hear the introductory cluck described at Birds Of The World.

Three notes are easily discerned as the bird pronounces its name, and a fourth introductory cluck may be heard at close range.

— Birds Of The World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We were that close!

Eastern whip-poor-will, Hillman State Park, 26 May 2020 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Eastern whip-poor-wills prefer dry deciduous or mixed forests with little or no underbrush. Hillman State Park, where we were standing, fits the bill. Hillman is a large former strip mine with no amenities, managed for hunting by the PA Game Commission. The habitat and lack of people appeal to the birds.

When whip-poor-wills nest the female lays two eggs on the ground on top of dry leaves, choosing a place where sunlight makes dappled patterns to match her camouflaged plumage. Hall E. Harrison’s Birds’ Nests Field Guide explains:

Incubating bird sits close; when flushed flies silently away like a moth. Eggs usually discovered by accident rather than by search. Friend of author flushed female from 2 eggs, and returning later to point out nest was unable to find it. After careful study, author detected nearly invisible female incubating 4 ft (1.2 m) away.

Birds’ Nests Petersen Field Guide by Hall E. Harrison

Since they operate at night even a singing male is hard to find. As we approached our cars to leave, a whip-poor-will sounded very close. Barb Griffith found him in the dark, calling from a flat rock. This photo isn’t the bird we saw, but you get the idea.

Eastern whip-poor-will, Lancaster, MA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Audio recording by Kate St. John)