All posts by Kate St. John

Courtship in December

Terzo and Morela court at the Cathedral of Learning, 2 Dec 2019 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Though female peregrines don’t lay eggs until March, peregrine couples maintain their pair bond throughout the year. In winter they perch together, fly together, and occasionally meet at the nest for a ritual called the ledge display.

Early Monday morning December 2, Terzo and Morela bowed at the Cathedral of Learning nest for a long time — six minutes. Their photo above is in black-and-white because the falconcam was still in “night” mode. The sky was that overcast!

Streaming video is not available yet but the snapshot camera captured color photos every 15 seconds. I’ve made them into a video below, condensing six minutes into only 37 seconds.

The video shows that Terzo and Morela follow the expected ritual. After the first bow Terzo moves to the back of the box. The couple bows and sways and you can see their beaks open as they say “ee-chup.”  (Halfway through, Terzo moves to the back right corner and is temporarily out of view.) Terzo leaves first, then Morela. The male always leaves the nest first so the female can make herself at home … and lay eggs some day.

Each of them returned later: Morela alone at 10am. Terzo alone at 11:08am to dig the nest scrape at its usual place under the roof.

Terzo digging the nest scrape under the roof, 2 Dec 2019, 11:08 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Will Morela choose Terzo’s scrape for her eggs in March? Or will she use the scrape she’s been making at the front of the nestbox?

I suspect she’ll go with Terzo’s suggestion. She’ll appreciate having a roof when it rains.

Additional resources at these links:

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

Christmas Bird Counts Coming Soon

Birding at Duck Hollow (photo by Kate St. John)

‘Tis the season to count birds.

Audubon’s 120th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is about to begin. Every year from December 14 through January 5 volunteers count the birds they see in a single 24-hour period within 15-mile diameter “count” circles.

It’s easy to participate. No experience is necessary.  Count at your feeders or in the field. Count on your own or in a group.

Choose a location and date that suits you from the map at  Click on the bird icon inside the circle for a description and contact information, then contact the Count Coordinator to let them know you’re counting. The Coordinator makes sure you don’t double-count someone else’s territory and helps you join a group if you wish.

17 counts are planned in southwestern Pennsylvania, listed in the table at the end.

I’ll be counting in the Pittsburgh circle on Saturday, December 28. It has so many participants that each section has its own compiler.  Click here on the ASWP website for the sections and contacts.

(map from

Visit Audubon’s website for the complete list and map at “Join the Christmas Bird Count.”

I hope to see you in the field!

Table of 2019 Christmas Bird Counts near Pittsburgh

Count NameCounty (general area)DateCoordinatorContact Info
BeaverBeaverSat Dec 21Rick 724-847-0909
Buffalo CreekWashingtonSun Dec 15Larry 412-508-0321
Buffalo Creek ValleyButler, ArmstrongSat Dec 14George, 724-353-9649
Bushy RunWestmorelandSun Dec 29Dick 724-593-3543
ButlerButler, Lawrence, MercerSat Dec 14Glenn Koppel & Mary Alice
ClarionClarionSat Jan 4Debbie 724-526-5693
ClarksvilleGreeneSat Dec 28Terry 724-627-9665
Grove CityButler, Mercer, Lawrence, VenangoSat Dec 21Brendyn 724-496-4856
Sun Jan 5Bob
IndianaIndianaThu Dec 26Roger & Marg Higbee724-354-3493
OhiopyleFayette, SomersetSat Jan 4Matt Juskowich412-999-0394
PittsburghAlleghenySat Dec 28Brian Shema, ASWP Christmas Bird Count
South Hills
AlleghenySat Dec 14Nancy Page412-221-4795
RectorWestmorelandSun Dec 15Annie 724-593-7521
RyersonGreeneFri Dec 20Marjorie 724-852-3155
South ButlerButlerSat Jan 4Chris 412-963-6100
WashingtonWashingtonSun Dec 15Thomas 724-223-6118

(photo by Kate St. John, maps from

Peregrines: A Hopeful Story, Dec 12

Peregrines are a great environmental success story, from their extinction in eastern North America in the 1960s, to their recent removal from the Endangered Species list in Pennsylvania.

Join me on Thursday, 12 December 2019 at the Wissahickon Nature Club where I’ll present the history and habits of peregrine falcons in western Pennsylvania. 

When: Thursday, 12 December 2019, 7:30pm. Doors open at 7:00pm. Come early to chat and eat Christmas cookies at our annual cookie exchange.

Where: Wissahickon Nature Club at the Fern Hollow Nature Center, 1901 Glen Mitchell Road, Sewickley, PA 15143-8856

This meeting is free and open to the public.

Danger! Space Junk

Last month I wrote about the damage that bad space weather can do to satellites, the electric grid, radio and TV transmissions, and GPS navigation. Though space weather can kill a satellite, bad weather is temporary. Not so with space junk.

Since 1957 when the Space Age began, our unused equipment has created a garbage patch in outer space. Over the years we’ve launched 5,000+ satellites though only 1,300 are operational today. There’s a lot of junk up there that’s out of control (can’t be navigated anymore) and potentially explosive.

screenshot of space junk explosion from PBS Be Smart

Even if it can’t explode, space junk is dangerous to active satellites because it travels so fast. In Low Earth Orbit, where the International Space Station lives, everything travels at 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 km/hour). A crash at that speed, even with a tiny object, can destroy a satellite. When a satellite dies something electronic fails here on Earth.

Meanwhile we’re launching more satellites every year at a faster pace than before. At the end of 2018 it had taken a decade to launch 1,000 CubeSat nano-satellites, only four-inches across, but there are plans to add 1,000 more by 2021. Outer space is so crowded that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) work every day to steer satellites away from dangerous space debris.

The 2016 video above describes space junk and how we’ve coped with it so far. Note that it doesn’t talk about CubeSats because the video predates those plans.

ESA’s 2017 video below describes the problem in technical terms with dramatic background music. I’ve cued the video to start at Low Earth Orbit. Watch for two minutes (beyond the first fade-to-black) and you’ll see lots of collisions.

Yow! It’s crowded up there.

(videos from PBS It’s OK To Be Smart and the European Space Agency (ESA) on YouTube)

Space weather killed Telstar 401 in 1997.

Angry Storm On Saturn

Saturn’s north polar vortex storm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month a KDKA viewer saw unusual clouds like breaking waves in the sky as he was traveling on the Turnpike to Philadelphia.

Our planet isn’t the only one that has these clouds. This photo of Saturn’s north polar vortex shows Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds on the spinning edge. Photographed by the Cassini spacecraft in April 2013 and colorized by NASA, this image is called The Rose but is actually a violent, relentless storm. And it’s big!

According to the Cassini Mission at NASA, “Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).”

Our own polar vortex is mild by comparison.

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

Oh! No! Snow!

Ducks emerging from the barn at Sanctuary@SHO, Vermont (screenshot from video)

Every morning the ducks at Sanctuary@SHO in Huntington, Vermont burst out of the barn and run down to the orchard to feed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. It must be one of the favorite parts of their day (see video here).

On a recent November morning they ran out of the barn as usual and into the first snowfall.

Here’s their reaction.

Oh! No! Snow!

(videos and screenshots from Sanctuary@SHO in Huntington, Vermont)

A Surprising Look at Robins

American robin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We usually see American robins (Turdus migratorius) with their wings closed. They perch in a tree, sit on a nest, or walk with their classic 3-steps-and-stop gait. Even in flight robins close their wings, flapping and gliding in a pattern similar to their walk.

This view of a robin with open wings reveals a surprise. The robin’s armpits, called axillaries, match its belly.

Check out this vintage article on axillaries to see other birds with hidden surprises.

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

A Murmuration Of Shorebirds

A murmuration of sandpipers, Washington state, Nov 2018 (screenshot from YouTube video)

When European starlings are frightened by an aerial predator they fly in tight formation in a giant shimmering blob called a murmuration. If you’ve never seen it, check out these two examples: Murmurations in Lorain by Chad+Chris Saladin and Murmuration a 2011 film on Vimeo.

Starlings aren’t the only ones who fly like this. Shorebirds are masters at staying in formation, flying high and low and sweeping between the waves when threatened from above.

In the video below, a shorebird flock flashes black and white at Ocean Shores, Washington in November 2018. Their backs are dark, their bellies are white, so they change color as they turn in the air.

The flock is doing this for a reason.

Watch a predator dive in at the 0:13 time mark. It looks like a peregrine falcon to me. 🙂

(screenshot from video by Peggy Dolane on YouTube)

p.s. Starlings and sandpipers have other similarities. Back in 2008 I mused about starlings as “Land”pipers.

MOTUS Peregrines On The Move

Downtown Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines. Bird on left has a MOTUS tag, 20 June 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

In June 2019 the Pennsylvania Game Commission fitted 10 of the state’s fledgling peregrines with MOTUS tracking devices to study where they go and how many survive their first year of life. Five months later the network has data locations for three (or maybe five) of them.

Keep in mind that only a few data points have been captured, the MOTUS data is still preliminary, and false positives sometimes occur. That said, here’s what we know so far.

Harrisburg female, Red, 46/BS (ID# 24660)

The path of the Harrisburg female peregrine (Red, 46/BS, ID#24660) looks quite promising. She flew first to Nockamixon (19 Sept), then west and south to Lamb’s Knoll (2 Oct) and Newtowne Neck near Compton, Maryland (4 Oct). The enhanced map below includes her banding location in Harrisburg. Click here for her path on the Motus website which does not include her banding location.

Map of Harrisburg Red peregrine, ID#24660, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

Harrisburg male, White, 22/BZ (ID# 24662)

Initial data on the Harrisburg male (White, 22/BZ, ID#24662) were clouded by inaccuracies that placed him in both Reading, PA (Drasher) and Saskatchewan, Canada — 1,600 miles away — on the same day.

After removing the Saskachewan error there was still one more puzzle. The data table indicates that Harrisburg White flew 766 miles four times — from western Ontario (Harrington) to the Bay of Fundy (Gardner Creek) and back again. Would a bird have done this? And could he have made one of those trips in a single day, 24-25 August, in a head wind? Hmmm! Doubtful.

screenshot of Harrisburg White data table as of 25 Nov 2019

With those questions in mind I created the enhanced map below, adding his banding location and removing Gardner Creek (which may still be on his MOTUS map here). While his data is under review Harrisburg White is still on the move. He showed up near Aurora, Ontario on 16 November.

Map of Harrisburg White peregrine, ID#24662, enhanced from MOTUS tracking map

Nazareth, female, Red, 20/CA (ID# 24665)

Hatched on a clinker silo at Lehigh Cement in Nazareth, Pennsylvania this female (Red, 20/CA, ID#24665) logged three data points on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario: 51 seconds on 17 and 19 July and three hours on 6 August. Without other locational data MOTUS cannot generate a map so I created one below with two points while her data is under review. Click here for her data table on the MOTUS website.

Proposed map of Nazareth Red peregrine, ID#24665, constructed by Kate St. John and enhanced MOTUS tracking data

Data uncertain: Pittsburgh, female, Blue, 19/CA (ID# 24664)

Interestingly there is a single 51-second data point for the Pittsburgh female (Blue, 19/CA, ID#24664) at Nazareth Red’s location on Amherst Island on 22 July. Its validity is uncertain. I marked it in orange on Nazareth’s map above.

Data uncertain: Bethlehem, male, Yellow, 60/AP (ID# 24666)

Bethlehem Yellow has a smattering of data points at the Allan Hills tower in Saskatchewan, but like the other Saskatchewan error this is 1,700 miles away from his banding site without any intervening locations. The data is under review.

As the MOTUS system gathers more information the picture for each bird will come into better focus. Meanwhile check out the tables and maps as they look today at the links below.

(photo of Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines by Lori Maggio, enhanced maps by Kate St. John from MOTUS tracking data; click on the captions to see the originals)