Category Archives: Nesting & Courtship

Pair Bonding in Late November

Morela and Ecco nearly touching beaks, 28 Nov 2021

29 November 2021

Despite the fact that egg laying is more than three months away, Ecco and Morela have been visiting their nest at the Cathedral of Learning. Yesterday the camera captured them pair bonding and nearly touching beaks.

You can tell the two birds apart by size and plumage contrast. Morela is larger and her body, wings and tail colors are essentially uniform (on left above). Ecco is smaller with a sharp contrast between his gray body and the dark/black tips of his wings and tail.

Peregrines are brightening our gloomy winter days.

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

Landscape of Fear

Adult Cooper’s hawk (photo by Dave Brooke)

8 September 2021

Fear causes an inability to thrive in humans. Now a new study shows this is true of birds as well.

As a grad student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Aaron Grade decided to parse out why urban nestlings are lower weight than their rural cousins. It’s well known that urban settings have poor habitat, altered food sources and more predators but the likelihood of predation is lower there because urban predators have so many other food choices.

House wren at nestbox (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grade wondered if fear play a role so he set out 38 house wren nest boxes and loudspeakers in participants’ backyards in urban, suburban and rural western Massachusetts. During the nesting season participants played back the sounds of two predators of house wrens: Cooper’s hawks (pictured at top) and eastern screech-owls (below).

Eastern screech-owl (photo by Bobby Greene)

Though there was no actual danger, parent house wrens responded to the sounds by guarding their young and perhaps feeding them less. In the end nestlings in these playback settings were 10% underweight no matter what habitat they grew up in.

The study found that whether the birds are hurt or not, their nestlings are underweight and less likely to survive if the family lives in fear.

“These landscapes of fear,” says Grade, “can have a greater effect on behavior and survival than the actual predator itself.”

Science Daily: How landscapes of fear affect the songbirds in our backyards

Birds and humans cannot thrive in constant fear.

Read more about the birds at Science Daily.

Read about humans at Low Birth Weight Babies and Black Women: What’s the Connection?

(photos by Dave Brooke, Wikimedia Commons and Bobby Greene)

p.s. This is also a lesson for birders: Avoid using playback of predator sounds, especially during the spring and summer nesting season!

Meanwhile On The Other Side of the World

Peregrine falcon incubating eggs at 367 Collins in Melbourne, Australia, 30 Aug 2021 (screenshot from 367 Collins)

30 August 2021

Peregrine falcons occur on every continent except Antarctica and always breed in the spring. In Pittsburgh they lay eggs in March, hatch in late April, and fledge in early June. The breeding season ended here months ago as we head for fall.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world spring is about to begin in the southern hemisphere and peregrine nesting season is underway. Yesterday Ingrid Brouwer tweeted that the peregrines in Melbourne, Australia laid their fourth egg on Sunday 29 August.

Watch the Melbourne peregrines live at Peregrine Falcons at 367 Collins. Keep in mind that Australia is other side of the world in more ways than one.

Melbourne is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time in the U.S. so if you watch the peregrine nest at 6:00pm Pittsburgh time it is 8:00am tomorrow in Melbourne. I tuned in at 6am this morning and watched at 8pm there. The building must be floodlit from below; the nest is in shadow.

Screenshot of peregrine nest at 367 Collins in Melbourne, Australia, 30 Aug 2021, 8:02pm

(screenshots from 367 Collins Live Peregrine Falconcam)

Peregrine Success at 62nd Street Bridge

Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021, 10am (digiscoped by Kate St. John)

22 July 2021

Until this week we thought that peregrines did not nest at the 62nd Street Bridge since 2019. This spring we saw them along the Allegheny River from 62nd Street to the Aspinwall railroad bridge, but not reliably.

Then on 19 July Marie posted this comment:

: Hi Kate, My friends and I were kayaking on the Allegheny River yesterday (July 18) and saw 2 Peregrines at the 62nd Street Bridge. We also heard them. One of the people I was with is a proficient birder and he was certain that they were Peregrines. I couldn’t ID them as adults or juveniles, though. — Marie

62nd Street Bridge over the Allegheny River, 2007 (photo by Dan Yagusic)

Marie’s sighting set off a flurry of activity including news from Mike Smith who reported what he saw in late June:

Approx. 3 weeks ago, I watched 2 Peregrines fly east above Allegheny River Blvd from 62nd St. bridge toward Highland Park bridge and then turn back westward and pass my location again. They were wailing/ screaming the entire 1 1/2 minutes that I observed them. They appeared to be play/ harassing each other. I was working and didn’t have binos, so plumage coloration/ age was not determined…the constant wailing was unusual behavior from my experience.

— email from Mike Smith, Tuesday 20 July 2021

Mike and I were both motivated to visit the bridge yesterday, 21 July 2021, to look for more peregrine activity. At noon Mike saw one peregrine flying upriver too far away to age. At 10am I got lucky.

Right off the bat I saw an adult peregrine perched and preening on the superstructure. I had my scope so I could see the bird was unbanded, had a very striped chest and a peachy breast with a few dots (not many), and was molting two central tail feathers that were visible when perched and in flight. She was probably female. I digiscoped a few poor quality pictures.

Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge is unbanded, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)
Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)
Unbanded adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)

At one point she kakked at something on the north shore but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Her territorial warning told me that the 62nd Street Bridge is her nesting home, not just a place she visits on her travels.

After she flew off I was packing up my scope to leave when I saw and heard a juvenile peregrine chasing her and begging loudly. The juvie was the same size as the adult, so probably female too.

I watched the juvie soar upriver until it disappeared toward the Highland Park Bridge. Then I drove to Aspinwall Riverfront Park and discovered that you can see the 62nd Street Bridge from the Aspinwall Railroad Bridge.

3 bridges: Highland Park (foreground), 62nd Street (distant background) as seen from underneath the Aspinwall RR Bridge, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

At only 1.77 miles apart the 62nd Street Bridge and the Aspinwall RR bridge are in the same peregrine territory. Based on the adult’s behavior, she nested at the 62nd Street Bridge where there is a nestbox. Success!

Of the 11 peregrines sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, we now know they were successful at seven of them. The Rt 422 Graff Bridge in Kittanning is the last big mystery. Has anyone seen peregrines there?

UPDATE on 23 July: Jeff Cieslak saw 1 peregrine at Kittanning yesterday. Earlier this week a friend of Dana Nesiti sent a photo of 1 peregrine at the Speers RR Bridge.

(photos by Kate St. John)

In Tidewater Virginia

Sunrise over the Pagan River, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 July 2021

This week my husband and I have been visiting family in Tidewater Virginia, our first long trip since the COVID-19 shutdown. Everyone’s vaccinated (& some had COVID last winter) so at last we’re making the “Real Hugs Tour.”

It is hot. 92 degrees F near the water, 100 degrees on the roads in the interior. Every morning I take a walk before it gets too unpleasant.

At the ocean I was pleased to see saltwater birds and southern songbird species. Favorite birds on the bay side of First Landing State Park were least, royal and sandwich terns plus a blue grosbeak (eBird checklist here).

View of the bay from First Landing State Park, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I also encountered a lot of bug sounds …

… and a dragonfly that repeatedly perched on a twig in the stiff wind. Its behavior reminded me of a kestrel.

Dragonfly holding onto a twig in a stiff wind, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is beautiful and welcoming until you stand in the sun.

Low tide at Windsor Castle Park, Smithfield, Virginia, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Blackberries ripen in the heat.

Blackberries, Smithfield, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

House finches are prolific breeders in the hanging baskets on my sisters porch. This brood froze as we peeked under the fern in one basket while another house finch couple was building a new nest in the next basket.

House finch nestlings in a hanging basket, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Pittsburgh it is 10-15 degrees cooler but we will miss the sea breeze when we get home tomorrow.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Oystercatchers Grow Up

American oystercatcher with chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 July 2021

Though American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) breed on barrier beaches and shelly islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, few of us get to see it. The birds want peace and quiet far from humans when they raise a family.

@GetToKnowNature brings us this video of oystercatchers growing up, thanks to her long lens.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from @GetToKnowNature)

July Is Goldfinch Month

American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

12 July 2021

While most songbirds began nesting in May and some have finished for the year goldfinches wait until now to start a family.

Unlike most birds American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are totally vegetarian. They eat only plant matter, never insects, worms or meat so they wait to nest in July when their favorite foods are plentiful. Foods such as thistle seed.

Male American goldfinch on thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The female goldfinch builds her nest in a shrub or sapling, laying a foundation of spider silk and adding rootlets and fibers. Then she lines the nest with soft down, often using thistle fluff.

Female American goldfinch in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

She lays one egg per day for a clutch of five and starts incubation at the next-to-last egg. In 12-14 days her babies hatch.

American goldfinch nest with young (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s still July. Now the fun begins!

The parents make many trips back and forth from thistle fields to the nest where they feed by regurgitation. Sometimes the adults munch on leafy vegetables, even in gardens, which earned them the nickname “Salad Birds.”

If the nest had a cowbird egg in it that brown-headed cowbird nestling dies within 3 days because it can’t survive without insect protein.

Meanwhile if you listen for the male in his looping courtship flight you might be able to find the nest inside his circle. Listen and watch for “potato chip.”

You’ll also hear a new call if anything dangerous shows up near the young. The warning is “beer BEE.”

While scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and northern rough-winged swallows have finished nesting, July is goldfinch month.

(photos by Chuck Tague and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

I Don’t Look Like My Parents

Juvenile chipping sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

8 July 2021

Summer is a challenging time to identify birds when fledglings look quite different from adults. Here are seven species whose babies can honestly say, “I don’t look like my parents.”

American robin adults (left) have plain rust-colored breasts. Juveniles (right) have spotted breasts.

American robin: adult and fledgling (photos by Steve Gosser and Charity Kheshgi)

The differences between juvenile and adult downy woodpeckers are subtle. Juveniles (left) have a faint red patch on top of the head while adult males (right) have a vibrant splash of red on the back of the head. (Don’t be fooled by the red flower behind the male in this photo.)

Juvenile downy woodpecker (left) being fed by father (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Red-bellied woodpecker juveniles (middle photo) are very plain with no red on their heads. Adult males (left) are red from bill to nape while adult females (right) have red napes, pale foreheads, and a spot of red at the bill.

Red-bellied woodpeckers: adult male, juvenile, adult female (photos by Marcy Cunkelman and Cris Hamilton)

In breeding plumage adult European starlings (left) are iridescent glossy black while fledglings are dull brown (right). Check out the shape of the fledgling’s beak and how he opens it. He has that in common with his parents.

Adult and juvenile European starlings (photos by Chuck Tague and Charity Kheshgi)

Juvenile northern cardinals (dark bird on branch) resemble their mothers but the juveniles have dark beaks. Their mothers (at right) have orange beaks.

Northern cardinal: Adult male feeding juvenile, female has orange beak (photos by Bob Kroeger, Cris Hamilton)

Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds never look like their foster parents. These dull brown, chunky birds have short, fat necks and “fat” beaks. The beak is the clue.

Brown-headed cowbird chick begging from song sparrow host (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, young chipping sparrows look so different from their parents that you’d think they’re another species. The juveniles are stripey brown (photo at top) while their parents have plain pale breasts and rusty caps. The best way to identify a fledgling chipping sparrow is to watch who it begs from.

Adult chipping sparrow tries to ignore its begging youngster (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

A Hat Tip for this topic goes to Mary Ann Pike who described it in a comment yesterday.

Did you find any fledglings hard to identify this year? Let me know in a comment.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman, Steve Gosser, Charity Kheshgi, Cris Hamilton, Bob Kroeger, Wikimedia Commons)

When A Nest Is Too Low

Downtown peregrine fledgling perches on 7th floor deck, 10 June 2021 (photo by Brian Johnston)

11 June 2021

After a peregrine chick makes its first flight it waits for hours in its new location, apparently regrouping. When it flies again it will flap along the cliff and land on a slightly lower ledge, then flap again to another ledge, and so on. Many hours later it figures out how to circle out and fly up.

Lower ledges are very important. In the 24 hours after first flight peregrine fledglings don’t have the upper body strength to make a powerful flap and become airborne. At high peregrine nest sites with open airspace and lots of lower ledges, the chicks rarely land on the ground where they become vulnerable to predators and cars.

In Downtown Pittsburgh the Third Avenue nest site is so low and tucked away that fledglings land on the ground every year. Thankfully, passersby call the PA Game Commission at 724-238-9523 to rescue the downed birds.

Yesterday morning at Third Avenue two peregrine chicks were at the nest opening. One had fledged.

Nearby workmen showed me the fledgling on a railing four stories up, facing a narrow space between buildings with a view of Lawrence Hall across Third Avenue. Flying from this location is no problem for an adult peregrine. The youngster waited for enlightenment.

Downtown peregrine fledgling perched on the railing, 4 floors up, 10 June 2021, 10:30a (photo by Kate St. John)
Closeup of Downtown peregrine fledgling perched on the railing, 10 June 2021, 10:30a (photo by Kate St. John)

At this point any action by humans would have frightened the fledgling and guaranteed his failure. We humans stayed away so he could figure it out with help from his experienced parents, Terzo and Dori.

Eventually the youngster will make a move. My guess is he will land on the ground, be rescued by Point Park Police and the PA Game Commission, and be taken to the rescue porch where he can start over.

You might be asking: Isn’t the Gulf Tower a better place for these birds to nest? Yes but not right now.

On 19 May a transformer blew in the Gulf Tower basement and started a 5-alarm fire with smoke billowing from the roof. The building was condemned by City of Pittsburgh building inspectors last week. Here’s the news.

Life is full of challenges for all of us. This bird will get through it.

If you see a downed peregrine, call the PA Game Commission at 724-238-9523.

(photos by Brian Johnston and Kate St. John)

Peregrine News Around Town, June 10

Composite photo: Morela at Pitt, 8 June 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

10 June 2021

Peregrine news from the Cathedral of Learning, Downtown Pittsburgh, Westinghouse Bridge and Tarentum Bridge.

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh:

Juvie peregrine coming in for a landing, 8 June 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

After two young peregrines fledged at Pitt on June 4 & 5 there was a long gap until the next bird flew. Two of four were still waiting to fly on 8 June when Jeff Cieslak photographed Morela coming in for a landing on the lightning rod (composite at top) and a juvie puttering around the building. The two early birds were already skilled enough to chase their parents.

Yesterday 9 June at 9am I found chick #3 had fledged and was perched on 15th North (Fifth Ave side) patio edge. At that point the fourth had still not flown.

I plan to check again this morning.

Downtown Pittsburgh:

  • Dori on Lawrence Hall windowsill, 9 June 2021 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Lori Maggio saw the entire Downtown peregrine family at Third Avenue on Wednesday 9 June at 7am. Dori and Terzo watched from across the street as three chicks called and flapped at the nest opening.

Today she saw only two at the nest opening. Did one fledge?

Meanwhile the Gulf Tower, site of a peregrine nestbox, was condemned this week after a large electrical fire damaged it on 19 May 2021. The damage and condemnation will not affect the Downtown peregrines at all. They have not nested at Gulf Tower since 2017 and show no inclination to go back there.

Monongahela Watershed: Westinghouse Bridge

Adult female at Westinghouse Bridge, 6 June 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

On 6 June, Dana Nesiti saw both fledglings and the banded mother peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge. As he snapped photographs …

I watched one of the juvies fly head on into one of the pillars, tumble down to the arch below, shake it off and scamper up to the top.

— email from Dana Nesiti, 6 June 2021
  • Peregrines at Westinghouse Bridge, 6 June 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Yesterday morning PennDOT found a juvenile peregrine walking on the Westinghouse Bridge road deck and sidewalk. It eventually walked off the bridge and stood in some weeds where PGC Game Warden Doug Bergman retrieved it. To be on the safe side he took it to HAR Verona for a checkup though it appeared to be in good condition. I wonder if this is the juvenile who banged his head a few days earlier. (We can’t know since they are not banded.)

Allegheny River, Tarentum Bridge:

Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River, 2 June 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River, 2 June 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

Construction started on the Tarentum Bridge this week but will not adversely affect the juvenile peregrines because they fly so well and can leave the bridge if necessary. Only two of the three juveniles have been seen since 26 May. We believe the third died in late May.

In other sad news, I learned yesterday that long time Tarentum peregrine watcher and hummingbird fan Rob Protz died of a heart attack this week (obituary here). I will miss his excellent proofreading skills that kept me on my toes. I’m sure you’ll see more errors in my posts.

(photos by Jeff Cieslak, Lori Maggio, Dana Nesiti and Kate St. John)