Monthly Archives: February 2008

When is a falcon not like a falcon?

Immature Crested Caracara (photo by Chuck Tague)In Central Florida there’s a member of the falcon family who looks and acts unlike any other North American falcon – and it has a very cool name:  the crested caracara

I had almost given up seeing one this year but on the last day of my trip Chuck and Joan Tague took me to Viera Wetlands, a water treatment plant west of Melbourne. 

In warm climates it’s become common to use man-made wetlands to treat sewage.  The artificial wetlands attract all kinds of birds and that attracts birders.  The birds are so easy to see, it knocks your eyes out. 

That’s what happened at Viera.  The three of us were gazing intently into some reeds, watching a least bittern, when Chuck turned around.  Standing on the road behind us was an immature crested caracara looking at us if to say, “Whatcha doing?”

Crested carcaras are classed in the falcon family but are in a separate subfamily called Polyborinae.  Unlike “true falcons” caracaras stand on the ground a lot, they don’t have pointy wings, they have extensive skin on their faces, and they are scavengers with eating habits more like vultures than peregrines.  In fact they watch for vultures and follow them to feed on carrion.

Our caracara watched us at close range for a while – yet another way in which he wasn’t like the other falcons – then he flew away and I lost track of him.  Best Bird of the trip!

I can’t say enough about the birding at sewage treatment wetlands.  If you get the chance to visit Central Florida, don’t miss Viera.  Two of my other favorite places are Wakodahatchee Wetlands (Delray Beach, Florida) and Henderson Bird Preserve (Henderson, Nevada). 

Vulture Dance

Kate dances with black vultures (photo by Chuck Tague)In the past six days I’ve been in Florida – looking at birds of course.

Every winter by the end of February I can’t take the relentless gray and ice in Pittsburgh so I visit my friends Chuck and Joan Tague who spend the winter near Daytona.  Birds and friends and warm weather are such a welcome break! 

We humans aren’t the only ones who escape to Florida.  There are a heck of a lot of birds there right now, the most noticable being the vultures. 

Florida has two species: turkey vultures and black vultures.

Turkey vultures are common in western Pennsylvania from March to November but they spend the winter in the south because they can’t eat frozen food.  Vultures eat rotting dead things, the more rotten the better.  Freezing weather preserves the meat – therefore no rotting – and vultures’ beaks are not strong enough to break apart tough substances, so they go south.

But if it’s possible to have favorites among such ugly birds, my favorites are the black vultures.  They are less shy than turkey vultures, they have timid-looking faces and they are rare in western Pennsylvania.  I suppose absence makes my heart grow fonder.  I don’t have to deal with them all the time.

Near Daytona there are two places where I’m guaranteed to see lots of black vultures:  Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and at my hotel’s parking lot.  This has nothing to do with the hotel and everything to do with the fast food restaurants nearby.  The black vultures roost overnight on cell towers and pines and coast down to the restaurant dumpsters in the morning.  Sweet and shy as they look, I don’t get too close because they projectile-vomit when scared and I don’t want to be on the receiving end of that!

At Lake Woodruff I can get a little closer.  The vultures sit in flocks on the dikes and as we approach they hop away, sometimes holding their wings open and skipping ahead of us.  They look so silly that I had to imitate them and Chuck snapped my picture. 

Yes, I look silly too.  Oh well.  You’re never too old to have fun.

The Pigeon Book

Cover of the Pigeon bookAnother book!

For birders, pigeons are on the borderline between wild and tame, pests and pets.  They willingly live off our food scraps yet we vaguely feel there’s something wrong with this even though we feed backyard birds. 

Now there’s a book that tells us how pigeons got to where they are today and what special traits this has given them.  Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird, by Andrew D. Blechman.

The saga began when humans domesticated the rock pigeon over 5,000 years ago.  Since then we have widely divergent relationships with these birds: from pigeon fanciers to pigeon shooters, protectors to poisoners, pigeon racers to compulsive pigeon feeders.  Blechman’s book delves into it all.

He also describes how:
•  Pigeons are naturally even tempered.  They do not bite or attack.  This made them easy to domesticate and it’s why them seem tame.
•  Racing pigeons fly non-stop more than 500 miles at more than 60 miles per hour.  This is even more amazing when you consider they are trucked to the starting point – a place they have never seen – and within minutes they figure out where they are and where home is.  Then they fly home immediately without stopping for food or water.
•  Pigeon hating is a relatively new sentiment, promoted by “bird control companies.”  For instance, if you use Google to search for this book online, the advertising links are all pigeon control companies.
•  A 100% guaranteed, permanent pigeon control method was invented in Europe and, amazingly, involves providing them with nests.  

After you read this book you won’t think the same old way about pigeons any more.

My, how things have changed

Computer (from Macomb County Library website, Macomb County, Michigan)A friend and I were musing about the late 1980’s.  My goodness, how birding has changed in the last twenty years! 

Back then binoculars, a field guide and the rare bird hotline were our suite of tools.  I had a computer then (it’s my job) but Internet connections were so expensive that the software company I worked for didn’t have one.

Communication used to take a while.  A rare bird could come and go and only one person would ever know it was there.  If you wanted to tell someone, you had to drive to the nearest pay phone.  Now most birders have cell phones and those who search for rarities are in constant touch.

Other than my binoculars, the Internet is my favorite birding tool.  Email lists have replaced the telephone hotlines and Google enhances our field guides with easy access to bird identification websites. 

It is so easy to find information on the Internet that you hardly have to own a book about birds, though I am such a book lover I still want to own them all.  

Photography has changed birding dramatically.  Before the days of affordable digital cameras, it was expensive to develop film, it took an expert to edit the results and sharp details could only be achieved with high-powered lenses.  Digital photography has changed all that. Photo sharing websites give everyone access to thousands of excellent pictures. 

In the midst of all this change there is one constant:  friends.  The Internet has helped this too.  Online I’ve met birders from around the state and around the world.  At birding hotspots we meet in person, happy to put a face to the names we know so well. 

It is so satisfying to share a bird moment with friends – our sightings and knowledge, disappointments and joys.  That’s why I enjoy writing this blog.

All in all I think birding has improved considerably.

Coping with Cold: Shelter

Coopers Hawk stalking at brush pile shelter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Another cold night in Pittsburgh.  Tomorrow morning it’ll be only 10 degrees.

As I walked home this evening I passed a brush pile on Forbes Avenue and heard the thin ‘zee’ of white-throated sparrows calling to each other.  I couldn’t see them but I’m sure they will shelter there tonight to stay warm.

To some of you a brush pile may look like “junk” but to a songbird it’s a life saver, providing protection from bad weather and predators.

My friend Marcy Cunkelman is a great gardener and has made her yard both beautiful and bird-friendly.  For the songbirds, she constructed several brush piles.  The birds love them.

As you can see in Marcy’s photo, the coopers hawk – who eats birds – is very interested in the brush pile.  Perhaps he can see the songbirds hiding there.  Marcy tells me he sometimes tries to dive in to scare the little birds out of it, but they are safe inside.

Tonight they’ll be in there out of the wind, fluffed up to stay warm.   Brrrr!

Participate in Project Budburst

Participate in Project Budburst (photo from Project Budburst website) I’m going to take a brief side trip today and discuss plants and a very cool project you can participate in.

Last Saturday I listened to the radio show Living on Earth.  Here in Pittsburgh it’s broadcast at 6:00am on Saturdays on WDUQ so you have to be up early to hear it.

The segment that intrigued me was about Project Budburst in which volunteers help scientists track climate change by reporting when plants bloom or leaf out.

All you need to do is sign up online here.  Then, just record when a plant blooms or leafs out and where it was when you saw it.  Project Budburst does the rest.  They collect the data and correlate species, blooming time and location to chart the effects of climate change.

The project is interested in all kinds of plants.  The plants don’t even have to be native species.  You can report on lilacs, forsythia, dandelions and common weeds in your back yard.  Now, that’s easy!  Even I can do that!

I know that many of you spend time outdoors and in your garden.   Even if you only report once, it will improve the data.

Read more about the project – and the science of phenology – at the links above.  Or click on the columbine picture from the Project Budburst website and it’ll take you right there.

Nothing but “Mortimer”

European Starling, non-breeding and breeding plumage (photos by Chuck Tague)
Today’s blog is a historical costume drama and the stars are “Star lings.”

Have you noticed that European starlings are changing into their sleek spring costumes?  I have.

To show you what I mean, I’ve put two of Chuck Tague’s pictures side by side.  On the left is a starling in non-breeding plumage.  His feathers look very speckled and his beak is dull gray-brown.  On the right is a starling in spring breeding plumage.  The speckled tips on his breast and head feathers have worn off so he looks glossy black-green – almost oily – and his beak is yellow.

Now, for the history and drama.

Starlings are called “European” for good reason.  They didn’t live in North America until 1890 when a Shakespeare fan, Eugene Scheifflin, released 100 of them in New York’s Central Park because he wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the United States.  Starlings made only one appearance in Shakespeare and that was because they are mimics.

Starlings can mimic many sounds including the calls of other birds.  In the wild they sound like this, but people can keep them as pets and teach them to say many things.     See Techno’s video.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur is angry at the king and says to Worcester,
“He said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer,
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holloa “Mortimer.”
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.”

Today our starling population ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is estimated at 200 million.

200 million!  That’s a lot more “copies” circulating in North America than you’re likely to find of Henry IV, Part I.

Raptors in Love

Dorothy and Erie bow in courtship, Pittsburgh 2003It’s Valentine’s Day and all across America lovers are giving gifts and going out to dinner.

Even though it doesn’t feel like spring, the birds of prey are courting too.

Birds time their egg laying so that their babies are born when the most food is available.  For peregrines, who eat birds, hatching occurs during spring migration when thousands of songbirds are passing through.   For red-tailed hawks, who eat rodents, their babies hatch when the year’s first mice, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits have left the nest.

To get the hatching time right, peregrine egg laying has to happen in late March in Pittsburgh so February is courting time.

Pictured here are Dorothy and Erie in a uniquely peregrine courtship ritual. They bow low toward each other over the scrape – where Dorothy will lay the eggs – and they make a creaking call to each other.  Peregrine females are larger than males, so Dorothy is the one on the left.   This falconcam photo is from 2003, but peregrine pairs do this every year.

Raptors have other courting rituals amazingly similar to those of humans.

People court by walking hand-in-hand.  Raptors court by flying together. Today our local red-tailed hawks did some courtship flying over Central Catholic High School.

Just as men take their wives out to dinner, the male raptor catches prey and offers it to his lady.  Often, after she eats as much as she wants he finishes the feast.   Many humans reverse this when the wife eats off the husband’s plate because she “doesn’t want any dessert.”

Soon I will participate in the dessert exchange ritual.  I’m a wife.


Snow on the birds.  12 Feb 2008No birds anywhere.  It’d been snowing since last night with 4″ on the ground and it still keeps coming.  The snow is deep at the peregrine nest, but no footprints in the snow today.

Temperatures are rising and the weatherman predicts we’ll have freezing rain by 2:00pm.  

I walked to work, partly because I like walking in snow and partly to avoid driving in it. 

The only interesting bird I saw was a red-tailed hawk sleeping on a branch behind our building.  He looked headless because he had tucked his head into his back feathers.

The commute home – even on foot – will be interesting. 

I can’t stop watching them

Kate watching birds (photo by Z Taylor)People often ask me why I’m interested in birds. 

My husband insists it was meant to be after I had a part in a French play at the age of six.  My costume was blue from head to toe and I had one line: “Je suis un oiseau bleu.”   “I am a bluebird.”

But really, it’s because they fly.  They’re beautiful, and they fly, and they fly beautifully.  This rules out insects – but I never did like bugs.

I remember the first bird that fascinated me:  the common nighthawk.  When I was in grade school we lived in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, near an apartment building with a gravel roof.  Every summer I sat on our front steps and watched the nighthawks’ courtship, the flapping flight, the peenting, dive and boom. 

When I was twelve we moved to an area that had recently been a farm.  I spent my first summer there walking the remnant woods in the creek bottom.  One day I literally came face to face with a red-eyed, olive-green bird.  At home I searched my field guide.  It was a red-eyed vireo.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at identifying birds.  Each spring, after my ears get back in tune, I can identify many of them by voice. 

True confessions of a birder:  I can’t be at an outdoor party without silently identifying all the birds nearby.  I keep this ability under wraps (imagine not paying attention at an outdoor wedding!) but it is practically impossible for me not to see and hear them.  

I love the flash of wings. The red-eyed vireo looked me in the eye and I’ve been looking back ever since.

That’s me on an outing to Conneaut Marsh, photo by Z Taylor.