Monthly Archives: April 2011

Support the “Pitt Peregrines” Team

Every year there’s a day in May when birders swarm across New Jersey to raise money for the birds.  It’s the annual World Series of Birding, an intense competition that pits teams of birders against each other to see the most species in 24 hours.  Supporters pledge per species-seen and the money is donated for bird conservation.

The World Series of Birding raises more than $600,000 for the birds every year.  How many species is that?  Well, last year there were 52 teams and the winning teams saw 228 species.  Wow! 

This year a team from Pittsburgh will compete on May 14.  Five intrepid birders from the Pitt Birding and Ornithological Club will go for the gold:  Lukas Musher (team captain), Jared Feura, Ryan McDermott, Conor Higgins (pictured above) and Ryan Ford (not pictured).

They’ve chosen a name that honors Pitt’s most famous birds — The Pitt Peregrines — and they’ve designated the National Aviary’s Department of Conservation and Field Research, the department that sponsors the falconcams, as the recipient for supporters’ pledges.  

Go, team!  But they need your help in two ways.

First, you can pledge 5 cents or more per species to support the National Aviary’s Dept of Conservation and Field Research.  Click here to read about the department’s programs, led by Dr. Steven Latta. 

To make a pledge, email Luke Musher at with your name, contact information and pledge per species (example:  $0.05/species, $0.10/species, $0.25/species,… $1.00/species, etc.)  The team expects to see 200 species so pledge accordingly. 

Second, you can help defray the team’s costs.  From May 3 to May 14 they’ll be scouting New Jersey to find the best concentrations of birds.  To do this they’re taking time off work, buying gas, food and lodging and paying the $115 per person entry fee. 

You can help defray their costs by supporting them through the club.  Send a check written to “Pitt Birding Club” with “World Series of Birding” in the memo line to their faculty sponsor:  Dr. Anthony Bledsoe, Dept. of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.   Call Tony at 412-335-5431 if you have questions.

Any money left over from support sent to the Pitt Birding Club will be donated to the National Aviary as well.

Go team!  Go Pitt Peregrines!

(photo of the Pitt Peregrines Team from Lukas Musher)

Second Hatch at Pitt, and Third

Two of the five peregrine eggs have hatched at the Cathedral of Learning nest, as seen during this morning’s feeding.    

Here, Dorothy is feeding the first chick while the second one dries off behind the egg at right.  That egg has a hole on top and will hatch soon.  We can’t see the other two eggs very well because they’re in the shadow beyond Dorothy.

See a slideshow of the first hatching by clicking the photo on yesterday’s blog.

It’s going to be a busy day for Dorothy and E2. 

UPDATE, 3:00pm, 23 April 2011:  The third egg hatched just before 3:00pm today:

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

First Egg Just Hatched at Pitt!

Here’s the first hatchling at Pitt, breaking out of its shell!

Here’s a slideshow of the hatching including E2’s visit to meet his firstborn of 2011.  Click on any image to see the slideshow in its own lightbox.

  • The egg begins to hatch


Watch them live on the webcam here.

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

Breaking News

OK, I’ll admit it.  This blog is “All Peregrines, All the Time” — at least for now.

Dorothy and E2’s eggs may hatch today at the Cathedral of Learning.  Last night we heard “cheeping” and egg-hammering noises on the video!   An egg-hammering noise sounds like the tap of a spoon on a hard-boiled egg.

How will you know a chick has hatched?  When you see an egg that’s not underneath the mother bird, it’s an empty shell that she’s discarded to get it away from the newly hatched chick.  (If she puts the egg back under her it’s still an egg.)

At Gulf Tower, where the eggs are about four days behind Dorothy’s, I noticed something interesting. 

When Dori laid her eggs they were in a scrape on the left (March 26).

Now they’re on the right (April 20).

I wonder if her puttering on April 4 was the beginning of the idea.  When did she move them?  Did any of you see it happen?

Meanwhile, stay tuned for breaking news (pun intended!) at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning nest and at the Gulf Tower.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh)

Harrisburg’s First Hatchling

Couldn’t resist posting this very cute photo of the first peregrine hatchling in Harrisburg, PA.  He hatched last night.   

Click on his photo to watch him on the web.  

And stay tuned to our Cathedral of Learning and Gulf Tower nests in Pittsburgh.   Hatching is expected here very soon!

(photo from PA DEP Falcon Cam on the Rachel Carson Building in Harrisburg, PA.  Thanks to Marianne Atkinson for sending this along.)

Swallow Chatter

New birds are arriving every day from the south. 

In the past week I’ve seen three kinds of swallows (tree, barn, and northern rough-winged), plus blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets, a yellow warbler, a common yellowthroat and many chipping sparrows.

I enjoy watching the swallows but they’re hard to identify because they move so fast.  Sometimes I have to identify them by voice.  The northern rough-wings make a spitting sound.  The tree swallows make a chatter all their own.

Bobby Greene captured these two tree swallows having a conversation. 

Or was it an argument?

(photo by Robert Greene)

Two Kinds of Spring Beauty

In late April on a sunny day in western Pennsylvania you’ll find the forest floor carpeted with small pale pink flowers. 

The flowers are actually white with tiny pink veins that guide insects to the center, “Follow this road to the nectar.”

These are Spring Beauties, a light sensitive flower in the Purslane family that doesn’t open unless the sun comes out.  Needless to say, with all the rain these 1/2″ flowers haven’t had much “face time” lately.

There are two kinds of Spring Beauty in our area.  The most common species is called simply Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and has thin ribbon-like leaves.  It’s quite easy to find in moist woods. 

Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), pictured above, has wide oval leaves and is rare in western Pennsylvania.  The leaves are the clue.  The flowers are the same on both.

On the next sunny day — perhaps tomorrow — take a look in the woods for the beauties of spring.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Falcon or Hawk?

Last Thursday at lunchtime a bird of prey caused quite a stir in downtown Pittsburgh when it perched on a light fixture and very publicly ate a pigeon.

Katie Cunningham sent me photographs of the bird and asked, “Is this a falcon or a hawk?”  She guessed it was a hawk and she was right (it’s an immature red-tailed hawk).  How could she be sure it’s not a peregrine?

Telling the difference between a falcon and a hawk is a common identification problem, so common that people often ask me for help.

Today I’ll tell you how to identify the birds yourself.

Right off the bat I’m going to narrow the scope.  In western Pennsylvania you can see up to nine hawk and three falcon species depending on time of year and habitat.   To make this manageable I’ll address the most common identification question faced by city folks:  Is this bird a peregrine falcon or a red-tailed hawk?

First, ask yourself several key questions.

Is it a bird of prey?  Birds of prey eat meat so they have hooked beaks (see the tip of the beak) and talons (big claws).  If the bird does not have these features it’s neither a falcon nor a hawk and you can stop right there.

What time of year is it?  Peregrines and red-tails live in western Pennsylvania year round so the time of year doesn’t eliminate either bird due to migration.  However identification is more challenging in June and early July when the juvenile peregrines are flying around town.

Where is the bird?  In what habitat?  Is it in the city on a building? (Could be either a peregrine or a red-tail)  In the suburbs? (likely a red-tailed hawk)  On a bridge? (either bird)  On a light pole over the highway? (likely a red-tail)  In a tree?  (likely a red-tail)  Standing on your picnic table? (likely a red-tail)  Standing on the ground?  (likely a red-tail)  …But in June a juvenile peregrine might be found in some of the “red-tail” places.

Is the bird in the human zone?  Is the bird perched close to humans and doesn’t even care about them?  If so, it’s probably a red-tailed hawk  …but is it June?

What does it look like?

Red-tailed hawks are bigger than crows.  They are white on their chests and speckled brown on their heads, faces, wings and backs.  Their throats are white but their faces are brown all the way to their shoulders.  They have brown hash mark stripes on their bellies (low, between their legs).  Only adult red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Juveniles have brown tails with horizontal stripes.

Adult peregrines are smaller than red-tailed hawks, about the size of a crow but bulkier.  Adult peregrines are charcoal gray and white.  Their backs, wings and heads are charcoal gray, their chests are white and their bellies and legs are heavily striped (horizontally) with dark gray.  Their heads are dark gray and their faces are white with dark gray sideburns called malar stripes.  Peregrines have malar stripes; red-tailed hawks do not.

Here’s a photo comparison of the two:  red-tailed hawk on the left, adult peregrine on the right.

When it’s flying, does it have “fingers” on the tips of its wings?
Did you see it flying?  Hawks (and eagles and vultures) have “fingers” on the tips of their wings. Falcons have pointy wings.

Silhouette of Buteo (hawk), Accipiter(hawk) and Falcon (image from, altered to include labels)
Silhouette of Buteo (hawk), Accipiter(hawk) and Falcon (from I have added labels)

What’s this thing about June?
In June in Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines leave the nest and learn to fly.  Immature peregrines are brown and cream-colored instead of gray and white like the adults.  They have no white on their chests and the stripes on their bellies are vertical instead of horizontal.

Newly fledged juvenile peregrines may do almost anything, including perch in the human zone.  Because they are brown you can’t use those easy color cues you use for adults.

Here is a photo comparison of an immature red-tailed hawk (on the left) versus an immature peregrine (on the right).  Though similar in color, they still look very different.  The young peregrine’s belly is completely striped.

What is the likelihood of seeing either bird?   Peregrines are rare.  Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America.

So you’re usually right if you say it’s a red-tail.  You’re unlikely to see a peregrine near ground level in Pittsburgh.  That’s why we get excited about peregrines.

(Red-tailed hawk photo by Katie Cunningham, Peregrine photos by Kim Steininger)


Many readers have recently asked for help identifying a brown-and-beige-colored bird of prey in their backyards with vertical chest stripes like a juvenile peregrine.  If you have a similar bird in your backyard and it …

  • does not have a pronounced malar stripe on its face
  • is hunting for birds
  • moves so fast that it seems high strung
  • jumps on the birds in the bushes and chases them through the trees
  • has “fingers” on its wing tips (Accipiter silhouette above)

… then it’s a Coopers hawk.  They are bird-eating birds of prey (Accipiters) that specialize in woodland habitat and hunt in tight spaces.

Adult Coopers Hawk (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Adult Coopers Hawk (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Click here for a good comparison of peregrine vs. Coopers hawk vs. merlin from the OFNC Falcon Watch in Canada.  Note: Merlins occur in Canada but are unusual in Pennsylvania and south of here.

Peregrine Video Webcams will be down early Tuesday morning

Tomorrow morning April 19, starting at 5:00am Eastern Daylight Time, the peregrine webcams at Gulf Tower and the Cathedral of Learning will be down for scheduled maintenance.  While they are down, WildEarth will add a video archiving feature that allows us to bookmark video segments to find and play later.   It will be similar to the “hotspots” feature we used last year.

Wildearth says the maintenance should take about an hour.  While the streaming is down you’ll still be able to watch the nests via the snapshots.

UPDATE on Tuesday morning:  Things are taking longer than planned.

Eggs Will Hatch Soon… Amid Some Distraction

Later this week — in as little as 3 to 5 days — the peregrine eggs at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning will hatch.  Dorothy and E2 will be busy with many mouths to feed.

Unfortunately, they’ve been busy with another task as well:  defending their territory.

A third adult peregrine, a female intruder, has been showing up at the Cathedral of Learning and trying to challenge Dorothy for the site.  Last week we saw at least four challenges.

At lunchtime on Friday Karen Lang and I watched E2 fly in very high above the Cathedral of Learning.  Then he dove at an approaching female peregrine who evaded him and flew around the building.  E2 did not “kak” or wail but when Dorothy caught a glimpse from her position on the nest she wailed and came off the eggs in a rush.  Angry and flapping hard (flapping is a threat display) she chased the intruder out of sight in a matter of minutes. 

All was calm for more than three hours.  Then while watching the webcam after 5pm, I saw Dorothy leap off the nest again.  I looked out my office window and saw peregrines flying around the top of the Cathedral of Learning and E2 came in to incubate the eggs.  Another intrusion.  Again Dorothy chased the intruder away.

So far Dorothy is victorious.  Karen assures me Dorothy is one tough peregrine and will not lose the site this season, but until Dorothy completely convinces the intruder to leave she will have to chase her over and over again.

On the webcam you may notice this when Dorothy leaves suddenly.  If you hear her wail and she leaves the nest abruptly, she is chasing away the unknown female.  

I am cheering for Dorothy.  So far so good.

But no matter what happens — whether Dorothy wins or loses — there is nothing we can or should do about it.  We are privileged to observe these birds but they are very different from us and we cannot change them.   This is how peregrine “society” works.  It’s how they assure that the best peregrines survive.

So watch the webcams for the latest developments.  You may see some distraction at the Cathedral of Learning.  

Soon the eggs will hatch at both Pittsburgh sites.  Here’s my best guess at the hatch dates:

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)