Monthly Archives: March 2008

A Golden Sign of Spring

American goldfinches molting into breeding plumage (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Today’s weather is gorgeous so I did some long-needed yard work. 

While I knelt in the garden American goldfinches visited my thistle feeder.  That’s when I noticed the males are changing into their spring clothes. 

In winter both sexes of goldfinches are dull yellow with no black cap.  Right now they’re midway into breeding plumage as you can see in this picture by Marcy Cunkelman. 

The females (bird on left) don’t change color very much but the males molt their dull feathers and grow bright new yellow ones.  The male at bottom has changed halfway and already has a black cap.  The male at top right has almost finished changing.

By the time the golfinches are completely “gold” again, spring will be here.

3 eggs and Counting

Dorothy (peregrine falcon) at her nest at Univ of Pittsburgh, March 28, 2008Today’s photo of Dorothy, the female peregrine falcon at University of Pittsburgh, looks almost exactly like the one I captured on Easter Day.  The difference is that by now she’s laid 3 eggs.

There were only 2 eggs in the nest last night; there were 3 this morning.

If Dorothy follows her normal pattern, she’ll produce a fourth egg two days from now.

Watch her “live” on the National Aviary’s webcam


4 eggs at University of Pittsburgh peregrine nestMarch 30, 2008, 12:31pm:  Dorothy has 4 eggs now.  Thanks to Larry Laude who sent me a “heads up.”






Pitt peregrines “go live”

Peregrine falcon (Dorothy) at her nest at night, Univ of Pittsburgh, March 26, 2008The Aviary’s webcam at the Pitt peregrine nest is so cool!

As of tonight the website is streaming live video so you can see the falcons in action from high atop the Cathedral of Learning.

The camera is so good you can even see the birds at night!  Here’s a picture of Dorothy taken just after 10pm.  (Click here to learn why she isn’t sitting on the eggs full time yet.)

To see the live stream, click on the picture or go directly to the Aviary’s webcam.

Two eggs as of 25 Mar 2008, 2:15pmMarch 25, 2008, 2:15pm: Dorothy laid her second egg on March 25 at about 2:15pm. Thanks to two sharp observers who sent me comments to alert me. It turns out that at 2:15pm I was outdoors watching the Cathedral of Learning. Suddenly Dorothy and Erie began a courtship flight. Maybe their flying meant “happy egg.”





Along the Armstrong Trail

Allegheny River at Rosston, Armstrong County, Mar 23, 2008Hiking is one of my favorite pastimes combining exercise, the outdoors, peace and quiet, and birds.  Winter weather and lousy footing kept me out of the woods for the past few months so I’ve been itching to get out for a real hike.

Last weekend I kicked off hiking season with a visit to the Armstrong Trail at Rosston.  It was so beautiful I had to take this picture. 

The Armstrong Trail runs for 52.5 miles along the Allegheny River from Schenley to East Brady on the path of a former rail line.  I hiked two sections:  Rosston to Logansport and Kelly to Godfrey.   Here the trail is maintained but rough and often paved with coal dust, a heritage of its coal-mining past.

Rosston and Logansport were especially good for birds.  In early spring migrating waterfowl find the river a welcome stopover when the lakes are frozen.  Last weekend Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park was still 90% frozen so no wonder the birds were at the river.

At Rosston, Crooked Creek empties into the Allegheny and is protected by a downstream island.  I could see wood ducks and ring-necked ducks feeding in the island shallows. 

Abandoned beehive coke ovens, Kelly Station, PA, March 24, 2008The river was high and the flats at Logansport were flooded so the trees were up to their ankles in water.  Here I found many more wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, a gadwall and a few horned grebes.  One horned grebe was so close I could see his red eyes.

A curious part of the landscape at Kelly and Godfrey are the abandoned 1850’s beehive coke ovens.  They look like a line of big holes in the forested hillside (pictured at right).

It was very quiet on the trail last weekend but I could tell by the tire tracks and the signs saying “No ATVs” that ATVs use the trail extensively and are unwelcome.  Sadly, this means I won’t be visiting the trail when the weather is good and the ATVs come out.

Easter Egg

Dorothy with her first egg of 2008 on March 23, Easter Day (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Dorothy with her first egg of 2008 on March 23, Easter Day (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

March 23, 2008, 7:30am

This morning I woke up early to look for an egg.

Last night before I went to bed I saw that Dorothy, the female peregrine at University of Pittsburgh, was on her nest. That probably meant she was going to lay an egg before dawn.

Sure enough, here she is on Easter morning with her first egg of 2008. Congratulations!

To watch her at the nest, see the National Aviary’s webcam.  (2018 Note: The link doesn’t work 10 years later but that’s fitting.  We can’t watch Dorothy anymore but we can watch her successor, Hope, at this link.)

Peregrine drama in Beaver County

Ohio River railroad bridge, Beaver, PAThe peregrines in Beaver County settled a score today.

Last year Scott Gregg confirmed a peregrine nest at an Ohio River bridge in Monaca.  This spring, not only are his peregrines at Monaca but a pair was seen mating at this railroad bridge in Beaver only 1.25 air-miles away.

Are there two peregrine nests in Beaver County?  We met Scott Gregg at the railroad bridge this afternoon to find out.

At first there was no activity, then three peregrines chased each other from the bridge to the hillside.  One was an immature bird, brown instead of gray.  The adults made a show of strength by lowering their talons but there was no intense aggression.

After they flew away we decided to split up and monitor both bridges.  Scott gave me a walkie-talkie and drove to Monaca while the rest of us stayed at the Beaver bridge.

As soon as he arrived at Monaca, Scott radioed that there was no activity whatsoever over there.  Yet almost immediately in Beaver we saw three peregrines zoom past in a chase: an adult female and two immatures.  It was hard to see the immature peregrines with the brown hillside as a backdrop but it was clear that the gloves had come off.  This was a real fight.

The adult female chased the immature female and grabbed at her with her talons.  The third bird flew with them, following every move.  Under pursuit, the immature female flipped over to defend herself but the adult female grabbed her feet.  Locked together they tumbled in a ball toward the river separating at the last minute before they hit the water.  The adult female would not give up the chase, forcing the other two downriver in hot pursuit.  After they disappeared from view an adult male peregrine flew off the railroad bridge and followed them.  Four peregrines!

A little time passed and the adult female peregrine came back and landed on the tower of the railroad bridge.  “She’s going to mate,” said my friend Karen.  Quite a prediction!
In a few minutes the adult male peregrine returned from the chase and the pair copulated on the railroad bridge tower.   Meanwhile, in Monaca Scott was bored.  He saw no peregrines at all.

So what does this mean?

I think there’s only one peregrine nest in Beaver County – at the Monaca bridge.  The Monaca pair sometimes mate on the Beaver railroad bridge as a way of claiming it as part of their territory.  An immature female peregrine showed up and the pair did not drive her off because she looked too young to nest, but when a fourth peregrine arrived it was more than the Monaca peregrines could take.  Today they drove away the others and proved they own both bridges by mating in full view on the railroad bridge.

My husband says “Violence is an aphrodisiac for peregrines.”   I wonder.

[p.s. You can tell it’s peregrine season.  My blog is nearly “All peregrines, All the time.”]

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner

  • Pigeon

Pigeons are the peregrines’ favorite food so this activity at the Pitt peregrine nest made me laugh out loud.  What the heck is this pigeon doing in the nest of his mortal enemies?

Pigeons nest on cliffs just like peregrines so they’re used to having predators nearby but this is way too close.  I’ve never seen a live pigeon in the peregrines’ nest, so what’s up?

I have a theory.

Last year the University of Pittsburgh cleaned the Cathedral of Learning and found pigeon nests in every nook and cranny.  When the cleaning was finished they pigeon-proofed the building with netting and spikes.  This spring the pigeons have far fewer places to nest so this pair is desperate enough to try the beautiful nest provided for the peregrines.

The pigeon and his lady check out the area and leave abruptly when…


(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh. Click on any image to see the slideshow in its own lightbox.)

Whisper Singing

American Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)I heard an unusual bird song the other day – a quiet wiry whistling, almost a melody.  I suspected it was a robin, but this was a new sound to me so I stopped to find the bird.

Indeed, it was a male robin and he moved away at my approach but he didn’t stop singing.  Instead he stayed close to his audience, a female robin.  With his beak pointed up and wide open, he whispered his song to her and watched for her reaction.

Was this courtship?  I did some research in my bird books and on the web and found only a few hints.  Even though robins are very common birds, their courtship activities aren’t distinctive enough to be described any better than “two birds hanging out together.”

Here were two birds hanging out together and maintaining eye contact while he whispered sweet nothings to her.  Who knows?  On a cold March day that might be the extent of robin courtship.

Why isn’t she sitting on the eggs?

Two eggs at Gulf Tower peregrine nest, Pittsburgh, 2008This photo of a peregrine nest with no mother bird sitting on the eggs prompted several of you to ask the question above.

Peregrines in temperate climates don’t begin incubating the eggs until the last or next-to-last egg is laid, though they do protect the eggs from cold, heat and rain.  The result is that all the eggs hatch within about 24 to 48 hours.  This makes the chicks approximately the same age and size as they grow up together.

Bald eagles, on the other hand, begin incubation immediately and the chicks hatch days apart.  The first chick is older and larger than the second, and so on.  The parents focus on feeding the largest chick who then becomes better able to compete for food.  The smallest chick often starves.  Sometimes the largest chick kills his siblings.

From what I have observed, peregrine nestlings are never aggressive toward their siblings, perhaps because they are all the same size.


March 17, 2008:  Over the weekend Tasha laid her 3rd egg so she will be incubating pretty much full time now.  See her progress on the National Aviary’s webcam

March 19, 2008:  We have confirmation today that Tasha has laid 4 eggs.  It’s likely her clutch is complete now.