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.
Pitt peregrines Morela and Ecco stay at the Cathedral of Learning year round but have not been active at their nest in this month’s gloomy weather. Next month real courtship will begin and so will the National Aviary’s Live Falconcam. It’s hard to believe the first egg of the year is only two months away.
To get in the mood for the 2023 nesting season here’s a slideshow of last year’s successful nest, a recap of highlights, and the Top 4 videos from the National Aviary falconcams.
Morela in snow at the nest, 8 Jan 2022
Ecco and Morela bow, 10 Feb 2022
Morela with first egg of 2022, 18 March (snapshot from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Morela and Ecco with 4 eggs before dawn, 26 March 2022
Morela with 5 eggs, 31 March 2022
Incubation continues. Ecco arrives to relieve Morela, 16 April 2022
Hatch Day! 3 chicks at once, 26 April 2022
3 chicks, 2 eggs, 1 May 2022
4th chick hatched. Weak & on its back, 3 May 2022
3 chicks, 1 egg, 4th chick gone
3 chicks growing. Rainy day, 6 May 2022
Dark feathers showing among the fluff, 21 May 2022
Banding Day, 26 May 2022: Morela strafes the nest zone
Banding Day, 26 May 2022: Pitt peregrine chick
Banding Day, 26 May 2022: applying a band
After the banding, lunch arrives
Ooops! Chick about to fall in the gully, 28 May 2022
Silver calls for food, 31 May 2022
3 chicks ledge walking, 1 adult watching on the right
Sliver Girl flies up, 6 June 2022
Yellow Girl visits the nest, 2 July 2022
Ecco sleeping; the molt begins, 9 July 2022
Hot! Morela sunbathes, 10 July 2022
2 Peregrines at Cathedral of Learning 38th floor ledge, 17 Nov 2022
Morela in snow. 20 Dec 2022
Pitt Peregrine Highlights, 2022
The year began quietly with a bit of snow.
Ecco and Morela courted in February and March. Morela laid 5 eggs:
First egg: 3/18/2022, 08:31am
Second egg: 3/20/2022, 20:09 = 2.5 days later
Third egg: 3/23/2022, 04:40 = 2.4 days later … began incubation
Fourth egg: 3/26/2022, 06:32 = 3.1 days later
Fifth egg: 3/30/2022, 19:08 = 4.5 days later
Hatch Day: 3 of the 5 eggs hatched on 26 April. The 4th hatched on 3 May. The 5th never hatched.
The fourth chick hatched late and was weak from the start. It died on 7 May, four days after hatching.
The remaining chicks grew up into fully feathered juveniles through the end of May.
The chicks were banded on 26 May by Patti Barber of the PA Game Commission. This was the first time Morela and Ecco ever witnessed a banding. Morela was fierce (at top)!
Yesterday morning with help from Pitt Facilities Manager Dante Bongiorni, Gary Tuscan of the National Aviary and I conducted annual maintenance at the Pitt peregrine nestbox and falconcams.
As we came up the elevator we had no idea that Ecco was preening at the nest with a bit of fluff on his head. He must have alerted Morela because she was already watching us through the window when we arrived indoors. I should have taken her picture but was too preoccupied with the task ahead:
Clean the camera covers to remove the dirt that distorts the images.
Remove large debris from the gravel surface.
Assess deterioration at bottom left of the back wall. If it’s a hole, measure the wall and return later to install a replacement panel.
I was surprised when Morela strafed the nest rail and kakked when we reached the nest. This is new behavior for January, the non-breeding season, but it may be that our presence in the room near the nestbox was unusual since that room has not been used for a long time. Morela must have been remembering Banding Day last May.
I cleaned the cameras and Gary measured the back wall (slideshow above). The wall has a hole so Gary must return to fix it. I’ll have to come back, too, because the camera is still rather dirty. Before and After shown below.
When we come back Morela will get another chance to feel triumphant that we left because she chased us off. 😉
This week’s rain dampened outdoor activities but there were still some things to see.
Chainsaw tree “trimming” continues in the city. This red oak had a hollow core so it was chopped down in late December at Anderson Playground in Schenley Park. Can you count the rings and determine its age?
On 3 January rain flecked the camera as Ecco stopped by for a visit. Notice how wet his head is!
On 4 January the rain finally stopped and the moon shone at 8pm.
When the cold snap ended on 28 December the ice thawed and the creeks began running again. Listen to the sound of Panther Hollow Run in Schenley Park on 30 December 2022.
Yesterday, despite the cold, Morela and Ecco each visited the Pitt peregrine nest at the Cathedral of Learning. Morela spent two hours preening on the green perch, then Ecco stopped by for half an hour. Their activities were captured as snapshots which I’ve turned into a video.
Peregrine falcons are well adapted to deal with cold weather. As they preen you occasionally see thick down underneath their outer feathers. Birds wear down coats. 😉
On Sunday at lunchtime I was reading at the kitchen table when my attention was suddenly drawn to an explosion of feathers outside my window. I had missed the hit (alas!!) but I saw a peregrine flapping away with its prize, heading toward the Cathedral of Learning. Even if I’d had a camera I would have missed the shot. It happened that fast!
The feathers drifted slowly to the ground. Pigeon feathers.
In December daylight is in short supply and the skies are often gray so clouds have a big effect on our mood in Pittsburgh. This week ranged from brilliantly sunny to thick overcast, from exhilarating to subdued (depressed?) depending on the variable clouds.
Above, on the miraculously clear afternoon of 5 December the moon rose over still water at Duck Hollow. Below, a line of clouds at sunrise painted the sky red on 2 December.
The next day I was scouting for crows on Mt. Washington when crepuscular rays peeked through the clouds at sunset. Do you see the crows? They’re tiny black dots in the sky.
The clouds were so low on 6 December that fog engulfed the top of the Cathedral of Learning. Morela came down to Heinz Chapel’s scaffolding to look for birds in the nearby trees. Do you see her in the middle of the photo?
Last night’s clouds partially obscured the waning moon while moonlight made a colorful halo.
Today we’re back to overcast skies with 85% to 96% cloud cover for the next two days. Alas. No variation until Tuesday.
Seven years ago this week Dorothy, the peregrine matriarch at the Cathedral of Learning, permanently disappeared and was replaced by “Hope” a bird that had formerly nested at the Tarentum Bridge. (Click here to read about the changeover.)
Dorothy was the bird that got me hooked on peregrines. By December 2015 I had watched her for 14 years and was not surprised she disappeared because she was elderly and in ill health. It was hard to watch Dorothy’s decline. She had been so vibrant in her prime.
Much has changed in seven years. Dorothy’s successor was a grave disappointment but Hope’s successor, Morela, is as queenly as Dorothy herself. We are lucky to have her.
Today in a trip down memory lane here’s a video tribute to Dorothy.
November is a quiet time for Pittsburgh area peregrines. Most of them stay on territory all winter but expand their range because food is less abundant at this time of year. Some peregrines make brief trips away from home but roost on their “cliff” when they come back.
Above, at the Westinghouse Bridge last Saturday Dana Nesiti found the male of the local peregrine pair preening in the sun. Below, Jeff Cieslak took a zoomed-in photo of the Cathedral of Learning from about a mile away. Both peregrines were perched on the 38th floor ledge on the Heinz Chapel side. This is a reliable place to find them in November but you’ll need binoculars!
The snapshot camera sees Morela and Ecco at the nest via motion detection. In November they visit infrequently and don’t stay very long. This slideshow shows their visits in the past 10 days.
December will see the low point of local peregrine winter activity. In January the begin to think about spring. Watch for them here on the snapshot camera.