Monthly Archives: December 2009

Snowy Egrets, No Regrets

Snowy Egret (photo by Kim Steininger)

Though snowy egrets rarely visit southwestern Pennsylvania, they’re one of my favorite birds.  They’re very photogenic and so self-absorbed that they usually don’t notice people near them.  I see them up close in Florida.  Kim Steininger photographed this one at Bombay Hook, Delaware.

When I see snowy egrets I think of their mispronounced name – “No Regrets” – which I learned from Larry Levis’ poem, Slow Child with a Book of Birds.  The poem is set in winter.  Here’s the excerpt:

“Yesterday, the slow child on the bus, talkative
Amidst the fully evolved quiet of those
Around us muffled in their parkas, was showing me
A Snowy Egret in the book he carried,
“No Regrets,” he said, pointing to its eyes,
To a brassy, unassailable candor in them.
“No Regrets,” he said again, for the pleasure
Of it, & smiled, absorbed in it,”

— from Slow Child with a Book of Birds by Larry Levis,
The Widening Spell of the Leaves, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Used by permission of the publisher.

Yes, this bird has that look on his face.  No regrets, indeed!


(photo by Kim Steininger)

Out With the Old Year, In With the New

A Blue Moon (photo by Chuck Tague, retouched by Chuck himself)Since I’m going to feature a Beyond Bounds photo on New Year’s Eve, today’s my day for assessing the past year and dreaming of the future.

What was the best of 2009?  What can we expect in 2010?

2009 had many favorite moments:

  • January brought thousands of white-winged crossbills to Pittsburgh, a treat to see this northern finch at home.
  • Peregrine nesting season, March through June, brought many highs and a couple of lows.  Four successful nests fledged a total of 12 birds from Gulf Tower, Pitt, Monaca and McKees Rocks.  Sadly two of the young peregrines died: one at the airport, the other on a rooftop.
  • In May Budgie taught me a valuable lesson about freedom.
  • In September pigeons made me laugh.
  • All year long the city’s wildlife amazed me.  I saw a toad, groundhogs, raccoons, a red fox and on December 18th a 10-point buck chasing two does around Carnegie-Mellon’s intramural field at the corner of Forbes and Margaret Morrison.
  • This month Dan Yagusic identified a new peregrine pair at Tarentum.  J commented that if this new male’s identity holds it means Pittsburgh’s peregrines are continuing their dynasty:  Erie at Pitt, his son Louie at Gulf, Louie’s son E2 at Pitt and now E2’s son at Tarentum.
  • Tomorrow the year will close with a Blue Moon, a parting gesture to 2009.

What can we expect in 2010?

  • January: Snow and cold, snow buntings and horned larks, short-eared owls and maybe a snowy owl.
  • February: The least bird-y month in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Fortunately it’s a short month.
  • March: Blackbirds and grackles return, coltsfoot blooms, peregrines lay eggs.  Hope for 5 peregrine nests in 2010.
  • April and May: Spring flowers and spring migration capped by the arrival of warblers.
  • June: Nests everywhere, peregrine nestlings fledge.
  • July and August: Hot weather, butterflies and moths, field flowers, fall migration begins.
  • September: Chimney swifts leave, thrushes pass through, hawk watches begin.
  • October: Fall colors, ducks migrate, the crows arrive.
  • November: Overcast skies, first snow, tundra swans pass through.
  • December: Winter solstice, huge flocks of robins, starlings and crows, Christmas Bird Counts.

Do you have favorites of 2009?  Expectations for 2010?  Leave a comment with your answers.

And have a happy, healthy new year.

(photo of the moon by Chuck Tague which he retouched to make it blue.)

What Limits the Size of Birds?

Kori Bustard in Etosha Namibia (photo by Winfried Bruenken, published at Wikipedia)

What limits the size of flying birds? Why are there no behemoths like whales or elephants?

Weight is a limiting factor but it’s not the whole story.  The flightless ostrich weighs up to 300 pounds, but our largest airplanes weigh more than 750,000 pounds and they can fly.

The answer is a combination of both weight and flight feathers.  Sievert Rohwer and his colleagues at the Burke Museum found that as a bird’s mass increases its flight feathers must be longer to carry its weight.  However the longer the flight feathers are, the longer it takes for them to grow.

At the high end of body mass the primaries grow so slowly that they’re in danger of wearing out before they can be replaced.  This causes large birds to either molt very slowly – sometimes over a period of years – or, in the case of geese, to lose all their flight feathers at once and hang out in the water until the feathers grow back.

The heaviest flying bird is the kori bustard, pictured above.  Native to the African desert he weighs up to 44 pounds, almost twice the weight of North America’s largest bird, the trumpeter swan, at 23 pounds.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s biggest birds are even smaller.  A large male wild turkey weighs 16.2 pounds, a large male Canada goose weighs 9.8 pounds.  My beloved peregrines, though fierce, are small.  The male typically weighs 1.5 pounds, the female 2.2 pounds.

And just because a bird is large doesn’t make him heavy.  The wandering albatross has the longest wingspan at 8.2 to 11.5 feet (up to twice a man’s height) but weighs only 13-26 pounds.

So if a bird wants to fly it can’t weigh much more than 44 pounds — and that’s stretching it.   As you can see, the kori bustard spends a lot of time walking.

For more information see this article in Science Daily or the journal at PLOS Biology.


(photo of a kori bustard by Winfried Bruenken, published under Creative Commons license on Wikipedia.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

Home to Stay?

Juvenile peregrine at Univ of Pittsburgh nest, 8/4/08Back in 2008 when he was only three months old this young peregrine seemed reluctant to leave Pittsburgh.

Peregrine falcons born at the Cathedral of Learning normally become scarce by mid July.  Telemetry data from the Gulf Tower indicates Pittsburgh’s fledglings go far on their first trip – often to the Atlantic coast – but on August 4, 2008 this juvenile visited the nest box and was captured in these webcam images.  We thought he’d left home.

Fast forward a year and a half to December 2009.  About a week ago Dan Yagusic was birding along the Allegheny River hoping to find ducks and not having much luck.  Suddenly at Tarentum things got exciting.  A peregrine snatched a pigeon from the bridge above him and proceeded to eat it. 

As Dan watched, a second, smaller peregrine arrived and perched within eight feet of the first while she ate.  Their sizes and close approach indicated they must be a pair.  Otherwise they wouldn’t tolerate each other.

Dan could see they were banded so he swung his scope in their direction and waited patiently for 45 minutes until both birds revealed their bands.  The female’s bands were easy to read but her origins are still unknown (we’re awaiting word from our bird band officials). 

The male’s bands were harder to read – Dan is only 90% sure of the numbers – but if the numbers are right I am sure of the bird’s identity.  It’s this guy, born at Cathedral of Learning, the only male to survive that year because his brother died in a window collision at the Rand Building.

By now this peregrine is an adult, clothed in gray, black and white and old enough to breed.  Though he’s living 15 miles away from his birthplace it’s obvious he still loves Pittsburgh.

I can hardly wait to see what happens this spring!

p.s. This news just in:  The female has been identified!  She was born in 2008 at the Benjamin Harrison Bridge near Hopewell, Virginia and hacked (fledged) near the town of Luray in Shenandoah National Park.  This is a similar life story to the female that tried to nest unsuccessfully at the 62nd Street Bridge in 2007.  Both were hacked from Shenandoah National Park because the winds are so strong at the Ben Harrison Bridge that the young birds usually die if they attempt to fledge from there.

(photo from the National Aviary‘s webcam at the Cathedral of Learning on August 4, 2008)

Anatomy: Cere and Nares

Illustration of the cere on a peregrine (photo by Pat Szczepanski, retouched)
I hated to mark up this picture of Dorothy but today’s anatomy lesson is about a body part that’s a prominent feature on peregrine falcons.

The red arrow is pointing to the cere, a soft fleshy area found at the top of the beak on several kinds of birds including hawks, doves and parrots.

On pigeons, the cere looks like a lump but on raptors it’s often dramatic and changes color as the bird matures.  Immature bald eagles and peregrine falcons have gray ceres; the adults have yellow.

If you look closely at Dorothy’s cere, you’ll see two holes for her nostrils or nares.  Peregrine falcons have specially adapted nares so they can breathe as they dive to capture prey.  While in a stoop, air rushes past their beaks as fast as they are traveling – up to 200 mph.  This air pressure on typical nostrils would make it impossible to breathe so peregrines have small cones called tubercles inside their nostrils to break up the wind.

Jet engines have a similar structure called an inlet cone.  My thanks go to Dick Rhoton for alerting me to this similarity which he found in the latest issue of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) magazine.

Pretty cool, huh?  And a very beautiful feature on peregrines’ faces.

(photo of Dorothy, the adult female peregrine at the University of Pittsburgh, by Pat Szczepanski.  Photo altered to illustrate the cere.)

Beyond Bounds: Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill (photo by Steve Gosser)
Can you believe how odd – and beautiful – this bird is?

The roseate spoonbill is a bird so far beyond the bounds of southwestern Pennsylvania that I guarantee you’ll never see one here.

Roseate spoonbills, named for their rosy feathers and funny beaks, are South American birds that also breed along the U.S. Gulf Coast and at Merritt Island, Florida.  Their bills are shaped like a pair of wooden spoons clapped together because they feed on small crustaceans and aquatic bugs, swinging their bills side to side through the water to capture their food.

Steve Gosser photographed this spoonbill at a lagoon where the birds roost in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.  According to Steve the spoonbills didn’t spend the day at the lagoon.  They were only there in the morning and evening… which just happens to be when the light is great for photography.



(photo by Steve Gosser)

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

White Christmas (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
OK, I’ll admit it.  I love snow.  I hate to drive in it but everything else about it is gorgeous. 

I love when it’s 28oF with no wind and there are big snowflakes falling around me.  Better yet, I love the day after a snowstorm when the sky clears and the sun glints on untouched snow.  Bing Crosby describes my ideal in his song White Christmas.  Beautiful!

But I’m conflicted.  As I said, I hate – even avoid – driving in snow so I’ve been keeping track of the holiday weather forecast because I’ll be driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike to visit my husband’s family on Christmas (my husband doesn’t drive).  I look at the forecast every day.  Will there be snow?

The good news is that it won’t snow on Christmas Day, the bad news is it’ll rain.  Cold rain.  A forecast high of 41oF in Pittsburgh and 36o in Somerset which is, in my opinion, the Bad Weather Capitol of Pennsylvania and guaranteed to have the worst weather on the Turnpike.

Alas.  Western Pennsylvania looks like Bing Crosby’s White Christmas right now but when Christmas Day comes I’ll just have to dream of it.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

The Sun Stands Still

Sun pillar in Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)Today is the winter solstice, the day the sun stands still.  That’s what it means in Latin:  sol is sun and stice is from sistere meaning to stand still.

I doubt that most modern day people notice the sun stops its southward movement today, pauses, and in the days ahead begins to move north.

We can afford to ignore it.  We have electricity and our days aren’t governed by the sun’s movement so we can safely leave the calculations of its passage to others.  They’ll let us know.

Besides, the change is slow, something our brains have little patience to observe.  We’re wired to notice rapid movement because it can mean danger or food.

Our gadgets take advantage of this trait and provide a constant source of movement and distraction.  I know this all too well.  My computer and cell phone distract me all the time.  The up side is that my cell phone can take pictures like this one of a sun pillar.

Sun pillars are usually brief events that occur when the sun is close to the horizon and its light reflects on ice crystals that have nearly horizontal and parallel planar surfaces.  In other words, the ice crystals lined up just right and so did the sun.

Will I notice the sun standing still today?  No.  I’m glad someone told me about it.

(photo of a sun pillar in Pittsburgh by Kate St. John)


Snow on pines (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Our first big snow of the season accumulated yesterday and threw a wrench into several Christmas Bird Count events, affecting both the number of participants and the number of birds.  Snow is lingering this morning so it’ll affect today’s counts as well.

The first snow always changes the mix of birds.  Species who don’t like it leave the area and those who do move in. 

We’ve had large flocks of American robins in Pittsburgh for weeks but the snow cover will prompt them to leave for the south.  Meanwhile snow buntings, rough-legged hawks and short-eared owls will be easier to find near Volant in Lawrence County now that the ground is covered. 

It’ll be interesting to see who’s here and who’s not by mid-week. 

Bundle up and enjoy it!

(photo by Dianne Machesney)