Monthly Archives: April 2015

For These Eagles, A Much Better Year

Eaglet at the NBG eagles' nest, 18 April 2015 (photo courtesy of Mike Inman,
Eaglet at the NBG eagles’ nest, 18 April 2015 (photo courtesy Mike Inman,

Nothing’s been simple for the bald eagle pair at the Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG), right down to the fact that they don’t nest at the Garden any more.

As one of the first bald eagle pairs to have their own webcam the NBG eagles were well watched and now loved by people around the world.  Their nesting seasons have had many ups and spectacular downs, particularly in 2008 when they had a Peyton Place event, two nest failures, and their third try ended with an eaglet who caught avian pox.  Buddy‘s beak was deformed so badly that he could never fly free.

Life was good again until their nest site became a problem in 2011.  Norfolk Botanical Garden is on the edge of Lake Whitehurst and surrounded on two sides by Norfolk International Airport. Bald eagles and airplanes occasionally share space.  This was fatal for the female eagle in late April when she landed on the runway and was killed by an airplane.  Concern that the male could not feed the chicks without her help prompted their removal from the nest to a rehab location where they were raised until they fledged.  It was a very bad year for the eagles.

Things got worse.  The female’s death underlined the dangers of the birds’ proximity to air operations so in 2012 U.S Fish and Wildlife told the City of Norfolk that the eagles’ nest had to go.  The male had found a new mate, but every time they built a nest USDA removed it.  Eagle lovers formed Eagle On Alliance and filed a lawsuit to protect the eagles from harassment. Ultimately USDA removed nine nests.

This year the NBG eagles took the hint and moved out of harms way to the other end of Lake Whitehurst.  Their new nest is on private property, far enough to satisfy the FAA.  They don’t have a webcam but Eagle On Alliance obtained permission from the landowner to photograph and film the eagles.

The pair has hatched one or more chicks and is currently raising a family.  Peek between the branches in Mike Inman’s photo above and you’ll see a hungry eaglet.  This has been a much better year!

For more news, see the NBG eagles at Eagle On Alliance.


(photo courtesy of Mike Inman,

p.s.  Eagle On Alliance dropped their lawsuit last January.

p.p.s  Here’s how close the Garden is to the airport

Proximity: Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk International Airport (screenshot from Google Maps. Click on this image to see the map)
Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk International Airport (click on the screenshot to see the Google map)

Nest Box Competitors

Carolina Chickadee (photo by Cris Hamilton) and House Wren (photo by Chuck Tague)
Carolina Chickadee (photo by Cris Hamilton) and House Wren (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week in Schenley Park I watched a house wren claiming a nest box at the golf course.  While the wren sang near the box, a Carolina chickadee peered out of the hole.  One of them was going to win the box.  My bet is on the house wren.

Good nest locations are highly contested both within and between species.  Chickadees, house wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows and house sparrows all compete for the same nest boxes.   The winners are determined by timing, temperament, and weaponry.

Chickadees are brave but small. They usually lose.

Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows are well matched and can share the same territory if two nest boxes are placed next to each other.  The bluebirds begin nesting earlier and pick a box. The swallows arrive later and pick the other.  But it can go either way.

Eastern bluebirds checking out a nest box. Tree swallow comin in with a food delivery (both photos by Marcy Cunkelman)
Eastern bluebirds checking out a nest box. Tree swallow arriving at the nest (both photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

House wrens don’t need to nest in boxes but when they’ve picked one they are persistent, quick builders and will remove the eggs and very young nestlings of other birds.  They trump the other three.

By law you can’t interfere with these native species but you can put up more boxes.  The wider the selection, the less they’ll compete.

House sparrows are another story, though.

House sparrow eyeing a bluebird nest box (photo by Bobby Greene)
House sparrow eyeing a bluebird nest box (photo by Bobby Greene)

Aggressive and well armed, house sparrows always win. They claim several boxes even though they use just one.  They kill the nestlings and even the adult bluebirds incubating eggs.  The only way to protect bluebirds is to trap and kill the house sparrows.  You can to do this because house sparrows aren’t protected by law.  They’re “listed” as an invasive species.  (Click here to read more at the bluebird website,

In the city there’s cruel justice for house sparrows.  When another invasive species wants their nest they’re out of luck.  The starlings win.


(photos by Cris Hamilton, Chuck Tague, Marcy Cunkelman and Robert Greene, Jr.)

Winter Leaves Its Mark On Spring

Forsythia is only blooming near the ground in Du Bois, PA, 23 April 2015 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)
Forsythia is blooming only near the ground in Du Bois, PA, 23 April 2015 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

What a slow spring!  Last week it snowed in western Pennsylvania.  With an inch on the ground in Du Bois, Marianne Atkinson noticed that the forsythia blossoms stood out but they looked very odd.

In her own yard the forsythia had flowered near the ground but the top looked dead. Did other shrubs have this problem?  As she traveled around town she took photos of other forsythia bushes and discovered that all of them looked like this.  The buds on top were winter-killed.

Tops of forsythia are dead in Du Bois PA, Spring 2015 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)
Winter-killed forsythia in Du Bois, 23 April 2015 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Why were the bottoms of the bushes OK?  With a little research Marianne found:

We had a second very cold winter in a row, with occasional temperatures in the well below 0 range.  We also had about 18 inches of snow cover for about 2 ½ months this winter. I thought that the snow cover may have acted as insulation for the lower forsythia flower buds and it is true! You can read about this phenomenon in the links below:

Cold Damage to Forsythia Flower Buds at Arnold Arboretum
Why are trees and shrubs so slow to leaf out this spring?

How cold was it?  Here’s a photo of last winter’s record in Marianne’s backyard.  -19 degrees Fahrenheit!

Record low at Marianne's home near Du Bois, PA, 16 Feb 2015, 7:18am (photo by Marianne Atkinson)
Record low at Marianne Atkinson’s home near Du Bois, PA, 16 Feb 2015, 7:18am (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Last winter left its mark this spring.


(photos by Marianne Atkinson)

This Morning’s Walk in Schenley Park

April outing in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
April 26 outing in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning there were eight of us on the Schenley Park outing:  Linda, Larry, Michelle, Rose, Jen, Marianne and Dave. (Dave missed the photo opportunity & I’m behind the camera.)

At the Visitors Center we saw Virginia bluebells and redbud blooming.  In the creek valley we found miterwort, yellow trout lilies and large-flowered trillium.  We did see purple deadnettle, as promised.  😉

In addition to the usual residents we saw these Best Birds and bird behavior:

A good time was had by all.

Watch for my next outing on the last Sunday in May — May 31.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Let’s Get Outdoors in May

Wissahickon/Botanical Society outing to Linn Runn State Park, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Botanical outing in Linn Run State Park, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 April 2015:

It’s hard to believe May starts this week and with it a whole new schedule of outings.

Here’s a list from four of the many bird and nature clubs in western Pennsylvania: 16 opportunities in May, four on May 9 alone.

Everyone is welcome to participate. Click on the links for directions, meeting places, what to bring, and phone numbers for the leaders.

Date/Time Focus Location Leader & Link to more info
Sat. May 2, 10:00am Flowers Wolf Creek Narrows, Butler County Dianne Machesney, Wissahickon/BotSocWPA
Sun. May 3, 8:00am Birds Frick Park, Pittsburgh Jack & Sue Solomon, 3RBC
Sun. May 3, 7:30am Birds Buffalo Creek, Washington County Larry Helgerman, 3RBC
Thurs. May 7, 7:30am Birds Sewickley Heights Park, Allegheny County Bob Van Newkirk, 3RBC
Thurs. May 7, 10:00am Flowers Butler-Freeport Trail, Monroe Rd, Butler County Dianne Machesney, Wissahickon/BotSocWPA
3 Days: May 8, 9, 10 Birds Presque Isle Bird Festival, Erie County Presque Isle Audubon
Sat. May 9, 7:00am Birds Hotspots in Forest County David Yeaney, 3RBC
Sat. May 9, 8:30am Birds Harrison Hills Park, Allegheny County Steve Gosser and Mary Ann Thomas, 3RBC
Sat. May 9, 1:00pm Flowers Roaring Run, Armstrong County Loree Speedy, Wissahickon/BotSocWPA
Sun. May 10 (check website for time) Flowers Keystone State Park, Westmoreland County Mary Ann Pike, BotSocWPA
Sat. May 16, 9:00am Birds Bell Farm, Greene County Ralph K. Bell Bird Club, 3RBC
Sun. May 17, 8:00am Birds Harrison Hills Park, Allegheny County Jim Valimont, 3RBC
Fri. May 22, 7:30am Birds Sewickley Heights Park, Allegheny County Bob Van Newkirk, 3RBC
Fri. May 22, 10:00am Trees, Flowers Hartwood Acres, Allegheny County Marlow Madeoy, Wissahickon
Sat. May 23, 8:00am Birds Presque Isle State Park, Erie County Bob Van Newkirk, 3RBC
Sun. May 31, 8:30am Everything Schenley Park, Pittsburgh Kate St. John, Outside My Window


Don’t miss May’s excitement.  Let’s get outdoors!


(photo by Kate St. John from the Linn Run State Park outing on 19 April 2015)

p.s. Please excuse typos in the table.  Make sure to consult the website links for up-to-date information.  Call/email the leaders to make sure.

Look But Don’t Touch

Oil beetle of some sort, 19 April 2015, Linn Run State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This indigo-colored beetle looks beautiful but I was careful not to touch him last Sunday at Linn Run State Park.  It’s a good thing I didn’t … and here’s why.

At an inch and a half long this beetle was hard to miss. Thirteen of us watched him walk on the leaves.  Loree Speedy suggested he was a Blister Beetle.

Wissahickon‘s bug expert, Monica Miller, confirmed he’s one of the many species of Oil Beetles (Melos) in the Blister Beetle family (Meloidae).  His true identity requires a coleopterist’s help but her guess is Meloe impressus.  (I like the idea that “This Meloe impressed us.”)

Blister Beetles earned their name because they excrete a poisonous chemical from their leg joints, cantharidin, that causes blisters on our skin.

Yes, he’s an amazing color, has short wing covers, knobby antennae.

Blister beetle, Grove Run Trail, Linn Run State Park, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Just look. Don’t touch.


(photos by Kate St. John)

Curiouser and Curiouser

Peregrine dozing high on the Westinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Peregrine dozing high on the Westinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Identifying this peregrine falcon at the Westinghouse Bridge is a lot harder than we thought.

Thanks to Dana Nesiti’s many fine photographs, we were fairly sure in mid-April that the Black/Green bands were 66/C.  If so, it meant Surprise! the female “Storm” from Canton, Ohio had re-won her old nest site.

But we weren’t sure.

On April 18 John English, Dana Nesiti, and Maury Burgwin made another visit to the Westinghouse Bridge armed with cameras.  Using Dana’s new photos of the bands we were ready to declare this bird is 68/C, a female named Blaze hatched at the Bohn Building in Cleveland in 2005.  However, Anne Marie Bosnyak’s online investigation found that Blaze died in a territorial battle in Michigan in 2008.  This bird cannot be Blaze.  The bands aren’t 68/C. (See the comments on who Blaze was probably fighting!)

So who is this bird?

We know that the 50-60/C series is a large band normally used on female peregrines so this bird is female … right?

Maybe not.  PGC’s peregrine coordinator, Art McMorris, suggests the bands could be 58/C, a male named Mike hatched at the Mendota Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2004.  Sometimes a male receives the large-size band on banding day.

The peregrines’ behavior at the Westinghouse Bridge says that incubation started on Easter Sunday April 5 so it makes sense that the male would be standing guard now (or sleeping) while the female incubates.  The female could still be Hecla (Black/Red 68/H).

The plot thickens.  We need more evidence.

As John English said on Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook page, it’s “Curiouser and curiouser … Westinghouse Bridge continues to confound and really needs more than just three observers.”


(photo by Dana Nesiti)

Reminder: April 26 Outing in Schenley Park

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), everywhere in Pittsburgh, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday April 26, 8:30am in Schenley Park. Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive.

Dress for the weather (cold). Bring binoculars if you have them.

Click here for more information and for updates if the walk is canceled for bad weather.

We will certainly see purple deadnettle.


(photo of purple deadnettle by Kate St. John)

A Symbiotic Relationship

Boxelder blooming (photo by Kate St. John)
Boxelder blooming, 17 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Warbler migration is ramping up and we’re already craning our necks to see them.  Up to now it’s been easy to find birds in the leafless trees but that’s about to change.

In Schenley Park the box elders burst into flower and leaf last week (above), the Norway maples opened last weekend, and the oaks and hickories are blooming now.

Here’s a red oak twig on April 19 just before the buds burst.  Who knew they could grow so long!

Red oak buds about to burst, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Red oak bud about to burst, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Inevitably the warblers gravitate to the leafy trees where they’re hard to find, prompting the common complaint, “The leaves are hiding the birds.  I wish the leaves weren’t there!”

But if the leaves weren’t there, the birds wouldn’t be either.

Insects time their egg-hatch and larval growth to take advantage of leaf out.  These tentworms appeared in Schenley Park when the choke cherries opened their leaves.

Tentworms on a choke cherry branch, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tentworms on a choke cherry tree, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Leaf out brings insects.  Insects bring warblers.  It’s a symbiotic relationship between birds and trees.

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)
Blackpoll warbler in a boxelder, eating a caterpillar (photo by Chuck Tague)

The trees are probably happier than we are to see the warblers arrive.


(tree photos by Kate St. John.  Blackpoll warbler by Chuck Tague)