Monthly Archives: June 2009

Second Brood? Or Third?

American robin nest with young (photo by Chuck Tague)Last week I discovered an American robin nest outside my study window. 

As I sit here and type, Mother Robin is making food deliveries to her tiny babies who are slightly older than the chicks pictured here.  This is probably her second brood this season.  If her first nest was very early or if it failed, this could be her third.

Now she pauses to brood her babies.  As she sits on the nest she makes a high-pitched “eeeeeeeeep” sound.  It’s a sound I wouldn’t associate with robins if I hadn’t seen one making it.  Is she calling her mate? 

Her chicks are silent, a good defense against predators at this age.  Even so, Mother Robin is wary.  My cat sits at the window as I blog and the robin is alert to Emmy’s pointy ears.  I don’t think Emmy’s noticed the robin’s nest because it’s far away and hidden by leaves.  (I use binoculars to see the babies.)  My cat is much more absorbed by the house sparrows sitting on the wire shouting at her. 

I hope all goes well for this robin family.  There are crows, grackles and blue jays on my street who would love to raid her nest.  Good luck, babies.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

June Blooms: Pink Lady’s Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper (photo by Dianne Machesney)

I almost missed my chance this month to show you the most beautiful flower I’ve ever found in the woods.  The last time I saw one was in late May of 2006.  They bloom in June as well.

This is Pink Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family that’s so rare it’s listed as endangered in some states.  That’s because it grows very slowly, deer love to eat it and people dig it up for their gardens.  Sadly, transplanting kills this plant because it won’t grow without a special woodland fungus in the soil around it.  If left alone these plants can live for 20 years.

Pink Lady’s Slipper is my secret plant.  Even where not endangered, I don’t tell the world its location because I’m afraid someone will steal it.  It’s a treasure in the woods.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Do you know of a nest in an odd location?

In case you haven’t heard, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is collecting photos and stories of unusual nest locations – and there are prizes!

The contest is called Funky Nests in Funky Places.  Here’s one of them from their contest entry page.  Imagine nesting on a tire.

When I heard about the contest I couldn’t resist signing up the Don’t Walk Robin from last April.  Remember her?  She was the one who nested on a Don’t Walk traffic signal.  Not only did I make her famous here on the blog but she’s now Entry #107 in the contest.

Last night I looked at the contest entries online and some of them made me laugh out loud.  The Don’t Walk Robin is a serious bird compared to Entry #5 who is nesting next to the words “Slam It.”  Check out Entries #38 and #50 while you’re at it on the Funky Nest Entries Directory.

(photo linked from Cornell University, Funky Nests in Funky Places)

Life Skills

Adult peregrine teaches young the prey exchange (photo by Kim Steininger)
Adult peregrine teaches youngster the prey exchange (photo by Kim Steininger)

June 26, 2009:

Sightings of the four peregrine falcons that hatched this year at the University of Pittsburgh are harder to come by these days.

They’ve been flying for three weeks and have ventured beyond the Cathedral of Learning to explore other buildings and other neighborhoods.  On a good day I see two peregrines.  Often I see none.  They’re learning to hunt.

Only three days after their first flight, juveniles chase their siblings in games that improve their flight skills.  After a week they try mock food exchanges: Two youngsters fly together, one flips upside down with talons extended, the other pretends to hold out food.

Their parents teach them the serious lessons.  Pictured above, an adult peregrine has just dropped prey for his youngster to grab.  The juvenile is learning eye-talon coordination and how to catch food while flying – something he’ll have to do for the rest of his life.

When Erie was the resident male at Pitt, he taught his youngsters these skills in the airspace between Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning.  Digby, who was a Heinz Chapel wedding docent, told me that June weddings were often greeted by peregrines calling and chasing overhead.  He warned the wedding planners that a white dove release might not be so beautiful with hungry birds of prey nearby.

For the past two years I’ve noticed E2 teaches his offspring near St. Paul’s Cathedral but yesterday he was back in the Heinz Chapel airspace, carrying food with youngsters in pursuit.

I missed the prey exchange but I saw the “kid” who caught it on his way to the steeple, chased by his sister.

Another lesson learned.


(photo by Kim Steininger)

Not So Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawk (photo by Daniel Berganza, GNU Free Documentation License)For me the common nighthawk is an iconic species.  Its diving courtship display so fascinated me as a ten-year-old that I developed a lifelong interest in birds.

Nighthawks used to be easy to find in my Pittsburgh neighborhood in summertime. I live across the street from a floodlit ballpark where I could watch them hawking insects at dusk in the bright ballpark lights.

But not anymore.  Common nighthawks have declined precipitously in Pittsburgh and the eastern United States, so much so that some states list them as an endangered species.

Common nighthawks are not hawks but nightjars, relatives of the whip-poor-will, whose diet consists solely of flying insects including mosquitoes, moths and flying ants.  They’re incapable of torpor and must eat hundreds of insects per night so they require warm weather and plentiful bugs. 

Nighthawks range widely in the Western Hemisphere migrating from Argentina to Canada.  They used to arrive in Pittsburgh around May 5 and leave by September 5.  During fall migration hundreds of birds would pass through at dusk for two weeks starting at the end of August. 

Surprisingly, common nighthawks have not been well studied, though new efforts are underway.  What is known is that in the northeastern U.S. they used to nest in natural areas.  Then in the 1890s they began to nest almost exclusively on gravel rooftops in cities and towns.  In the 1990s people replaced gravel roofs with rubber roofs and nesting opportunities disappeared.  Meanwhile something must have gone wrong at their wintering grounds or in migration (probably pesticides) because year after year fewer migrants leave in the fall and even fewer return in the spring.

Ten years ago there were several nesting pairs in my neighborhood but last summer there was only a lone individual calling for a mate who never came.  This year he called for two weeks and was gone.  I don’t think I’ll ever again see them nest in my neighborhood.

Considering their rapid decline, I may live to see common nighthawks go extinct east of the Mississippi just as peregrine falcons did when I was young.

With human help peregrines came back.  Can we save the nighthawk?

(photo from WikiMedia taken by Daniel Berganza near Miami, Florida.  Click the photo to see the original.)

June Blooms: St. John’s wort

Common St. John's wort (photo by Chuck Tague)

“This flower has your name on it,” said Chuck Tague when he sent me this picture of Common St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum.

St. John’s wort was imported from Europe where it got its name because it blooms in June and was traditionally harvested on St. John’s Day, June 24, to adorn homes and ward off evil.  It’s also an herbal treatment for depression and has been planted nearly worldwide. 

Unfortunately St. John’s wort has gone wild and is often considered a noxious weed.  It’s called Klamath weed out west and is known to poison livestock, making them photosensitive and causing restlessness, skin irritation and – ironically – depression before it kills them.  Too much is bad for people too.  Don’t go out in the sun if you consume a lot of it!

I’ve never seen an overabundance of St. John’s wort so I think of it as a pretty plant that shares my name. 

I even like the play on words it affords me.  I have a box of St. John’s wort herbal tea in my office labelled “St. John’s Good Mood.”  😉

(photo by Chuck Tague)

June Blooms: Moth Mullein

Moth Mullien (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Moth Mullein, Verbascum blattaria, is blooming now in waste places and along roadsides in western Pennsylvania.

Though non-native this biennial doesn’t tend to invade natural areas because it prefers disturbed soil.  Its five-petaled white or pale yellow flowers grow on a tall showy spike 2-4 feet high that blooms from bottom to top.  When blooming it’s hard to miss.

This month I’ve seen moth mullein in my neighborhood, in Schenley Park and along roadsides.  A big crop must have seeded two years ago.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Sun Solstice, Sunbird

Male Regal Sunbird, native of central equatorial Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the Summer Solstice, the day when the sun’s rays reach the furthest north and the sun shines its longest throughout the northern hemisphere.  Here in Pittsburgh we’ll have 15 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight.  For my friends in Finland, the sun will be above the horizon for 19 hours with bright twilight for the remaining five.  It’s a happy day in Finland.

Musings about the sun and thoughts about birds combined in my head into “sunbird.” 

Did you know there’s a family of birds called sunbirds, Nectariniidae, who live in Africa, southern Asia and northern Australia?  The one pictured here is a male Regal Sunbird, Nectarinia regia, native of central equatorial Africa. 

Sunbirds have a lifestyle similar to our hummingbirds because they feed primarily on nectar.  Though the two families are unrelated they’re an example of convergent evolution: their needs are so similar that they’re equipped with the same tools.

Like hummingbirds, sunbirds they have short wings and fly fast.  Some even hover, though most species perch as seen here.  They have long bills for collecting nectar but will also collect insects to feed their young.  The males are brilliantly colored, often in metallic hues.  And like our hummingbirds, sunbirds who live where it’s cold at night are capable of entering torpor. 

Except for his curved bill and long tail this sunbird looks a lot like a hummingbird.  Unlike our hummingbirds his equatorial range means he’ll never experience summer’s longest day. 

For more about summer and our longest day, see Chuck Tague’s blog.  For more about sunbirds, click here.

(photo of male Regal Sunbird from Wikimedia Commons)

Bag o’ Birds

Baltimore oriole nest (photo by Chuck Tague)If you’ve never seen one I’m sure you’re wondering… what the heck is this?

It’s a Baltimore oriole’s nest, a bag of birds.

If you look closely at the top of the nest you can see the tail and wing of the adult male.  His head and feet are inside the bag but his tail doesn’t fit.

Despite the leaf cover, these bags are noticable in western Pennsylvania right now because the baby birds are making a lot of noise inside.

Baltimore orioles are nothing if not noisy.  Only eight weeks ago the males came back to Pennsylvania, singing and chattering and claiming territory.  Soon the ladies arrived and the males displayed their beautiful orange feathers and made a lot of noise to attract their attention.  The females are impressed by this – and they’re noisy in return.  After they’ve chosen a mate, Baltimore oriole pairs stay in constant audio contact.

Shortly after pairing up, the female Baltimore oriole builds her nest at the tip of a drooping tree branch.  It takes 5-8 days of weaving plant fibers, string, grape bark, grasses and pieces of old oriole nests to make this bag.  She doesn’t engage in skillful weaving but her random method works nonetheless.

When she’s completed a hanging structure she lines it with feathers, soft grasses, wool, willow and dandelion fluff.  Her mate sings while she builds and she replies.  She then lays 4-6 eggs and incubates them alone for 12-14 days.  Her mate’s contribution is to sing nearby.  Lots of noise.

When the eggs hatch both parents feed the babies.  After about a week the nestlings take over in the noise department and become very vocal inside the bag.  I found three oriole nests at Schenley Park last week just by following the babies’ sound.  It’s usually a disadvantage for baby birds to give away their location but Baltimore orioles have always been noisy and it doesn’t seem to have to damaged their chance at survival.

As the nestlings get noisier their father sings less.  In 12-14 days they fledge and both parents feed them for about a week.  Then mom begins to molt and travels more widely.  Dad coaches the fledglings for a couple of weeks, then the youngsters disperse.  He stays on territory until he’s finished molting and leaves our area in late summer.

It all happens very fast.  From late April to mid-July there’s a lot of activity and then it’s over.

Now’s the time to look for a noisy bag o’ birds.

(photo by Chuck Tague)