Monthly Archives: November 2007

A Two Coopers Day

Coopers Hawk at backyard feeder (photo by William Parker)It seems like all I write about are birds of prey, but they’re the big, splashy birds of winter.  Most of the songbirds have left town so at my house we’re down to starlings, house sparrows, mourning doves, crows, pigeons and a variety of hawks.

Yesterday as I walked to work I saw two coopers hawks fly over, one right after the other.  They’re searching for food and hanging out at backyard feeders, as seen in this photo by Bill Parker. 

Coopers hawks aren’t at the feeders for the seeds.  They eat birds for a living, so they’re trying to catch an unsuspecting seed-eater.  Entire flocks fall silent when this hawk is near.  Starlings warn each other by making a high-pitched spitting sound.  Everyone ducks for cover. 

Coopers hawks are known to be jumpy and high strung.  Unlike red-tailed hawks, they are always on the move – and they move fast.  They can fly quickly through a forest and accurately catch prey with their talons. 

At my grocery store’s parking lot I once saw a coopers hawk cut a single pigeon out of the flock and grab it from behind in mid-air.  It was awe inspiring and it made me very glad I’m not something a coopers hawk wants to eat.



He’s back

Northern mockingbird (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)At lunch time my friend Karen and I walk Pitt’s campus near the Cathedral of Learning to see if we can find the peregrines.  Today we found a bird we hadn’t seen since last spring – a northern mockingbird.

All last winter and into early spring we usually saw a mockingbird perched high on the hedge in front of Heinz Chapel.  He (or perhaps she) became more active and territorial as spring approached.  I hoped he would nest on campus, but he disappeared before nesting time.  Now he’s back.

The photo above, by Marcy Cunkelman, is not our Pitt mockingbird but he is in a typical pose.  Marcy’s mockingbird looks puffed out because he is trying to stay warm but his ‘stare you down’ look and his cocked tail are just like the bird Karen and I see near Heinz Chapel.

Our mockingbird is probably a winter visitor.  Northern mockingbirds, despite their name, used to be a southern species and did not nest in western Pennsylvania.  For the past century they have been expanding their range northward.  Our winter mockingbird’s habits suggest he breeds so far north that a Pittsburgh winter feels mild.

How do I know he wasn’t here all year?  Mockingbirds are hard to miss at any season.  Not only do they sing nearly all year – and will sing all night in the spring – but they love to perch in plain view.  They are very territorial and noisy in nesting season.  Last spring I participated in the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas project so I looked for this bird, hoping to confirm that mockingbirds were nesting near Heinz Chapel.  No.  Oh well.

How do I know it’s the same bird every year?  Well, I don’t.  But he follows the same routine and has the same favorite perches.  For his part, he is probably thinking that he cannot be sure I am the same human who looks at him every winter but I seem to follow the same routine and walk past him at the same spot at the same time of day.

Funny how that works both ways.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

How I Spent My Thanksgiving Vacation

At Thanksgiving, my husband and I visited my relatives in southeastern Virginia.

My sister lives inland and has a view of the Pagan River marsh.  What a great view for a birder!  At dawn the air comes alive with birds:  gulls flying downstream from their river roost, blackbirds and grackles rising from the marsh grass, ducks and geese waking up on the water and a bald eagle or two flying over the marsh to begin the day.  It was worth getting up early to see it.

Brown Pelican (photo by Chuck Tague)After two days with my sister we visited my parents in Virginia Beach.  First Landing State Park is conveniently close to their house so I took a walk there on the bay shore and the woodland trails.  My favorite bird there was the brown pelican.

Brown pelicans are ocean birds who fly in long lines just above the waves.  They seldom flap their wings and when they do, they often flap one right after the other.  It looks like a game of follow the leader.

Pelicans dive head first into the ocean to catch fish.  It is amazing to see such a large bird do this.  The brown pelican’s wingspan is nearly the size of a bald eagle.

And before I left Virginia I saw another bald eagle – this time soaring over a shopping center.

Yes, it was a happy Thanksgiving.

Bald Eagle Comeback

Bald eagle pair building nest at Moraine State Park (photo by Steve Gosser)Bald eagle pair at Moraine (photo by Chuck Tague)The resurgence of the bald eagle in western Pennsylvania is a beautiful thing.  Nothing confirms it so well as seeing our newest pair of eagles flying together at Moraine State Park in Butler County.  In the photos above, Chuck Tague caught them flying together in a blue sky on November 1 and Steve Gosser captured them building a nest on November 23.  They won’t be laying eggs any time soon but they are housekeeping.  It looks like this pair will make the lake their home.

As recently as 25 years ago it was almost impossible to find a bald eagle in Pennsylvania.  In 1980 there were only three nesting pairs in the entire state – all of them at Pymatuning.  Pesticides, especially DDT, accumulated in the eagles’ bodies and made their eggs crack and fail.  With no young eagles reaching adulthood, the population declined as the adults died off.  It didn’t help that water pollution during that era reduced fish populations, the eagle’s staple food.

In the mid-1980s the PA Game Commission conducted a bald eagle reintroduction program.  This year they counted at least 120 nesting pairs in the state.  What a great success! 

If you want to see these birds, drive the south shore loop of Moraine State Park (park office toward Pleasant Valley) and look for a large dark bird with white head and tail.  It helps to have binoculars and patience.  It’s a big lake and they could be anywhere.

Clash of the Titans

Red-tailed hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)Peregrine falcon (photo by Chuck Tague)As I logged into my computer this morning I glanced out my office window and saw a red-tailed hawk zoom by hotly pursued by a peregrine falcon.

Apparently the peregrines at University of Pittsburgh are beginning to feel territorial.  The peregrine won, of course.

Today at lunchtime the peregrine pair did some courtship flying, then landed at the nest area.  The pigeons ran for cover.

>>> December 21, 2007 >>>
At lunchtime I was standing on the corner of Neville and Winthrop waiting to cross the street when I saw a red-tailed hawk suddenly dip low over my head. A peregrine was attacking it!

Neither bird made a sound. This show of strength was completely understood by the red-tail. The peregrine dove again with talons out, then left for the Cathedral of Learning. The red-tail continued flying toward Central Catholic.

When I returned after lunch the peregrine was on the antenna on top of the Cathedral of Learning and the red-tail was perched on the cross on top of Central Catholic. Everyone in their rightful place.

>>> January 30, 2008 >>>
I was talking on the phone and looking out the hall window toward the Cathedral of Learning when I noticed a red-tailed hawk had just perched on the side of the Central Catholic steeple. He was having a hard time staying upright – kept ruffling his feathers and rocking – because of the wind.

Then I saw a dot come off the Cathderal of Learning and grow in size as it approached Central Catholic. I knew it was a peregrine.

The peregrine flew in with the wind behind him, flipped over and dove at the red-tail, even though the red-tail was still perched on the downwind side of the narrow steeple. The falcon did this twice, swinging back and forth in the wind, alarming the hawk. On the third try the red-tail left the steeple with the peregrine in pursuit and they flew out of sight.

Totally cool! (Needless to say, I couldn’t keep up my end of the phone conversation while this was happening.)

Fog, coal and ducks

Icy fog at Allegheny Hawk Watch (photo by Kate)

Fog:   Today I took a vacation day to go to the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch on Allegheny Mountain just inside Bedford County.  The weather was supposed to be great for watching hawks – an east wind and sun – but there was no sun.  Instead thick freezing fog which deposited icy feathers on the trees as you can see from the picture I took with my cellphone.  Notice that the sky is white.  That’s the fog.

Bummer.  I drove two hours only to find out it was fogged in.  In fact, the edge of that mountain was the only place totally fogged in.  Knowing the weather for the nearest town, Central City, is no help.  The only way to know what the weather is like on the mountain, is to be there.

Coal:  Don’t let anyone tell you coal is ‘clean’ energy.  There’s a huge active strip mine south of Central City.  Loaded coal trucks leave the site every few seconds and drive on Routes 160 and 30.  The coal dust from these trucks lines the road, coats the roadside vegetation and splashes up on the cars.  When they say coal towns are gritty it is literally true.

Ducks:  Rather than go home I went down to Shawnee State Park in the valley near Schellsburg.   It was overcast and chilly but nicer than the mountain.  There were four common loons on the lake, a flock of ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers, a few black ducks, mallards and the best bird – three long-tailed ducks. I have not seen long-tailed ducks since 1997 so these were a special treat. 

I know the ducks will leave tonight.  Two duck hunters with a black Labrador retriever arrived at 3:30pm and set out decoys.  I hope the ducks are not fooled and that they all escape – especially the long-tailed ducks.

Loon Fallout

Common Loon on beach (photo by Chuck Tague)Yesterday was a gray, drizzly day and a great birding day at Moraine State Park in Butler County.  I went there to see ducks, hoping to find Tundra Swans.

Moraine State Park was built in 1970 from strip-mined land assembled by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.  Its centerpiece is a 3,225-acre lake formed by the damming of Muddy Creek.  Lake Arthur is one of the few large lakes in western Pennsylvania and a major stopover for migrating waterfowl.

When I got to the Pleasant Valley beach area there were many ruddy ducks and coots, but the big surprise was around the corner at the south shore overlook.  In the middle of the lake were hundreds of common loons.  Birding friends of mine counted over 300.  This is truly amazing because loons migrate alone or in small groups and are rarely seen in large numbers.  In one glance I saw more loons than I’ve seen in my entire life.  A loon fallout!

The word fallout usually means something bad – radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion or political fallout from a bad decision – but in birding it’s exciting.  When migrating birds hit bad weather, the flocks have to land.  This results in so many birds in one place that they seem to have fallen out of the sky.

So why loons?  I can only imagine it happened like this:  On Saturday evening fifty or more small flocks of loons each made the individual decision that it was time to leave the Great Lakes for the coast.  They all headed southeast for Chesapeake Bay but when they reached western Pennsylvania they found the leading edge of bad weather, fog and rain.  They realized it was only going to get worse so they had better land at Lake Arthur.

Loons have few choices on where to land.  Because they eat fish for a living, they are excellent divers but their bodies are heavy and hinged incorrectly for walking.  If they land on anything except a large area of open water, they cannot take off again and will die, stranded.  Lake Arthur was their best – perhaps their only – choice.

Chuck Tague once found a common loon on a beach in Florida, pictured here.  It may not have been stranded because the tide was going to come in, but it was definitely out of place.  As you can see, the loon’s legs are far back on its body, making them good for swimming, but not good for walking.  This loon is in winter plumage, mostly a uniform gray instead of the striking black and white pattern of breeding season.  The loon’s belly is white but you can’t see the belly when they are riding the water.

After watching the loons for a while, I parked and hiked.  It was cold so I walked fast and finished early.  Again I drove the south shore loop to see if anything changed.  This pass was even better.  The loons were still there but this time I saw three bald eagles.  An adult pair (the male is noticably smaller than the female) circled up around an immature eagle.  Immature bald eagles are brown with blotchy white on their bodies.  Their heads and tails are not white.  The adult eagles seemed to be showing the young eagle that they claimed the lake as their territory.  They didn’t chase him, just gave him a show of strength.

And my Best Bird of the day was there too.  Perched on a bush at the water’s edge was a Northern Shrike, a rare northern visitor.  What a cap to my day!  The only way to improve it would have been if I’d seen Tundra Swans.

The Night Visitor

Eastern Screech-owl close up (photo by Chuck Tague)My husband started to rake leaves in our backyard at about 4:15 this afternoon.  It started to rain and the sun set before he finished so I put on a yellow rain slicker and went out in the dark to help him load the garbage bags. 

By the time we were loading the second bag the rain was serious.  Bent over with my hood up I heard a trill like a cell phone.  I froze in place.  ‘He’s here!  But where?’

My husband isn’t a bird watcher but he knows that sound.  He paused too.  We were getting wetter by the minute and the call did not repeat.  My husband said, ‘Well, if he’s here, he’ll call again.’   Sure enough, he did.

Our eastern screech-owl is back.  We think of him as ours only because we listen for him and have seen him a few times.  In the winter he roosts in my neighbor’s spruce trees and hunts for critters beneath our bird feeders.  He usually begins calling in the autumn and is quite vocal into January.   Once in early spring I saw him perched on my neighbor’s telephone wire with his mate. 

Tonight our owl decided to say something.  Perhaps he was commenting on how silly people can be, messing with wet leaves in the dark.

(p.s. the call he made was the ‘A-song’ at this link.)

(p.p.s.  Tues 11/20:  Tonight the screech-owl gave the whinny call.  It’s the ‘B-song’ at the link above.)

Thousands of Grackles

Brown-headed Cowbird flock (photo by Chuck Tague)

This morning outside my window I watched a flock of thousands of common grackles streaming toward Schenley Park.  The flock moved in a long thin line so it took several minutes for it to pass.  Just as I assumed they were done, even more appeared.

You can get an idea of it how they looked from Chuck Tague’s picture of a brown-headed cowbird flock.


First Snow

Light snow, Nov 16 (photo by Kate)

For a variety of reasons I had planned to drive to work today, but when I looked out the window and saw it snowing I changed my mind and walked.

I love snow and this first snowfall was perfect.  In the windbreaks big, fat snowflakes landed on my eyelashes.  It was too warm to accumulate, so the ground wasn’t slippery.  As you can see from the picture I took with my cellphone, the snow barely stuck to the leaves of this euonymous bush.

I didn’t see many birds: a flock of crows from the East End roost, a few robins in scattered groups, three cedar waxwings, some starlings.  The birds live outdoors in the cold all day so they weren’t wasting any energy getting excited about the First Snow.