Monthly Archives: April 2010

Anatomy: Undertail Coverts

Time again for another anatomy lesson.

We’ve moved down the underside of the bird, past the belly and brood patch and are almost at the tail where we find… undertail coverts.

Undertail coverts are the feathers that smooth the transition between belly and tail.  On most birds they’re the same color as the tail (see magpies) or the belly (as in most birds).

Gray catbirds are an exception that proves the rule.  The entire catbird is gray except for his rufous undertail coverts.  They’re so noticable that I didn’t even draw an arrow to point them out.

And, good news!  You’ll be able to see this for yourself because gray catbirds have just returned from their wintering grounds in Central America.  Yesterday I saw my first of 2010 in Schenley Park.


(photo by Alan Vernon, from Wikimedia, Creative Commons license.  Click on the photo to see the original.)


Lately I’ve been getting an extra dose of bird life by walking through Schenley Park on my way to work.  The route takes longer but I’m rewarded by glimpses of birds before I have to sit indoors.

The other day I had more than a glimpse.  A male pileated woodpecker jumped and shouted among the trees below the Steve Falloon Trail, claiming the space as his own.  All he needed was a female pileated to make his life complete, but none had noticed him so he made a lot of noise and flashed his wings to attract attention.  He certainly got my attention.  He was stunning.

Eventually he also got the attention of a blue jay who considered him a threat.  The blue jay dove at the woodpecker with hardly a sound, though one of them make a “chuck” noise at each attack.

Pileated woodpeckers are much larger than blue jays (twice their size!) and they have long dangerous beaks.  The blue jay didn’t think about that, but he should have.  At one point he made a close pass at the woodpecker and the pileated closed his beak on the blue jay’s belly.  The next thing I noticed, the woodpecker had a tuft of blue jay belly feathers in his bill.


The blue jay left quickly.  I’m sure he agrees that that woodpecker was stunning.

(photo by Chuck Tague)


Tonight’s webcam chat was a lot of fun and very informative.  Here’s a big thank you to everyone who participated, especially…

  • Thank you to Traci (tld) for coordinating the whole thing from inception to reality. 
  • Thanks to Marianne (jetta), Jennie (mindysmom) and Donna (sno_leopard) who are in the chat every day, greeting everyone and helping with answers and news.  Their contributions make the Cathedral of Learning chat a great community.
  • Thank you to all of you for posting your excellent questions.
  • And a special thanks to Dr. Todd Katzner for sharing his time and knowledge.

And finally, a thank you to Dorothy and E2 for showing us such a heart-warming scene of peregrine family life. 

While we were chatting, both adult peregrines brought food to their five chicks for the last feeding of the day.  As we watched, Dorothy and E2 fed them together (pictured above).  What great parents!

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the Cathedral of Learning)

Peregrine Chat Tonight with Dr. Katzner + his new Book

Tonight from 7:00pm-7:30pm, Dr. Todd Katzner will be on the Cathedral of Learning webcam chat to answer your questions about peregrine falcons.  

Dr. Katzner is Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary and a raptor expert who’s spent years studying eagles around the world. 

His experiences and those of others led him to co-edit a new book with Dr. Ruth E. Tingay — The Eagle Watchers — just released by Cornell University Press. 

In the book, Dr. Katzner and 28 other field biologists provide an insider’s view of what it’s like to study eagles in remote locations around the globe. 

Each chapter is a field trip, a personal narrative that chronicles harrowing and sometimes humorous adventures and provides rare insight into the lives and behaviors of eagles.  The book features stunning color photographs, information on raptor conservation, and a global list of eagle species and their conservation status.

Tingay and Katzner want their book to help birds of prey in more ways than one.  Proceeds from the book will benefit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania and the National Birds of Prey Trust in the United Kingdom.  

You can purchase The Eagle Watchers from Cornell University Press or Amazon

And remember, to participate in tonight’s online chat about peregrines just login at the “Please sign in or sign up for free” links on the Cathedral of Learning webcam page.

(photo from Cornell University Press and The National Aviary)

Crowfoot or Buttercup?

Crowfoot or buttercup?  This flower is both. 

In my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide it’s called Small-flowered Crowfoot.  An alternate name is Kidney-leaved Buttercup.  Its Latin name is Ranunculus abortivus.

This small flower is not spectacular but I’m always happy to see it because it has a crow in its name.

And.. speaking of crows, here’s a new report showing how smart they are:  Clever crows can use three tools!

(photo by Dianne Machesney, who calls it Kidney-leaved Buttercup)

Chat with Dr. Todd Katzner, April 28 at 7:00pm

This Wednesday, April 28, Dr. Todd Katzner of the National Aviary will be available from 7:00pm-7:30pm in the Cathedral of Learning webcam chat to answer your questions about peregrines. 

Dr. Katzner is a raptor expert, the Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.  His research includes satellite tracking of eastern golden eagles to assess the risks of wind energy development in their migration corridor. 

To participate on Wednesday at 7:00pm, login at the “Please sign in or sign up for free” links on the Cathedral of Learning webcam page

Bring your questions for a lively discussion.

Who is Who at Gulf Tower?

Side by side comparison: Dori and Louie at the Gulf Tower, spring 2010
Side by side comparison: Dori and Louie at the Gulf Tower, spring 2010

Here are some quick tips for telling the difference between the two adult peregrines on the Gulf Tower falconcam.

Dori, the female, is on the left, her mate Louie is on the right.  These clues are listed in order of importance:

  • Dori has white patches where her wings meet her body.  They are almost like “headlights” because they stand out when she faces you.
  • Louie does not have white patches near his wings.  Instead he has a large white patch on the nape of his neck.  You can see this easily when he bows.
  • Dori is much larger than Louie.  The next photo is a side-by-side example showing the difference.  Notice Dori’s long wingtips and tail.  When she stands or turns in the nest box her tail often touches the wall.
  • And (as Mary DeV reminded me in a comment) Louie’s beak is a brighter yellow than Dori’s.


Here are two more photos showing Dori, then Louie, in the same scrape.  She is large!  He is small.  Female peregrines are larger than males.

I have written their band numbers on the photos even though it’s nearly impossible to read them on camera.

Dori is large; her tail touches the wall (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Dori is large; her tail touches the wall (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)


Louie is small (photo from the NationalAviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Louie is small (photo from the NationalAviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

If you see both birds together you can identify them immediately by size, as shown in the photo below. Dori is huge. No wonder Louie bows low!

Watch them online here and see if you can tell the difference.


(photos from the National Aviary webcam at the Gulf Tower. Thanks to Marianne Atkinson for capturing the big bowing screen shot.)

Happy Family in the Sun

It’s been a beautiful sunny day here with highs in the mid 60s. 

Sunshine is rare — and it’ll rain this weekend — so lots of people are out sunbathing at Schenley Plaza across the street from the Cathedral of Learning.  They aren’t the only ones.

Early this afternoon both Dorothy and E2 took turns sunbathing on the nest gravel.  Here’s a photo of E2 sunbathing while Dorothy broods the chicks. 

Can you see in the photo how E2 and one of the chicks are looking at each other?  That little bird is having some quality time with Mom and Dad.


And here’s proof there is still one unhatched egg.  It was laid approximately two days after incubation had already started so it needs more time before it’ll hatch.  That will probably be tomorrow, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t hatch at all.  Some years Dorothy has an egg that doesn’t hatch.

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot cam at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning)