This red-tailed hawk is not consuming the lump near his mouth. He’s casting a pellet of indigestible bones, fur and feathers that came up from his gizzard. Pellets are a normal by-product of digestion in birds of prey. If you find one, it can tell you what the bird was eating.
We always find pellets during annual maintenance at the Pitt peregrine nestbox including these three found during our 9 January visit (paperclip for scale). The pellets can be many months old.
A closeup shows feathers and bones (no fur*) but is not very enlightening due to the pellet’s age. Fortunately I stored the pellets in a ziploc bag. After they thawed a small fly appeared inside the bag, hatched from eggs laid on the pellet in much warmer weather. Ewww!
Peregrine pellets are slightly longer than a paperclip. Some birds make much larger pellets.
On a hike at Audubon Greenway Conservation Area last Wednesday we found a surprisingly large pellet containing fur, bones and a big tooth. It was so large that we wondered if a bird could produce it. I didn’t pick it up but it looked as though it could span my palm.
The sunrise was gorgeous and cold last Wednesday when a group of us decided to walk at Jennings in Butler County. We saw few birds but there were ice heaves, buttress roots on an elm, and the seeds of old man’s beard (Clematis drummondii).
When old man’s beard is in bloom it’s called virgin’s bower, transforming it from a young woman to an old man in a matter of months.
My friends who live north of the city have not seen many dark-eyed juncos at their feeders this winter, but juncos are definitely present at the Frick Park Environmental Education Center. Charity Kheshgi posted photos of our recent trip to Frick.
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) occur worldwide in the northern hemisphere but are quite rare in Pittsburgh though we see them on migration at the Allegheny Front. Their stronghold in North America is in the American West but now the birds face many threats.
In the film we learn that golden eagles prefer wide open spaces without human interference so when we move in, they move out. They’ve disappeared from many areas heavily disturbed by humans and, according to Birds of the World, most North American nesting populations are declining or below carrying capacity due, in part, to anthropogenic related mortality.
Watch eagle researchers rappel down cliffs to band golden eagle chicks. Visit wildlife rehabilitation centers where eagles are treated for lead poisoning. Hear Indigenous people’s connections to the largest eagle in the American West.
Even though it’s December and the weather will only get worse, western Pennsylvania’s bald eagles are gearing up for the nesting season with plans to lay eggs in February.
Established pairs are hanging out together and guarding their territories. Interlopers are testing the limits to see if they can claim an existing site. Subadult eagles are roaming the rivers, trying to steal prey from each other and adults.
Dedicated eagle watchers are already stopping by the viewing sites to catch a glimpse of the action.
At 9:17am a Peregrine Falcon flew past the nest upstream carrying prey. The male gave chase and they both flew up and over the hillside. 9:35am the male comes flying back carrying prey with a sub adult hot on his tail feathers. They flew down past the stick store and we saw them dive, both eagles came circling back towards the nest. Now the sub adult was carrying the prey and the male was chasing him.
Kites sometimes fly with the birds. A distant raptor soars at center-bottom of the photo above. Kite + Bird.
In 1914 this kite was becoming a plane. Kite = Plane.
Some kites are birds. More than two dozen species of raptors are named “kite” including the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) of North America and the red kite (Milvus milvus) in Europe. Kite = Bird.
Putting them all together, Chris Darbey (@chrisddarbey) photographed a red kite with a jet contrail. Kite=Bird + Plane.
In 1994 dozens of bald eagles were found convulsing, dead or paralyzed near Arkansas’ DeGray Lake. Autopsies revealed the eagles died of a new disease called avian vacuolar myelinopathy (VM) that manifests as brain lesions. The dying spread to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Texas (hashed areas on the map below) and continues to this day. In 2021 scientists discovered what causes VM. It’s a chain of events that begins when we use an aquatic weed killer to control an invasive weed.
The invasive weed is hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) that spreads easily and clogs waterways. It’s a huge problem in many southeastern states, especially in Florida.
Integrated chemical plant management plans to control H. verticillata should avoid the use of bromide-containing chemicals (e.g., diquat dibromide). [The neurotoxin] AETX is lipophilic with the potential for bioaccumulation during transfer through food webs, so mammals may also be at risk.
(photos and diagram from Wikimedia Commons, map embedded from NIH; click on the captions to see the originals)
(*) The mystery was solved when scientists discovered that the toxin came from bromides that did not occur naturally. From NIH, Hunting the eagle killer: A cyanobacterial neurotoxin causes vacuolar myelinopathy: “Laboratory cultures of the cyanobacterium, however, did not elicit VM. A. hydrillicola growing on H. verticillata collected at VM-positive reservoirs was then analyzed by mass spectrometry imaging, which revealed that cyanobacterial colonies were colocalized with a brominated metabolite. Supplementation of an A. hydrillicola laboratory culture with potassium bromide resulted in pronounced biosynthesis of this metabolite. H. verticillata hyperaccumulates bromide from the environment, potentially supplying the cyanobacterium with this biosynthesis precursor.”
Bald eagles are birds of prey that eat fish, right? Well, mostly fish. Bald eagles are opportunistic feeders that will grab what they can get. Most of the time they catch live fish but they’ll also pounce on ducks and coots, steal fish from ospreys, scavenge on roadkill and fight each other for tasty morsels.
Juvenile bald eagles are not skilled at fishing so many opt for easy meals found elsewhere, particularly at landfills. It may be junk food but it keeps them satisfied.
On Throw Back Thursday read about bald eagles and landfills in this vintage article:
(photos from Flickr via Creative Commons license and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
Pictured above is a bird at work in 2009, a peregrine falcon named Charlie whose job was to clear birds from the airfield at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. His full crop indicates that he’d already done his job that day but he was looking around anyway, just in case some birds came back.
This spring a pair of barred owls (Strix varia) nested in Frick Park. The two nestlings fledged in June but won’t become independent until fall so Charity Kheshgi found all four family members when she looked for them last Friday. Here are the two youngsters at dusk.
On Saturday she saw one juvenile, photo below and at top.
And on Sunday both youngsters, one shown below.
I went to see for myself and learned a helpful tip. If you’re looking for young owls at dusk, find the upset and shouting wood thrushes and robins. They will be dive-bombing the owl.
This April Charity Kheshgi and I noticed Cooper’s hawks nesting in Frick Park and wondered when their young would fledge. In “Cooper’s Hawk Nesting Questions” I concluded the young would fly by June 22-26 at the latest. They were even later than that because…
This month we checked on their progress every few days. On 3 July the pair had four thriving youngsters who were walking on branches and making short hops. (Not fledged yet?) By 8 July the young could fly but they refused to leave the vicinity of the nest.
All four were still there on 14 July, flying well and begging near the nest. “Feed me!” Their father baby-sat, above, while their mother was out hunting. The young were very alert, especially when they saw “mom” coming home.
July 14th was the last time we saw all six family members together. Five days later they had dispersed. The Cooper’s hawk family had grown up.