Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Sea Eagles’ Banquet on Ice

White-tailed eagle, Hokkaido, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 January 2022

On the recurring subject of sea eagles …

The Steller’s sea eagle in Maine was still near Boothbay Harbor on Tuesday 18 January 2022, as reported by @WanderingSTSE. The bird is 7,000 miles away from his native range and the only member of his species on the continent. What would his life be like if he was at home?

Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) breed in Far Eastern Russia and migrate south for the winter but they don’t leave cold weather behind. One of their favorite winter locations is Hokkaido, Japan where floating ice provides a platform from which to fish. (Blue arrow points to Hokkaido.)

Steller’s sea eagle and range map (orange=breeding only, green=year round, blue=winter only) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

They are joined there by a smaller sea eagle, the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) of Europe, Asia and western Greenland. White-tailed eagles are very similar to their closest relative, the bald eagle. All three are sea eagles in the genus Haliaeetus.

White-tailed eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At Hokkaido the sea eagles have a daily banquet on the ice.

p.s. 18 Jan 2022 UPDATE on the Steller’s sea eagle in Maine:

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video by John Russell embedded from YouTube; click on the captions to see the originals)

Where is The Sea Eagle?

Steller’s sea eagle in Hokkaido, Japan, its native range (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2022

When a bird is extremely rare, very large, nomadic, and easily recognizable it quickly becomes a celebrity. There is only one wild Steller’s sea eagle in North America(*) and wherever he goes birders flock to see him. He lingers sometimes then leaves for parts unknown. Every day the question is, Where is The Steller’s sea eagle?

Closely related to bald eagles, Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) are the largest eagle on earth weighing up to 20 pounds with a wingspan as much as 8 feet. They breed on the coast of Far Eastern Russia and winter on the coasts of Russia and Japan.

The total population of Steller’s sea eagles is only 5,000 and they are declining. One has come to North America. Here’s his story so far.

History of the bird as of 23 Dec 2021 when last seen in Massachusetts:

Video of the bird in Maine on 31 Dec 2021:

Photographed in Maine on 8 Jan 2022 by Erin @ourtravelintale:

As of 9 January the sea eagle was last seen flying away near the bridge at Southport, Maine. Today everyone’s asking “Where is The sea eagle?”

Track his Maine locations via Maine Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert Steller’s Sea Eagle or at https://linktr.ee/StellersSeaEagle or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WanderingSTSE.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, 300 miles from the nearest ocean, I will probably never see this bird. I can imagine the disappointment and expense of spending a day or two flying or driving to the sea eagle’s last known location and arriving after it had left. Sigh.

UPDATE 10 March 2022: The Steller’s sea eagle is still in Maine as of 5 March 2022.

(*) The closest we come to a Steller’s sea eagle in Pittsburgh is at the National Aviary. Their sea eagle, Kodiak, escaped on 25 September 2021 and was captured on 3 October. For eight days the National Aviary was definitely asking “Where’s The Sea Eagle?”

(photo of sea eagle in Japan from Wikimedia Commons; videos, tweets and Instagram embedded from original sources)

Small Saw-whet Swallows a Mouse

Northern saw-whet owl at banding, 26 Oct 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

7 January 2022

Northern saw-whet owls (Aegolius acadicus) are so small that they’re held in one hand at banding. Nonetheless they’re fierce predators of small rodents and frightening to songbirds.

The chickadees go nuts when a saw-whet swallows a mouse in this video by Laura @ABBestphotos from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

(photo by Donna Foyle, video tweet embedded from @ABBestphotos )

Protected By The Queen In 1392

Eleonora’s falcon in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 December 2021

In 1392 Queen Eleanor of Arborea (west-central Sardinia) was the first ruler in history to grant protection to hawk and falcon nests against illegal hunters. A falcon species that nests on Sardinia was named in her honor — Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae).

Eleonora’s falcon looks like a small slender peregrine falcon with long pointed wings, long tail and slim body. From below in flight it looks different from a peregrine whose underwings are completely striped (click here for a peregrine in flight). Instead it has the color pattern of a turkey vulture with dark wing linings and gray flight feathers (click here for a turkey vulture).

We will never see an Eleonora’s falcon in North America because they nest only on islands in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Tunisia. All of them spend the winter in Madagascar but no one knew how they got there until satellite tracking revealed that some fly through the heart of Africa.

Migration routes of Eleonora’s falcon (map from Wikimedia Commons)

See a video of nesting Eleonora’s falcons and read about Queen Eleanor who gave women inheritance rights and set an unusual punishment for rapists.

Watch Eaglets on Camera at Hilton Head

27 December 2021

Pittsburgh’s bald eagles will lay eggs in February while in South Carolina it’s already eaglet time. The bald eagle pair on the Hilton Head Land Trust eaglecam hatched their first egg of the season on 26 December 2021 at 12:45pm.

Bald eagles in northern latitudes synchronize their nesting period to hatch in early spring while in southern latitudes, including Florida and the Gulf Coast, they have a prolonged nesting period from late fall to early spring. In the South, bald eagles can afford to nest earlier because there is no winter ice to prevent them from catching fish for their young.

Get a head start on eagle season. You can watch eaglets right now at –> Hilton Head Land Trust Bald Eaglecam

(screenshot from Hilton Head Land Trust eaglecam)

New Eagle Cam at USS Irvin Works in Mon Valley

YouTube splash screen of USS bald eagle cam at Irvin Works; click on the image to see the cam

22 December 2021

In 2019 a pair of bald eagles built a nest near the Monongahela River at USSteel’s Irvin Works in West Mifflin. In 2020 they fledged one youngster. In 2021 they fledged two. This year we can watch them live on the new USS eaglecam installed this month by PixCams of Murrysville.

Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the live USS eaglecam feed.

The Irvin bald eagles are the second pair to nest along the Monongahela River in Allegheny County. Their famous eaglecam neighbors, the Hays bald eagles, are more than 5 miles away as the crow flies and more than 11 miles away if the eagles follow the river route as shown on this map generated by gmap-pedometer.

Distance between Hays and Irvin eagles’ nests in Allegheny County (map generated from gmap-pedometer.com)

Learn more about this new pair and see photos of the nest and their youngsters in Mary Ann Thomas’ 21 December 2021 article: First live webcam installed at steel mill eagle nest at U.S. Steel Irvin Plant in West Mifflin.

(screenshot of USS Irvin Works eaglecam on YouTube)

Seen This Week

Phipps’ Holiday Light Garden at dusk, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 December 2021

This week’s shorter days and unusually warm weather found me outdoors appreciating sunsets, merlins and Phipps Winter Light Garden.

On Thursday 16 December I visited Phipps Conservatory at 4pm for the Holiday Magic Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. At dusk it was 62oF, so of course no snow, but perfect for strolling in the garden. The show runs through Sunday 9 January 2022 so there’s plenty of time to visit. Click here for tickets.

Phipps’ Holiday Light Garden at dusk, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

As night fell songbirds came into the garden to roost. Robins and mourning doves zoomed overhead. White-throated sparrows chirped in the bushes near these blue lights as they settled for the night.

Phipps’ Holiday Light Garden at dusk, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Cathedral of Learning, framed by decorated trees.

Cathedral of Learning as see from Phipps’ Holiday Light Garden at dusk, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Indoors the flowers were spectacular. These beautiful angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia versicolor) are native to Ecuador but extinct in the wild. You can see them in the Tropical Forest room.

Angel’s trumpet flower (Brugmansia versicolor) in the Tropical Forest room, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Orchids and poinsettias.

Orchids at Phipps’ Holiday Flower Show, 16 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Earlier in the week, on Monday 13 December, I walked Schenley Park’s golf course to watch the merlins come to roost. During my last two visits — 23 Nov and 13 Dec — there have been three merlins that begin arriving at 4:30pm. Each one chooses the top of a bare tree to watch night fall. Eventually they roost in the pines.

The distant photos below show two of the three merlins as dots at the tops of trees. If you can’t see them, click on this photo for a markup with circles.

Tiptop of trees: 2 of 3 merlins at Schenley Park golf course, 13 Dec 2021 (photos by Kate St. John)

After I left the merlins that evening, I saw this spectacular sunset on my way home.

Sunset, Pittsburgh, 13 Dec 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

So beautiful … it made me glad to be alive.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Fire Hawks

Hawks circle a bushfire in Australia as they hunt for escaping prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2021

Fire is a way of life in Australia where bushfires rage during the dry season and humans set controlled burns during the rest of the year. Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines, use fire as a tool on the landscape to “facilitate hunting, change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, reduce [wildfire] hazards, and increase biodiversity.”

Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Every living thing on the continent has adapted to fire including three species of raptors in northern Australia that hover over active firefronts to capture prey escaping from the flames (at top). Sometimes the prey hides too effectively so the firehawks carry burning sticks to set new fires and flush the prey.

The hawks’ behavior, unique to Australia, was reported in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia which said:

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.

— Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718.

The behavior is so uncommon that seeing it is often a once in a lifetime experience. The observer must be in front of the fireline, watching the controlled burn (as shown below) as a hawk picks up a burning stick. Needless to say there are no photos of the behavior yet, but there are many eyewitnesses especially among the Aborigines who have tended fires for thousands of years.

Controlled burn of grasslands in Australia (photo by MomentsForZen via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Who was the firehawk that tried it first among the three species?

The black kite (Milvus migrans),

Black kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) whose whistle sounds like this … and…

Whistling kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the brown falcon (Falco berigora).

The firehawks add a complication to fire management in northern Australia. Read more in Australian “firehawk” raptors intentionally spread fires at Nature.org.

p.s. I note with pleasure that the principal author of the study is Mark Bonta, son of Marcia & Bruce Bonta of Plummer’s Hollow, PA. Marcia Bonta is a great nature writer who wrote for the PA Game News for 28 years and retired this month. Her Farewell on 1 Dec 2021 is here.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology; click on the captions to see the originals)

Quick Quiz for a Friday

3 December 2021

QUICK QUIZ: Name the two birds of prey pictured in these tweets. Leave a comment with your answer.

(The hawk tweet below is from September.)

(tweets by @geococcyxcal and @GetToKnowNature)

P.S. Everyone’s getting the answers right. Check the comments.