All posts by Kate St. John

Courtship and Preparations at the Pitt Peregrine Nest

Ecco and Carla court at the nest, 3 Mar 2024, 1:46pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

4 March 2024

Egg laying season is coming up soon at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest where Ecco and Carla are courting frequently.

Yesterday they held three long courting sessions that included bowing, ee-chupping, and nest preparation. The ee-chup call sounds different for male and female peregrines. Ecco’s voice is squeaky while Carla’s voice is rough and slightly lower in pitch. She’s the one that makes the “huh” sound. You can hear the difference in this 6-minute video. More information on what they are up to is described below.

video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh

After bowing, Ecco left the nest so Carla could make preparations on her own. To limber up she stretched her right wing and leg.

Carla stretches her wing and leg, 3 March 2024 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

To “build” the nest, Carla put her chest against one edge of it and kicked the gravel out with her feet. The nest itself is a bowl in the gravel, called a scrape, for holding eggs so they don’t roll off the cliff. Peregrines don’t use sticks to build their nests.

Carla digs the scrape, 3 March 2024 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

After digging Carla puttered around on the gravel surface, swallowing small pieces of gravel to aid digestion. Birds add gravel to their gizzards to grind the food. Learn more about How Birds Chew at the link.

Carla eats gravel bits to help her digestion, 3 March 2024 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

And when she was done Carla flew away.

Carla flies away, 3 March 2024 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

A few weeks from now, after Carla lays her next-to-last egg, she’ll stay at the nest to incubate.

In the meantime stay tuned for eggs coming in March or early April at the National Aviary Falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh.

Find The Lions!

Male lion found on night safari in Uganda (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Memories from my trip on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari, 19 Jan-2 Feb 2024.

3 March 2024

“Listen! Do you hear them? Lions are roaring very close to us, just beyond the buildings.”

Lion’s roar (sound from Pixabay)

We were about to eat dessert on our first night at Khulu Bush Camp when our guide, Sam Mushandu, alerted us to a sound in the night. We all fell silent to listen.

That afternoon our Road Scholar Birding Safari had been on our first game drive near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. We’d seen many birds but no lions … yet.

Game drive at Khulu Bush camp near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

We had stopped to drink sundowners and watch the sun set in the wide valley of the Dete Vlei.

Sam describes our first sundowners, sunset at Dete Vlei near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

After sunset, we returned to camp for dinner in the open air dining room.

Main building at Khulu Bush Camp, dining room at left end (photo from Khulu Bush camp, Amalinda Collection at wetu.com)

The sun had set two hours ago. It was quite dark. And there were lions outside. Roaring.

“Who wants to find the lions?” said Sam.

Caution flags went off in my brain but others raised their hands so I tamped down my doubts with the thought, “When will you ever get this opportunity again? Never. So go!”

We piled into the safari vehicle and zoomed down the dirt track. Sam was on the radio with James, a Khulu guide who had gone out ahead of us to find the lions. Suddenly an elephant loomed in the dark, blocking the road. We slowed and it stepped into the bush.

Night safari with an elephant blocking the road, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

Then another elephant, then three, then four.

Night safari, three elephants, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

Surprised by crazy humans pelting through the dark the elephants appeared to be telling each other, “Hey! that truck is coming down the track. You’re in my way! Move into the bush!” It struck me as funny and I couldn’t stop laughing.

Night safari, four or more elephants, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

The elephants melted into the bush, then James radioed that he had found the lions, one male and two females. We turned around and headed toward them.

By the time we arrived the male had moved off but we found both females squinting in the bright search light. My photo shows how far away the first one was.

Night safari, female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Fellow traveler Frank Koch got better pictures than I did. Here are both females.

Night safari, female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)
Night safari, 2nd female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

What an unforgettable experience!

Grateful thanks to our guide Sam Mushandu, to James (guide at Khulu Bush Camp) who knows the habits of lions, Khulu Bush Camp itself for a wonderful stay, and Road Scholar for arranging the tour. And thank you to Frank Koch for his photos of our night safari.

p.s. In case you’re wondering what a lion looks like when it roars, here’s a video from Brookfield Zoo. Keep in mind that both males and females roar so all three may have been speaking that night in the bush, 24 January 2024.

video embedded from Brookfield Zoo Chicago on YouTube

(photos from Wikimedia Commons (night lion closeup at top), Kate St. John, Frank Koch, and Khulu Bush Camp via wetu.com)

Seen This Week

Woodland crocus blooming in the grass on Neville Ave, 1 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 March 2024

Despite a few cold snaps, this winter has been quite warm in Pittsburgh and the plants are responding. During the past ten days I’ve found:

  • Woodland crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus) blooming in the grass on Neville Avenue and at Schenley Park,
  • Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) at North Park,
  • Flowering cherry trees blooming at Carnegie Museum.
Skunk cabbage at North Park, 23 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering cherry at Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, 29 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite these signs of spring the overall look of the land is brown. Last Sunday, 25 Feb, I took a walk with the Botanical Society of Western PA at Hays Woods where I learned a new grass.

Botanical Society walk at Hays Woods, 25 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Grease grass or purpletop (Tridens flavus) is a native bunchgrass whose seeds are oily, hence the grease name. Claire Staples holds it against a dark background so we can see the seeds.

Greasy grass or purpletop, Tridens flavus, held by Mark Bowers and Claire Staples at Hays Woods, 25 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday I found several species of honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) leafing out in Schenley Park.

Honeysuckle leaf-out in Schenley Park, 29 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Honeysuckle leafout is an spring indicator on the National Phenology Network (USA NPN) so I wondered about the status of spring elsewhere. On 26 February USA NPN wrote:

How does this spring compare to “normal”?
After a slow start to spring in Florida and parts of the Southern Great Plains, spring is spreading more quickly now across the country. Albuquerque, NM is a week early, St. Louis, MO is 2 weeks early, and parts of Washington, D.C. are 22 days early compared to a long-term average of 1991-2020.

USA National Phenology Network, Status of Spring on 26 Feb 2024

Yikes! Spring is running more than 3 weeks early in Washington, DC!

Spring is early here, too. Hang onto your hats, Pittsburgh! It’s time to get outdoors.

Flaco Died of a Window Strike

Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl in Central Park shortly after he escaped his damaged cage, 18 Feb 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 2024

One week ago today, on 23 Feb 2024, the most famous owl in New York City hit a window on West 89th Street and died.

Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) escaped his enclosure at the Central Park Zoo more than a year ago after a vandal damaged it on 2 Feb 2023. The zoo tried to recapture him and worried that he would starve or be hit by a car. Instead Flaco thrived on his own and became a symbol of freedom to many New Yorkers.

A crowd watches Flaco on 18 Feb 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

He endeared himself to apartment dwellers by sometimes visiting their highrise windows or perching on their fire escapes.

Flaco peeping in a window in NYC, Dec 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly a window was Flaco’s undoing. Flaco’s biggest fan, David Lei (@davidlei), reported:

Memorials sprung up instantly.

Memorial to Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl, New York City, 25 Feb 2024 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Flaco’s death was covered in the New York Times: Flaco, Escaped Central Park Zoo Owl and Defier of Doubts, Is Dead and commented on by the zoo where he lived most of his life.

His story should not be over, though. Flaco was not the only bird to die of a window strike in North America. He was merely the most famous. Nearly one billion birds per year hit windows in the U.S.

If your home has ever experienced a window strike please implement one of these techniques to prevent further collisions and deaths.

Find out more at this vintage blog, written after one of our young peregrines died of a window strike.

I hope Flaco’s death inspires everyone to do more to prevent bird deaths at windows.

(credits are in the captions)

I Am Not An Antelope

Pronghorn male in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 February 2024

Though we call this animal a pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), it is not an antelope at all.

While I was on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari last month I saw seven species of antelopes (not my photos; these are from Wikimedia Commons).

Because the pronghorn’s appearance is similar, I can see why he’s called an antelope, but his nearest relatives are other African animals, the giraffe and okapi.

Giraffe in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
An okapi (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
An okapi (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pronghorns probably resemble antelopes because they run like them, a trait they acquired to escape cheetahs(!). Cheetahs used to be in North America but disappeared a long time ago.

video embedded from American Prairie on YouTube

The pronghorn never stopped running.

Hot Weather Affects Maple Sugar Season

Maple sugar bucket hanging on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bucket collecting maple sap to make maple syrup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 February 2024

The month of March is traditionally the best month for tapping maples to collect sap for maple syrup. The sap runs best with daytime temperatures above freezing and nights below freezing. When the days are too hot the sap becomes bitter. When the nights don’t freeze the sap stops running and the season is over.

This winter we’ve had yo-yo weather in the Northeast and Great Lakes states. You can see it in the forecast highs this week from Tuesday 27 Feb through Sat 2 March. The cold front coming through today will result in two nights below freezing. Then temperatures will rise again into the 60s. You can see the new blob of hot weather approaching from the Great Plains on Saturday 2 March.

Maple sugar farmers have had to adjust by starting the season whenever the sap runs — in Pennsylvania that might mean January — and pausing the season when the temperature goes up too high in hopes it will drop again.

This news article from Minnesota shows what their maple farmers are dealing with.

video embedded from KSPT5 Eyewitness News

It’s Time to Look for Fairy Shrimp

Vernal pool in late winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 February 2024

Yes, it’s still February but this winter has been so warm that it’s already time to look for shrimp in the woods.

Last year Adam Haritan at Learn Your Land taught us about fairy shrimp in vernal pools. If you missed his 7-minute video, view it right now to find out what these tiny creatures look like and where to find them.

video embedded from Adam Haritan’s Learn Your Land

Amazingly there are 313 species of fairy shrimp (Ansotraca) around the world. Some live in brine water, some live in freshwater. The Eubranchipus genus which Adam mentioned contains 16 species including this female in Poland. You can see the eggs inside her at the root of her tail.

Fairy shrimp, female, Eubranchipus genus in Poland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Are you ready to go look for fairy shrimp? Find an isolated ephemeral pool in the woods and look for tiny movement in the water. Here’s a photo to set your size expectations. There’s one at the tip of the fingernail.

Fairy shrimp in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Look for vernal pools in the days ahead. In addition to fairy shrimp you’ll find wood frogs and spring peepers. Don’t delay. The end of March may be too late.

(credits and links are in the captions)

Right Now You Can Kayak in Death Valley

Kayaking on Lake Manly in Death Valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 February 2024

In case you missed it …

During the Ice Age, the Pleistocene 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, there was a lake 600 feet deep in Death Valley where Badwater Basin stands today. Named Lake Manly(*) by geologists, it disappeared 10,000 years ago.

Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level so any water that reaches it can only evaporate yet the evaporation rate is so high that the basin is a salt pan. Occasionally — decades apart — there’s enough rain to make a shallow lake.

Badwater Basin in normal times, Dec 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past six months California has had two unusual rain events. On 20 August 2023 Hurricane Hilary dumped 2.2 inches and caused Lake Manly to re-form in place. (The deluge also closed the Death Valley National Park for two months.) Amazingly the lake persisted through the winter.

Lake Manly, Death Valley, December 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And then the Atmospheric River event of 4-7 February dumped 1.5 more inches of rain. Lake Manly grew to a depth of 1 to 2 feet so in mid-February the National Park Service opened it to kayaking.

video embedded from Associated Press on YouTube

The last time the lake formed, in 2005, it lasted only about a week. This time NPS estimates it’ll be gone — or at least too shallow for kayaks — by April.

So if you want to kayak in Death Valley, get out there now before Badwater Basin returns to normal.

Lake Manly typically looks like this in Badwater Basin, (photo from 2010 at Wikimedia Commons)

Read more here at ABC News: An ancient lake has reemerged at Death Valley National Park.

p.s. From Wikipedia: “The lake was named in honor of William Lewis Manly, who rescued immigrants from Death Valley in 1849.”

Look for Peregrines in the Next 6 Weeks

Peregrine pair at Tarentum Bridge, 19 Feb 2024 (photo by Dave Brooke)

25 February 2024

From now until the middle of April peregrine falcons in southwestern Pennsylvania are courting and claiming territory, perching prominently, and performing conspicuous aerial displays. As soon as they start incubating eggs they’ll become very secretive so if you want to see a peregrine or record breeding activity for the new Breeding Bird Atlas 2024-2029, this is a great time to do it.

Look for peregrines in the next 6 weeks.

The red and blue pin drops, 1 Dec 2023 — 24 Feb 2024, on the eBird map below confirm that the best places to look are near tall buildings or bridges. There are also a few surprising locations such as Mammoth Lake Park in Westmoreland County.

Peregrine sightings in Southwestern PA, 1 Dec 2023 to 25 Feb 2024 (screenshot from eBird Explore)

11 peregrine territories have pairs present since January. Here’s the simpler map.

Peregrine falcon pairs in southwestern PA as of 25 Feb 2024 (map by Kate St. John)

Of those 11 sites, five raised young last year and two more have a long history of nesting (7 boldface names below). The new and promising sites are boldface in the Notes column.

Peregrine Sites to Watch!

Looking for some excitement? Want to add Peregrine Falcon to the PA Breeding Bird Atlas? Check out these “hopefuls” for 2024.

Rt. 40 Bridge in West Brownsville, PA (Washington County). New nest (to us) last year, will they use it this year? Click here to read about this nest.

Female peregrine clutching prey and shouting, West Brownsville Lane Bane Bridge, 26 May 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

East Liberty Presbyterian Church in the City of Pittsburgh. Very hopeful signs at this site! Click here to read all about it.

Location of peregrine focus (potential nest site) at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 12 Feb 2024 (photo by Adam Knoerzer)

West End Bridge over the Ohio River, Pittsburgh. This site often has pairs but no indication of nesting … yet. Click here to read all about it.

Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River. This site also has pairs but no confirmation of nesting yet.

Peregrine at Sewickley Bridge 11 March 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Monaca bridges over the Ohio River: RR Bridge or Rt51 Bridge. We know there are peregrines here but it’s hard to confirm breeding. Let this be a challenge to you!

Peregrine at Monaca RR Bridge, 9 Jan 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Rt 422 Graff Bridge over the Allegheny River, Kittanning. We know there are peregrines here too, but with few observers we often don’t confirm breeding. Allegheny Valley People, let this be a challenge to you!

And … if you miss finding a peregrine in person you can usually count on a peregrine on camera at the Cathedral of Learning. Today they courted at dawn.

Carla and Ecco bow at dawn at the Cathedral of Learning, today — 25 Feb 2024, 6:52am (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Keep your eyes peeled. Yes, there are peregrines out there!

Please leave a comment if you’ve see anything. I always want to know!

(photo credits are in the captions)

Hungry Bees at the Bird Feeder

Bee turns over a sunflower seed at the bird feeder, 23 Feb 2024 (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

24 February 2024

Yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny at Marianne Atkinson’s house when she noticed bees at her bird feeder and sent me this message:

I am concerned about several honey bees. It is 48° and sunny on Feb. 23, 2024 at 3:15 P.M. The bees are crawling on the sunflower chips that are in this little window feeder and on my steps and platform feeder.  The sunflower chips are dry. There is no water in them for the bees to drink or nectar.

Why are they doing this? Are they okay?

Bees at the bird feeder, 23 Feb 2024 (video by Marianne Atkinson)

Years ago I learned from beekeeper friends that early spring is a hungry time for honeybees. The warmth wakes them up in the hive, they go looking for food, but there are no flowers yet. Beekeepers provide extra food in the hive at this time of year but honeybees in the wild must go exploring.

Howard Russell at Michigan State University Extension provided this explanation:

Honey bees take advantage of any food source after a long, cold winter, including bird feeders. …

The bees collect the pollen-sized seed dust particles and yeast that are found in the cracked corn and other seeds we set out for our little feathered friends for which, I’m sure, the bees are extremely grateful. The bees will move on to their preferred food sources as spring flowers begin to appear. 

Michigan State University Extension: Hungry honey bees visiting bird feeders

This winter continues to fluctuate from cold (today) to warm (in the 60s Monday through Wednesday). Keep your feeders filled for birds … and hungry honeybees.

(photo and video from Marianne Atkinson)