Monthly Archives: February 2013

Romancing The Wind

Romancing the Wind from Robert Holbrook on Vimeo.

My love of birds has me fascinated with almost anything that flies.  Perhaps this is true for you too.

Last month my sister-in-law sent me a link to this 2004 video called Romancing The Wind.  Produced by Robert Holbrook, it shows professional kite flyer Ray Bethell flying three kites simultaneously in an aerial ballet.  Music from Leo Delibes’ The Flower Duet complements the kites.

Ray Bethell is an amazing man.  Over 80 years old, he’s a Multiple Kite World Champion from Vancouver, Canada who holds world records in endurance and number of simultaneous kites flown.  Here you see him flying three kites at Vanier Park, holding one in each hand with a third tied to his belt.  He’s used this same technique to fly 39 kites at the same time!  Read more on his website here.

Like the falcons, Ray Bethell’s kites court in the wind.


p.s. The kite model Ray is using has a falcon name:  Kestrel.

(video of Ray Bethell by Robert Holbrook on Vimeo)

A Victory For Birds In Canada

Yonge Corporate Centre (photo from Yonge Corporate Centre)

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve been here with me when I’ve mourned the loss of yet another juvenile peregrine who died by hitting a window.  We lose at least one of Pittsburgh’s young peregrines this way every year.  Windows kill but now there’s a ruling in Canada that gives me hope this will change, even in the U.S.

This month Judge Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice ruled that two laws that protect birds in Canada, EPA and SARA, “are properly interpreted to prohibit the emission (intentional or unintentional) of reflected light where that reflection causes the death or injury of birds.”

In other words, massive window kills count just as much as if you’d shot the birds.  Your windows are breaking the law.

The buildings that prompted the ruling are Yonge Corporate Centre, pictured above, one of many corporate centers in Toronto where thousands of birds are injured or killed each year.  To their credit Yonge Corporate Centre had already begun to mitigate the problem with window film, due in part to a lawsuit by Ecojustice Canada and Ontario Nature against another deadly corporate center, Consilium Place.  Click here for a photo of Consilium Place and information on the lawsuit.

“The law is now clear that owners and managers of buildings with reflective windows that kill or injure birds must take action. This is a major success, even if it’s not a complete victory,”said Ecojustice lawyer Albert Koehl.

So a big thank you goes out to Ecojustice Canada, Ontario Nature and the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) for this victory!  I hope it ripples southward and prompts a change in the U.S. too.


Read more about the ruling in the American Bird Conservancy’s press release, source of the quotes above.

(photo of Yonge Corporate Center from the media page of Yonge Corporate Center website. Click on the image to see the original.)

Nestcam Round-Up

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, preening at her nest (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

Nesting season is coming fast.  Some raptors have already laid eggs so it’s time to start watching the nestcams for a window on the family lives of birds.

Here’s a selection of my favorites for your viewing pleasure.  In fact there so many nestcams online now that I can’t possibly list them all.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you have a favorite nestcam post it in Comments below.


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh. Click on the image to watch the webcam)


p.s.  I’ll also add more of my favorites as they come online.

Peregrine Quest! March 10, 2pm, Downtown

Vicinity of Downtown peregrine nest (photo by Kate St. John)

Want to help monitor the former Gulf Tower peregrines this spring?  Meet me downtown at 2:00pm on Sunday March 10 and I’ll show you where they live.

When the peregrines did not return to Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower last month and when I heard very few reports of them I worried that they’d chosen yet another nest site.

I went downtown yesterday to check and am happy to report that they plan to use the same site as last year.  I found both birds nearby.

Here’s Louie perched across the street from the nest, roosting during a mini snow squall.
There's a peregrine in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

This smaller image is the same one, digitally zoomed and cropped.
Peregrine perched on windowsill of Lawrence Hall, 24 Feb 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)


And here’s Dori at the nest site, digitally zoomed.

Peregrine perched at nest site, 24 Feb 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

My photos aren’t sharp because I don’t have a zoom lens.  If you do, you’ll get a nice portrait at this distance.  These birds are closer and easier to see than the peregrines at Pitt.

Come on Downtown on I’ll show you where to look for them.

Meet me at the Market Square Starbucks in downtown Pittsburgh (click here for map) on Sunday, March 10 at 2:00pm.  In less than an hour I can show you the ropes.

Bring binoculars or a camera.  We’ll walk 3.5 blocks to the site and do a short walking tour of other perching spots.

This event will happen rain or shine.  Dori will lay her first egg within two weeks of our visit so there’s no time to lose.

Sunday bonus: On-street parking is free in many places on Sundays.  For instance, along the Boulevard of the Allies at Point Park University.

Hope to see you March 10!

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Size Of An Owl

Speaking of owls, as I did on Thursday, here’s a portrait of one of the world’s largest owls, the Eurasian eagle-owl.

Bigger than a snowy owl he is slightly outweighed by the endangered Blakiston’s fish-owl of Asia and has a slightly shorter wing span than the great gray owl.

Despite these technicalities he is virtually the world’s largest owl.  With females weighing up to 9.3 pounds they are bigger than our great horned owl (up to 5.7 pounds), the eastern screech-owl (weighing up to 1/2 pound), and the northern saw-whet owl (weighing only as much as 1/3 pound).  The two smaller owls are dinner for the great horned owl.  Imagine what a Eurasian eagle-owl eats!

To get an idea of owl sizes, visit the National Aviary to see the eagle-owl and others up close.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

The Undertaker

Marabou stork (photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia)

Except for the beak this bird looks like a scruffy character from a Dickens novel.

The Marabou stork is not improved by close approach.  I’ve seen one at a zoo:  five feet tall and surprisingly ugly with rusty feathers, skinny legs, fuzzy bare head, and a dirty-looking bill.

His bill doesn’t just look dirty.  It is dirty because he eats carrion and garbage.

In Africa this stork follows vultures to dead animals and stands hunched waiting for the vultures to rip open the carcass and make an opening so the stork can dine.

He’s aptly named the Undertaker Bird.

(photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia. Click on the image to see the original)

What Color Is A Scarlet Ibis…Really?

What color is a scarlet ibis? (original photo by tj on Wikimedia Commons)

The scarlet ibis looks bright orange-red to us but that’s not what the ibis sees.

Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light.  This trait was discovered by accident and largely ignored until we figured out that most birds have ultraviolet-reflectant feathers.   This opened up a whole new view of plumage.

Above is my poor attempt at showing what this looks like.  Instead of orange-red the ibis appears purplish to himself and other birds — more purple than I can show.  For an awesome photo of what birds actually look like click here and scroll down to see three views of a cockatiel.

When the ultraviolet colors came to light we uncovered many surprises.  The axillary feathers of northern saw-whet owls are UV-reflectant. Who knew their armpits were so flashy!  The brightness fades in older feathers so bird banders use UV light to age the owls.  Here’s a saw-whet UV photo linked from Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Center where they band the owls.  (Click on the photo to read more.)

The world of birds is far more colorful than we imagine.

A scarlet ibis does not look scarlet to an ibis.  Really.


Scarlet ibis photo by tj on Wikimedia Commons, retouched by Kate St. John to attempt ultraviolet shades. Click on the image to see the original.
Northern saw-whet UV axillary feathering by Washington College, Chesterfield River Research Center, Northern saw-whet monitoring.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 100 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

Screech-owl Roost … and Nest?

Eastern screech-owl roosting in Owl Box #7 (image from

If you haven’t been watching PixController’s eastern screech-owl webcams you’ll want to start now.

Back in October when I first wrote about the webcams, eastern screech-owls were just starting their winter-roost season.  The birds hadn’t chosen preferred boxes and a squirrel was time-sharing in one of them.

Since then two owls have sorted out who roosts where.  They’re definitely aware of each other because they sometimes visit each others’ roosts or eat each others’ cached food.

This week they’ve been busy in Owl Boxes #2, #6 and #7.  On Tuesday night the owl nicknamed “Allie” caught and cached a mourning dove in Owl Box #2.  Last night she came back to eat it.  The motion detection cameras keep track of the owls so you don’t have to stay up all night.  Click here to see recent archives of owl activity.

Now that Winter is ending, things are about to get very interesting.  Eastern screech-owls nest in March.  Will they nest in one of the boxes?

Click here or on the image above to watch PixController’s Eastern Screech-owl Live Webcams.  You can also follow PixController on Facebook where Bill Powers posts the day’s best photos from his many webcam installations.

(image from

p.s. The owl looks white because of the infrared light.

Morning Song

Mourning Dove in Urbana, IL (photo by Dori on Wikimedia Commons)

On February mornings, the mourning doves sing songs of love.

The males perch high and puff their throats when they sing.  Though they are slender, they resemble pigeons when they do this.

Coo-OOOO Cooo Cooo Cooo.

Some say they sound like owls but those who think the sound is mournful named this dove.

Click here to hear their mourning morning song.


AND A QUIZ!    Identify the other bird singing in the recording.  His song is not normally heard in southwestern PA in the summer.  The mourning dove lives year-round from Maine to Mexico, from Canada to Cuba.  The other bird will give you a hint on the location of the recording.


(photo by Dori on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

Robin Hiatus

AAmerican Robin (photo by Chuck Tague)

Have you noticed?  There aren’t many robins in Pittsburgh right now.

In December it was another story.  Every day I watched hundreds feast on the ornamental fruit trees in Oakland.  Their numbers fell slightly in early January, then surged again on the 13th when I saw so many that I recorded their number as ? (infinity) in my notebook.

But they ate all the fruit and the ground was too frozen to find worms and invertebrates, so they left. If I’m lucky I see one or two robins a day.

This situation is only temporary. The robins wintering in Florida are getting restless. Soon they’ll come north, following the 37oF average daily temperature isotherm and the arrival of the Spring.

You can watch their progress and contribute your own observations on the Journey North website.  Click here to see an animated map of the Robin Wave.

We’re in a robin hiatus now but they’ll be back soon.  My prediction is March 5.  What do you think?

(photo by Chuck Tague)