Monthly Archives: May 2009

May Flowers: Glaucous Honeysuckle

Glaucous Honeysuckle (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Glaucous Honeysuckle is blooming now along the Butler-Freeport Trail near Sarver. 

The leaves of this plant are joined at the stem; the flowers sprout above the closed cup of the top leaves.  Glaucous means blue-gray or green and in botany refers to a waxy blue-gray coating.  Since I have never seen this honeysuckle, I’m not sure what part of the plant is glaucous.  Time for a field trip!

For directions and more information, see Chuck Tague’s blog on the outing that produced this picture.

(photo by Dianne Machesney) 

What’s Next?

Peregrine chicks at Univ of Pittsburgh nest (photo from National Aviary webcam)When peregrine nestlings are 33 days old what happens next? 

The things you see on the webcam might be confusing so here’s what to watch for as they get ready to fledge:

  • They’re still babies and they still do “baby” things.  Sometimes they sleep flat on their stomachs and throw their legs out to cool themselves.  They look like pancakes.  The adults don’t do this.
  • Their parents are teaching them to feed themselves and will increasingly drop off food and let them tear it apart on their own.  The female chicks are 1/3 larger than their father by now so they dwarf him at feeding time.  No wonder he’s thinking of drop-offs!
  • They flap their wings a lot without going anywhere.  This builds their wing muscles so they’ll be in good condition when they fly. 
  • Sometimes they flap and run along the surface, just barely rising in the air.  It’s like using training wheels.
  • They will WALK out of the picture.  They haven’t flown yet, they’re just exploring.  This is called “ledge walking.”  There’s a lot of territory near the nest and they need to learn about it.  When they’re ledge walking you won’t see them on camera but they are quite nearby. 
  • They will perch right in front of – or on – the camera.  Incredibly cute.
  • At the University of Pittsburgh there’s a perch on the building called “the keyhole” that their parents like to use.  It’s just to the left of the camera view.  Soon the youngsters will figure out how to jump the short distance from the green perch to the keyhole.  On the webcam it will look as if they leapt into thin air but from Schenley Plaza you’ll see that they’re in the keyhole.
  • They will walk up the cement pillar at the back of the camera view or hop into the gully behind it.  When they do that they disappear from the cam but they still haven’t flown. 
  • Soon they will find the perfect runway for flight practice which is up to the left of the camera view.  They will walk up the cement pillar or jump up to what we call “the nest rail.”  You won’t see them on camera but they’ll be easy to see from Schenley Plaza. 

Again, they haven’t flown yet.  This is “flying with the training wheels on.”

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

Tragedy and hope in Wilmington, Delaware

Peregrine chicks in Wilmington, Delaware, 18 May 2009 (photo by Kim Steininger)Here they are, cute as could be, on their banding day.  Now two of these peregrine chicks are dead and the third was found on the street.  What caused this chain of events?  Is the fourth chick in any danger?

Peregrine falcons have nested on the Brandywine building in Wilmington, Delaware since at least 2002.  My friend Kim Steininger, who works across the street, has followed their family life and taken pictures of them for years.  Her peregrine photos often appear on this blog.

Until last weekend it was a normal nesting season for the Wilmington peregrines.  They hatched four healthy chicks who were banded by US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on May 18th.  At that time the family was in good health and so well fed that their crops bulged pink through their down.  There was no hint of what was to come.

After Memorial Day weekend two of the chicks were found dead at the nest.  The nest doesn’t have a web camera so no one knows what led up to it.  Were the deaths sudden?  Were the chicks sick for a while?  Were they harmed in a fight among rival adults?  Did they eat poisoned prey? 

Those who monitor the nest were saddened and determined to solve the mystery.  They wanted to retrieve the dead chicks and examine them for cause of death but the live chicks were too close to fledging and might jump to their deaths if people opened the access door.  The only thing to do was wait.

Then on Thursday the third chick was found on the street.  His flight feathers were not fully developed and he was clearly not ready to fledge so he must have fallen more than 200 feet to the ground.  He was taken to Tri-State Bird Rescue and given a complete medical exam including blood tests for disease and poison.  Maybe his condition would give a clue to the deaths of his siblings.

His test results were more than hopeful, they were excellent.  The blood tests came back negative, the bird is bright and alert and he had no injuries whatsoever – miraculous, considering his tumble to the street.  His adventure gave everyone hope and an opportunity to find out what happened to his siblings.

Today the team from Tri-State Bird Rescue will return this chick to the nest, collect the dead bodies and gather up prey remnants.  Craig Koppie of FWS advised them that the chick who remains at the nest is female and thinks she’s less likely to jump than her brother was.  Everyone will be very careful. 

The dead bodies and prey remnants will be tested for illness and poison. Soon, maybe soon, the mystery will be solved.

Update, June 2, 2009:  In late May the fourth chick was found gravely injured on the ground, far from the nest.  She was so badly injured she had to be euthanized.  The chick that was returned to the nest in late May has disappeared and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be found.  Sadly, no young have survived. 

(photo of the Wilmington peregrine falcon chicks, 18 May 2009, by Kim Steininger.  Click on the picture or here to see her photos of their banding.)

Meet Me At The Tent

Schenley Plaza tent (photo by Kate St. John)Meet me at the Schenley Plaza tent for the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch June 2 to 6, weather permitting.  Peregrines usually don’t fledge when the weather is bad so I won’t be there if it’s raining.

I have to be at work Tuesday to Friday, June 2-5, so I’ll be at the tent at these times:

  • Before work:  approximately 7:30-ish to 8:20am
  • Lunch (a late lunch hour, and I have to walk to/from WQED):  1:40pm to 2:20pm
  • After work:  5:20pm until I run out of steam which can be as late as 7:00pm.

June 6th is a Saturday so I’ll be there most of the morning 7:45am to 10:00am – and later than that if I’m having fun.  As is usual with peregrine watching there are hours of boredom punctuated by moments of great excitement.  We’ll be there for the excitement and the comraderie.  So stop by.

Schenley Plaza is on Forbes Avenue between Hillman Library and Carnegie Library and across the street from the Cathedral of Learning.  When you’re driving down Forbes Avenue you’ve just passed Schenley Plaza when you see Dippy the Dinosaur.

If you want to let me know you’re coming, please post a comment.  Comments are moderated (by me) so I will see it before the rest of the world.

And don’t forget to bring binoculars if you have them!

(photo of Schenley Plaza tent by Kate St. John)

Beauty or What to Look for in Late May through Early June

Chestnut-sided Warbler, female (photo by Chuck Tague)Things have been happening so fast this week that I missed Chuck Tague’s phenology for late May through early June that he published on Monday.

Both Chuck and I have been so busy drinking in what Nature has to offer that we easily slipped past mid-May without telling you what to look for.

So here’s a hint of what you’ll see and hear in late May through early June… about ten days late.

  • Long days as we approach the summer solstice.  Today is 14 hours, 45 minutes long.  By June 15th we’ll have 15 hours and 3 minutes of daylight.
  • Nesting!  Everywhere birds are singing, courting, defending their territory, carrying nesting material, carrying food, feeding fledglings, warning of danger.  At this time of year Canada Warblers jump out of the bushes and yell at me when I hike in the Laurel Highlands.  Not to be missed!
  • Flowers – especially long-tubed flowers that feed hummingbirds and butterflies.
  • Fireflies, crickets and dragonflies.
  • Mosquitoes   🙁
  • Baby bunnies, baby birds, babies of all kinds.
  • and my personal favorite, fledgling peregrine falcons at the University of Pittsburgh.

Now is the best time to observe Nature and, frankly, I’d much rather be outdoors than at my computer.  So I’m going out to enjoy it!

(photo of a female chestnut-sided warbler by Chuck Tague)

4 Peregrine chicks banded at University of Pittsburgh

Beth Fife holds a peregrine chick at University of Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)Yes, today was Banding Day.  Those of you watching the University of Pittsburgh falconcam this morning noticed the chicks were missing between 9:00 and 10:00am.  

Even before the event got underway Dorothy knew something was up.  She stood guard from the top of the webcam and waited to attack.  This is the eighth time her chicks have been banded but she never likes it. 

When the PA Game Commission’s Beth Fife, Doug Dunkerley and Tammy Colt went out on the ledge, Dorothy flew at them, then spread her wings to put up a fight.  She landed on the nest to protect her babies but she was captured and brought in anyway. 

Her chicks were weighed and banded – 3 girls and 1 boy – and given complete health checks.  Dorothy got an abbreviated health check too.  All are fine. 

The rain held off until it was time to return the chicks to the nest and then it poured.  Beth dropped off the chicks who quickly huddled and screamed for their parents.  Then Beth released Dorothy and she flew to the chicks immediately.  I imagine Dorothy counted heads and found four healthy screamers.  She told them to keep quiet, then leapt to the ramparts to continue her vigil. 

Interestingly E2 was not present the entire time.  This is normal for him and used to be normal for Louie, his father.  I was surprised to see Louie so close during the banding at Gulf Tower last week.  Maybe E2 will come closer some day.

Soon the chicks calmed down and fell asleep at the back of the box.  This morning’s excitement and the gray, wet weather made them very sleepy.  They’re also sleepy because they’re growing fast.  At this stage their brown feathers are coming in and they’re losing their white down.  Today’s handling caused their down to come lose and float around us at the banding. 

And have you noticed the other benefits of the banding?   Beth cleaned the nest and the webcam cover.  Yow!  What a mess it was!  Dorothy should be glad she has a cleaning service.    😉 

(photo of WCO Beth Fife holding one of Dorothy and E2’s nestlings at Pitt.  The photo was taken with my cell phone.  Sorry for the poor picture quality, folks!)

A Lesson Learned

Budgie in the budgie trap before I let her go (photo by Kate St. John)I had her, but what I hadn’t counted on was that she had me… as you shall see.

When I got home this evening I checked the budgie trap and saw that the birds had eaten all the food in the seed cups, both inside and outside the cage.  Excellent!  I refilled the seed cups and went indoors.

Just before dusk Budgie arrived to feed as she usually does.  She perched on the outside seed cup so I walked up to the cage, keeping my head low and talking to her as I came.  When I got close she flew into the cage. Oh my!  I closed the door.  I had her.

She was immediately frantic, flying wildly inside the cage, poking at the corners, back and forth, back and forth, trying to find a way out.  I took the cage down, set it on the back deck and sat nearby, waiting for her to calm down.  My cat watched from the window but Budgie was oblivious to everything but the possibility of escape.  She continued to beat against the cage.

I was beginning to feel bad and I was doing a lot of thinking.  Budgie had had a taste of outdoor life and already felt safer in my neighborhood than in the cage.  She had been having the time of her life though it meant she’d probably die young and abruptly.  The wild birds had accepted her and I could hear them making alarm calls as she struggled inside the cage.  That made me feel even worse.

If I was her, what would I want?  I have to tell you that I love the outdoors.  Today I spent the whole day hiking at the Clarion River.  If every day of my life could be as beautiful and every day included time outdoors I would be happy even if it shortened my life.  I decided I would rather die suddenly and happy than be stuck indoors.

I looked at Budgie and asked her what she thought.  She wanted out.  I put the cage back on the branch.  I took her picture in the dusk.  And then I opened the door and let her fly free.

We both learned something today.  Budgie learned not to trust me and I learned that I prefer to see her outside my window.

p.s. Thanks to Veronica Snyder for loaning me the cage and to all of you for your helpful suggestions. I have learned a valuable lesson, though it’s not the one I expected to learn.


(photo of Budgie, temporarily captured in my backyard, taken at dusk with my cell phone)

The Budgie Trap

Veronica Snyder's bird cage waits for Budgie (photo by Kate St. John)For those of you following the budgie saga, here’s a new development.

The blue budgie who’s been visiting my backyard feeder since last Monday has shown improvement in the past week.  She’s gotten better at flying and is well fed enough that she doesn’t spend all day with her beak in the trough. 

She’s expanding her range (I saw her foraging at the end of my street) and she feels good enough to be bossy about my feeder (it’s hers now). 

Budgie is still less attuned to danger than the wild birds and tends to hang out with their fledglings.  They ask each other if there’s any reason to be worried about danger.  None of them can think of a reason so they sit and wonder why all the other birds have left.

Under the circumstances Budgie’s life is likely to be pretty short in the wild, so many of you posted suggestions on how to capture her.  I liked the idea of hanging a bird cage in place of the feeder.  Voila!   Veronica Snyder loaned me a bird cage and offered to take Budgie if I can capture her.

When I brought the bird cage home, Budgie was perched on a branch above the feeder.  I talked to her as I brought the cage to the base of the tree and she watched with interest as I prepared to hang it.  I had to take the feeder down and it involved some banging – so she flew – but I was encouraged that she was trusting enough to stay and watch as long as she did.

Now that the cage has replaced the feeder I’ve seen several birds fly by wondering how to get to the seed inside.  I think budgie will be the first to figure it out.  Will I be there to see it?  Will she let me close the door?  Stay tuned for details.

(photo of “the Budgie trap” by Kate St. John)

City Critters

American Toad (photo by Chuck Tague)Since I live in the City of Pittsburgh I believe I live far from Nature and have to leave town to see it.  Meanwhile, my city neighborhood has quietly gone wild. 

I shouldn’t be surprised at this.  Fifty years ago Pittsburgh was very smoky and housed 680,000 people inside the city boundaries (which end at Ross, Wilkinsburg, Dormont and Crafton).  Today it is not visibly smoky and the city population is about 300,000. 

There’s lots of room for wildlife as I am finding out.  The critters have been especially noticable this month … “in your face” if you ask me.

It started with the squirrels who’ve become very bold and more numerous as the month progressed.  The extra squirrels are newbies who were probably led to my feeders by their mother.  Now they lounge, play and fight in my backyard – and periodically try to break the bird feeder.

We have raccoons.  They live across the street and come out at night to dig up my garden and wash their hands in the bird bath.  I am really annoyed at the damage they’ve done to my front garden and I fear they may be eating eggs and baby birds as they did at Marcy Cunkelman’s a few days ago.  My neighbor suggested red pepper as a way to discourage their digging.  Marcy suggests removing the raccoon.  She’s going to trap hers because he’s systematically eating every baby bird in her yard.  Grrrr!

If I had a vegetable garden I’d be angry with the rabbits and groundhogs too.  Yesterday a rabbit strolled into my backyard and ate all the dandelion leaves.  This is good!   The groundhogs have stayed across the street because I have nothing interesting for them to eat.

And the most surprising find … a toad on my neighbor’s steps at dawn on May 1.  I have never heard frogs or toads singing in the city so it’s a wonder that this one showed up.  Maybe the day will come when I hear spring peepers at home.  Now that would be amazing!

(photo of an American Toad by Chuck Tague)