All posts by Kate St. John

About To Fly

3 chicks in red-tailed hawks’ nest, Schenley Park, 28 May 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

31 May 2023

Spring nesting season is continuing apace. The first batch of baby robins is learning to fly and some are old enough to forage on their own. Raptor fledglings are not far behind.

On Sunday 28 May we watched three red-tailed hawk chicks in a nest under the Panther Hollow Bridge in Schenley Park. This species hatches in the order the eggs are laid, each one two days younger than the last. The chicks clearly show their age difference in Charity Kheshgi’s video. One chick is getting ready to fly, one is still fluffy, and the middle one is halfway between.

Red-tailed hawks’ nest, Schenley Park, 28 May 2023 (video by Charity Kheshgi)

At the Tarentum Bridge on Sunday afternoon, John English and I watched three peregrine chicks lounging on top of the nestbox while an adult “babysat” nearby.

Adult female peregrine watches her ledge-walking chicks at the Tarentum Bridge, 28 May 2023 (photo by John English)

At first we saw only three chicks but after we moved to a better viewing location the fourth was on the top of the box as well, exercising his wings.

Four peregrine chicks at Tarentum Bridge, 28 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Four peregrine chicks at Tarentum Bridge, 28 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
One chick concentrates on exercising his wings (photo by Kate St. John)

And suddenly I saw him fly the length of the pier to the other end and back again to the top of the box! I have no photos of this feat but you get the idea. By today he may have fledged from the bridge.

All these birds are about to fly.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi, John English and Kate St. John)

Newly Found Peregrines Nest Near Brownsville, PA

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

30 May 2023

Last Wednesday, 24 May, Mark Vass drove down the Monongahela River valley looking for birds and checking bridges. In West Brownsville he found a peregrine perched under the US Route 40 Lane Bane Bridge. Mark’s checklist and photo set off a quest to find the nest (

Jeff Cieslak made the trip on Friday 26 May and found the nest hole and a pair of peregrines carrying food to it. The female is peachy with heavy dots, the male is whiter. Neither bird is banded. (My male-female assessment is based on the tendency of mid-latitude males to be paler than females. Notice that both have the adult plumage trait of horizontal stripes on their flanks.)

Male peregrine, West Brownsville Lane Bane Bridge, 26 May 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Male peregrine, West Brownsville Lane Bane Bridge, 26 May 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Alyssa Nees and Fred Kachmarik visited on Memorial Day, 29 May, and counted a family of five — two adults, three chicks. Alyssa’s photos show an adult in the nest hole …

Peregrine inside the nest area on the Lane Bane Bridge, West Brownsville, PA, 29 May 2023 (photo by Alyssa Nees)

… and a chick clearly visible (red circle) with fluffy white top of head, feathered face and brown back. The arrow points to the tail of an adult watching from above.

Adult peregrine (arrow) and fluffy white head, face & brown back of nestling (circle) at Lane Bane Bridge, 29 May 2023 (photo by Alyssa Nees)

Fred’s photos of the chicks include an older chick and a fluffy young one:

Where are these peregrines located?

The Lane Bane Bridge, carries US Route 40 over the Monongahela River from West Brownsville, Washington County, to Brownsville, Fayette County PA. Its construction is very similar to the Graff Bridge at Kittanning, PA, which has its own nesting peregrines.

A truss structure spans the river and ends at a pillar on each side. As far as I can tell from the photos, the nest appears to be close to the pillar. So these birds are nesting in Washington County, PA.

Interestingly, when Google Street View cameras drove by on the West Brownsville side this month, the cameras “saw” a bird perched on the superstructure near the pillar. I’ll bet this dot is a peregrine.

Bird (probably peregrine) perched near on the Lane Bane Bridge over West Brownsville (screenshot from Google Street View)

Thanks and congratulations to Mark Vass, Jeff Cieslak, Alyssa Nees and Fred Kachmarik for finding and documenting this peregrine family.

If you’d like to see the birds yourself, Jeff provides a map.

Location of West Brownsville “scrape” at Lane Bane Bridge (screenshot from Google maps annotated by Jeff Cieslak)

p.s. Could there be another peregrine nest at the next bridge three miles away? Nope. The Mon-Fayette Expressway bridge is solid concrete. Click here to see a screenshot of the Mon-Fay bridge in Google Street View.

(photos by Jeff Cieslak, Mark Vass via eBird, Alyssa Nees, Fred Kachmarik via eBird, Wikimedia Commons and screenshots from Google Street View)

Yesterday at Schenley Park

American robin at nest with young, Schenley Park, 27 May 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

29 May 2023

Twelve of us turned out in fine weather yesterday morning for a walk in Schenley Park.

Participants in Schenley Park outing, 28 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

There were fewer birds than I expected but some really nice moments such as:

  • Peregrine falcon, Carla, seen through my scope as she perched on the Cathedral of Learning,
  • A red-tailed hawk’s nest with three young high in the superstructure of the Panther Hollow Bridge,
  • A wood thrush singing above Phipps Run,
  • Two magnolia warblers gleaning insects near a chickadee family,
  • Active robin nests and many adults gathering food. (The nest pictured above by Charity Kheshgi is well camouflaged among the stones of the tufa bridge.)

(Checklist is at and listed at the end.)

I was happy to see that deer are eating Japanese knotweed in Schenley as well as in Frick.

Deer browse on Japanese knotweed in Schenley Park, 28 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Because it had been two months since my last outing in Schenley, when we rounded the bend to Panther Hollow Lake I saw the park through new eyes. Sadly it looked unloved: scattered litter, algae on lake, and a large barren area after last Friday’s grading project.

Algae on Panther Hollow Lake, 26 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

At this moment the Panther Hollow Lake end of Schenley Park is not in good shape. However, there are birds.

Schenley Park, May 28, 2023 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM

Canada Goose 2
Mourning Dove 1
Chimney Swift 6
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2
gull species 1: Flyover
Great Blue Heron 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4: adult + 3 nestlings under PH Bridge
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Peregrine Falcon 1 Perched at CL visible from Schenley
Acadian Flycatcher 1
Red-eyed Vireo 4
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 1
Carolina Chickadee 3: adult feeding 2 young
Tufted Titmouse 2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 4
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 1
Carolina Wren 2
European Starling 6
Gray Catbird 1
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 20: including two active nests + 3rd family with recently fledged young
Cedar Waxwing 1
House Sparrow 1
House Finch 5
American Goldfinch 1
Chipping Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 3
Baltimore Oriole 2
Red-winged Blackbird 7
Brown-headed Cowbird 2
Common Grackle 1
Magnolia Warbler 2
Yellow Warbler 1
Scarlet Tanager 1
Northern Cardinal 4

(photos by Charity Kheshgi and Kate St. John)

One Place, One Time, A Quarter Million Warblers

Bay-breasted warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

27 May 2023

Imagine spending a day standing on dunes in cold wet weather and seeing a river of a quarter million warblers fly by. This amazing phenomenon was the perfect storm of location, migration and bad weather.

In late May boreal forest warblers such as Cape May, bay-breasted and Tennessee have reached or surpassed Tadoussac, Quebec on the way to their breeding grounds further north. They aren’t nesting yet, so if the weather turns sour they head back south temporarily to wait it out.

Google map showing location of Tadoussac bird count on 24 May 2023 (screenshot from Google maps)

The weather forecast for 24 May looked promising for this perfect storm as Ian Davies (@thebirdsguy) writes in the day’s eBird checklist:
“There were southwest winds overnight (tailwinds good for migration), combined with a big cold front arriving right around dawn, bringing rain, strong northwest winds, and colder temperatures — the same setup that has resulted in flights of tens or hundreds of thousands of birds in past Mays.”

Hoping for a river of warblers, Ian and 11 others headed out to the Tadoussac dunes to count birds. In 11.25 hours they saw 263,771 birds in 96 species! Ian writes:

The first couple hours of daylight featured drizzle and strong winds, and not many birds until about 6:45 … then 500 birds/minute by 7:30. The Tadoussac river of warblers had begun.
This flight continued at 300-500 birds/minute until about 9:20, at which point the rain dropped significantly, and the flood gates opened, as many as 1345 warblers/minute raging past in a torrent of flight calls and glowing songbirds. Birds were everywhere, below eye level, flying between people, pouring through the bushes, landing on the sand, and one Cape May Warbler even tried to land on my arm. A Red-eyed Vireo flew into someone. It was madness. …
For one period of time, the rate of warblers was 80,000/hour.

ebird checklist for 24 May 2023 Tadoussac

Here’s just one of the many videos attached to the checklist. See the checklist for amazing photos, videos and counts.

The location was key to this phenomenon. Tadoussac is located on the northwest coast of the wide St. Lawrence River which funnels birds heading south. If you look at the videos you’ll see that the cameras are pointed toward the St.Lawrence River — east/southeast — and that all the birds are flying southwest.

Satellite Google map showing location of Tadoussac bird count on 24 May 2023 (screenshot from Google maps)

These birds had made it further north but when bad weather arrived they changed direction to escape the storm. Flying on the northwest wind they reached the unsheltered coastal dunes at Tadoussac so they headed southwest to the forest.

What a privilege it must have been to witness a quarter million warblers in just one day.

(maps are screenshots from Google maps; tweet embedded from Ian Davies @thebirdsguy)

Seen This Week

Prothontary warbler in Frick Park, 25 May 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

27 May 2023

This week’s big news was the unexpected prothonotary warbler that Charity Kheshgi and I found in Frick Park on 25 May. He was still present yesterday but BirdCast showed birds migrating out of our area last night so we’ll see if he’s still there this morning.

Migration is nearly over and the dominant landscape color in Pittsburgh now is green. It’s hard to remember that only five weeks ago (23 April) most of the trees were brown.

Daisies are blooming along meadows and roadsides, invasive wineberry is in bud, and bladdernuts have already formed green seed pods in the city parks.

Daisy blooming at Schenley Park, 22 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wineberry leaves and buds, Schenley Park, 22 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bladdernut seed pods, Frick Park, 23 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On our walk in Frick Park on 23 May, Charity and I saw many deer including an obviously pregnant doe who looked ready to drop twin fawns. We wondered where she would hide them now that the browseline makes it possible to see right through the woods.

This deer-browsed Japanese knotweed shows how little food remains for deer in Frick. Normally they don’t eat Japanese knotweed but with few native plants left they are hungry enough to try it now.

Deer damage on Japanese knotweed, Frick Park, 23 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park the color green extends to the rampant algae in Panther Hollow Lake. See last November’s article on why the lake has algae so often.

Algae in Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 26 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

What birds will we see this weekend? Come to my Schenley Park outing tomorrow, 28 May, to find out.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Watch Peregrines This Weekend

Female peregrine feeding 4 young at Tarentum Bridge, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

26 May 2023, Pittsburgh

Are you in town for the Memorial Day weekend and wondering how to spend the time? Visit these peregrine sites to watch young birds getting ready to fly.

The Best Views Ever are at the Tarentum Bridge right now (photo above). Click here for a Tarentum Bridge peregrine-watch map.

Other sites include …

Cathedral of Learning, Univ of Pittsburgh: This is the only site without eggs or young but there’s a new female, Carla, since 14 May. Carla and Ecco are courting intensively. Will this prompt her to lay eggs? Watch the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh to find out.

Ecco and Carla bow in courtship, 25 May 2023 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Downtown Pittsburgh: There are 2-4 young here, about 30 days old. Watch for them to appear on the ledge on 3rd Avenue between Wood and Smithfield in Downtown Pittsburgh (click for map).

Female peregrine at Third Ave nest area, 18 May 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Eckert Street near McKees Rocks Bridge, Ohio River: Watch for the chicks to appear where the parents are standing in this photo by Jeff Cieslak. Click here for the map.

Peregrine pair at the nest, Eckert Street, 24 May 2023 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Westinghouse Bridge, Turtle Creek: The parents are bringing food to the nest. Click here for a map of the easiest viewing location on Elder Street.

Female peregrine carrying food at Westinghouse Bridge, 13 May 2023 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Are Beaver or Washington Counties more convenient to you? Check out the latest news at all the sites below.

(photos from Lynn Mamros, the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, Jeff Cieslak, , Dana Nesiti)

Those Bird Codes

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)
Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)

25 May 2023

Call me crazy. Or maybe old-fashioned.

Whenever I go birding I make a list — on paper — of the birds I see using the four-letter code for each species. When I get home I type the paper list into eBird. This paper list became this checklist.

Why don’t I just enter the birds directly into the eBird app on my phone? Unfortunately I learned long ago that if I look at my phone in the woods I start to read email, respond to text messages, check the news … and suddenly I’m not birding anymore and I’ve got a whole new set of Things To Do that I didn’t need to trouble with yet. So to keep myself focused I write a paper list.

The codes are easy to remember (see the rules here) except where the rules resolve to the same thing for two or more birds. The overlap codes are the ones I forget:

  • Bay-breasted warbler (should be BBWA, I wrote BAYB)
  • Blackpoll warbler (should be BLPW, I wrote BLKPOLL) and
  • Blackburnian warbler (should be BLBW, I wrote BLKBUR).

I remembered these, though:

  • BAOR = Baltimore oriole
  • CHSP = Chipping sparrow
  • MAWA = Magnolia warbler

My list should have been:

A few of the birds seen or heard in Frick Park on 18 May 2023

Where did the codes come from? If you’ve read this far you might be curious.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Tarentum Peregrines Will Fly Soon

3 of the 4 young peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

24 May 2023

If you want to see young peregrine falcons just before they fly, now is the time to do it. Four youngsters at the Tarentum Bridge are ledge walking and will make their first flight soon.

Last Sunday, 21 May, Lynn Mamros photographed the family.

Peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

The father peregrine brought in food …

Parents bring food to Tarentum Bridge, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

… the mother peregrine plucked it …

Female peregrine preparing a meal for the chicks, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

… and then the feeding began. All four chicks are visible in most of these slides. Can you see them? (Hint: One’s on the perch.)

The youngsters are losing their fluff and will soon be completely brown.

Peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 21 May 2023 (photo by Lynn Mamros)

And then they will fly. Don’t miss it! Visit the Tarentum Boat Ramp to see them. Click here for a map.

Learn more about the process of first flight at Peregrine Progress: First Flight.

(photos by Lynn Mamros)

80% of the World’s Dogs Are Street Dogs

Village dog in Ecuador (photo by Kirk Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 May 2023

An article about tracing the DNA of the famous sled dog Balto included this (paraphrased) fact about dogs:

Geneticist Kathleen Morrill compared Balto’s DNA with more than 600 genomes of wolves, coyotes, and dogs of different breeds including modern sled dog breeds such as Siberian huskies, more physically and genetically isolated sled dogs in Greenland, and “village dogs”— ownerless canines that live in Africa, South America, and Asia and make up 80% of the world’s dogs.

Science Magazine: Hidden details of world’s most famous sled dog revealed in massive genomics project

Being from a place where free-ranging dogs are rare because they’re collected by Animal Control, I was amazed to learn that more than three quarters of the dogs on Earth are “village” or “street” dogs.

I had a taste of this on my trip to Ecuador in February. I saw many, many free-ranging dogs in the cities, villages and the rural countryside.

Street dogs in Ecuador (photo by Zebo Serrano via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The dogs in Quito understood busy streets and the ebb and flow of traffic. They jaywalked when the street was clear to feast on the garbage bags placed on the median for collection. This was obviously a problem in rural places where people built raised platforms for their trash bags.

Not all of the dogs were on the street. I saw them perched on balconies …

Dog on a balcony, Ecuador (photo by Man Bartlett via Flickr Creative Commons license)

… and on roofs.

Dog on the roof, Ecuador (photo by F Deventhal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

At first I thought the street dogs were ownerless strays but then I noticed some had collars.

Veterinarian Nancy Kay visited Ecuador in 2016 and asked questions about the street dogs. She learned that most had owners but the owner-dog relationship is different than we’re used to in the States. Her insights include (paraphrased from her The Street Dogs of Ecuador blog):

  • “Much like ravens and crows, these street dogs always managed to get out of the way [of vehicles] just in the nick of time.
  • For the most part the dogs are owned solely for the purpose of property protection.
  • While the dogs go home at night, most of their daylight hours are spent out on the streets.
  • Most receive a modicum of food from their owners, so must rely on food found on the streets to sustain themselves.”

Learn more about the street dogs of Ecuador in veterinarian Nancy Kay’s blog: Speaking For Spot, The Street Dogs of Ecuador.

p.s. There are no ravens or crows in Ecuador. Perhaps dogs fill that niche.

(None of these photos are mine. Credits and links to the original photos are in the captions)

Butterflies Started in North America

Monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

22 May 2023

Where did butterflies come from?

The question first intrigued Akito Kawahara when he was eight years old and became his lifelong pursuit. This month he and his team published the answer in Nature: A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins.

Butterflies first evolved from moths when they began feeding on the nectar of new species of flowering plants usually available during the day. That shift allowed these insects to shed their earth tones in favor of the riot of colors they’re known for today, which often act to attract mates or warn predators that they’re poisonous.

WESA-FM: Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests

The butterfly-moth connection makes sense but the place where it happened is a surprise. Scientists used to think butterflies originated in Asia, but Kawahara’s study shows they evolved 100 million years ago in western North America or Central America and then dispersed throughout the world.

The maps below show their dispersal and species counts over time (darkest colors are the highest number). Starting 100 million years ago in the Americas, butterflies first jumped to Australia and from there to Asia, Africa, and finally Europe.

Bioregion shading indicates the number of butterfly lineages that were associated with that bioregion during that time period, as determined by BioGeoBEARS ancestral state reconstruction. Each map corresponds to a 15-Ma interval of butterfly evolution. Results are based on data from this study.

Today the greatest biodiversity of butterflies is in Central and South America where this blue morpho is found.

Blue morpho (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Listen to the audio article or read more about the study at WESA-FM: Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests.

BONUS: So how do you tell a moth from a butterfly? Check out the answer here:

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman and from Wikimedia Commons, map from Nature: A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins)