Monthly Archives: January 2014

Slow Motion Flight: Peregrine, Raven

Kick back for a moment with this Earth UnPlugged video from BBC Worldwide.

First published last August, it compares the flight styles of peregrines and ravens using slow motion high definition video.  You’ll see how the peregrine is built for speed and precision, the raven for aerobatics.

Another difference, something you can’t see, is in their attitude toward the flight exercise.  Both are trained birds but they have completely different reasons for participating — and it’s a difference between the two species.

The peregrine is all business.  He’s hunting and focused, no playing around.  He associates with his trainer for business reasons and has a radio tag in case he decides to leave.

The raven is out there for social reasons.  He’s spending time with his favorite “raven,” doing some cool maneuvers to capture airborne food, flying along with his mate.  (The raven considers his trainer to be his mate.)

The radio tag is also a subtle key to these individual birds’ personalities.  The young peregrine could hunt anywhere.  If he breaks training he’ll fly away.  The raven is so bonded to his “mate” that his trainer knows he’ll never leave.

Enjoy the video. Happy Friday!


(video by Earth UnPlugged, a BBC Worldwide channel on YouTube)

Pitt Peregrine Highlights, 2013

Dorothy, E2 and 4-day-old Silver Boy, 28 April 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

While we wait for the cold weather to end, here’s a slideshow of last year’s peregrine highlights at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

For fans of Dorothy and E2, 2013 began with promise but ended in disappointment.  Click on the photo above to see last year’s ups and downs.

  • The peregrines began nest defense and courtship right on schedule.
  • Dorothy laid her first egg on March 13, then paused a bit longer than usual before completing her clutch of 5.
  • She kept the eggs warm and dry, even when it snowed all night on March 24-25.
  • Two eggs hatched on April 25.  The remaining three eggs never hatched.
  • Soon it was evident only one of the chicks was eating.  The other had spasms so strong that it twitched out from under Dorothy’s warmth and away from the nest.
  • The second chick died beyond the scrape. Being the good mother that she is, Dorothy tucked it under her to brood.   On April 29 when her back was turned E2 removed the dead chick’s body.
  • The remaining chick received loads of attention from two very experienced parents and lots of quality time alone with Dorothy.  Often it seemed we could understand what she was telling him by her look.  Above, Dorothy and E2 confer as the chick begs for food.
  • On Banding Day, May 17, Dorothy strafed the banding crew who successfully retrieved and banded her healthy male chick.  We nicknamed him Silver Boy.  (The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not name peregrine chicks but Pittsburgh peregrine watchers assign nicknames based on the colored tape placed on the silver USFW bands.  Silver Boy’s USFW band remained silver.  He had no colored tape because he had no siblings.)
  • Silver Boy ate, grew, exercised and explored.  He fledged on June 3 to the 25th floor ledge where he was rewarded with food, of course.
  • Sadly, on the morning of June 14 Silver Boy was found dead on Forbes Avenue, apparently hit by a car.
  • His parents resumed courtship the next day but stopped soon after. It was too late in the season to start another clutch.
  • Both parents stay at Pitt year round.  As always, Dorothy is the most photogenic.

Now that we’ve had a warmup, let the season begin!


(photo above from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh.  Thanks to Peter Bell, Mike Faix and Kim Getz for contributing photos in the slideshow.)

p.s. This slideshow is also linked on the Peregrine FAQs page.

It’s Warm Everywhere But Here

Land and ocean temperature anomalies, Dec 2013 (image from NOAA National Climatic Data Center)

I don’t know about you but I tend to think everyone’s having the same weather I’m having.  So everywhere on earth is colder than normal now, right?

Wrong!  Much of North America is colder, but most of the world is quite the opposite.  Last week NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center published temperature anomalies for 2013 and they’re surprising if you think everyone’s weather is the same as ours.

Above, a snapshot of December 2013 shows red for hotter and blue for colder than normal temperatures, the deeper the color the deeper the variance.  The darkest color means a 5+ degree Celsius difference (that’s 9+ degrees Fahrenheit).  For visual impact I removed the explanatory text, so be sure to click on the image to see the details!

Notice that except for North America and eastern Turkey, in December 2013 almost everywhere on Earth was hotter than usual, sometimes a lot hotter.

Twelve months ago the story was quite different.  In January 2013 we were warmer than normal and Russia was colder.  Click here for January 2013’s map.

So if you don’t like the weather right now, just wait.  Things will change!


(Global temperature anomalies, December 2013, from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center at Click on the image to see the original)

Nature’s Snowballs

Large snow rollers, 27 Jan 2014, Dubois, PA (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

The weather was weird yesterday but it made something beautiful.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio people looked outdoors to find thousands of large snowballs dotting hillsides and open fields.  The snow rollers resembled hay bales, jellyrolls or the unstacked segments of snowmen and were so unusual that they became online sensations in social media.  They were made by the wind.

I didn’t know they’d happened until Marianne Atkinson sent me photos from her backyard in Clearfield County, PA.  I’d seen the wind make little snowballs in the Laurel Highlands so I thought I knew what she was talking about.  But no, these are special.  They’re a foot across!

Snow rollerabout a foot across (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Snow rollers are pretty rare but yesterday morning produced the perfect weather mix…

  • With an icy layer on top of snow or the ground that new snow can’t stick to…
  • Wet, loose snow fell on the icy layer.
  • The temperature was near the melting point and…
  • The wind blew at just the right speed to start the balls rolling without destroying them.
  • The rollers stopped when they became too heavy for the wind to move.  Even so they’re often hollow and too fragile to pick up.

A quick search of the Internet found photos and video at WPXI Pittsburgh, Newsnet5 in Cleveland and NBC4 Columbus.

Thankfully the wind wasn’t strong enough to stack them into snowmen!


(photos by Marianne Atkinson)

Schenley Park Oak Wilt Meeting, Feb 3

Back in July I mentioned that there’s oak wilt in Schenley Park.  In the weeks ahead those trees will come down.
Councilman Corey O’Connor is holding an informational meeting about the project on Monday February 3, 6:00pm – 7:30pm at the Jewish Community Center, Levinson Hall B.  (The main entrance is at 5738 Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill.)

See Councilman O’Connor’s flyer below for more information.

Schenley Park Oak Wilt meeting, 3 Feb 2014, 6:00pm


American dipper (photo by Stsve Valasek)

When birders don’t see a bird they’re specifically looking for some of them say they “dipped” on that bird.  Loosely speaking, dipping means “I didn’t find it.”  It comes from British birding slang.

Though I’ve never searched out an American dipper, I have certainly missed seeing one when I was in the right habitat for North America’s only aquatic songbird. (Dippers swim!)

Last year Steve Valasek set himself the challenge of finding all the birds listed in a small New Mexico field guide by the end of 2013.  He looked for American dippers but didn’t find one until ten days into 2014.  Click here to read his account of finally not dipping on this American dipper.

(photo by Steve Valasek)

Bird On Camera

Pygmy nuthatch on camera (photo by Ed Sweeny (Navicore) via Wikimedia Commons)

Birds are often on camera, but rarely on the camera.

This photo of a pygmy nuthatch was an experiment by Ed Sweeney (Navicore on Flickr).  Thanks to its Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons, I found the photo and learned of Ed Sweeney’s extraordinary photographs.  See more on his Flickr page here.


(photo by Ed Sweeney, on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original and Creative Commons license.)

This Is Getting Old

White-throated sparrow in cold and snow (photo by Steve Gosser)

Unseasonably cold weather continues in Pittsburgh though we’ll have a “heat wave” of 26oF today while it’s snowing 2-4 inches.  Then the temperature will dip to -7oF by Monday night.  Erf!

When Steve Gosser posted this white-throated sparrow on Facebook, many remarked that the bird is fluffed up and frowning!  It looks like he’s tired of winter.

I agree.

“This is getting old.”

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Flight Paths

 Starling flight-path video by Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo

If birds left a visual trail in the sky, what would their flight paths look like?

Dennis Hlynsky, an artist and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, has been experimenting with this for several years.  He became interested in birds when “During the winter of 2008 I left the house in the wee early morning looking for anything to record with my new pocket video camera. I began to notice life above.”  Since then he’s been filming birds and animals, then using Adobe After Effects to convert their motion to dotted trails.  Fast-moving birds become open dashes, slow-moving ones are thick lines.

Starling videos are especially interesting because the flocks collect a few birds at a time and flee in a tightly packed blob.  Click on the screenshot above to watch Hlynsky’s video “data in data out” of starlings on wires in East Providence.

Thanks to Traci Darin for pointing out this video in an article on the Colossal website where you can see an animation and three additional flight path videos.  Or click here for Dennis Hlynsky’s “small brains on mass” website where he’s posted videos of birds, water striders and the carp feeding at Linesville, PA.

(screenshot from Dennis Hlynsky’s video “data in data out” on Vimeo)

Winter Birds On WQED

me (photo by Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)One week from today on January 30 at 7:30pm, WQED’s Pittsburgh 360 will air a segment on winter birds by Doug Oster.

Several Pittsburgh birders are in the show including Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary, Jim Hausman of Jefferson Hills and yours truly, Kate St. John.

If you miss the premiere next Thursday click here for dates and times of five opportunities to watch on TV plus a link to the online video, available after the show airs next Thursday.

See me in my purple coat.  😉

(photo by Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette)