Monthly Archives: July 2009

Go Away!

Two Osprey at their nest (photo by Cris Hamilton)

…say this pair of ospreys from their nest at Shenango Lake in late May.  They already had babies and were wary of anything that might harm them.  Something overhead made them nervous.

Osprey nesting season varies across North America based on climate.  Osprey eat fish so they nest near lakes, bays, deep rivers and sheltered salt-water.  As with all birds, they migrate if their food supply is seasonal.  Fish migration (salmon and shad) and ice (which makes fish inaccessible) are determining factors.

Osprey reuse the same nest year after year by adding to the top of it, but they won’t return to the site until the ice is out.  In South Florida osprey don’t need to migrate so they begin nesting in November and December.  In southern New England, they nest in mid-to-late April because the ice doesn’t break until March.  Timing in Western Pennsylvania is similar to southern New England’s.

No matter where osprey nest, the process takes the same length of time:  37 days from egg-laying to hatch, 50-55 days from hatch to fledge, and 10-20 more days until the young are independent of their parents.   

By now, the babies from this Shenango Lake nest have flown and they’re learning the ropes of adulthood.  When the cold weather comes it’ll be their turn to go away.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

Summer’s Here: Dense Blazing Star

Dense Blazing Star (photo by Chuck Tague)
Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is blooming among the goldenrod and the prairie is decked out in purple and gold. Indigo buntings sing from the trees and American goldfinches fly loops around the field.

Don’t miss your chance to see Jennings Prairie in bloom.  You can get a guided tour of the flowers on Friday July 31 at 10:00am when the Wissahickon Nature Club visits Jennings Environmental Education Center in Butler County. Meet at the Prairie parking lot.  Click here for more information.

…If I didn’t have to work, I’d be there!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Chimney Swift Babies Join the Flock

Chimney Swift almost ready to fledge (photo by Chuck Tague)The chimney swift flocks have grown again after weeks of reduced numbers. Since the swifts arrived last spring I’ve seen the character of their flocks change four times.

First, the flocks were made up of spring migrants who chittered and ate on the way to their final destination.

The second phase was courtship in which trios flew synchronously, chittered loudly and completely followed each others’ moves.  Eventually those trios became pairs as the females chose mates.

During the nesting phase the flock was cut in half because one adult of each pair was always in the chimney incubating, brooding or tending the young.  The smaller flock wasn’t nearly as noisy.  No need to shout, the courting is over.

And now the babies are fledging and the flock is double or triple in size and noise.

It’s fun to watch the fledglings learn to eat on the wing.  They still expect their parents to feed them so they follow them closely and beg a lot but their parents don’t stop.  The adults lead them through clouds of insects and the babies, whose mouths are probably open to beg, are stunned to find insects pop into their mouths.  All they have to do is swallow.

Soon they are swerving and chasing insects on their own.  It won’t be long before they’re as skilled as their parents and become indistinguishable as members of the flock.

(photo by Chuck Tague of a rescued chimney swift just before it fledged)

Crows are even smarter than you think

American Crow (photo from Shutterstock)July 28, 2009:

You bet crows are smart!  Here are two stories about how very smart they are.

There was a radio article on NPR yesterday morning in which two eminent crow specialists described how crows recognize humans by their faces.

Kevin McGowan (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and John Marzluff (University of Washington) wrote the book on crows – literally, books – and they know what they’re talking about.  They’ve banded and studied more crows than most of us will see in our lifetimes and they soon realized the crows knew exactly who they were no matter what they were wearing.  Marzluff conducted a study to prove it.

I am so impressed!  I was even more impressed when I visited the Morning Edition website, watched the video and took this test: “Can you recognize a crow by its face?” (I can’t.)  Try your own skill here.

And… on the way to finding that article, I found another one about a crow-sized camera that was fitted to New Caledonian crows to record them making and using tools.  My favorite part was, “They caught 18 wild crows and attached the cameras, which weigh less than half an ounce. A timer kept the cameras from filming for a couple days, otherwise they would just record crows trying to tear them off.”

Of course!  It made me laugh out loud.

(photo from Shutterstock by Alexander Chelmodeev)

Summer’s Here: Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower (photo by Tim Vechter)

Looking for something beautiful and red?  Then you’ll enjoy finding Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in bloom this month. 

Cardinal flower grows in wet places and is quite a hummingbird favorite.  I too love its deep, red color. 

You can find it along the Butler-Freeport Trail south of Cabot, in the woods at Jennings Environmental Center and in many other places in western Pennsylvania.  Check the creek sides, look in the shady places.  It’s worth a hike to find it.

(photo by Tim Vechter)

Secretive and Versatile

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow-billed cuckoos are usually hard to find.  They skulk in the treetops – like this one is doing – and are found only by the sound of their amazing voices.

That’s why I was surprised to see three cuckoos in the open recently.  Two were singing and chasing while a third one watched.  Was this territorial behavior?  Courtship?  In July?  I decided to find out.

Yellow-billed cuckoos return to our area in April and May but they tend to nest from late June to July because they wait for an abundance of their favorite foods: caterpillars and cicadas.  In my experience this gives cuckoos extra time to be secretive while other birds are visibly courting and nesting.

Cuckoos may be secretive but they’re more versatile when they nest, choosing among three methods depending their food supply.

In years of normal or low food abundance, yellow-billed cuckoo pairs go the traditional route of building and using their own nests, but in years of explosive caterpillar or cicada infestations – such as 17-year cicadas – female cuckoos produce extra eggs, and they need to put them somewhere.

Sometimes they breed co-operatively.  Two females share the same nest with a male and all three of them tend the young.  The males handle overnight incubation so I think the “co-op” guys must struggle to cover 5-11 eggs instead of the usual 2-3.

Alternatively, the females lay eggs in other birds’ nests, choosing those whose eggs are the same blueish-green color as their own.  According to BNA Online, yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos are “the only known facultative, interspecific brood parasites among altricial birds.”  “Facultative” means that they can but don’t always do this, so cuckoos don’t have the bad reputation the brown-headed cowbird has.

Yellow-billed cuckoos have one more surprise up their sleeves.  When their nestlings are about six days old they become fully feathered in only two hours.  Their feathers literally burst from the feather sheaths.  Imagine Mrs. Robin’s shock when one of her kids goes from bare down to flight feathers so fast.   Surprise!  That one’s a cuckoo.

Now that’s versatile.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

p.s.  Based on the lateness of the cicadas this year, this is probably a low-food-supply year for cuckoos.


Cicada on Swamp Thistle (photo by Chuck Tague)Where are they?  It’s mid-July and I have heard only one cicada – just one – on July 10th.  By now they should have been “singing” for more than a week in western Pennsylvania, but they’re noticeably absent.

The crickets are silent too.  What’s going on? 

Is this an unusually “bug-less” year or is this absence only happening in my neighborhood? 

Let me know if you’ve noticed it too.

(photo of cicada on swamp thistle by Chuck Tague)

Summer’s Here: Button Bush

Button Bush (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a plant worth going out of your way for:  Button Bush or Cephalanthus occidentalis.

Button Bush is shrub that grows in sunny, wet places.  It prefers to have its feet in or near water, so it’s found in swamps, along ponds and in wet stream beds.

The flower ball is fascinating up close.  To me, it looks like a TV satellite but is actually many small flowers, each with a tall pistil that stands out far from the ball.  When you take a close look you’ll notice another nice thing about the plant.  The flowers are very fragrant.

If you decide to look for Button Bush, check near ponds and rivers.   I found it pre-bloom next to the Youghiogeny River at Ohiopyle.  Dianne Machesney found this one at Independence Marsh in Beaver County.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Gangs of Teenagers

Flock of Common Grackles (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s not fall but I’ve been seeing a fall phenomenon:  large flocks of grackles.  These are not the huge November flocks that number in the hundreds but they’re larger than family groups.

At dusk they gather at the Monongahela River near Greenfield.  At dawn they fly east over my house making flight calls, a soft chucking sound.

Sometimes they land in my yard, graze on fallen seed, and play in the bird bath.  That’s when I discover the flocks are made up entirely of immature common grackles and starlings.  I can tell by their colors.  The gang wears brown.

Juvenile common grackles have brown feathers, brown eyes, brown legs and brown beaks.  They lack the iridescent feathers of their parents whose yellow eyes and black beaks and legs make them stand out.  Juvenile European starlings are also basic brown without the oily sheen of the adults.  They too have brown beaks and sometimes a dark eye line.

But the juveniles are molting.  I can see new, starry feathers on the starlings and the beginnings of iridescence on the grackles.  Soon the juveniles will resemble the adults.

Who knows when the adults will join these flocks.  In August?  September?  Will I be able to tell the difference when the young resemble their parents?  I don’t know.

For now it’s just a gang of teenagers.

(photo by Chuck Tague)