Earlier this month Morela preened at the nest and frequently paused to raise her beak and open wide (photo at top). She was not shouting. She was casting a pellet.
Like other birds of prey, the peregrine’s digestive system gathers indigestible bits of feather and bone into a pellet in the gizzard. When the pellet is big enough the bird regurgitates it. If you found a peregrine pellet it would not be as interesting as an owl pellet because it is just fractured bits and pieces. Peregrines don’t swallow their prey whole like owls do.
It is rare to witness the actual casting. The snapshots show Morela preparing to cast the pellet but we never see it leave her body. She looks our way when it’s over.
In May 2020 the Richmond, Virginia falconcam captured video of their unbanded female casting a pellet near the nest. Though it looks to us as if she’s sick, what she’s doing is completely normal and necessary.
Around the winter solstice the Pitt peregrines are well aware the days are shorter. They make the most of every minute.
For instance, on 19 December they bowed at the nest at 9:45am.
Then Morela shook off some downy feathers and preened for half an hour.
In mid afternoon 50 pigeons poured off the top ledge of this building in such a tight ball that I suspected a peregrine had caused it. Not just one peregrine. There were two! Morela and Ecco were cooperatively hunting, a sign of their close pair bond.
Morela dove to break the flock’s ball while Ecco chased the loners that missed rejoining the group. This went on for at least 20 minutes with so many near misses that I began to think the peregrines were having fun as they worked together for their dinner. When it was over the pigeons drifted back to the ledge, unconcerned.
The pigeons are improving their flying skills. So are the peregrines.
p.s. Morela spent more than two hours preening and hanging out at the nest on Wednesday 22 December and the pair bowed together on Christmas Eve (at top). On sunny days check the snapshot camera to see if she’s there. Unfortunately we’re in for several days of rain this week.
The Cathedral of Learning peregrines remain on campus all winter, keeping tabs on their territory making it safe for future nesting.
On Friday I saw an adult red-tailed hawk circling up over the museum and thought for his sake, “You’re asking for it!” Sure enough, both peregrines popped off the Cathedral of Learning and zoomed down to relentlessly dive on the hawk until he flew low between buildings at Carnegie Mellon.
Scaffolding has been rising at Heinz Chapel but I paid no attention until a peregrine found it interesting. On Wednesday 8 December I noticed a dot on the top rung. Through binoculars I identified Morela checking out the new view (circled).
Meanwhile Morela and Ecco are thinking of spring even though the winter solstice is more than a week away. Their abbreviated bonding rituals are becoming more elaborate as they bow they turn their heads, nearly touch beaks. Both have been digging the scrape(*) and Morela sometimes pauses to stand in it.
Here’s a selection of their goings on in early December.
Ecco waits for Morela to arrive
Ecco and Morela bow
Morela digs the scrape where she will lay her eggs in March
Morela standing over the scrape as she will do before laying eggs in March
p.s. The scrape (*) is the depression in the gravel where Morela will lay her eggs.
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.
Ecco bows; Morela off camera
Morela and Ecco nearly touching beaks
Peregrines are brightening our gloomy winter days.
Last year’s work-from-home COVID restrictions kept most University of Pittsburgh faculty, staff and students away from campus. The peregrines could perch anywhere on the Cathedral of Learning with no one to see. Now everyone is back and the peregrines are observing people inside the building. On Tuesday morning Morela looked into Dr. Alan Juffs’ window from a favorite dining ledge where he first saw her back in 2019.
The peregrines eat at this perch but also cache food for future meals. When Morela left the ledge, Juffs photographed some cached prey.
Mike Fialkovich helped me identify the two birds in this pile. On the left an American woodcock, on the right an eastern meadowlark.
Neither of these prey species lands on campus because both require wilder habitats. American woodcocks live in young forests and shrubby fields, meadowlarks require grasslands. However both are migrating over the Cathedral of Learning this month. They migrate at night.
Peregrines capture their prey in flight so to catch these birds they would have been hunting at night in the glow of the city lights.
By Thursday morning the meadowlark had been eaten, the woodcock was still cached.
(photos by Dr. Alan Juffs, University of Pittsburgh)
Large earthquakes are unusual in Australia so it was surprising when a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck near Mansfield, Victoria at 9:15am on Wednesday 22 Sept 2021(*). It rattled Melbourne 65 miles away.
When the earthquake began the male peregrine was on the nest incubating four eggs. At first he crouched low but as it continued he jumped up, looked around, and flew away with a wail. Watch him return to the nest in less than two minutes.
Incubation was successful and the chicks hatched on 30 September (watch video here). The “kids” have been growing rapidly ever since, thanks to many feedings. Here’s a recent feeding, Thursday morning 7 Oct 2021 at 7:15am(*).
There aren’t many birds on Earth that can fly upside down or backwards.
Peregrine falcons, like fighter jets, are powerful precision fliers that can fly upside down if they want to. Though we usually miss seeing it, Chad+Chis Saladin have photographed several episodes.
Above, more than a decade ago a peregrine nicknamed Stammy nested in Youngstown, Ohio after hatching at the Cathedral of Learning in 2003. When he was a youngster I saw his father Erie do a back flip and fly upside down in front of his “kids” on the nest rail. In the photo above, Stammy shows what he learned from his dad.
Below, you might be fooled that this peregrine is flying normally because of the position of its wings and head. Wrong! It’s upside down. Notice that its dark back is facing the ground while its white-and-gray underside is facing up. The bird twisted its head almost 180 degrees to focus on prey while it dives. Perhaps this optical illusion is why we don’t realize peregrines are flying upside down right in front of us.
Peregrines can flap while they’re upside down, then turn sideways to right themselves.
Flying upside down (photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)
Turning right side up (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)
Hummingbirds break all the rules. They’re the only birds that can fly both upside down and backwards. Here are two videos from southern California that show hummingbirds in …
Our hummingbirds have left for the winter but there are still plenty of them in the southern tier. Watch hummingbird feeders from southern California to Florida to see them fly upside down and backwards.
Though courtship season is four months away and egg laying won’t begin until March, Morela and Ecco have been cementing their pair bond by bowing at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest nearly every day. Sometimes one remains at the nest to preen.
On Wednesday 22 September it was warm and windy as a line of storms approached from the west. When Ecco and Morela bowed at 11am, Morela became distracted. “What’s that?”
Ecco stayed behind to catch some sun on his back.
Late in the afternoon the rain began in Oakland in small shower-like drops. Morela opened her wings to bathe.
Watch the pair’s activities in this 2-minute video: Bowing and bathing at the Pitt peregrine nest.