All posts by Kate St. John

Great Horned Owls Don’t Always Win

Screenshot of great horned owl about to attack male bald eagle, 2 March 2021, 23:38 (from Pixcams video below)

5 March 2021

If you follow the Hays bald eagle family you know the female is incubating three eggs while her mate guards her overnight. The male has good cause to stay close. A great horned owl has been harassing them!

Almost two weeks ago, on Sunday 21 Feb 2021 at 9:26pm, a great horned owl knocked the male bald eagle off the “woods perch.”

Things seemed to calm down for a week. Then on the night of Tuesday 2 March 2021 the great horned owl came back twice.

The Hays bald eagles are probably feeling murderous about that owl right now so I’m sure they’ll like this trail cam video from Washington state in which a great horned owl is attacked by three species in a row!

Great horned owls may be everyone’s enemy but they don’t always win.

(screenshot from Pixcams video; click on the caption to see the original)

Getting Closer to Nesting

Morela roosts at the green perch overnight, 3-4 March 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

4 March 2021

As nesting time approaches female birds roost near their intended nest in anticipation of egg laying.  In a positive development at the Pitt peregrine nest, Morela spent much of last night perched at the front of the nestbox.

Morela’s nighttime sojourn began when she and Ecco bowed at 6pm.

Then Morela fell asleep on the green perch for six hours.

I’ll bet no one was watching when she woke up just before midnight and left the camera view. She returned at 5:30am and stayed until the sky began to lighten at 6:17a, the start of civil twilight.

I learned all this by watching the 24-hour timelapse below which compresses 24 hours into two minutes (7am March 3rd – 7am March 4th). In it Ecco and Morela go back and forth to the nest, first Ecco then Morela. They mirror each other’s movements. Ecco even preens on the green perch. Can you tell who is who?

Tomorrow it will be a month since Terzo was last seen on camera. Today Ecco and Morela are still the only two peregrines at Pitt and they are getting closer to nesting. Watch them on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

(photo and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Uncommon Starlings

Spotless starling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 March 2021

Why is this starling all black?

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we love to hate in North America are just one of 123 species in the Starling family (Sturnidae). In Europe their English name is “common starling.” Here are seven of their uncommon looking relatives.

Spotless starling (Sturnis unicolor): The common starling’s nearest relative is a non-migratory resident of Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa, and nearby areas. Shown above, he is indeed spotless.

Rosy starling (Pastor roseus): Looks uncommon to us but is common in India in winter.

Rosy starling, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster): Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the male is beautiful amethyst, the female is boring brown.

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus): Lives in Africa. Definitely superb. Imagine seeing more than one!

Superb starlings, western Serengeti, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.

Greater blue-eared starling, Botswana Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hildebrandt’s starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti): Lives in Kenya and Tanzania. Oh my!

Hildebrandt’s starling, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mysterious starling (Aplonis mavornata): There is no photo of the mysterious starling because cameras had not been invented when he was found in Polynesia in 1825. Ornithologists went looking for him in 1975 but he was already extinct. Due to the mystery of his origin, there are probably two extinct species of mysterious starlings. Read more here.

Mysterious starling non-photo (screenshot from Birds of the World)

Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Evolve Quickly!

Snail kite with island apple snail, Harns Marsh FL, 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Native from Florida to Argentina, the snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) is a gregarious bird of prey that eats only one thing: freshwater snails in the genus Pomacea. Its beak is specially shaped to do so.

Snail kite, Florida 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Snail Kite’s slender, deeply hooked, sharp-tipped upper mandible permits it to cut the columellar muscle of Pomacea snails and remove soft tissues from the shells. The arc of the upper mandible approximates the inner spiral of the snail’s shell.

— paraphrased from Birds of the World, Snail kite account

In the old days before humans took over Florida’s landscape, snail kites ranged over half the state, but we drained and diverted more than 50% of Florida’s wetlands, the snail kite population crashed and was listed as Endangered in 1967. Twenty years ago, from 2000-2007, their population dipped so low that scientists feared they would go extinct in the U.S. Then a curious thing happened. Their food supply changed and the kites changed so they could eat it.

Before this century the snail kite’s main food was the native Florida apple snail (Pomacea paludosa) but an invasive species, the island apple snail (Pomacea maculata), arrived in 2000 and began to spread in Florida’s lakes and water management areas.

Island apple snails eating rushes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The island apple snail is two to five times larger than the Florida apple snail as seen below. (The white-and-gray bars are each 5 cm.)

Size comparison of Florida apple snail (P. paludosa) to Island apple snail (P. maculata). Each scale bar is 5 cm (images from Wikimedia Commons)

When the island apple snail first arrived in Florida the snail kite population dropped but less than a decade later the population began increasing. Did the birds initially have a tool problem? Were their beaks too short to get at the snail inside the larger shell? A recent study from the University of Florida indicates this was probably the case. Since 2007…

Researchers found that the birds with bigger bills were surviving, and their offspring were inheriting the bigger bills. …

“We found that beak size had a large amount of genetic variance and that more variance happened post-invasion of the island apple snail. This indicates that genetic variations may spur rapid evolution under environmental change,” Fletcher said.

— paraphrased from UF study: Bird evolves virtually overnight to keep up with invasive prey

We think of evolution as a very slow process but for the snail kite it happened quite fast. Those with longer bills survived. Nowadays they easily eat island apple snails.

Male snail kite with island apple snail, Florida, 2016 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When it’s a matter of life and death, evolve quickly!

Read more at the University of Florida study: Bird evolves virtually overnight to keep up with invasive prey.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Is It Grackle Day?

Male common grackle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 2021

Grackle Day is coming this week. For some it’s already here.

The arrival of migrating blackbirds and grackles is one of the earliest signs of spring. Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) leave the East End of Pittsburgh during fall migration and don’t return until early March, usually around the 5th. I haven’t seen a grackle yet but I found a red-winged blackbird — just one — in Schenley Park on Friday 26 Feb, my First of Year.

Friends in Beaver County reported small flocks of grackles at their feeders on Saturday 27 February. I’m disappointed the birds bypassed Pittsburgh but am keeping my eyes open for their arrival here.

Sometimes I hear their “chucking” sound before I see them. Listen for …

Then they point their bills up, strut and puff and “skriiNNNK.”

I can hardly wait!

Will this be Grackle Day?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto, video from YouTube. click on the captions to see the originals)

Courtship With Food

Morela takes Ecco’s offering, 26 Feb 2021, 10:11a (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

28 February 2021

One of the rituals of peregrine courtship is that the male must bring food to the female to show he can provide for her and their family. As egg laying time approaches the female stops hunting for herself; her mate provides all her food. She won’t resume hunting until the nestlings are old enough to leave for a while.

Courtship is well underway at the Cathedral of Learning nest. On Friday morning, 26 February, Ecco brought prey to the ledge (the green perch) and waited for Morela. He ate some while he waited, then called to Morela when he saw her overhead. Eventually she came in to take his offering.

In the video below, watch the strip of sunlight on the back wall of the nest and you’ll see Morela’s shadow as she lands above him.

Courtship will intensify in March with the possibility of eggs by month’s end. Watch the Cathedral of Learning peregrines on the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh.

Want to learn more about peregrine behavior? Read about peregrine Courtship feeding here and lots more at my Peregrine FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions).

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Slow Melt, New Buds

Long shadows late in the day, 23 Feb 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 February 2021

This week was full of sunshine and days above freezing but the ice is slow to melt on Schenley Park’s gravel trails.

On Tuesday I wore ice cleats to walk the interior. It was a beautiful — though slow and careful — journey.

Clouds lit by the setting sun, 23 Feb 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Long shadows during the Golden Hour.

My very long shadow, 5:19pm, 23 Feb 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The waxing moon peeks through the trees.

Moon behind the trees, Schenley Park, 23 February 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday the trails were still icy (so we walked the road) but I found signs of spring on the way.

Daffodil buds on Bartlett Street, Schenley Park, 26 Feb 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Whattaya Think?

screenshot from video of YouTube Stella the starling

26 February 2021

Stella was a European starling who was rescued when she fell out of her nest in St. Louis. Her rescuer, Rebecca B, was unable to return Stella to the nest (too high up) so she took care of the bird, planning to return her to the wild when she was old enough to survive on her own.

Rebecca B wrote in September 2015: “Well, that didn’t really work out as planned. Stella quickly became very attached and more of a pet than a wild bird. It became very clear she wasn’t suited to live outside in the wild when she began to talk and say “stella is a pretty bird” at only 4 months old! The whistles followed quickly.. and she hasn’t stopped learning.”

This week I wrote a lot about starlings. … Whattaya think?

p.s. In the U.S., European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are an invasive alien species and are not protected as native birds are. That means starlings, unlike native birds, can be kept as pets without a permit.

(from Stella the Starling on YouTube)

Songbirds Fight

Two female common starlings fighting in D.C, 9 April 2013 (photo by Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license)

25 February 2021

As winter ends and spring arrives, songbirds work hard to claim territory and mates. They usually sing to warn away competitors but sometimes sound is not enough. They resort to fury.

Though songbirds are small and seem powerless they resemble their dinosaur ancestors when they fight. The action looks vicious but they move so fast that it’s hard to capture on camera.

Above, two female (European) common starlings fight on the lawn at the Library of Congress in April 2013. Below, carrion crows fight in London in 2021.

Eastern bluebirds are normally gentle but not when they fight for a mate as photographed by Karen DeSantis in 2014. Click here to see a slideshow of the bluebird fight.

Eastern bluebird fight (photo by Karen DeSantis)
Male bluebirds fighting, 2014 (photo by Karen DeSantis)

Sometimes a bird mistakes his own reflection for a rival and goes all out against a mirror. This American robin fought his reflection at Charlie Hickey’s house in 2013.

Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)
Robin fighting his reflection (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Songbird skirmishes usually end quickly. Otherwise someone will get hurt!

(photos from Angela N via Flickr Creative Commons license, Karen DeSantis and Charlie Hickey; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Chunk of Comet Killed the Dinosaurs

Incoming! The event that killed the dinosaurs (screenshot from Harvard University video)

24 February 2021

Ever since the early 1980s when Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered that the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan and the extinction of the dinosaurs were caused by the same event, we’ve talked about the “asteroid” that killed the dinosaurs. Recently two Harvard researchers took a new look at the composition of Chicxulub rocks and the physics of comet behavior and revised that conclusion. It wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. It was a chunk of comet!

Asteroids live in the main belt of the inner solar system located between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are from the Oort cloud of interstellar space.

Logarithmic scale distance of the Oort Cloud from the rest of the Solar System. Voyager 1 location in 2013 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The video below explains how a piece of comet could break off and cause the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction … and how soon one could hit us again. By the way, Jupiter is involved.

Yow! Oh no!

Illustration of an unusual association of hadrosaur and therizinosaur from tracks found in Denali National Park, Alaska (illustration by Karen Carr via Wikimedia Commons)

A chunk of comet killed the big dinosaurs. Fortunately we still have the little ones with us … Birds!

(screenshot at top from Harvard University video, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)