Monthly Archives: June 2012

Water Willow

Here’s a beautiful wildflower that’s blooming now in western Pennsylvania.

Water willow (Justicia americana) attracts your attention because the plant is three feet tall with unusual flowers 1.5 inches across.  The flowers are shaped almost like an iris, white with purple accents.

Water willow got its name from its two most obvious characteristics:  it’s a perennial water plant and it has long leaves that resemble willow leaves.

But it’s not a willow. It grows from rhizomes in swamps or along the wet edges of streams, rivers, and ponds.  You can’t grow it in your garden; it has to have wet feet.

Sharon Leadbitter found this one along the Allegheny River near the Tarentum Bridge.  I’ve seen it growing in Slippery Rock Creek, the Youghiogeny River at Ohiopyle, and in Chartiers Creek at Boyce-Mayview wetlands.

If you visit the water’s edge this weekend, keep an eye out for water willow.  You might find a large colony of it.

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

Musings on Peregrine Mortality

To put things into perspective… yesterday’s news about Blue’s death was sad but not unusual.

Juvenile peregrine falcon mortality is high.  Nearly two thirds don’t live to be one year old.  Their often quoted mortality rate is 62.5%.

Scientific research bears this out.  Marcel Gabhauer published his doctoral thesis on peregrine falcons in 2008 having studied urban and rural, wild-born and hacked birds in Ontario since 1995.  His findings showed that nest survival from hatching to fledging is high (95.8%) but first year survival is dramatically lower.  Of the chicks he was able to track for a year, only 36.5% of the wild-born birds and 31.6% of the hacked birds survived to their first birthday.  Only one out of three makes it.

My experience with the Cathedral of Learning peregrines is similar though I’m unable to track them for a year.  Each summer since 2008 at least one juvenile Pitt peregrine has died in Pittsburgh.  Interestingly, I didn’t begin to hear of the Pitt peregrines’ deaths until 2008 when my blog made me known as The Peregrine Lady.

Monitoring juvenile peregrines is a roller coaster experience. Dorothy and E2 know this much better than I do.  Yesterday evening I found them where I expected them to be – on the Cathedral of Learning on the side facing the scene of Blue’s accident.  E2 was gazing in that direction. Dorothy was in her mourning nook, a place she only uses just after one of her youngsters has died.

This dip in our roller coaster won’t last long.  The demands of the remaining juveniles will perk up Dorothy and E2.  The Pitt peregrines’ success stories will keep us going with Dorothy’s “kids” across the eastern U.S:


(photo of Smolder by Chris Saladin)


Sad News: Blue is Dead

If you look closely at the mark on this fifth floor window of Craig Hall you can see it’s the shape of a bird with long wings.  In fact it’s the shape of a peregrine, one of the young peregrines who hatched at the Cathedral of Learning this spring.

Sadly, “Blue” died instantly at 9:15am when he hit this window and broke his neck.  His imprint tells the tale.

At 9:20 I received a call from Anne Marie Bosnyak who works next door at the University Technology Development Center.  Someone in her building had seen the accident happen.  Using binoculars from a second floor window, they could see his body on Craig Hall’s lower roof.  They weren’t sure if it was a peregrine… but they thought so.

Even though I knew he was dead I rushed over to Anne Marie’s office to make sure.

Poor Blue.  He didn’t know what hit him.  He saw the endless sky reflected in the glass.  He thought there was a gap that he could fly through but it was an illusion.  All mirrors.

As I’ve said before, windows kill.

Windows kill more birds than windmills do.

Sadly, they kill young peregrines.

(photos by Kate St. John)

He Changed His Tune

I’m fairly good at identifying birds by their songs but there’s one supposedly easy bird that fools me in June.

The hooded warbler’s main song is easy to learn because it has a simple mnemonic, he repeats it five to six times per minute, and he spends more than half his day singing this tune while he’s attracting a mate.

In early May I’m sure of him. “Ta wit, ta wit, ta wit tee yo” is a hooded warbler.

What I didn’t know is that after he’s attracted a mate he sings the other three to eight songs he knows.  Forget the easy song I’ve memorized.  These are irregular, sung 10 to 12 times per minute, and are his preferred song type in the hour after dawn.

It’s hard for human ears to learn these irregular patterns and they’re different from bird to bird.  Each hooded warbler sings his own unique songs.  He even recognizes his neighbors by their songs which he remembers from year to year.

I can imagine a hooded warbler returning in the spring and claiming the same territory he had the year before.  He sings from his perch and his neighbors respond.

“There’s John on my left again, James on my right… and there’s a new guy behind me.  Hmmm!  I wonder what happened to Joe.”

The hooded warbler knows his neighbors don’t change their tunes.  It just sounds that way to me.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Peregrine Watching at Tarentum

This week the best place for peregrine watching in Pittsburgh has been at the boat ramp under the Tarentum Bridge.  The birds have been active in the cooler weather with lots of flight practice and a little less squawking.

As usual the peregrine who regularly comes close is Hope, the mother peregrine who was born on a bridge in Hopewell, Virgina.  Here she watches Sean Dicer as he takes her picture.

Hope also has an interesting habit of choosing various perches under the bridge, then disappearing into her favorite cubbyhole in the structure.

I made a quick slideshow of Sean’s photos so you can see her flying into the cubbyhole.  (The slideshow repeats; you can watch her do it over and over again.)

What’s her fascination with that hole?  Maybe it’s a cache area with a tasty treat inside.  Maybe it’s a quiet place where her “kids” can’t harass her.

This weekend the temperature will be in the 90’s so visit the bridge in the cool of the morning or evening for your best chance at watching the Tarentum peregrines.

Maybe Hope will come close and watch you back.

(photos by Sean Dicer)

Family Portrait in Rochester

While Pittsburgh’s peregrine families are teaching their “teenagers” to hunt, Beauty and DotCa in Rochester, New York have a one-week-old chick.

Baby is an only child so he gets lots of attention from his parents.  Here Dad (foreground) and Mom come close.

Watch them “live” on the streaming RFalconcam.

(photo from Rfalconcam)

(*) This family has a Pittsburgh connection. Beauty is Dorothy’s daughter, born at the Cathedral of Learning nest in 2007.

I Am Not What I Appear To Be

Last Saturday the Wissahickon Nature Club celebrated its 70th anniversary with a picnic and nature walks at Mingo Creek County Park.

I was fascinated by the butterflies we saw because most of them are mysteries to me.  I’m able to identify only a handful including this mimic of all mimics, the Viceroy.

In northern North America(*) adult Viceroys closely resemble Monarch butterflies because Monarchs are poisonous. The Viceroys who don’t look poisonous are eaten.  Those who do, live and reproduce.  This predatory pressure reinforces mimicry generation after generation, a form of evolution in action.

How closely does a Viceroy mimic a Monarch?  I’ve marked a photo by Marcy Cunkelman with an arrow showing the black “smile” on the wings that tells the difference.  Viceroys have it, Monarchs don’t.


Viceroys are even mimics in the larval stage.  Their caterpillars look like bird poop on a stick, as you can see on this one found by Dianne Machesney.  Not only does he look like poop but I think those obvious antennae are false.  Aren’t they at his back end?

Click on the photo above to see an even “poop-ier” looking Viceroy caterpillar.
No matter what life stage, these butterflies are not what they appear to be.


(perched butterfly photo by Chuck Tague, photo with arrow by Marcy Cunkelman, caterpillar photo by Dianne Machesney)

(*) Where Monarchs are rare in Florida, Georgia and the Southwest, Viceroys mimic the Queen butterfly.

Wissahickon Nature Club: 70 Years Young

Here’s the cake that celebrated Wissahickon Nature Club’s 70th anniversary last weekend.

Founded in 1942 the Nature Club has been going strong for seven decades.  We celebrated at Mingo Creek County Park with bird and nature walks and lots to eat.

Wissahickon has evening meetings on Thursdays with exhibits and presentations,  September through December and late February through April. (We take the snowy months off).

From May to August, find us in the field learning about birds, butterflies, moths and plants.

Come join us.  Click here for more information.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

p.s. Thanks to Dianne, Monica, Susanne and Janet for organizing the anniversary party!


Wedding Doves

This month I’ve seen a few reports on PABIRDS of lone white doves at backyard bird feeders.  The writer usually asks, “Where did this bird come from?”

I have a theory.

June is a popular month for weddings and the weather allows for a beautiful tradition — a white dove release.  At the end of the ceremony the bride and groom each hold and release a dove or a whole flock is released from small cages draped in white.

Symbolizing love and peace the doves circle up together and fly away, seemingly into the blue.

In fact they fly home.

These romantic birds come from a dove release service.  They are actually white homing pigeons and the dove keeper is counting on their flocking and homing instincts to bring them back to the dovecote so they can be rented again.

They circle up together because they want to be with their friends (flock) and they want to go home.  Miraculously in the few seconds it takes them to circle the wedding grounds they figure out where they are and where to go — and then they fly home.

Normally each bird would reach home, even if flying alone, but sometimes one gets confused along the way.  Eventually he stops and finds a flock of compatriots — pigeons.  He isn’t at home but that’s OK.  He’s with a flock.

So when you find a random white dove in an odd place in June, it’s probably a confused bird for hire.

(Sorry to burst your bubble about wedding doves.  Yes, they are white pigeons.)

(photo from

Great Spangled Fritillaries

From mid-June through mid-September Great Spangled Fritillaries are the most common Fritillary in the eastern United States. Here are two in Marcy Cunkelman’s garden.

The word fritillary fascinated me. What does it mean and why does it name a whole group of butterflies?

It comes from the Latin for dice-box.

The butterfly is named Fritillary because it has a brown spotty pattern reminiscent of dice.

A family of lilies is named Fritillaria because they are brownish with a checkered, spotty pattern. Here’s Fritillaria meleagris:

They’re both dice-y.  😉

(photo of Great Spangled Fritillaries by Marcy Cunkelman. photo of Fritillaria meleagris from Wikimedia Commons)