All posts by Kate St. John

Have You Seen Any Female Mallards Lately?

Female mallard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 May 2024

When I visit Duck Hollow I expect to see a lot of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) but that hasn’t been the case lately. Over the winter their numbers were high — anywhere from 10 to 30 — but since late March the count has dropped to 4-7 and all but one is male. Where are the female mallards?

Mallards pair up in autumn in Pennsylvania but don’t begin nesting until mid-April or early May. The burden of nesting rests on the female. She chooses the site, makes the nest, lays the eggs, does all the incubation and is the only parent that cares for the chicks.

As she searches for a nest site she engages in Persistent Quacking. (Did you know that only females make the Quack sound?) Scientists believe she’s very vocal in order to attract nearby predators. If a predator shows up at a potential site, she knows that place is unsafe and moves on.

Birds of the World notes that “Urban Mallards use a variety of additional cover types, including evergreens, ornamental shrubs, vines, gardens, woodpiles, and artificial structures such as docks, boats and buildings.”

Female mallard nests in urban planter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Having chosen a densely covered site on the ground near water, she scrapes a depression and pulls in nearby material for the nest. Then she lays one egg per day, as many as 13. She adds her own down or breast feathers to cover the eggs when she takes a break. You can see feathers surrounding her on the nest below.

Female mallard nests by a building (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After 28 days the eggs hatch.

The first egg laid is first to hatch and others usually follow within 6–10 hours. Most of the eggs hatch during the day (as per Birds of the World).  The next morning their mother leads the chicks to water. It’s the safest place to be until they can fly.

Female mallard with chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month the males at Duck Hollow are hanging around near the females but won’t take an active role. They look like bachelor groups but they aren’t bachelors.

Have you seen any female mallards lately?

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

Putting Fluff to Good Use

Warbling vireo using cottonwood fluff to build its nest in St. Louis, MO, 19 May 2019 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

12 May 2024

Eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) rely on the wind for both pollination and seed dispersal. In the spring the male and female trees each produce an inflorescence.

The males produce catkins which drop off the tree when the pollen is gone. The females produce flowers whose seeds are embedded in fluff to carry them away on the wind.

Eastern cottonwood inflorescences: male and female (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

By the time the cottonwoods have gone to seed warbling vireos (Vireo gilvus) have returned to the trees on the shore of Lake Erie. Though the birds look nondescript their song is the sound that fills the air in the parking lot at Magee Marsh in May.

Yesterday at Presque Isle State Park we watched a warbling vireo building a nest in a cottonwood. The nest is a cup that hangs from the fork of two small branches. Both sexes help build it.

Warbling Vireo on nest, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

In s. Ontario [the region of Lake Erie], nest exteriors fashioned with insect and spider silk and cocoons, paper and string, and bits of birch bark; exterior walls composed of grasses, plant fibers, bark strips, plant down, hair, leaves, fine twigs, lichens, and rootlets. Linings were fine grasses, pine needles, plant fibers, rootlets, feathers, and leaves.

Birds of the World: Warbling vireo account

Warbling vireos put the fluff to good use.

p.s. Here’s a mnemonic to help you remember their song:

 The mnemonic of “If I see you, I will seize you, and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!” is very useful in identifying and remembering this bird’s song.

While easily heard, the Warbling Vireo can be difficult to spot. They tend to perch themselves high in treetops. When they are seen, this common bird is often described as “nondescript”.

— from Indiana Audubon description of warbling vireo

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Carla watches her chicks work on a scrap of food, 10 May 2024 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

12 May 2024

On this Mothers’ Day, Carla at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest is a first time mother who’s been learning fast.

Today her chicks are 20 days old. Most of the time they eat and sleep but as mealtime approaches they get restless. Carla babysits while Ecco hunts for food.

On Friday the chicks were mighty cute as they explored the nest under Carla’s watchful eye. This day-in-a-minute video shows their antics and Carla’s busy schedule.

(video of snapshots from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

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

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Puzzling Objects Seen This Week

Leaf-out reveals the browseline, Schenley Park, 5 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 May 2024

This week I photographed a few puzzling objects for the record.

When I took a photo of Full Leaf trees in Schenley Park on 5 May I noticed something newly visible in the presence of leaves. Can you see it?

Look at the center of the photo where the path disappears in the distance. Above the path is a gap that allows you to see further under the trees. The gap flows to the right and follows the contour of the hillside. That’s the browseline, the cumulative effect of too many deer eating at the same location over and over.

I saw a native(!) honeysuckle this week. Pink with fused leaves, it’s called limber or glaucous honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica).

Limber or glaucous honeysuckle, Moraine State Park, 7 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Was this a cattle egret at Moraine State Park? If so it was a rare bird! Nope. It’s a white bag.

Cattle Egret at Moraine State Park? (photo by Kate St. John, 7 May 2024)

On 3 May a leaf-footed bug appeared to walk across the sky.

Leaf-footed bug walks across the sky, 3 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

During the Pittsburgh Marathon Dippy the dinosaur watched near the halfway mark.

Dippy wears black and gold for the Pittsburgh Marathon, 5 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

What puzzles will we see this week?

Quick Looks at Size and Behavior

White-throated sparrow and black-and-white warbler from Wikimedia, FaB Peregrine parent checking on the chick

10 May 2024

Maybe you’ve noticed that after watching warblers for a while, sparrows look huge. Gloria (@Lucent508) captured them side by side.

On Day 25 at the peregrine nest at Charing Cross Hospital in London (Fulham and Barnes), one of the chicks explored the nestbox ramp. He stumbled on the last step but enjoyed the outing nonetheless (the stumble is last photo though it actually happened first). At one point his mother looked at him as if to say, “Are you OK out there?”

Even though they are not “persons,” falconcams give us insight into the individual personalities of the peregrines on camera. This year the new unbanded female at the Wakefield Cathedral Peregrines nest (@WfldPeregrines) in Yorkshire, England has a habit never observed in the previous female: “Our previous female would never stay in the nest whilst the male fed the chicks.”

In the video below the female watches the male feed the chick. Sometimes he passes her a morsel of food which she swallows … or she feeds it to the chick. It’s not often that you see two peregrine parents feeding one chick.

(credits are in the captions and embeds)

Tigers and Tents

Eastern tiger swallowtail in PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 May 2024

We’re more than a week into May now, so it’s likely you’ve seen the tigers and tents that first appeared in late April. If you haven’t, here’s who they are.

Tigers

I first noted tiger swallowtails at Enlow Fork on 25 April but I remember seeing one earlier in Schenley Park. When was your earliest tiger swallowtail?

Find out more about them in this vintage blog: Flying Tigers

Tents

Tentworms in Schenley Park, 25 April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

I saw the first tentworms on 30 April in Frick Park, but it seems this is not a big year for them. I haven’t seen many other tents. Did you know that tentworms are a favorite food of yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos? Have you seen a cuckoo yet?

Learn more about these social insects in this vintage article: Tents

(photo by Kate St. John)

Peregrine Update, Southwest PA, 8 May

Tarentum’s young peregrines getting ready to fledge, 7 May 2024 (photo by Dave Brooke)

8 May 2024

Loads of news from peregrine falcon nests in the Pittsburgh area. Here are the highlights.

Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River:

Yesterday at the Tarentum Bridge Dave Brooke found the peregrine chicks exploring the ledge and exercising their wings. Their estimated hatch date was 1 April so these three would have been 36 days old yesterday.

Peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 7 May 2024 (video embedded from Dave Brooke on YouTube)

Dave Brooke also wrote:

Views from the Tarentum Bridge Park are excellent. The fourth spent the whole time I watched on the ledge of the nest box. Mom fed the three then retreated to the railing of the back pier. I have not seen the male in more than a month.

— email from Dave Brooke on 7 May 2024

The fourth chick is at least two days younger than the others so it hadn’t reached the ledge walking stage. Meanwhile, even if the male is absent as Dave suggests, this has not adversely affected the chicks’ growth and development as you can see in the video.

These youngsters have not fledged yet but it won’t be long before they’re gone. Visit the Tarentum Bridge for great looks at this peregrine family. Click here for a map.

Cathedral of Learning, Univ of Pittsburgh:

Yesterday’s Day-in-a-Minute (actually 90 seconds) shows the two chicks sleeping, eating and motoring to the front of the nest.

Pitt peregrine nest timelapse, 7 May 2024, 7am to 7pm (video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Why do we see them sleeping with one leg extended? It was hot yesterday with a high of 81°F! The chicks are wearing down coats but their exposed legs are bare skin that allows them too cool off.

Tune in to watch them at the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh:

We had a scare on 29 April concerning the East Liberty Presby peregrines when I received a report from Elizabeth Rudzki (@ZoomingBio) that she saw an adult peregrine strike a window in Shadyside. The bird was stunned, paused on the ground, then flew away before she could retrieve her rescue equipment.

I asked Adam Knoerzer whether he’d seen both adults at the church and by 2 May he confirmed that both are present. Whew! The male is shown perched on the steeple above.

Downtown Pittsburgh: On 29 April 2024 I went to Mt Washington again to look at the Third Avenue nest through my scope. (No photo, alas.) The female was standing up in the nest area, perhaps sheltering young from the sun. If so, they ought to be at the front of the ledge in the next two weeks. Visit Third Avenue soon to see if my hunch is correct. Click here for information and directions.

Clairton Coke Works, Monongahela River:

Two peregrine chicks and two eggs at Clairton Coke Works, 25 April 2024 (photo via Dana Nesiti via USSteel)

Dana Nesiti received this photo from USSteel on 25 April that confirms peregrines are again breeding successfully at Clairton Coke Works. The pair skipped last year but raised three young in 2022. Click here and scroll down to read about their nest in early June of 2022.

Spruce Run Bridge, Ohio River:

Female peregrine framed by the moon, 1 May 2024 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Jeff Cieslak confirmed on 1 May that both peregrines are still present at the Spruce Run Bridge though they don’t seem to be breeding, perhaps because the male is still in immature plumage.

Rt 40 Bridge, West Brownsville, Monongahela River:

Fred Kachmarik checked on the Route 40 bridge in West Brownsville and found both adult peregrines at home. He wrote:

Two adults flew into the bridge screaming. It appears as if this year’s scrape is very near last year’s. There are probably eggs or nestlings but I’ll wait until a future visit to verify it.

Fred Kachmarik, eBird

PEREGRINE SUMMARY FOR SOUTHWEST PA: This table lists all the potential sites butmany of them are not breeding sites. Help fill in the blanks by visiting one of them.

Don’t Miss These Birds!

7 May 2024

If you’re wondering whether to go birding, don’t wait! Spring migration has been exceptionally good in the past few days migration. The slideshow, above, shows just a few of the 58 species Charity Kheshgi and I saw at Schenley and Frick Parks on Sunday 5 May.

The birds are here right now and they’re fairly easy to see despite the early leaf cover. They’re on the move. Don’t miss them. It’s time to get outdoors!

p.s. Did you notice that the first two birds in the slideshow are “Nashville” and “Tennessee” ?

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Two Outings in One Week: May 15th & 18th

Ovenbird in Nick Liadis’ hand at banding in Hays Woods, 7 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

6 May 2024

May Is The Month For Birds! Join me on two outings in the next two weeks.

Wed. 15 May, 8:00 to 10:30am: Hays Woods Bird Banding

Next week be one of only 5 visitors to Nick Liadis’ BirdLab banding station in Hays Woods. We may be very lucky. Last year Nick banded a Conneticutt warbler at Hays in May!

Here’s everything you need to know to join me on Wed 15 May at 8:00 am.

  • First come first served! Reserve your place by leaving a comment on the blog form below. I’ll confirm via email.
  • Bird Lab is a non-profit supported by donations and grants. There is a suggested donation of $25/person. Donate online at BirdLab’s GoFundMe here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-us-to-conserve-birds
  • The banding station is in the heart of Hays Woods so it takes 20 minutes to walk to it. We’ll meet at the Hays Woods Agnew Trailhead at 8am.
  • Nick bands birds six days a week unless it’s raining or windy. There is no rain date so hope for good weather!

Read here about our experience last October.

Learn more about Bird Lab at http://birdlab.org/

Sat. 18 May, 8:30 to 10:30am: Outing in Schenley Park

Birding in Schenley Park, 19 May 2019 (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Spring migration is really hopping so don’t miss an opportunity to get outdoors.

This month’s Schenley outing is on Saturday 18 May to avoid a conflict with the Komen More Than Pink Walk on Sunday.

Meet me at the Schenley Park Visitors Center (40.4383304,-79.9464765) on Saturday 18 May for a bird and nature walk, 8:30am to 10:30am. We’ll be there during the maximum weekend of the Second and Third Waves of warbler migration. If the weather is right we’ll see a lot of birds!

As always, dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

If the birding is good we’ll have the option to continue until 11:00a.

Pitt Peregrine Chick Takes a Walk

Whatcha doing out there? 3 May 2024, 2:41pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

5 May 2024

Late last week the Pitt peregrine chicks had grown enough to begin walking across the nestbox.

Carla’s reaction to this activity seemed to be “What are you doing out here?” Often she stepped in to herd the chick to the back wall of the nestbox.

Chick in the middle; Both parents, 3 May 2024, 10:23am (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday, 4 May at 5:30pm, Carla and the chicks were waiting for Ecco to make a food delivery when one chick became impatient. It motored to the front where Carla was perched, begging along the way.

Carla watches a chick walk toward the green perch, 4 May 2024, 5:33pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

The entire “motoring” episode is excerpted in the 5.75 minute video below.

Carla knows they’re hungry so she checks for food scraps on the gravel but none are available. To calm the chick she pulls it toward her and shelters it under her breast. The chicks don’t have long to wait. In less than six minutes Ecco brings food to the nestbox but he is not an expert baby-feeder. Carla arrives with a large prey item and feeds the chicks. Lots of food!

Hungry chick motors to the front; Food arrives in a while(video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Turn up the sound to hear both chicks begging, one high pitched and one scratchy-sounding. The high-pitched sound comes from the smaller chick, who is likely male. The scratchy sound comes from the larger (walking) chick who is likely female. The size difference is how we tell the sex of the peregrine chick.

The chicks are growing fast. Check out their progress at the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.