Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Help Find Long-Eared Owls in PA

Long-eared owl in California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 January 2021

Native to Eurasia and North America, long-eared owls (Asio otus) are shy and secretive medium-sized birds that hunt open areas and roost in woodland edges and conifer stands.

Range map of long-eared owl (from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania they are present year-round and listed as Threatened, but are so elusive that it’s hard to keep track of them. The Game Commission plans to study Pennsylvania’s long-eared owls but needs preliminary data. They are asking birders for help.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is interested in learning more about long-eared owls in Pennsylvania, who are threatened and extremely vulnerable to disturbance [so] we’re asking birders to share their long-eared owl observations with us.

To protect the location of the birds, we are asking birders NOT to post their observations on eBird or other platforms at this time(*) but instead to send all observations–past or present–to Game Commission Wildlife Biologist, Patti Barber, at patbarber@pa.gov with “LEOW Observations” in the subject line. Include date, location, number of owls and evidence of owls in the area (seen, heard, pellets, feathers, heard etc).

Pictures are welcome, however, please maintain enough distance so as to not disturb the birds. Long-eared owls often abandon roosts when disturbed. Please do not walk on private property without owner’s consent. Thank you, in advance, for your help.

— partially paraphrased: Pennsylvania Game Commission, 19 January 2021 via Instagram

So how do you find a long-eared owl? Find is the hardest part. Long-eared owls are more strictly nocturnal than other owls so you’ll have to find them at the roost where they are masters at hiding in plain sight. Here are a few examples.

Roosting in dense deciduous woods in Minnesota:

Long-eared owl comouflaged in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Roosting in a conifer stand in Illinois, 2011. This owl looks like a fat branch with ear tufts.

Long-eared owl resembles a branch, Carlyle Lake, IL, 2011 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Owl eyeing the photographer but still hidden.

Long-eared owl looks at the photographer, Illinois, 2011 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

I’ve only seen a long-eared owl three times in my life with each sighting 10 years apart. My last was in Beaver County in 2015 so I’m not due to see another one until 2025. I wonder if my quest will be successful.

(photos and map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

(*) eBird reports: The Game Commission is working with eBird to develop a process to allow these observations to be entered while also protecting these sensitive locations.

Falconry Moves Portland’s Winter Crows

screenshot from OPB video: Urban Falconry in Portland Oregon

7 January 2021

Huge flocks of crows roost in Portland, Oregon in the winter just as they do Pittsburgh. By 2017 the city realized that the crows’ huge sanitation problem could not be solved with cleanup crews and pyrotechnics so they turned to a team of falconers.

This 9-minute video from Oregon Public Broadcasting, published in November 2018, shows how trained Harris hawks — which normally operate during the day — move the crows at night. Awesome!

(screenshot from OPB video; click on the caption to see the original)

Red-tailed Hawks Look Different In the West

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Mateo County, CA (photo by Robin Agarwal, via Flickr Creative Commons license)

4 January 2021

One of the surprises when traveling in North America is that our most common hawk in Pittsburgh, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), looks very different out west.

In western Pennsylvania, red-tailed hawks are best identified by the belly band of stripes below their breasts and dark patagial marks on their underwings. Some have dark markings, some are pale. Adults are redder than immatures.

Red-tailed hawks in western PA: Adult (by Steve Gosser) and immature (by Donna Foyle)
Red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Adult red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-tailed hawk, Lawrence County, PA, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Though most western red-tailed hawks are similar to their eastern cousins they are generally darker, as shown below in Washington state. There’s also a dark morph that’s completely chocolate brown as in the photo at top from San Mateo County, California.

Adult red-tailed hawk in Kirkland WA, Immature red-tail in Stanwood, WA (photos by Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here are more examples.

Arizona: Underwings on this adult are darker and redder than back east.

Adult red-tailed hawk, Maricopa County, AZ (photo by Steve Valasek)

Utah: Dark underneath on an immature red-tail.

California: While many red-tails in California are merely darker, the dark morph is over the top.

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)
Adult dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Some day when we can travel again I’m looking forward to seeing a dark morph red-tailed hawk.

(photos by Robin Agarwal, Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Cris Hamilton, Mick Thompson, Steve Valasek, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; click on the captions to see the originals posted in Flickr with Creative Commons license)

African Hawk With a Red Tail

Augur buzzard starting to fly in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This is not a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) but it sure resembles one. The augur buzzard (Buteo augur) of Africa also has a lifestyle that resembles North America’s red-tailed hawk.

Take a 6-minute trip to Kenya and learn more about augur buzzards in this video from the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust. You’ll see some parallels with our most familiar hawk.

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

Merlins, Peregrines, Crows and an Oriole

Merlin at Homewood Cemetery, 26 Dec 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

28 December 2020

Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count dawned bitter cold (13o F) and overcast on Saturday 26 December 2020. The weather was daunting, city roads were snow-covered, and birds were very hard to find. Though the official count isn’t in yet, there were notable exceptions less than three miles from my home — merlins, peregrines, 20K+ crows and a Baltimore oriole.

MERLINS (Falco columbarius): As of this writing 5 merlins were seen in the count circle on 26 December. Michelle Kienholz’s merlin at Homewood Cemetery (above) was typical of those seen at dusk, always perched high on a snag. Frank Izaguirre reported two at Calvary Cemetery and Mike Fialkovich saw two at Schenley Park golf course. I was at the golf course at dusk, counting crows, so I kept an eye on one of Mike’s merlins. It didn’t leave its perch until 20 minutes after sunset.

PEREGRINES (Falco peregrinus): So far, four peregrine falcons were seen in the count circle. By sheer luck I saw 3 of them.

On Saturday morning I was gazing out the dining room window when I saw two male peregrines fly by chasing each other. Yard Birds! It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Terzo-and-Ecco chase. Ecco and Morela bowed at the nest at 7:33a (slideshow below). I also saw Morela at the Cathedral of Learning gazing in the direction the males flew.

  • Morela, 12/26/2020, 7:33a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

CROWS: Counting crows is always a challenge despite our best laid plans. At dusk at the Allequippa Street Parking Garage, Claire Staples and Joe Fedor counted crows arriving from the north, west, and Allegheny Valley. At Schenley Park golf course I counted them flying in from the east. (The eastern group can’t been seen from Allequippa Street.)

It was so cold! The crows felt it too and used different flight paths than the day before. Erf! Even so, the three of us counted 20,000 to 24,000 crows.

Here’s what they looked like at Allequippa Street on 18 Dec 2020, photos by Mary Brush.

Crows near the Petersen Center, 18 Dec 2020 (photo by Mary Brush)
Crows near the Petersen Center, 18 Dec 2020 (photo by Mary Brush)

BALTIMORE ORIOLE (Icterus galbula): Most likely the rarest bird of the count was the Baltimore oriole at Izaguirre’s feeder in Oakland. Frank and Adrienne have been keeping him happy since he showed up on 20 December. In Frank’s photo below he’s slurping jam from the top of the suet cake. Yay!

Baltimore oriole at Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count, 26 Dec 2020 (photo by Frank Izaguirre)

In the typical absurdity of 2020, the weather on the day after the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count was partly sunny and 47oF.

As least we saw more than a few good birds.

(photos by Michelle Kienholz, Mary Brush and Frank Izaguirre)

Remembering A Falcon Sweep

Dorothy bathing at Duck Hollow during the 2013 Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (photo by Michelle Kienholz, 28 Dec 2013)

26 December 2020

The success of a Christmas Bird Count really depends on the weather. If the weather is good the birds are active and easy to find. In bad weather — heavy rain, snow, fog, high winds — birds are scarce.

Today is the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in the circle shown below. At 8am it’s 14 degrees F with gusty winds, overcast skies and light snow showers. It feels like 2 degrees F. What birds will I find in my city neighborhood under these conditions? Not many I fear.

Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count circle (map from audubon.org)

Seven years ago the 2013 Pittsburgh CBC had a Falcon Sweep at a single location. In one half hour there was a peregrine falcon (Dorothy), a merlin, and an American kestrel at Duck Hollow — all the possible Falco species — described in this 2013 article: Take Me To The River.

Merlin bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Today if I’m lucky in bad weather I’ll see a peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning and a merlin at dusk in Schenley Park. It would be a miracle if I saw a kestrel.

For old times sake, here’s a kestrel in June 2016 at an unusual city location.

American kestrel at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest on 9 June 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

More news later. Brrrr!

(photos by Michelle Kienholz and the National Aviary falconcam that used to be at Gulf Tower)

More Than Nine Inches

City lights glow on the snow and clouds, Pittsburgh at dawn 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 December 2020

It began snowing here in Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, 16 December 2020, and didn’t stop for 17.5 hours. By 7:30 the next morning there were 9.25 inches of snow in Oakland. City lights glowed against the snow and clouds.

9.25″ of snow in Oakland, 17 Dec 2020, 7:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I took a long walk to Pitt’s campus, Carnegie Library and Schenley Park to appreciate the beauty. Here are a few of the scenes I encountered.

Red Euonymus leaves peek out of the snow, Univ of Pittsburgh, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
White trees frame the Cathedral of Learning, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bach, Shakespeare, and Dippy wear snowy blankets at Carnegie Museum, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Richard St. John)
This meadow near Schenley’s Westinghouse Fountain offers seeds for sparrows and juncos, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sweetgum seed balls wear snowy caps, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

On my way home I found one of Santa’s elves near the Library!

Santa’s elf or fire hydrant? 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though the snow didn’t melt it did compress in 24 hours. Here are two snapshots of the Pitt peregrine nestbox at 7:30am on Thurs 17 Dec and Fri 18 Dec. Though there is still a lot of snow it is not as daunting, even if it hasn’t been shoveled.

No peregrines visited the nest yesterday but I know they are present. I saw Morela perched on a gargoyle.

UPDATE 18 Dec 2020, 4:08pm: Morela examines the snow.

(photos by Kate St. John; statues photo by Richard St. John)

Remember When: Hays Eaglecam Is 7 Years Old

PA’s first eaglecam was installed at Hays in December 2013 (screenshot from Hays on YouTube)

Seven years ago this month Pennsylvania’s first eaglecam was installed at the Hays bald eagle nest site.

On Throw Back Thursday take a trip down memory lane in this vintage article from 27 December 2013: Pittsburgh Has PA’s First Eaglecam!

p.s. The eaglecam is Live at: Hays Bald Eagle Nest at Audubon Society of Western PA

(screenshot from YouTube video of Hays eaglecam, December 2013)

Picture Of The Week

Merlin eating a junco at sunset, 7 Dec 2020, Schenley Park golf course (photo by Kate St. John)

12 December 2020

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you’ve seen my best photo of the week, perhaps for the whole year, with only a brief description: Merlin eating a junco at sunset, Schenley Park golf course, 7 December 2020. Here’s the back story.

This week Pittsburgh suffered through six days in a row of unrelenting overcast “Pittsburgh Gray” skies. During that period there was only one moment when the sun made an appearance and I was determined to be outdoors with a big view of the sky when it happened: The Gleam At Sunset on Monday December 7.

During winter Pittsburgh often has overcast skies all day and clear skies at night. When the transition happens at sunset you can see clear sky approaching from Ohio but it will arrive too late to enjoy the sun. We have 10 minutes of happy sunshine and then it’s dark. The Gleam At Sunset.

The Gleam at Sunset, 30 Jan 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

A gleam was predicted for Monday so I walked to Schenley Park golf course to reach high open ground. The sky started to clear. The sunset was going to be beautiful.

Passing through Fezziwig Grove, I began to think about the merlin(s) that visit the golf course in winter. As I scanned the dead snags a merlin flew in with prey, a dark-eyed junco. My cellphone is not a robust camera so I positioned myself for the merlin silhouette.

I was lucky to photograph both: a merlin and The Gleam at Sunset.

(photos by Kate St. John)

What’s That Whining Sound?

Juvenile red-tailed hawk, Washington DC, 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you heard whining that sounds like this?

Sometimes you hear songbirds calling nearby, “Danger! Watch out!”

In July and early August young red-tailed hawks whine for food. Here’s one in July 2018 at New York’s Botanical Garden with an American robin raising the alarm.

And here’s one on a windowsill in Austin, Texas, July 2011.

Red-tailed hawks raise one brood per year. The female lays eggs in March or April. The eggs hatch in 28-35 days and the young fledge 42-46 days later. That’s when the begging begins.

For three weeks juvenile red-tailed hawks depend on their parents and are not shy about asking for food. Whine!

The whining doesn’t end there. Though the youngsters become increasingly self sufficient they still want a handout if they can get one. Whine! Whine! Whine! Their parents ignore them.

Self sufficiency is the first big hurdle on their way to becoming successful adult red-tails. Some youngsters take longer than others to get the hint.

Meanwhile, whine, whine, whine, WHINE!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Audio from Xeno Canto, videos from YouTube)