Too Hot To Handle!

18 June 2024

When a heat dome persisted over the Central US. last August my reaction was “At least it isn’t happening here.” Well, now it is.

U.S. Day 3-7 Hazards Outlook for 20-24 June 2024 from NOAA Weather Prediction Center

A high pressure system that was overheating the Southwest moved in on Monday and put a cap over us that’s circulating hot air and trapping heat at the surface.

Diagram of a heat dome from Wikimedia Commons by NWS/NOAA

Meanwhile there are very few clouds to block the sun. It just keeps getting hotter and hotter. Climate Central says the metro areas of Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City, and Boston are experiencing:

  • Record high temperatures from 94°F to 99°F
  • High humidity that makes it feels hotter when heat index values reach 105°F
  • Nighttime temperatures never cool below the 70-76°F range.

Pittsburgh’s forecast is all orange.

Heat advisory forecast for 18-21 June 2024 (screenshot from NWS Pittsburgh)

Meanwhile all of us are under stress, especially plants, animals, outdoor workers, people without air conditioning and homeless people.

In addition to all the physical changes, heat makes us irritable, even angry.

Last evening severe thunderstorms knocked out power to more than 100,000 electric customers in southwestern PA. I’m fortunate to have both electricity and air conditioning so I’m staying indoors.

I can hardly wait for it to end.

p.s. US weather maps never show Canada. Did the heat just cease at the border? Nope. It’s hot in Canada, too!

American Kestrels Ready to Fledge

Screenshot from the Live Kestrelcam at CornellBirdCams

17 June 2024

Are you going through Falconcam withdrawal? Don’t despair. Four falcons in Wisconsin are still on camera and nearly ready to fledge.

Click on the image above or this link at Instagram for a brief video of American kestrel nestlings (Falco sparverius), the smallest falcon in North America.

See them Live on the Wisconsin Kestrel Cam below.

video embedded from Cornell Lab Bird Cams on YouTube

How Do You Know a Pigeon is Nesting in Your Chimney?

Rock pigeons watch from the chimney edge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 June 2024

Rock pigeons nest on cliffs in the wild, or on high buildings and bridges in feral settings. They will even nest inside chimneys if the chimney has a ledge. Years ago I had no idea this was possible until I heard cooing in the living room and finally took time to investigate.

We used to own a house built in 1907 with two brick chimneys. After we replaced the furnace, the main chimney went completely unused. There was no exhaust from the furnace and no smoke from a fireplace so I ignored chimney maintenance. I didn’t realize that my negligence left the chimney open to new tenants.

Gosh, I was naive. A brick fell down the chimney but it only happened once and I procrastinated until I forgot about it. (The missing brick probably created a ledge.) One spring I heard starling voices coming down the chimney, but I heard them only twice and I forgot about it. Then one year I heard cooing in the chimney. It happened often enough that I could not ignore it. I went outside to look at the chimney. What was going on?

As I watched from the street, a pigeon landed on the chimney and disappeared. Hmmm! When it reappeared the pigeon flew to some brush, picked up a twig, flew back to the chimney and disappeared. The chimney had no cap. He was building a nest!

Rock pigeon nests are very bare bones, mostly substrate with a few twigs and dried grasses. The male gathers material while she stays at the nest and coos when he brings new bits and pieces. I was hearing them build the nest.

video embedded from RikR on YouTube

I quickly hired a critter control company who removed the pigeon nest and capped the chimney. The cap was a simple wire mesh like this one. Problem solved! (This is not a photo of my old house but the cap is similar.)

Chimney cap on a building on Craig Street (photo by Kate St. John)

So now you know. When you hear pigeons cooing in the chimney they are setting up housekeeping. It’s never safe to assume they aren’t nesting. Rock pigeons breed all year long if there is adequate food on hand.

p.s. Have you ever seen a baby pigeon? They don’t look like their parents.

Rock pigeon nestlings, Day One and approximately Day Six (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Seen On Laurel Mountain

Canada warbler, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

15 June 2024

During spring warbler migration I try to see as many species as possible as they pass through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Unfortunately, I missed some of my favorites this year, most notably the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis), so Charity Kheshgi and I went to Laurel Mountain last Sunday to find them on their breeding grounds.

The air was filled with veery (Catharus fuscescens) songs when we arrived at Laurel Summit State Park.

We thought we’d be able to see at least one of the two Canada warblers we heard singing along Spruce Bog Trail, but not. However, we got lucky on the Picnic Trail when the bird pictured above and below approached us making his warning call.

Canada warbler, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Here’s an example of what he sounded like:

There was plentiful shade in the forest, but that made the birds harder to see. This ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) is nicely lit but still in the dark.

Ovenbird, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

We found other delights on the mountain. A tiger swallowtail butterfly sipped nectar from pitcher plant flowers at Spruce Bog.

Tiger swallowtail at pitcher plant flowers, Spruce Bog, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pennsylvania’s state flower, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), was in bloom.

Mountain laurel in bloom, Laurel Summit State Park, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

This trillium gone to seed showed well in dappled sunlight.

Trillium gone to seed, Laurel Mtn, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

We heard more birds than we could see, ultimately tallying 24 species in our checklist here.

Close Encounters With Puffins

Puffin carrying fish to its nest burrow, June 2021, Skomer Island, Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 June 2024

Six years ago when I traveled to Newfoundland to see Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) we watched from a boat as puffins flew over us, dove next to us, and landed near their burrows at Witless Bay. I knew they were not large birds but I was not close enough to judge their size.

Carl Bovis filmed one at Skomer Island, Wales where there are over 42,000 nesting pairs from April to July: “To cheer everyone up, here’s a little Puffin going for a little walk.”

(embedded video by Carl Bovis on YouTube)

Imagine a puffin at your feet …

… or even closer.

embedded from RM Videos on YouTube

I wish I knew where this RM Video it was filmed!

Next on the Agenda: Molting

Canada goose molting in late June (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 June 2024

As soon as the breeding season is over adult birds molt to change out their old feathers. During this period many birds look ragged. We’ll see a few bald cardinals and blue jays who’ve molted all their head feathers at once. Peregrines will seem lazy while they molt in July and August. Canada geese won’t be able to fly.

This week at Duck Hollow I noticed that Canada geese are already molting. Their white rumps are showing, which indicates they’ve lost all their flight feathers.

Not-molting vs. molting appearance in Canada geese (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of this month Pitt’s peregrines will be molting too. We might see a peregrine feather on the falconcam.

Peregrine falcon tail feather (photo from Shutterstock in 2013)

Learn more about molting in this vintage article.

Juvies Say I Don’t Want To Grow Up

Juvenile Pitt peregrine whines for food at Cathedral of Learning on 2 June 2011 (photo by Nancy Weixel)

12 June 2024

Ever since both Pitt peregrine youngsters fledged on 2 June, their parents have been moving them toward independence. At first they supplied the juveniles with food just as they did at the nest, but within three days Ecco and Carla began showing and teaching them how to hunt. As the juvies gained hunting skills the adults reduced food deliveries to encourage the “kids” to hunt. Yesterday one of the youngsters missed those easy meals and was so loud that he attracted attention from the upper floors of the Cathedral of Learning. “Bring me food!” he whined, “I don’t want to grow up!”

Here are some video examples of this behavior filmed at other peregrine sites. Juvie peregrines all share this behavior.

“Hmmm. Maybe my parents can’t hear me. I’ll beg louder.”

embedded video by Herb Houghton on YouTube

“Maybe my parents can’t see me. I’ll open my wings.” … “Look! It’s me! I’m hungry!”

Juvie Pitt peregrine whines for food at Heinz Chapel, June 2011 (photo by Peter Bell)
embedded video by C&C Saladin on YouTube

“I can see my father over there but he’s not looking at me.” … “Hey! I’m over here. Don’t ignore me!”

embedded video by Greg Gard on YouTube

Juvenile peregrines are very loud and they can look pathetic.

Don’t be fooled, humans. It’s an act.

p.s. Injured peregrines are silent. They don’t cry or call because they don’t want to attract attention to their vulnerability.

Little Bird Attacks Big

Blue-gray gnatcatcher attacks peregrine fledgling, Cleveland Zoo, June 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

11 June 2024

During the breeding season birds try to drive predators away from their nests and young. Though small birds aren’t equipped with sharp beaks and talons, they relentlessly dive bomb raptors to make them leave the area.

In June 2021, Chad+Chris Saladin filmed a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) attacking a recently fledged young peregrine at the Cleveland Zoo. Gnatcatchers are really small so they barely ruffle a peregrine’s feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo by Steve Gosser)

But the young peregrine was so new to flying that she wanted to stay put for a while. One of the gnatcatchers pecked her head. “Hey!”

Blue-gray gnatcatcher attacking peregrine fledgling, Cleveland Zoo, June 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Watch the encounter in this video by Chad+Chris Saladin. Chris explains what’s going on to passersby.

(video embedded from Chad+Chris Saladin on YouTube)

You may see chickadees attack blue jays, blue jays attack crows and red-winged blackbirds attack just about anything. This is the time of year when Little attacks Big.

UPDATE on the Pitt Peregrines: Yesterday, 10 June 2024, I was happy to find all four peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning at 12:15pm. Ecco was on camera on the green perch, Carla was on a stone peak at 38NW, one of the juvies was eating on the southwest dining ledge (approx 28th floor) and the other was on a grommet at 25SE. (The adults never perch on the grommets.) The Pitt peregrine juvies have been flying for more than a week now and are learning valuable skills.

Now Blooming: Pretty Invasives

Orange day-lily, Three Rivers Heritage Trail near Herr’s Island, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 June 2024

Between the glory of woodland spring ephemerals and summer’s splash of native field flowers, June has fewer blooming natives. On a walk yesterday along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail near Millvale I found a host of pretty flowers, many of them invasive.

Orange day-lily (Hemerocallis fulva) is native to Asia and well established in Pennsylvania. You’ll see it blooming in ditches, along railroad tracks and in gardens. It pops up in so many places that it has at least 10 common names. Orange day-lily is considered invasive in Pennsylvania because its tubers create thick clumps that crowd out native plants in sensitive habitats.

Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) is listed as one of the world’s worst invasive species. Right now its flowers have just opened in southwestern PA. By the end of summer the flowers will be in long, sweet-smelling racemes, a favorite of bees and butterflies.

New flowers on Japanese knotweed, , Three Rivers Heritage Trail near Herr’s Island, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Crown vetch (Securigera varia), native to Eurasia and Africa, is in now full bloom. Read about its invasive qualities here.

Crown vetch in bloom, Three Rivers Heritage Trail near Herr’s Island, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s that popcorn-like smell? It’s poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and it’s in bloom. You won’t want this plant anywhere you find it. Here’s how to get rid of it; expect a multi-year effort.)

Poison hemlock flowersWhite sweet clover flowers, Three Rivers Heritage Trail near Herr’s Island, 9 June 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

(all photos by Kate St. John)

Watch a String of Lights Cross the Sky

screenshot from Starlink video, some time before autumn 2023, on ViralVideoLab

9 June 2024

On a woodcock walk at Hillman State Park on the night of 13 April, we paused to look at a beaver pond when someone pointed to a strange row of lights moving silently across the sky. There were more than 20 of them, obviously man-made and kind of creepy. None of us knew what they were. The next morning I figured out they were Starlink satellites.

This week Pittsburghers will have five opportunities to see this eerie phenomenon. Here’s what they look like, even without binoculars.

Starlink Satellites train seen in the sky Elon Musk SpaceX 2024 (embedded from ViralVideoLab on YouTube)

Note: This group contains about 60 satellites. Nowadays SpaceX launches about 20 per batch.

A Starlink satellite string can be seen only in the few days following a Starlink Falcon rocket launch. You must be in the right location (under the flight path), with a clear sky and within two hours of sunset or sunrise.

This 5-minute video “explainer” by meteorologist Brad Panovich in Charlotte, NC, recorded in September 2023, explains the network of Starlink satellites, how the string is deployed and why you only see them for a couple of days if you’re lucky.

video embedded from Meteorologist Brad Panovich on YouTube

Where and When?

The SpaceX Starlink Satellites Tracker website predicts when a Starlink train will pass overhead for your selected location. The website cannot predict very far in advance because the calculations must be made after a payload rocket has launched. Though the launches are scheduled, the actual time of liftoff can change.

screenshot from findstarlink.com for Pittsburgh PA on 9 June 2024 at 6am

Will the sky be clear for viewing the transit this week? So far so good according to the Pittsburgh Clear Sky Chart. Check the Starlink schedule above or on the web, then find a patch of dark sky and look up at the right moment in the direction indicated.

Creepy, eh?

And according to Wikipedia, “Astronomers have raised concerns about the effect the constellation may have on ground-based astronomy, and how the satellites will contribute to an already congested orbital environment.”

More information: Starlink is a satellite internet constellation whose purpose is to provide worldwide internet coverage and global mobile broadband [for a fee]. Starlink Services LLC is a subsidiary of SpaceX which is owned by Elon Musk. Since 2019 SpaceX has launched over 6,000 mass-produced small satellites into low Earth orbit. Nearly 12,000 satellites are planned to be deployed, with a possible later extension to 34,400.