Monthly Archives: September 2010

Local Expert

Here’s a bird I’m paying a lot of attention to nowadays.

As songbirds leave for the winter, it’s harder to find them in the woods.  When you do, they’re usually in mixed flocks and who are the chatterboxes of those flocks?  Chickadees.

Chickadees stay here all year and that makes them local experts, well aware of the dangers and food sources.  Visiting songbirds often hang out with chickadees, perhaps because they know of this expertise.  In any case the more birds there are in the flock the more the chickadees chatter.

Starting now and throughout the winter listen for chickadees.  Chances are you’ll find some interesting birds with them.  I’ve been finding warblers.


(photo of a black-capped chickadee by Marcy Cunkelman)


Generally speaking I don’t like off-road-vehicles (ORVs), ATVs, “four-wheelers” and dirt bikes.  That’s because I usually encounter them when they’re breaking the rules:  driving in “No Motorized Vehicles” zones, blazing unauthorized trails, and driving on paved streets in my neighborhood.  They’re not supposed to do any of these things but the vehicles are advertised as “We Break The Rules” so of course they’re often used that way.

I mused about this during my hike last Sunday when three dirt bikes drove by me at top speed.  My first reaction was “Ugh!” but after they were gone I realized I was walking in a very beautiful area, an area that would have been inaccessible to me had the dirt bikes not blazed the trail.  Without them I could not have found my way in and I certainly couldn’t have found my way back.  Sometimes I benefit from their actions.

So there’s a contradiction in my mind.  Do I like what they do … or not? 

On my way back to the car I found a dead scarlet tanager on the ground, his body run over by a dirt bike. 

It made me cry.

(photo of dirt bike trails and mudhole by Kate St. John)

A Fishy Peregrine

As we all know, peregrine falcons eat only birds and they catch them in the air.

Or do they?

Last Wednesday I received an email from Dan Yagusic, an excellent birder who watches the peregrines on the Allegheny River bridges.  (He’s the one who first found Mary Cleo (Dori) at the 62nd Street Bridge.  She now lives at Gulf Tower.) 

Here’s what Dan saw at dusk on Tuesday, September 21:

Last evening at dusk I was passing Washington Landing’s Marina (Allegheny River) at a no wake speed in our boat. In the near darkness I spotted a large bird flying fast downriver.

All of a sudden, directly across from me about five Mallards took flight squawking very loudly as they went. This bird (unidentified as of yet) started making repeated swooping turns down to the water, but appeared to be chasing nothing at all!  I grabbed my binoculars at this point and lo and behold to my utter amazement it was a Peregrine Falcon!!

I continued watching as this Peregrine made at least 20 passes over the water, each time rising 30 feet or so in the air before dropping down and dipping it’s talons into the water as if to make a splash.  Running through my mind were the likes of “What the hell is this bird doing?” and “Just what is making him/her do this?”

After who knows how many trips down to the water the Peregrine came up with a FISH in it’s talons. It proceeded to fly directly to the nearest tower where it immediately started eating its catch. 

Perhaps you or others know of this behavior in Peregrines, but in my limited experience I have never seen a Peregrine even attempt a shot at fishing.  That sure did make my evening, let me tell you!   Variety can be the spice of life, even for Peregrines???     — Dan Yagusic


I did some research and found two (only two!) references that said peregrines occasionally eat fish though one said they took them from ospreys. 

So what was going on here? 

Dr. Tony Bledsoe of the University of Pittsburgh’s Biological Sciences Department explained that our mid-latitude peregrines focus on birds but that peregrines occur nearly worldwide and are quite cosmopolitan.  Right now peregrines from Canada and the Arctic are migrating south through Pittsburgh.  Those birds travel to South America and have skills and tastes that our local birds never had to cultivate.   

If they know how to fish and the ducks aren’t cooperating, why not?

Even so, it’s very unusual!

(photo of a peregrine capturing a killdeer by Cris Hamilton.  No, I do not have a picture of a peregrine fishing!)

The Moons of Jupiter

Jupiter and its Galilean moons (image from Wikimedia Commons)

‘Tis the season to see Jupiter.

Last Wednesday morning (22 Sept 2010) just before dawn the Moon and Jupiter were side by side in the western sky, bright and unmistakeable.

Jupiter vies with Venus to be the second brightest nighttime object.  Last Wednesday I think he won.  I checked him with my binoculars and saw three of his four Galilean moons.

The moons of Jupiter changed our view of the universe.  In 1609 Galileo made improvements to the telescope invented in the Netherlands the year before.  Once he had something that cool to look through he checked the sky.  I can imagine his amazement to see Jupiter so well and to discover four tiny dots around it.  Every night the dots changed position.  What could they be?


Jupiter’s moons and papal politics got Galileo in trouble and eventually put him under house arrest.  The moons proved there were celestial objects that did not revolve around the Earth, thus disproving the Catholic Church’s geocentric doctrine that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Galileo wrote several papers publicly supporting Copernicus’ heliocentric view — that the Sun was the center of the universe.  His most famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was very convincing and its tone was unflattering to the Pope.  Ooops!  Galileo wasn’t pardoned until 1992.

I imagine what I can see through modern binoculars is roughly what Galileo saw of the moons of Jupiter.  They are indeed fascinating and well worth a book or two.  😉


(retouched photo of the moons of Jupiter by Don E. Stewart from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

Flying to Mexico

Today will be much cooler here in Pittsburgh, but on Thursday it was over 85 degrees and the wind gusted to 17 miles per hour from the west.  That afternoon, to my surprise, I saw two monarch butterflies migrating southwest over Carnegie Mellon’s campus. 

I’m sure the heat helped them.  Maybe the wind helped too. 

The monarchs made amazing progress, flying low below the treetops and aiming almost perpendicular to the wind.  Both of them flew faster than I could walk.

Monarch butterflies migrate south about 50 miles per day, so with the help of this past week’s weather those two butterflies are well on their way to Mexico.

Click here to read about monarchs and the latest news of their fall migration on the Journey North website.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

p.s. On September 18 there was an amazing flight of monarch butterflies along the East Coast.  At Cape May they counted 1,592 in one hour.

Anatomy: Comb

As promised the tall rooster from last week is back again, this time facing the other direction.

Today he has a blue arrow indicating his comb.

Many birds have feathery crests but the heads of gallinaceous birds (turkeys, chickens, etc.) are adorned with a fleshy growth called a comb or cockscomb because the growth is larger on males (cocks) than on females.

The comb on this rooster is quite impressive and helps him stay in charge of the flock.  Power and sex is what wattles and combs are all about.


Would you willingly annoy a rooster with comb like that?

“Not I,” said the little red hen.

(photo by Ron Proctor on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original and its attribution.)

Reminder: Things With Wings Sunday, Sept 26

Things With Wings Sunday, September 26, arrives this weekend.  Starting at 2:30pm, WQED will broadcast 4.5 hours of programs about birds and birding.  There will be no re-broadcast so don’t miss it!  Here’s the line-up with links to my reviews of the shows:

 2:30pm, On The Wing: The Swifts of Chapman School  (This review is from our first broadcast of this show in Sept 2009.  Still applies!)

 3:00pm, Journey of the Broad-winged Hawk

 4:00pm, Rare Bird

 5:00pm, A Summer of Birds

 6:00pm, Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at the World Series of Birding


September 23, 2010:

Chicken has been a theme this week, but where’s the bird in this picture?

There isn’t one.  Chicken-of-the-woods is a mushroom.

Otherwise known as Sulphur Shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus) chicken-of-the-woods grows on dead trees.  In many cases it’s edible — but not always.  When it’s edible, people say it tastes like chicken.  When it’s not, those who eat it are probably too sick to describe what it tastes like.

I found a huge patch of Chicken-of-the-Woods growing on the trunk of a fallen sycamore at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve last Sunday.  The patch was so huge it could have covered my desk.  I didn’t remember its name but someone else certainly did and they knew it was good to eat.  Two big chicken-sized chunks had been sliced off the back of it.  Someone had Chicken-of-the-woods for dinner.

No way was I going to be that brave.  I couldn’t identify the mushroom and I knew that even edible mushrooms are sometimes poisonous.  Chuck Tague helped me identify it and sent me this picture.

You can learn more about this mushroom here.  When you click, the author will warn you with a preliminary pop-up that you had better read the whole description before you try this “chicken” for dinner.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Thumbtacked to the Sky? Not!

At midday Tuesday I walked to the Cathedral of Learning to find the peregrines, but no one was home.  Instead I saw a tiny speck floating in the deep blue sky above campus.  Was it a balloon? 

Through binoculars I identified an adult red-tailed hawk, motionless as if thumbtacked to the sky.  The heat gave her lift and the wind was just right to hold her aloft without moving her wings.  Sometimes she dropped her legs to create drag, then pulled them up to her motionless position.  Slowly, slowly she drifted out of sight.

I forgot about the hawk and walked the Lawn to check the north face for peregrines.  I had just decided none were there when the red-tailed hawk whooshed over my head.  Barely clearing the treetops, she dropped low over the central lawn, folded up her wings, lowered her talons and nearly — nearly — caught something on the ground at the hedges.  At the last minute the prey escaped.  The hawk pulled up quickly, flew over the heads of three pedestrians and popped over the hillside toward Forbes Avenue. 

Yow!  I was seriously impressed! 

Peregrines fly like fighter jets but red-tails normally maneuver like 747’s.  This was the first time in years that the flight of a red-tailed hawk made my heart go pit-a-pat. 

It’s amazing what a 747 can do in a tight spot. 

(photo of an immature red-tailed hawk on the hunt by Kim Steininger)