All posts by Kate St. John

Tree Swallows Soon

Tree swallows fighting over a nest box (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You might not see any tree swallows in Pittsburgh yet, but there are flocks in the north at Custards, Geneva Marsh and the Linesville Fish Hatchery.

Last Tuesday March 19 Patience Fisher and I were amazed by the millions of midges in the air at Custards. There were so many that they coated my car and attracted hundreds of tree swallows that wheeled over the marsh.

Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are short distance migrants who spend the winter as close to us as coastal North Carolina. The males tend to migrate first and arrive on the breeding grounds to claim territory and fight over nest sites, including bluebird boxes. When the females arrive they pair up quickly and place a little nesting material in their chosen nest site. The pair won’t nest for a few weeks but they like to stake their claim early.

Keep an eye out for tree swallows in the days and weeks ahead … and hope for warm weather so they have enough insects to eat.

Tree swallows are coming soon.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

First Hatch at Hays Bald Eagle Nest, March 23

First nestling at Hays bald eagle nest, 23 March 2019 (screenshot from Bald Eagles in Western PA – Audubon Facebook page)

Yesterday, 23 March 2019, was a big day at the Hays bald eagle nest. At 8:48am Audubon of Western PA confirmed a pip in one of the three eggs. The egg hatched at 1:14pm.

As usual, the mother bald eagle supervised the hatching process while the father waited for her to tell him ‘all clear.’ What does a father eagle do while he’s waiting? Dana Nesiti of Eagles of Hays PA was on the trail yesterday morning and saw a behavior new to him. He wrote:

… the male grabbed a branch, dropped it while flying and then swooped down and caught it out of the air. Never saw that before.

Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook
Male bald eagle drops a stick that he’s carrying to the nest (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)
… and then he catches it in the air (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA)

When the male got the ‘all clear’ he came to the nest to see the chick. Click here for ASWP’s video of the newly hatched chick with mother and father. (The chick is directly below the female.)

For now we will get only glimpses of the chick on camera while his parents keep him warm and incubate the remaining two eggs. But we’ll see him during feedings, as shown at top.

Watch the Hays bald eagle nest on the Audubon Society of Western PA Hays Nest Camera. Join the conversation on YouTube or Facebook.

Two eggs to go. Will both of them hatch? Wait and see.

UPDATE, 25 March 2019, 4pm: Second egg hatched at the Hays bald eagle nest.

(photo at top from Bald Eagles in Western PA – Audubon Society of Western PA on Facebook; in-flight photos by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook)

When Will The Bonnies Arrive?

Bonaparte’s gulls, Palo Alto Baylands, Dec 2012 (photo by Elka Lange via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Some years spring migration is early. Some years it’s late. March is the time for ducks, blackbirds, phoebes, and gulls. I’m waiting for Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) to arrive.

Bonaparte’s gulls pass through Pittsburgh from late March through April. Seven years ago I wrote about their sudden appearance on 21 March 2012 on the Ohio River and at North Park.

Read about their arrival — and their unusual nest location — in this vintage article: Bonnies On The Move.

When will the “bonnies” arrive? It’s time to check the rivers. 🙂

(photo by Elka Lange on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Oh My! 5 Eggs at Pitt

21 March 2019

Surprise! This morning at 6:08am Hope, the female peregrine at Pitt, laid a fifth egg.

We didn’t expect it but Hope certainly knew it was coming. This may — or may not — change our hatch date estimate. Only Hope knows the answer to that.

Will she lay six? I doubt it but you never know.

Watch the Pitt peregrines on the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

p.s. Thank you, Sara Showers, for alerting me about the 5th egg.

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

Is It Spring Yet?

Honeysuckle leaves in the City of Pittsburgh, 16 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2019

Today is the astronomical First Day of Spring when the sun crosses the celestial equator at 5:58pm EDT. But is it Spring yet? It depends on where you live.

The USA National Phenology Network tracks spring across the continental U.S. based on first leaf out conditions for honeysuckle (Lonerica) and first bloom conditions for lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). The plants are non-native, and honeysuckle is invasive, but they make good indicators because they’re early responders to springtime warmth.

Monday’s animated Spring Leaf Index (18 March 2019) shows that leaf out was ahead of schedule through late February but fell behind in northern Virginia, the southern Great Plains, and the Pacific Northwest when cold weather hit in early March.

Spring Leaf Index as of 18 March 2019 (animation from USA NPN)

According to the model, spring hasn’t reached Pittsburgh yet but I’m conducting my own Leaf Out Survey in my neighborhood. I took the honeysuckle photos below on 11 March and 16 March 2019. Both were cold days after a spurt of exceptionally warm weather. The tiny leaves on the right show the effect of 77 degrees F on March 14!

Honeysuckle leaf out, City of Pittsburgh, 11 March and 16 March 2019 (photos by Kate St. John)

Do you have leaves in your neighborhood yet? Is spring on time?

Follow spring’s progress at the USA National Phenology Network. For blooming times click here for the latest Spring Bloom map.

(animated map from the USA National Phenology Network. photos by Kate St. John)

Hays Bald Eagle Nest Watch

Bald eagle at the Hays nest, 18 Mar 2019 (screenshot via ASWP Hays eaglecam)

Tuesday, 19 March 2019:

Today is the 35th day since the first egg was laid at the Hays bald eagle nest in 2019. Bald eagle eggs — on average — hatch 35 days after they were laid, so the first egg may hatch today.

Or maybe not. Hatching time varies for bald eagles from 34 to 41 days. Just like baby due dates, the hatch date is rarely spot on.

However, if you haven’t been watching the eaglecam now’s a good time to start.

(screenshot from ASWP’s Hays Eaglecam)

Fourth Peregrine Egg At Pitt

Hope lays her fourth egg of 2019 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Hope, the female peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning laid her fourth egg this evening, Monday March 18, at 6:21pm. It was hard to get a snapshot of the eggs because she quickly resumed incubation … except for about 20 seconds when Egg #4 was still drying next to her.

Very brief view of the 4th egg alone

Then she stood up for a moment and we can see four eggs.

Look quickly! There are four eggs, 18 March 2019, 6:33pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

And she covered them.

Hope and Terzo will now incubate for approximately 34 days. Hatching may occur as early as Easter Day, April 21. I’ll post the annual warning not to watch the hatch on/about April 14.

p.s. For those who are new to watching Hope, she has a bad habit of killing & eating some of her chicks as they hatch. This is a very rare behavior. It is not normal. We don’t know why she does it.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Identifying Bird Song: You Know More Than You Think

Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)
Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)

After months of silence, spring is coming and the birds are singing again. It’s the best time of year to practice identifying birds by song.

No matter your skill level there’s always more to learn. If you’re an expert, it’s time to practice songs heard only once a year during spring migration. (Cape May warbler!)

If you’re new to bird song you probably think, “It’s so hard to learn bird song. I don’t know anything!”

Here are two hot tips to help birders at any level.

Tip #1: You’ll learn the song better if you see the bird singing. We humans are visual learners. Look for the unknown singer and watch him sing.

The eastern phoebe pictured above looks plain but he’s easy to identify by song because he says his name: FEE bee! FEE bee! The author of the video below went looking for the bird to watch him sing. It’s a bit seasick-making 😉

Tip #2: Keep at it! You already know some bird songs. Just build from there, one bird at a time.

Here are three birds most people can identify. I bet you can, too.

Bird #1 (Xeno Canto 454252, recorded in Norfolk County, MA by Will Sweet)

Bird #2 (Xeno Canto 421264, recorded in Tompkins County, NY by Gabriel Leite)

Bird #3 (Xeno Canto 399153, recorded in Harrison Hills Park, Allegheny County, PA by Aidan Place) This recording is faint so you may have to turn up the sound … and hear it raining.

You already know more than you think.

(photo of eastern phoebe by Peter Bell. Xeno Canto recordings identified and linked in the captions above)

Hays Woods Public Feedback Meeting, April 3

Hays Woods is a 660 acre forest in the City of Pittsburgh (image courtesy Friends of Hays Woods)

If you care about Pittsburgh’s city parks or you’re interested in the Hays bald eagles you’ll want to attend the upcoming Hays Woods Task Force Public Feedback Meeting on Wednesday April 3 at Holy Angels Parish.

Hays Woods is a forested 600 acre tract in the City of Pittsburgh that’s so large and so remote that most people don’t know it’s there. Its forest, meadows, wetlands and streams are surrounded by steep wooded slopes that are home to the Hays bald eagles.

Most people have never set foot in Hays Woods because it’s been private property for so long. In 2016, with an eye to making it a city park, Mayor Bill Peduto worked with the URA to purchase it from Pittsburgh Development Group II. He then appointed co-chairs Former Mayor Tom Murphy and Councilman Corey O’Connor to form the Hays Woods Task Force to make recommendations on the site’s future.

A scene from Hays Woods (photo from Western PA Conservancy’s Environmental Assessment)

On Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 6:30pm at Holy Angels Parish, 408 Baldwin Road, Pittsburgh PA 15234 the Hays Woods Task Force will present its draft recommendations and ask for public feedback.

As a member of the Task Force I can tell you that we’re very enthusiastic about Hays Woods and look forward to all of it becoming a low impact park.

Come find out about Hays Woods and the Task Force recommendations. Learn about the timeline as it moves from URA ownership to City public access to a full-fledged public park. Give us feedback on Hays Woods’ future.

For more information see:

(photo credits: Forest in the City courtesy Friends of Hays Woods, Bald eagle at Hays by Dana Nesiti Eagles of Hays PA, Hays woodland photograph by Western PA Conservancy, flyer from the Hays Woods Task Force)