Monthly Archives: October 2008

Like Pepper in the Sky

American Robins flock near the roost (photo by Tom Pawlesh)

Flocks are my weakness. 

I love to watch the grandeur and sweep, the beauty of wings in flight, the triumph of nature that thousands of birds represent.

So though I’m not happy that the days are getting shorter, the weather colder, the skies cloudier, I’m thrilled that this is the one time of year when I see huge flocks in Pittsburgh.

The excitement begins an hour before sunset.  Outdoors I look up to see groups of twenty to forty birds all flying in the same direction.  They’re American robins and they’re heading for the roost.

There are at least two roosts in Pittsburgh – one near the Bloomfield Bridge, the other near Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery in Carnegie – but I’m not at either one.  I’m at a point along their flyway.

The robins keep coming, the groups get larger, but they will not land here.  On and on they come… and pass me by.  It hardly looks like a flock, but they’re moving together intent on their destination.

They look like pepper in the sky.

(photo by Tom Pawlesh of American robins circling the roost in Carnegie last winter.)

Even though it’s cold…

Dorothy and E2 courting in October at Univ of PittsburghIt’s gray and windy today with snow flurries – the first snow of the season.

Despite the weather, I walked toward the Cathderal of Learning after I got off the bus to see if I could find any peregrines. 

Yes, Dorothy was perched on a stone peak on the 40th floor facing southeast. 

As I watched, E2 arrived carrying food and Dorothy swooped out to greet him.  They flew a few circles together and then he landed in their favorite cache spot to prepare breakfast.

So, even though it’s cold and snowy our peregrines are staying home and staying together in Pittsburgh.

(National Aviary webcam photo of Dorothy and E2 courting in October.)

What to Look For: Early November

Brant in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)
Brant in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Another installment  of November phenology for southwestern Pennsylvania.   Here are some of Chuck Tague’s suggestions on what to look for in the next few weeks, plus a few of my own.

  • We have lots of cloud cover in November.  The sun shines only 37% of the time.
  • With the trees bare – around Nov 11 in the city – you’ll be able to see bird and squirrel nests.
  • Migration continues overhead.  Watch for tundra swans.  They won’t stop on Pittsburgh’s rivers unless the weather is terrible but you can find them resting at Yellow Creek State Park.
  • Ducks, geese, and loons will pass overhead and pause on our rivers and lakes, especially at Moraine and Yellow Creek State Parks.
  • Expect:  Canada geese, common loons, mergansers, ring-necked, ruddy and wood ducks.  There will be so many kinds of ducks there’s no room to list them all.
  • Watch for the unexpected:  A brant (the small geese pictured here) sometimes stops briefly at Yellow Creek.  You might find a red-throated loon or a few snow geese.
  • Fox sparrows should be here soon.
  • Chipmunks and squirrels are caching food.   Will you notice when the chipmunks have gone underground for the winter?  It’s difficult to notice an absence, isn’t it?


(photo of Brant by Chuck Tague)

Owned by a Parrot

Book Cover of The Parrot Who Owns Me, by Joanna BurgerIf you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship by Joanna Burger, published by Villard in 2001.  I just finished reading it and I loved it.

Joanna Burger is an ornithologist and animal behavior scientist at Rutgers University.  The book is about Tiko, a Red-lored Amazon who has lived with her and her husband Mike since 1986. 

Tiko is a commanding presence in their household.  He’s the alpha parrot in a flock of three:  himself, Joanna and Mike.  His view is that he owns them, not the other way around.  Now that I’ve read the book and understand parrots better, I can see that he’s right.

Like all parrots, Tiko is highly intelligent and social.  Living with him means knowing him as an individual and learning to understand what he’s communicating.  He is very good at making his meaning clear.

For those of us who don’t live with parrots, these concepts are fascinating.  For Joanna Burger, a bird behavior specialist, it changed her life.  Tiko’s flock dynamics, his vigilance, loyalty and devotion, and his use of tools spurred her to study the same behaviors among wild birds and mammals.

The book gave me insights into the beauty of a long term relationship across species and the behavior of birds that I hope to see in the wild myself. 

(Click on the photo of the book cover to read excerpts or buy at

Going the Distance

Elizabetha, long distance migrant peregrine (photo by Bud Anderson)Among peregrines falcons, Dorothy and E2 at University of Pittsburgh are homebodies.  They don’t migrate.  They don’t wander.  They stay home all winter.

Not all adult peregrines behave this way.  Those who nest in the arctic are long distance migrants covering 9,000 miles each fall and spring on their way from Canada to South America and back.

Last Friday Peter Robinson posted a message on PABIRDS about an arctic falcon being tracked by the Falcon Research Group (FRG).  I was intrigued.

Meet Elizabetha, pictured here by Bud Anderson.  She was captured last January near Constitucion, Chile and fitted with a satellite transmitter as part of FRG’s Southern Cross Peregrine Project, a study of transcontinental peregrine migration.

In April, three months after she was tagged, Elizabetha left for Baffin Island, Canada where she spent the summer and presumably nested.  Baffin Island is a stark place but it has great nesting cliffs and lots of sea birds.

With the nesting season over, Elizabetha headed south.  She began her journey on September 23, two days after the equinox.  At first she traveled slowly for an arctic peregrine – only about 60 miles per day.  When she reached Hudson Strait, the body of water that separates Baffin Island from mainland Canada, she crossed it the long way, flying 156 miles east to west.  I was impressed.

And that’s when we then heard about her on PABIRDS because it looked as if she would travel down the Appalachian chain into Pennsylvania.  Not Elizabetha.  On October 17th she spent the night in northern Maine at Moosehead Lake.  The next day she began a two-day power flight that set all records, flying 1,416 miles in the most amazing trip anyone has ever seen.

She left Maine on October 18th and was clocked near Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts at 5:00pm, but she didn’t stop.  Eight hours later, at 1:00am October 19th, she was nine miles off the coast of New Jersey flying south at 55mph.  She had a good tail wind and – though we didn’t know it – she planned to fly all night.  From the coast of New Jersey until she roosted 24 hours later at Ft Pierce, Florida she flew 954 miles over the open Atlantic.   Don McCall speculates on the FRG blog that she was helped by the north winds behind Hurricane Omar.  Totally awesome!

Elizabetha’s urge to migrate is strong.  She knows she has far to go and she’s not wasting any time.   Yesterday she was in the Florida Keys.  I wonder where she’ll go today.

To follow Elizabetha’s journey, click on her picture.

(photo of Elizabetha by Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group)

So blue!

Absolutely blue skyI couldn’t let this day pass without commenting that we have yet another day of absolutely blue sky in Pittsburgh.  It looks just like that blue square at left (which is actually a picture of the sky).

Without a single cloud, it’s pretty hard to see migrating hawks.  I’m sure they’re up there but there’s no way to see them in a sky this blue.

OK, so I’m asking for clouds.

I’ll live to regret this request next month in gray November.


Golden eagle (photo in the public domain from Zoo Ostrava, Czech Republic)Every fall I visit the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch near Central City, PA in hopes of seeing a golden eagle, but for the past several years I have chosen the wrong days to do it.

Golden eagles pass through southwestern Pennsylvania from the third week of October to the end of November.  Because the hawk watch faces east, the best condition for seeing birds is an east wind but that direction can also bring the absolute worst weather – thick fog.  Witness my last visit to The Front in November 2007.

Years of bad timing left me discouraged about visiting the hawk watch so I asked Eric Hall, who spends a lot of time out there, to email me if he thought the weather would be good.  Eric’s email arrived last Friday so I rolled the dice and went out on Saturday.

Last Saturday was great!  The first golden eagle flew past at eye level.  He was easy to see but oh, such a brief moment to see him in!  Five others passed by much higher and two of them lingered.  That’s because both were being harrassed by up to three red-tailed hawks.

The size difference between goldens and red-tails is astonishing.  We all think of red-tailed hawks as large birds but when you see one next to a golden eagle it’s dwarfed.  It’s similar to watching a blue jay harrass a red-tail.  That’s how big a golden is.

Eastern golden eagles nest in Canada and migrate to the mountains of West Virginia where they spend the winter chowing down on mammals.  They follow the Allegheny Front to get there, passing through a narrow corridor between the Front and the first mountain in the Appalachian range.  We know their route because the National Aviary is working on a Wind Power and Golden Eagles project, fitting golden eagles with satellite transmitters to track their migration.

There’s still plenty of time to visit the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch to see golden eagles.  If the weather’s right, they’ll be there.  Remember to dress warmly!  Hawk watching is just about the coldest activity on earth.  Take an extra coat!  And click here for directions to the site.

(Golden eagle, photo in the public domain from Zoo Ostrava, Czech Republic.  The golden eagle’s range extends through North America, Europe and Asia.)

White Falcon, White Wolf

Gyrfalcon (photo from the PBS series Nature. you’re a falcon fanatic like I am you won’t want to miss White Falcon, White Wolf,  the season opener of PBS’s Nature, starring the largest falcon on earth.

The show tells the story of the brief arctic breeding season, focusing on a family of gyrfalcons and a pack of arctic wolves

The setting is the stark landscape of Ellesmere Island, the northernmost point in Canada.  It is summer, but only for three short months.  In that time all the arctic creatures must court and mate, give birth and raise young.  The challenge is in the timing.  If the food supply is not ready or not adequate, the young starve.

The photography is stunning and required lots of patience and stamina.  I can barely imagine the days – maybe weeks – the photographers must have spent in a blind on a neighboring cliff.   The sun never sets during the arctic summer so how did they avoid detection, not only by the gyrfalcons and wolves but by the many other birds and animals in the film?

Don’t miss it!  The show premieres this Sunday, October 26 at 8:00pm.  In the Pittsburgh area watch it on WQED-13, or if you have HDTV on WQED-HD.  If you live outside WQED’s broadcast area, check your local PBS station schedule to be sure it’s at 8:00pm.  

(photo from White Falcon, White Wolf)

p.s.  The gyrfalcons are beautiful, but for sheer cuteness watch for the arctic foxes.

Not Long Now…

Red Sassafras leaves (photo by Kate St. John)Compared to the Great Plains and the coasts, Pittsburgh is not a windy place.  Our typical wind speed is 5-10 miles per hour and some days there’s no wind at all.

Gentle breezes are the norm, so you’ll understand why one of my favorite sounds is the swish of wind in the leaves.  Their rustling is so soothing that it actually improves my day to hear it.

Because I love this sound, I began to care whether the leaves were on or off the trees.  About ten years ago I started to keep track.

First I developed a rough standard for measuring “on” and “off.”  Then, using my neighborhood and Schenley Park as yardsticks, I watched the seasons change and tried to pick the date when most of the trees were bare.  Over the years that date has been around November 11th.

Of course the date is very weather dependent.  If a strong cold front comes through early, the wind and rain strip the trees.  If the weather’s mild and our first hard frost is late, the leaves hang on longer.  I’ve seen the date move later in recent years.

In any case, the days of leaves are numbered now.  It won’t be long before the trees are bare.  Then silence, except for the clacking of bare branches during winter storms.

(photo from my cell phone)

November 9, 2008:  Today is the first day this fall that most of the trees are bare.

What to Look For: Late October

Flowering Dogwood in fall colors (photo by Chuck Tague)Phenology is the study of biological activity patterns through the seasons … or … (my definition) a list of what nature is doing at a particular time of year.

Chuck Tague, who supplies me with beautiful pictures like this one, used to publish a newsletter called The Nature Observer News.  The other day I was reminiscing about his bi-monthly list of “What to Look For” that made me eager to get outdoors in every season.  I relied on his phenology and now I miss it.

Last week [October 2008] I asked Chuck if he’d consider sending me abbreviated phenologies for southwestern Pennsylvania so I could post them on my blog every month. Happily, he was thinking of publishing The Nature Observer online and said I could piggyback.

[In 2008] Chuck launched his complete list for late October on his new blog, The Nature Observer’s Journal.  Here’s the first hint of the treasures Chuck promises in southwestern Pennsylvania in the next two weeks:

  • Fall colors reach their peak, especially red and sugar maples.
  • First frost around October 20.  First hard frost around Halloween.
  • It’s hunting season! Wear blaze orange and be aware of Pennsylvania’s hunting seasons.  Remember: Though Sunday is generally safer, some game can be hunted on Sundays.
  • The first wave of ducks and geese migrate through our area.
  • Hawk watches see lots of sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks.
  • Golden eagle migration peaks at the Allegheny Front in the third week of October.
  • White-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows arrive to stay through the winter.
  • Big flocks begin to form at dusk and dawn: grackles, robins, starlings and (my favorite) crows.
  • Pitt’s peregrines stay active on migration days while food (small birds) and threats (other hawks) fly by.
  • Most flowers have gone to seed but watch for blooming witch hazel, bottle gentian, hardy goldenrods and asters.
  • By October 31 in Pittsburgh the shorter days will provide only 10.5 hours of sunlight.
  • Be prepared to “fall back” on the first Sunday in November when we set our clocks to Standard Time.  After that, evening rush hour will be in the dark.

For Chuck’s complete phenology for October, click here.

(photo of Flowering Dogwood by Chuck Tague)