All posts by Kate St. John

Peregrine News Around Town, 10 May

10 May 2021

Western Pennsylvania peregrine families are very active at this time of year but we often don’t see it. In May the parents are feeding hungry chicks but the chicks are typically hidden from view. At most sites we won’t know if a nest is successful until the chicks appear — loudly — when they’re about to fledge in late May or early June. Right now I have news from only 4 (boldface) of our 11 regional sites.

  1. Pittsburgh: Cathedral of Learning, Allegheny County
  2. Pittsburgh: Downtown, Allegheny County
  3. Monongahela Watershed: Westinghouse Bridge, Allegheny County
  4. Monongahela River: Speers Railroad Bridge, Washington County
  5. Ohio River: McKees Rocks Bridge, Allegheny County,
  6. Ohio River: Neville Island Bridge, NO PEREGRINES DUE TO CONSTRUCTION
  7. Ohio River: Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, Beaver County, NO PEREGRINES SEEN FOR SEVERAL WEEKS
  8. Ohio River: Monaca Railroad Bridge, Beaver County
  9. Allegheny River: 62nd Street to Aspinwall Railroad Bridge, NO PEREGRINES NOW
  10. Allegheny River: Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny & Westmoreland Counties
  11. Allegheny River: Rt 422 Graff Bridge Kittanning, Armstrong County

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh:

Morela feeding four chicks, 9 May 2021, 11:14am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday the chicks were 14 days old (2 weeks): Their second down is long and fluffy and pin feathers are beginning to emerge at wing tips and tail. The chicks walk around on their tarsi and sit like white Buddhas.

Pitt peregrine chicks have pin feathers on wing tips & sit like Buddhas, 9 May 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

In good weather their parents guard them from the nestrail (bulwark) above the nest. I’ve put yellow V’s on the photo below to show Ecco’s typical perch on the left and Morela’s in the center. When on the bulwark they are not visible on camera but you can see them with binoculars from Schenley Plaza.

Watch the family at the nest on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

In fine weather, Ecco and Morela perch on the nestrail facing inward; yellow arrows indicate their typical locations (photo by Kate St. John)

Downtown Pittsburgh:

Third Avenue peregrines (photo by Kate St. John)

We know that the Downtown peregrines are nesting at Third Avenue this spring (yellow arrow) even though it’s impossible to see into the nest from the street. The best vantage point is from the sidewalk on Mt. Washington near the incline. Use a scope.

Peregrine in the Third Avenue nook, 20 March 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

When they’re ready to fledge we can see them at Third Avenue.

Meanwhile, though the Gulf Tower nestbox is not in use an immature peregrine showed up on 4 May to have a look at the building. Photo by Ann Hohn at Make-a-Wish.

Peregrine at the window, Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh, 4 May 2021 (photo by Ann Hohn)

Monongahela Watershed: Westinghouse Bridge

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge on a rainy day, 9 May 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The Westinghouse Bridge peregrines must be too busy to show themselves. Dana Nesiti visited the site yesterday and said, “[It] Took a while to find one of the falcons. It then flew to one of the arches and was hanging out. Didn’t hear any calls.”

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge on a rainy day, 9 May 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Allegheny River, Tarentum Bridge:

On Saturday May 8 Dave Brooke stopped by 1st Avenue in Tarentum to film the Tarentum Bridge peregrines during a feeding. Click on the photo or caption above to see Dave’s video.

The three chicks already have “faces,” a trait that appears at 3 weeks old. Art McMorris estimates they are 18-20 days old. This means they are likely to fledge around 27 May 2021. Be sure to visit Tarentum before they go.

(photos by National Aviary falconcam at Cathedral of Learning, Kate St. John, Dana Nesiti, Dave Brooke)

Attacks Trees From Underground

9 May 2021

Have you ever seen these long black ropes draped on a fallen log? They were hidden under the bark before the tree died, and they’re the reason the tree died. These are mycelial cords or rhizomorphs of Armillaria, a genus of fungi that ultimately kills trees. It attacks the trees from underground.

Armillaria consists of 10 species which are easiest to identify by their mushrooms, the reproductive stage of the fungus. Honey mushrooms appear near the base of an infected tree but the spores rarely cause infection in other trees.

Fruiting bodies of Armillaria solidipes, Cook Forest, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, Armillaria spreads by the rhizomorphs shown at top which travel only eight inches below the soil surface, advancing about 3.3 ft (1 m) per year. As they make contact with another tree they invade the roots and then the trunk. If a tree is already infected it will spread the fungus via root grafts.

Underground spread of armillaria disease (illustration from Wikimedia Commons, cropped)

Armillaria spreads so far and lives so long that a single Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon was found to be 2,400 years old and the largest living organism on earth.

As the infection takes hold, the fungus invades more deeply via white mycelium sheets that damage the roots or girdle the tree. Here a fallen black cherry reveals its cause of death.

Black cherry toppled near its base due to Armillaria, as seen by white sheets inside the wood, Schenley Park April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park is riddled with Armillaria but we have no hint that a tree is invaded until it topples, sometimes at the roots.

Trees are so stoic. No matter what attacks them, they just have to stand there and take it.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue And Green

Indigo bunting, Homewood Cemetery, 5 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

8 May 2021

Now that leaves are on the trees the bluest birds have shown up.

Young oak leaves, Schenley Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Charity Kheshgi photographed an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Homewood Cemetery on Wednesday 5 May …

… and a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) at Frick Park on 4 May.

Click the white arrows on the right side of photos to see more views.

By the way, today is Migratory Bird Day. Don’t miss this opportunity to get outdoors.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi via Instagram)

How Old Are the Tarentum Peregrine Chicks?

View of Tarentum Bridge, nestbox circled, June 2018 (photo by Amber Van Strien)

7 May 2021

We know that peregrines are nesting in the Tarentum Bridge nestbox, circled above, thanks to observations and photos by Dave Brooke. On Friday 6 May, he wrote:

Yesterday (5 May 2021) I was able to see 2 young falcons in the box from Riverside Park. Both were all grey with black eyes. They walked inside the box and stretched their wings. They also shot poop out of the box. [They] can be seen in the right corner in this video I digiscoped. From your chicks aging blog Kate, these two would appear to be older than the Pitt young. … There could be a third.

— email from Dave Brooke, 6 May 2021

In Dave’s video you can see a chick’s head moving at the bottom right corner of the box opening. Do you see two?

On the same day at the Cathedral of Learning nest, the chicks were active but not walking around alone nor were they stretching their wings. The Pitt chicks hatched on 25 April. Based on behavior they are clearly younger than the chicks at Tarentum.

Using the descriptions and photos here — Peregrine Chicks Week-to-Week Development — can you guess how old the Tarentum chicks are?

(photo of the Tarentum Bridge by Amber Van Strien Treese, videos from Dave Brooke and the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Report This Bug!

Spotted lanternfly: What To Look For (image from Penn State Extension)

6 May 2021

Now that the trees have leafed out and bug season is firing up in Pennsylvania, it’s time to watch for and report the spotted lanternfly.

Spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) are invasive planthoppers native to China and Vietnam whose favorite food is the invasive Ailanthus, the Tree-of-Heaven. If they ate only Ailanthus it would be OK but their sharp mouth parts pierce the stems and suck the sap of grapevines, hops, apple trees, peaches and hardwoods including oaks and cherries. They’re bad news for agriculture and forests.

Lanternflies are making quick progress across Pennsylvania because they’re aided by human transportation. First discovered in North America in Berks County, PA in 2018 the bug spread through eastern PA for two years. In early 2020 it was found on rail cars at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, Beaver County. Soon after in Allegheny County. Early this year it completed an unbroken path through the lower third of the state by adding Westmoreland and Cambria Counties. What’s on this path? The Norfolk-Southern Railroad.

map from PA Dept of Agriculture via Penn State Extension

The lanternfly travels easily from September to May as flat gray egg masses on rail cars, trucks and automobiles.

  • Adult near egg masses: New = mud in foreground, Exposed = lumpy in background (photo by Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

The eggs hatch from spring through summer so now’s the time to watch for black or red spotted nymphs, especially in the unmarked counties above.

Spotted lanternfly early stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)
Spotted lanternfly late stage nymph (photo by Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

If you see spotted lanternflies in any life stage report them at this easy-to-use Penn State Extension website: Have You Seen a Spotted Lanternfly?

We won’t see adult lanternflies until July to November. And frankly, we really don’t want to.

(photos and map from PA Dept of Agriculture, Penn State Extension and Bugwood; click on the captions to see the originals)

How Do They Get Here?

Canada Warbler at Schenley Park, 25 May 2019 (photo by Kuldeep Singh)

5 May 2021

Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?

Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!

Basic Onboard Navigation System:

Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.

Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.

My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.

Experience:

After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.

Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.

“Seeing” Earth’s Magnetic Field:

European robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s evidence that birds can “see” Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate, though we’re not sure how. A 2018 study of European robins and zebra finches reported that a cryptochrome protein in their eyes (Cry4) helps them see the blue light associated with magnetism. Cry4 increases during migration season and ebbs thereafter. Intriguing!

Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:

Savannah sparrow in Juneau, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.

Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.

The Baltimore Sun: Sunlight is key for Bird migration

Navigating by smell:

Gray catbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds even use their sense of smell! A study of gray catbirds in 2009 showed that those who’d made the trip before used smell to course-correct.

How do they get here? It’s even more amazing than we thought!

To learn more, click the embedded links above.

(photos by Kuldeep Singh, Suunto, and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

We’re Stepping Out

Hey, should we be over there? 2 May 2021, 1:23pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

4 May 2021

Last weekend the Pitt peregrine chicks reached a milestone. At seven days old they were able to thermoregulate (stay warm on their own) so Morela didn’t have to brood them anymore.

They also became more mobile, moving out of the scrape into the shade, then into the sun again. The chicks popped up to watch Ecco examine a corner of the box, “Hey, should we be over there?” And they pursued Morela across the gravel during the 1:45pm feeding.

Watch them move in this day-in-a-minute video.

Morela and Ecco keep a watchful eye on them, even when you don’t see the parents on camera.

Two chicks on their feet, 2 May 2021, 3:21pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

“We’re stepping out!” say the chicks. They’re growing up fast.

Watch them on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

And for a peek at what will happen next, check out this Peregrine FAQ: Peregrine Chicks Week-to-Week Development.

p.s. The nestlings huddled yesterday because it rained all day. Today’s forecast calls for thunderstorms so they’ll huddle again when the storms roll in at 11am.

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

Frick Park on the Cusp of May

  • Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

2 May 2021

Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.

Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.

screenshot of Pittsburgh, PA regional map, google.com

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.

screenshot of Frick Park map from Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Click here to download the map

Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charitykheshgi/

p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!

(photos by Charity Kheshgi, maps from Google and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

What Are They Eating?

2 May 2021

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Pitt peregrine nest stays clean during the chicks’ first week of life, then suddenly becomes a mess after a routine feeding. The reason has to do with the chicks’ age. This background explains why.

  • Peregrines eat birds that they capture in flight (not on the ground). The male usually captures medium-sized songbirds because they are plentiful and smaller than he is.
  • The male does all the hunting during incubation and brooding in the chicks’ first week of life. The female will start hunting when the chicks can be left alone.
  • The female does all the feeding. (The male may do so later in the chicks’ lives.)
  • Peregrines pluck their prey and remove the head and wings before eating. They can do this in flight or at a favorite perch.
  • If the male is not in a hurry or the chicks are very young he completely prepares the prey — plucked, headless, wingless — before handing off to the female.
  • When the chicks are old enough to learn how prey is prepared, the male hands over an unplucked bird. (Most males remove the heads. Ecco doesn’t bother.)
  • When the female plucks, the nest gets messy.

The messy nest moment came yesterday morning, 1 May, at 6am. Ecco delivered a complete unplucked bird. It may have been a starling.

Morela plucked as she fed the chicks. Instant messy nest!

Yesterday the chicks ate 10 times in 24 hours. The nest got even messier!

Morela was in such a rush at the 7:09am feeding that the chicks ate feathers with their breakfast. No problem. It’s good for their digestion.

So what are they eating? It’s hard to see during this feeding at 11:54am.

But the leftovers tell the tale. There are prey heads on the gravel. I see four in this image from 11:56am on Saturday.

Circled below they are …

  1. American robin
  2. Wood thrush (at the 11:54 feeding)
  3. European starling, appears to be male
  4. European starling, male

Sigh. I wish they had not eaten a wood thrush. 🙁

With 10 feedings a day you have a pretty good chance to see one on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

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

A Last Look At April

Golden ragwort, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 May 2021

This week April’s wildflowers faded, May flowers began to bloom, and the trees in Schenley Park leafed out.

On 26 April I found golden ragwort, wild geranium and white violets along the Lake Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County.

Wild geranium, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
White violets, Raccoon Creek State Park, 26 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The city’s heat island effect was evident among the trees. The redbuds in Schenley Park leafed out while those in Beaver County were a week behind, still flowering.

Redbud leafs out, Schenley Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

We have so many leaves that they almost obscured an eastern screech-owl on the last day of April.

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park, 30 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Welcome to the month of May.

(photos by Kate St. John)