Get Out of My Airspace!

Adult female peregrine attacks remote-controlled model glider (photo by Steve Shinn)
Adult female peregrine attacks remote-controlled model glider, 2014 (photo by Steve Shinn)

25 May 2022

When it comes to protecting their young, peregrine falcons are practically fearless. They attack threats much larger than themselves no matter what they are.

In 2014 Steve Shinn shared photos of a mother peregrine near Los Angeles attacking radio-controlled gliders that came too close to her nest in Take That, You Pesky Airplane!

I was reminded of that incident when I saw photos in the Daily Mail of a peregrine at Torrey Pines Beach near San Diego where photographer Phoo Chan captured eight stunning shots of a peregrine attacking and riding the back of a brown pelican.

This tantalizing thumbnail gives you a hint of what you’ll see at the Daily Mail’s World’s fastest bird hitches cheeky mid-air ride on the back of a hapless pelican.

(photo at top by Steve Shinn, thumbnail of pelican directs you to photos in the Daily Mail)

Invasive Princess

Princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa) in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This gorgeous tree with large violet flowers is blooming now in Allegheny County. It grows fast, provides shade, looks beautiful and smells sweet. What could go wrong?

One paulownia blossom with my hand for size comparison, Schenley Park, 23 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), also called empress tree or royal paulownia for Anna Pavlovna of Russia (1795-1865) is — or was — popular in ornamental gardens. It was first introduced to the U.S. from China in 1840 and planted in the eastern U.S. and Washington state.

Initially it was a gardener’s dream. It is easy to grow in full sun, thrives in many soil types including disturbed soil, is tolerant of drought and pollution and grows 15 feet per year. It also reproduces like crazy. One tree can produce 20 million winged seeds that are dispersed by wind and water.

Seed pods and seeds of Paulownia tomentosa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And …

Paulownia tomentosa’s ability to sprout prolifically from adventitious buds on stems and roots allows it to survive fire, cutting and even bulldozing in construction areas; making it difficult to remove from established areas.

Texas Invasive Species Institute: Paulownia tomentosa

This one was chopped down but it came back stronger than ever. Notice the huge leaves.

Paulownia tomentosa sprouts from a stump. Huge leaves! (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually botanists and gardeners realized that P. tomentosa is invasive. This map of paulownia’s occurrence in the U.S. …

Distribution of Paulownia tomentosa by county in U.S. (from EDDMapS)

… nearly matches the map of its State Invasive listings. Maryland and Massachusetts have outlawed it.

State Invasive Listings for Paulownia tomentosa (map from Invasive.org)

Years ago I knew of only one princess tree in Pittsburgh, this one next to the Schenley Bridge near the corner of Frew Street and Schenley Drive.

Princess tree next to the Schenley Bridge at Frew Street and Schenley Drive, 23 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Then a few years ago a volunteer sprouted in Schenley Park near the tufa bridge over Phipps Run. When it reached 20 feet it was cut down and its roots were dug up. However, this spring there are four paulownias near the tufa bridge. The genie is out of the bottle. Uh oh!

Learn more about the invasive princess in this video from University of Maryland Extension, posted at invasivespeciesinfo.gov.

p.s. P. tomentosa has been suggested as a plant to use in carbon capture projects. Nooooo! Don’t do it!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Kate St. John, maps from EDDMapS; click on the captions to see the originals)

Yesterday at Schenley Park: Nestlings and Blackpolls

Blackpoll warbler, Schenley Park, 22 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

23 May 2022

Six of us gathered at Schenley Park yesterday morning in perfect weather for a bird and nature walk. (The sixth is taking the picture.)

Great weather for an outing in Schenley Park, 22 May 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

First on the agenda was a look through my scope at the Pitt peregrines. Though we were half a mile from the Cathedral of Learning we could see one adult babysitting and two fluffy heads looking out the front of the nestbox. This is where the chicks were standing as we watched.

3 peregrine chicks at the Cathedral of Learning, 26 days old, 22 May 2022

Inside the park, a pair of red-tailed hawks is raising three chicks about the same age as the peregrines. We paused on our walk to watch them eat. Best views are from here.

Scroll through Charity Kheshgi’s Instagram photos to see our Best Birds including the blackpoll warbler pictured above.

In all we saw 25 species (https://ebird.org/checklist/S111010535). Not a high count but well worth the trip.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) 1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis): Saw 4, maybe 5: 1 or 2 adults + 3 young in nest.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)  3
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  2
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)  Saw 4: 1 adult via scope + 3 young in nest via falconcam.
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)  5
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  4
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)  1
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)  5    2 pairs
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  4
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  18
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  1
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  5
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  2
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)  2
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)  1
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  4
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  1
Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)  2    Seen!
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  2
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)  1

p.s. Charity’s photo of the rose-breasted grosbeak was taken after the walk.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Watch These Peregrines in the Next 3 Weeks

Morela feeds 3 chicks at the Cathedral of Learning, 21 May 2022 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

21 May 2022

Of the eleven peregrine sites we’re monitoring in Southwestern PA, we know the adults are bringing food to four nests and we’ve already seen chicks at three of them.

Look for the chicks at all four nests to begin to fly in the next three weeks.

Cathedral of Learning, Univ of Pittsburgh:

3 chicks beg from a parent above them at the Cathedral of Learning, 21 May 2022 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

As of today the chicks are 26 days old and very active. On Thursday they started to grab food from Morela and take it away to eat, so yesterday Ecco brought prey for them to prepare and eat on their own. They couldn’t figure out what to do with it.

In this Day-in-a-Minute video you can see the prey item in the middle of the nestbox for a while. It’s a yellow-billed cuckoo. Morela fed it to them eventually.

I expect the Pitt nestlings to be on camera through the end of May, then walk off the nest in early June (off camera) and make their first flight a few days later. Watch the Cathedral of Learning nest on the National Aviary falconcam to see if I’m right.

Stay tuned for Fledge Watch fun in early June. Schedule to follow soon.

Eckert Street / McKees Rocks Bridge area, Ohio River:

Male peregrine at Eckert Street, 10 May 2022 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

When Jeff Cieslak last checked on the Eckert Street peregrines on 10 May, the male was bringing food to nest. Jeff’s been out of town since then so … though we know there are chicks in the nest no one has seen them yet. Stop by Eckert Street and see what’s up.

Westinghouse Bridge, Turtle Creek:

Peregrine chick peaks from nest at Westinghouse Bridge, 20 May 2022 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

On 20 May Dana Nesiti saw a chick at the edge of the nest ledge. This one may be the same age as the Pitt peregrine chicks. Watch for them to fly in early June.

Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River:

View of Tarentum Bridge nestbox area, June 2018 (photo by Amber Van Strien)

The 3 young peregrines at the Tarentum Bridge are a week older than the Pitt nestlings and will fly before the end of May. Stop by soon if you want to see them! More information here.

(photos by National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, Jeff Cieslak, Dana Nesiti)

Seen This Week, May 14-20

Just banded: female red-winged blackbird in hand, Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 May 2022

Seen this week in Schenley and Frick Parks:

At top, bird bander David Yeany holds a recently banded female red-winged blackbird at Frick Park on Migratory Bird Day, 14 May 2022.

On 17 May we looked for warblers along Nine Mile Run’s boardwalk and found many black walnut flowers fallen on the railing.

Old flower from black walnut, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I would have brushed this one away until I saw an insect hiding on it. Do you see the juicy caterpillar, below? This is warbler food!

Warbler food! on an old black walnut flower, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park a carpenter ant examined fading pawpaw flowers that smell like rotten meat, if they smell at all. No rotting meat here. She left.

An ant leaves after exploring fading flowers on a pawpaw tree, 13 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mystery flower of the week was a non-native with thin basal leaves found blooming in the woods in Frick Park. How did star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sp.), a native of southern Europe and southern Africa, get into the woods? Is it invading?

Star of Bethlehem blooming in the woods at Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Tarentum Peregrines: See Them Before End of May

Tarentum peregrines in nest box, 19 May 2022 (photo by Dave Brooke)

20 May 2022

Thanks to Dave Brooke’s observations and photos we know there are three peregrine falcon chicks at the Tarentum Bridge nestbox and they probably hatched on 9 March 2022. Go see them soon! They will fly before the end of May.

In yesterday’s photo, above, they are 30 days old. In the 11 May photo below they are 23 days.

Tarentum peregrines in nest box, 11 May 2022 (photo by Dave Brooke)

Based on their age, we expect them to walk out of the box onto the pier this weekend. If any are male they’ll make their first flight as early as a week from today, Friday 27 May. Females tend to fledge four days later, maybe as early as Tuesday 31 May.

If you’ve been putting off a visit don’t wait any longer. The next 10 days will be the best time to see the peregrines. Visit the Tarentum boat launch or the sidewalk on 1st Avenue for the best view. Click here for a map.

See into the nestbox, circled below, by standing on 1st Avenue.

Tarentum Bridge shoing peregrine nestbox, 14 May 2018 (photo by John English)
Tarentum Bridge showing peregrine nestbox, 14 May 2018 (photo by John English)

See them on the pier from the Tarentum Boat Launch.

PennDOT bucket approaches the nest hole, 22 May 2014 (photo by Mike Fialkovich)
View from the Tarentum Boat Launch, 22 May 2014 (photo by Mike Fialkovich)

Don’t delay! Here’s the map.

(photos by Dave Brooke and John English)

What Tree Is This?

Hosechestnut in flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 May 2022

Trees with stacks of white flowers are drawing our attention this week in Pittsburgh. Perhaps you’re wondering “What tree is this? “

Horsechestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) originated in Greece but have been planted around the world for their beautiful flowers. When fertilized the flowers become the familiar shiny buckeyes I played with as a child.

Fruit of the horsechestnut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pittsburgh we call the tree a “buckeye” though it is just one of many buckeyes (Aesculus) in our area including natives of North America: yellow, Ohio, and bottlebrush.

A close look at horsechestnut flowers reveals that some have yellow centers, others red.

Closeup of horsechestnut flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bees see and are attracted to yellow, not red, so when a horsechestnut flower is fertilized it turns red. The flowers are …

Are there red flowers on the tree? Come back in early fall to collect the buckeyes.

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

Sterile ‘Living Fossil’ Thrives

Equisetum × ferrissii (photo by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

18 May 2022

Many of us are familiar with horsetail (Equisetum) because it looks so unusual. Its hollow stems are ridged and jointed and grow in dense clumps as much as three feet tall. None of the stems have apparent leaves but some have a knob on top, a stobilus, that produces spores for reproduction.

Equisetum is so weird because, as Wikipedia explains, it “is a living fossil, the only living genus of the entire subclass Equisetidae, which for over 100 million years was much more diverse and dominated the under-story of late Paleozoic forests. Some equisetids were large trees reaching to 30 m (98 ft) tall.”

251.9 million years ago the Permian–Triassic extinction event wiped out all the Equisetidae except for Equisetum which is now 359 million years old, older than the dinosaurs.

At some point two Equisetum species — scouringrush horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) and smooth horsetail (Equisetum laevigatum) — hybridized to produce intermediate horsetail (Equisetum × ferrissii), a tricky plant to identify.

The hybrid grows stobilus knobs that make spores, but the spores are sterile. And yet the plant persists.

Spore-bearing knobs on intermediate horsetail (photo by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

Equisetum species have two methods of reproduction: sexually via spores and asexually by spreading rhizomes in clonal colonies. The hybrid can only spread asexually but that’s enough to keep it thriving in limited locations.

Learn more about intermediate horsetail at Illinois Wildflowers.

(photos by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

Test Your Hearing

Cape May warbler at Magee Marsh (photo by Chuck Tague)

17 May 2022

Did you know that age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, affects 1 out of 3 of people by age 65 and half of us by age 75?

The CDC explains that “the most important sounds we hear every day are in the 250 to 6,000 Hertz range.” Fortunately for those with presbycusis, frequencies above the “important” range are the first to go.

In my 40’s I learned to identify birds by ear but my skill has come undone in recent years because some birds, especially warblers, sing above 6,000 Hz. I would not have noticed it except that I go birding with people who hear well and can identify birds by song. They point out birds I cannot hear.

This spring I’ve watched a few warblers open their mouths, vibrate their throats, and say nothing! Can you hear them? Turn up your speakers and test your hearing.

Cape May Warbler, 8250 Hertz: In this 2-second recording the Cape May Warbler (photo at top) sings a single high-pitched trill.

Blackpoll warbler song, 8,000 Hertz:

Blackpoll warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

The blackpoll sings loudly 4 times in the audio below — at the beginning (3 seconds), end (46 seconds) and at 17 and 31 seconds into the recording. If you don’t hear anything really loud you are not hearing the blackpoll.

Black-and-white warbler, 5500 – 6750 Hertz:

Black-and-white warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

In this recording the black-and-white warbler sings four notes in quick succession. The loudest parts of his song are at two frequencies: 5500 and 6750. I can hear this warbler if there’s not a lot of background noise. Otherwise no.

Fortunately Cornell Lab has produced a bird identification tool that also functions as a “bird hearing” aid. Download Merlin to your cellphone and use the Sound ID feature. Your phone will hear the birds that you cannot!

p.s. By now my ears have told you my age. How old are your ears? Check out this video which also explains why so many people have age-related hearing loss.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Schenley Park Outing, May 22, 8:30am

Purple deadnettle, Schenley Park, 6 May 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 May 2022

Join me on Sunday 22 May, 8:30am to 10:30am, for a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park.

UPDATE Sunday 22 May 2022 at 6am: Perfect weather this morning! See you soon.

Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive (40.4383304,-79.9464765). We’ll see flowers, late migrants, and nesting birds.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring water, a hat, binoculars — and field guides if you have them.

We’re sure to see purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) at top, and golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), below, in bloom.

Golden alexanders, Schenley Park, 24 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hope to see you there.

p.s. If the birding is good I’ll give an option to continue until 11:00a.

(photo by Kate St. John)