Monthly Archives: May 2011

First Fledge at Pitt!

At 6:35pm the juvenile male peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning made his first flight.

Peter Bell, Mary DeVaughn and I just happened to be looking up when the juvie pumped his way to the northeast side of the building.  Wow!

He must have done well because his dad, perched on the lightning rod, watched him fly but didn’t feel the need follow and see if he was OK.  (The parents do follow and check on them if they see something going wrong.)

(photo by Donna Memon)

On TV, June 5

By next Sunday the young peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning will be completely off camera (they’re leaving the nest) but I’ll be on camera on WQED-TV.

On June 5 from 8:00-9:30pm WQED will rebroadcast the popular PBS Nature show Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air

We’ve reserved 90 minutes for this one-hour show because it’s a fundraiser.  During the pledge breaks our hosts will ask you to pledge to support our broadcasts of PBS Nature.  (These great PBS shows are really expensive!)  They’ll also be interviewing me as their special guest on the subject of birds.

This is live TV so I can’t even predict what I’ll say!  I can already tell you I’m no hummingbird expert but I’m absolutely sure that the subject of peregrines will come up.

So tune in to WQED on Sunday June 5 at 8:00pm to see me on air. 

Will I wear my birding hat?  And what will I say?  It ought to be interesting.  🙂

(photo of me by Chuck Tague)

Pitt Fledge Watch Update

Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch got off to a great start yesterday. 

The previous evening one of the four young peregrines walked off the nest and stayed away all night so I expected we’d see at least one juvenile on the nestrail — and we did.

A good crowd of watchers stopped by including:  Paige and her family, Sebastian and his mom, Donna, Anne-Marie, John, Peter and his parents, Herman (all the way from Atlanta) with his nephew, Monika, Mary, Tony Bledsoe and Chuck and Joan Tague.  Chuck took this picture of Herman, me, Anne-Marie and Donna while we weren’t watching.

The heat kept everyone lazy, including the peregrines.  The adults, Dorothy and E2, watched their young and patrolled the skies near the Cathedral of Learning.  Overhead we saw turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk and a broad-winged hawk (nice!).  All of them rose high on thermals to get out of the peregrine danger zone.

Despite the heat the young peregrines were active.  A few of us had bookmarked the webcam on our cellphones so we watched on our phones when we saw nothing from the ground.  The webcam revealed how the youngsters were climbing to the railing.  Here’s one on his way up.  All three are panting.  Yow, it was hot!

Around noon one of the four jumped up to the nestrail and ran back and forth, flapping.  Good wing exercise, but hot work!  After a couple of runs he rested at the far corner of the nestrail, pictured here by Donna Memon.  His wings and mouth are open because he’s hot!

By 1:15pm most of us were ready to find a cool perch of our own so we adjourned.  

The weather will be hot again today (930!) and a thunderstorm is possible.  I’ll be at the tent from 1:00-2:00pm and 5:30pm-7:00pm — but not if it’s storming.

Check here for the complete Fledge Watch schedule and location. 

Come on down!

(photo of the watchers by Chuck Tague,  photos of the peregrines from afar by Donna Memon, webcam photos from the National Aviary’s snapshot camera at the Cathedral of Learning.)

Now Blooming: Deerberry

If you’re hiking in the Laurel Highlands today to beat the heat, you may come across this blooming shrub.

Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) is a plant in the blueberry family that grows in well-drained, acidic soil.   The berries are eaten by many birds and mammals, and though the berries are too large for a small bird to eat in one bite they break open the ripe ones for a tasty meal.

Deer are fond of the berries and will eat most parts of the plant including its leaves and twigs.  In an over-browsed forest deerberry may suffer but it’s otherwise doing very well throughout its range.

Watch for it on dry uplands in the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains.

Dianne Machesney found this one at Quebec Run Wild Area in the Forbes State Forest.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

p.s. Speaking of heat, because of high temperatures our air quality will be poor today. (ozone!)

Woo Hoo! We’re Ledge Walking!

This morning one of the four nestlings at the Cathedral of Learning reached a milestone.  He walked off the nest onto an adjoining ledge, his first big step toward flying!

Starting today, if you don’t see all four nestlings on camera, don’t worry.  They’re ledge walking. 

Since they’re going to be off camera, the best way to see them will be at Schenley Plaza.  Come to Fledge Watch!

(photo captured by Donna Memon from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the Cathedral of Learning)


Purple martins (Progne subis) are our largest swallow and very social birds.  They flock together year-round and nest in colonies that may contain hundreds of pairs.

Originally, purple martins nested in natural cavities — and they still do in the West — but in eastern and midwestern North American they rely almost exclusively on man-made structures.  This habit began even before Europeans arrived on this continent.  Native Americans provided gourds, similar to the “condos” shown above. Our European ancestors started the tradition of multi-story “apartment houses” shown below:

Though highly social, purple martins are very territorial and will be aggressive to their own.  When the males first arrive in the spring they claim many nest holes and sometimes fight over them to the point of grappling in mid-air, locking claws and falling to the ground, still fighting. 

The females arrive later and fight over the holes too, but when egg-laying begins the territorial lines are well drawn and the colony settles into a period of peace.  Their condo living is so well settled that a bird may even defend his neighbor’s nest hole from an intruder while the neighbor is away.

Fighting among themselves is not really a threat to purple martin well-being.  The greatest threats are prolonged cold, wet weather and the invasive species who covet their nest holes.   The cold wet summers of Hurricanes Abby (1968) and Agnes (1972) so suppressed the flying insects that purple martins eat that Pennsylvania’s purple martin population crashed for a decade. 

Starlings and house sparrows are ongoing threats because they want the nest sites.  Their threat is best managed by the landlords who own (and must maintain!) the martin houses.  If you’re interested in attracting purple martins to your area, contact the Purple Martin Conservation Association based in Erie, PA ( or the Purple Martin Preservation Alliance based in the Alle-Kiski area (  They’ll be happy to teach you how to attract and protect purple martins.  Get help from an expert before you begin

The purple martin houses pictured here are in a colony in Everett, Pennsylvania, a town on the Juniata River.  The colony was first established by a gentleman who set up three “apartment” houses many, many years ago.  His backyard has plenty of open space and is near the river so there’s a good supply of insect food. 

His neighbor a few doors down set up the colorful gourds.  

And Marge Van Tassel took their picture last weekend on a PSO outing.

(photos by Marge Van Tassel)

Let’s Tumble!

Steve Valasek sent me this photo of a raven landing and said, “We visited Acoma Pueblo on Monday and saw many ravens riding the updrafts on the sides of the mesa.  Our guide said that he’s actually seen them fly upside down.”

You bet they fly upside down!

Ravens are very acrobatic fliers.  I’ve seen them tumble together many times as they launch over the cliffs at Acadia National Park in Maine.  They seem to get a lot of joy from doing this and might even be competing to see who can make the best moves.

It’s so hard to describe how cool they are that I found a video of ravens sky-tumbling at Lundy Island, Great Britain.  Watch carefully at 29, 40 and 44 seconds and you’ll see one of them completely flip over sideways.  Awesome!


Ravens are cool, but for speed you can’t beat a peregrine.  While searching for the first video, I found this one of a peregrine  harrassing two ravens at Culver Cliff, Isle of Wight.  The big soaring birds are ravens.  The very fast, smaller, flapping bird that appears from above at 3 seconds and 13 seconds is the peregrine.


Let’s tumble!

(photo by Steve Valasek)

Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch: Evenings too!

Here’s an update on next week’s Fledge Watch at the Schenley Plaza tent across from the Cathedral of Learning.


NEW!  I’ll also be at Fledge Watch on the evenings of Tuesday May 31, Thursday June 2 and Friday June 3, 5:30pm to 7:00pm. .

The complete schedule is:

MONDAY MAY 30 (Memorial Day):  midday 11:00am-1:00pm

TUESDAY MAY 31:  midday 1:00pm-2:00pm –and- evening 5:30pm-7:00pm

WEDNESDAY JUNE 1:  midday 1:00pm-2:00pm ONLY

THURSDAY JUNE 2:  LONG midday Noon-2:00pm –and- evening 5:30pm-7:00pm

FRIDAY JUNE 3:  LONG midday Noon-2:00pm –and- evening 5:30pm-7:00pm

SATURDAY JUNE 4:  LONG midday 10:00am-2:00pm

SUNDAY JUNE 5:  no time set yet.

So far the weather looks good but watch the blog for updates.  I won’t be there in a thunderstorm, and if something comes up to prevent me from attending (no way!), I’ll post that too.

Come join me!

(Click here for the location of the Schenley Plaza tent.)

(photo of the Schenley Plaza tent by Kate St. John)

Bring Them Back!

“Bring them back!” says Dori, as Cory DeStein takes her picture through the window blinds.

It was an eventful morning for the Gulf Tower peregrine family.

At about 9:05am, Beth Fife and Doug Dunkerley of the Pennsylvania Game Commission came out on the ledge to collect the peregrine chicks for banding.

Dori and her mate Louie strafed the area, back and forth, trying to drive away the humans that came to take their babies.

If you were watching the falconcam at that point, you know that it failed just then, accidentally disconnected when Beth and Doug went out the window.  I scrambled to get the video back on and missed seeing Beth and Doug capture Dori and collect her five chicks.

As soon as all six birds were indoors, it was clear that Dori was quite unhappy so she was given a quick physical and released immediately to wait by the window for her babies to return.

Her five youngsters — two boys and three girls — passed their physicals with flying colors.

Here’s one of the cuties awaiting his (or her) exam.

In only half an hour, Beth and Doug were back on the ledge to return the chicks to their nest.  Dori and Louie strafed again, still angry!

Beth and Doug worked quickly to return the chicks to the back of the nestbox.  Whew!  The banding was over.

Here’s a slideshow of this morning’s events. (Click on any image to see the slideshow in a lightbox.)

  • Dori in the net


(photos by Cory DeStein.  Slideshow photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower and Kate St. John)

Gulf Peregrine Banding This Morning

These five little birds at the Gulf Tower don’t know it, but around 9:00am this morning their world is going to seem very scary.  That’s when Beth Fife from the PA Game Commission will come out on the ledge to collect them for banding.

Their father Louie has seen this happen year after year but like most male peregrines he doesn’t get in Beth’s way. 

Their mother, Dori, has experienced Banding Day only once as a “mom.”  Last year she backed off and did not attack, but this year she may change her mind.  Beth’s experience is that the mother birds get more aggressive as they learn the banding day routine each year. 

Watch the Gulf Tower falconcam between 9:00am and 10:00am today to see what happens. 

I’ll be inside the Gulf Tower, taking pictures with my cell phone, and will post an update this afternoon.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)