Nests Over Water

Green heron, Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)
Green heron, Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Why does this bird have his crest raised?

Perhaps someone came too close to his nest.

Green herons (Butorides virescens) are shy waders in swampy thickets, preferring to fish in the shadows and nest alone.  Because of their secretive nature it’s always surprising to find a nest.

When green herons return to Pennsylvania in the spring they’re already paired up for nesting.  The male chooses the location, usually in a small tree over water, giving preference to last year’s site if it was successful.  He starts to build the nest but as soon as his lady gets the hint his job is to bring the sticks as she places them.  Then she lays 4-5 eggs.

Green heron nesting in Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)
Green heron nesting in Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

With this dual building effort it’s amazing that the structure is sometimes so thin that you can see the eggs through it from below.

That is, if you can find the nest.  Green herons don’t want you to.  They fly away loudly if you come too close.  Typically they sound like this (Xeno Canto 147343 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)

… but if they’re really annoyed they are much louder (Xeno Canto 145806 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)

Right now most of Pennsylvania’s green herons have young in the nest and the parents are busy bringing food.  At 16-17 days old the chicks will climb out of the nest — or swim if they have to.  They’ll fly at 21-22 days old.

Stay alert for the sight and sound green herons.  You might find a nest over water.

Bob Kroeger found these herons in Florida.

 

(photos by Bob Kroeger of South Dennis, MA. Bob photographs birds for fun and shares them on Facebook. Here’s his business website.)

Schenley Park Outing: June 24, 8:30am

Fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Summer arrived before the solstice.  It’s time to get outdoors!

Join me for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday, June 24, 8:30a – 10:30a.

Meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road. We’ll look in the meadow for birds and flowers, then explore the woodland trails.  I’m sure we’ll see daisy fleabane. It’s blooming now.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Before you come, visit the Events page in case there are changes or cancellations.  The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning.

Hope to see you there!

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 have asked 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. 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 wings.

We don’t know the chicks’ exact ages but they’re somewhere between 32-36 days old today. Young peregrines fledge at 38-45 days old.  These birds 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)