Egg laying season is coming up soon at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest where Ecco and Carla are courting frequently.
Yesterday they held three long courting sessions that included bowing, ee-chupping, and nest preparation. The ee-chup call sounds different for male and female peregrines. Ecco’s voice is squeaky while Carla’s voice is rough and slightly lower in pitch. She’s the one that makes the “huh” sound. You can hear the difference in this 6-minute video. More information on what they are up to is described below.
After bowing, Ecco left the nest so Carla could make preparations on her own. To limber up she stretched her right wing and leg.
To “build” the nest, Carla put her chest against one edge of it and kicked the gravel out with her feet. The nest itself is a bowl in the gravel, called a scrape, for holding eggs so they don’t roll off the cliff. Peregrines don’t use sticks to build their nests.
After digging Carla puttered around on the gravel surface, swallowing small pieces of gravel to aid digestion. Birds add gravel to their gizzards to grind the food. Learn more about How Birds Chew at the link.
And when she was done Carla flew away.
A few weeks from now, after Carla lays her next-to-last egg, she’ll stay at the nest to incubate.
From now until the middle of April peregrine falcons in southwestern Pennsylvania are courting and claiming territory, perching prominently, and performing conspicuous aerial displays. As soon as they start incubating eggs they’ll become very secretive so if you want to see a peregrine or record breeding activity for the new Breeding Bird Atlas 2024-2029, this is a great time to do it.
Look for peregrines in the next 6 weeks.
The red and blue pin drops, 1 Dec 2023 — 24 Feb 2024, on the eBird map below confirm that the best places to look are near tall buildings or bridges. There are also a few surprising locations such as Mammoth Lake Park in Westmoreland County.
11 peregrine territories have pairs present since January. Here’s the simpler map.
Of those 11 sites, five raised young last year and two more have a long history of nesting (7 boldface names below). The new and promising sites are boldface in the Notes column.
Peregrine Sites to Watch!
Looking for some excitement? Want to add Peregrine Falcon to the PA Breeding Bird Atlas? Check out these “hopefuls” for 2024.
Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River. This site also has pairs but no confirmation of nesting yet.
Monaca bridges over the Ohio River: RR Bridge or Rt51 Bridge. We know there are peregrines here but it’s hard to confirm breeding. Let this be a challenge to you!
Rt 422 Graff Bridge over the Allegheny River, Kittanning. We know there are peregrines here too, but with few observers we often don’t confirm breeding. Allegheny Valley People, let this be a challenge to you!
And … if you miss finding a peregrine in person you can usually count on a peregrine on camera at the Cathedral of Learning. Today they courted at dawn.
Keep your eyes peeled. Yes, there are peregrines out there!
Please leave a comment if you’ve see anything. I always want to know!
When last I wrote about the Pitt peregrines the resident female, Carla, was distracted –> While Ecco courts, Carla checks the sky. I was beginning to worry because she was absent from the nest six out of nine days. Fortunately she came back on the 16th and has been present every day.
Since then Ecco has stepped up his courtship moves. He likes to touch beaks and Carla obliges.
Last week, out of my office window (which looks at the church from Friendship), I could definitely see a raptor high up and stooping to dive bomb some small birds and wondered if it might be a peregrine. I’ll keep an eye out and see if anything else is brewing.
— message from Adam Knoerver, 7 Feb 2024
Later that day Adam checked onsite and immediately found both peregrines.
Confirmed peregrines at the church just now walking past. One darted off the ledge and flew over me and rejoined the other that was presumably eating (small feathers started to fall down).
— message from Adam Knoerver, 7 Feb 2024
He sent photos of the church steeple with circles indicating the peregrines’ locations. Their favorite spot is behind the “railing” on the west-northwest side, a likely choice for a nest location.
On Monday 12 February Adam saw peregrines circling the steeple and perching on nearby buildings.
Today I was able to spot what appeared to be the female (larger of the two, so…) perched atop the Walnut on Highland apartment across from the church. The bird has a very distinct and prominent peach-y color at the top of the breast, and the other bird (presumably the male) flew off the tower, circled around, and found another perch high atop the cross.
— Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook post by Adam Knoerver, 12 Feb 2024
Thanks to Adam’s efforts we know there’s a new peregrine pair in East Liberty.
In case you would like to check on them, take a look at the steeple on the west-northwest side that faces S. Whitfield Street.
And in case you’re wondering if the Pitt peregrines can see them, the answer is “Yes but not directly.”
The Cathedral of Learning nest faces south-southeast. The East Liberty peregrines face north-northwest. They are 1.82 miles apart but their view from nest to nest is oblique.
Courtship season is underway at the Pitt peregrine nest where Ecco and his mate Carla are cementing their pair bond. Apparently they are not the only peregrines in the area.
On 26 January I received news from Charles Bier who was instrumental in establishing the peregrine nestboxes at Gulf Tower and Pitt. Charles saw a pair in East Liberty.
I happened to be in East Liberty on this past January 12th, and I happened to notice 2 peregrines flying into the top of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. One of the birds landed high on the church tower and the other one did, or flew behind the tower at the same altitude. I do not know that this was a “pair”, but they were behaving within that context, and at this time of the year they would be focusing on high ledges.
So, I am wondering if a pair is known to be using this church, or if possibly it could have even been the Cathedral of Learning pair having a lunchtime outing to East Liberty. I quickly measured out the direct distance between the CoL and this church in East Liberty and it came out to about 1.9-miles. Back in the day, this distance would have been regarded as too close for comfort; re: 2 pairs in close proximity (that was an initial concern for the Gulf Tower and CoL pairs, which were about 2.3-miles apart). In any case, there are many factors involved and I doubt this distance would be a problem for them.
— email from Charles Bier, 26 January 2024
I replied that the Pitt peregrines generally stay close to home to defend their territory at this time of year, so maybe it’s a new pair.
Then, outside my window on Sunday 4 February, I saw a peregrine flying hard toward Shadyside from the direction of the Cathedral of Learning. This falcon was using territorial flappy flight to make itself obvious as it approached another peregrine of the same size — likely both females — circling up in the vicinity of Negley Avenue and Baum Boulevard. This intersection is about halfway between the Cathedral of Learning and East Liberty Presbyterian Church. It might be a boundary line.
The peregrines did not fight. Instead they both circled up apart from each other and went their separate ways.
This is the time of year when peregrines with a less than satisfactory nest site try to claim a better one. The Cathedral of Learning is the best site in town and Carla is new there(*) so of course the challengers are testing to see if she’s up to snuff.
Perhaps that explains why she was so distracted while Ecco was courting her on Saturday 3 February. Though the courtship session lasted 6 minutes, Carla spent 3 minutes looking at the sky. To save you time, I chopped out those (boring) three minutes with a fade.
Has the territorial boundary been settled? Are there challengers on the horizon?
Last September the 10 year old camera died after limping for years with a broken microphone and infrared light. It took us a while to notice (no one was watching) so the timing was fortunate. We had three months to get advice on cameras, choose a model, install it and learn how to use it before streaming began.
Long time peregrine fan Kim Getz coordinated the project for Pitt I.T. and it all came together on installation day. Lighthouse Electric removed the old equipment, ran wires, and installed the new microphone and camera. Kim volunteered to clean the nestbox and re-secure the green perches with zip ties. She gives a thumbs up to the snapshot camera when she’s done. Thankfully the peregrines did not harass the crew.
The new camera is quite an improvement over the old one with sharper focus, better reach, and of course audio and infrared night light. The nest view is narrower because it’s a tight space and this camera is about 2 inches closer due to the length of the wall mount arm. (All the new cameras have longer arms nowadays.)
Though we cannot change the camera view when the adult peregrines are present — it spooks them! — the presets in the slideshow below will come in handy when the young explore the gully, the nestrail, and the nestbox roof. The slides begin with Ecco preening on the green perch. Kim ran the camera through its paces when no peregrines were around.
What can we expect on camera this season? Last year was a disappointment with no peregrine eggs and chicks because the female, Morela, became egg bound and died in mid May. Two days after Morela disappeared a banded female peregrine, Carla (Black/Blue S/07, Fort Wayne, IN, 2020), arrived on site and has been there ever since. Late May was too late to nest in 2023 so this year will be Carla’s first nesting season.
Carla and Ecco have been courting and bowing since they met last year and are intensifying their attachment this winter. They bowed and touched beaks last month in these snapshots taken before streaming began. When you watch them in full screen you’ll see tiny bones on the gravel and be able to read Carla’s bands.
Thank You to everyone who helped make this project a success, especially …
The National Aviary and their Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill, whose commitment to broadcasting the Pitt peregrines’ nest has provided us with a new camera.
Pitt I.T. who assigned Kim Getz to manage the project and provided additional tech assistance. Kim’s knowledge, dedication, and connections within the University made everything flow smoothly.
As we anticipate peregrine nesting season at University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, let’s take a look back at last year’s highlights. Well actually “low lights.” The nest was not successful last year but the reason why gives us hope for great things for 2024.
Pitt Peregrine Highlights in 2023 (click the links for more detail)
The year began at the Cathedral of Learning with Ecco and Morela, the resident male and female. We hoped for a first egg around St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March.
Though it was too late to start a family in late May, Carla and Ecco have strengthened their pair bond ever since. This 4 minute video from 30 July, sped up to double-time, shows the pair bowing for an extended period. Notice that there was no sound on the video last year. I promise there will be sound this year!
Carla will nest for the first time this spring as we watch her on the National Aviary’s Falconcam that will begin streaming on 1 February.
It’s been 10 years since the spectacular winter of 2013-2014 when snowy owls irrupted in the Lower 48 States. That winter they invaded the Northeastern U.S. and traveled as far south as coastal North Carolina, Florida and Bermuda!
This year a few snowies are visiting the Great Lakes region but the only concentration of owls is in western Canada. You can see the difference in their eBird sightings in these maps of 2013-2014 versus 2023-2024. (Click here to see the eBird Explore map.)
In 2013-2014 there were so many snowy owls that photographers often saw peregrine falcons attacking them. Steve Gosser captured this still shot at Presque Isle State Park in December 2013.
Tom Johnson filmed two peregrines harassing snowy owls at Stone Harbor, New Jersey in January 2014.
It was also a snowy weather winter. 2013-2014 was very cold with enduring snow on the ground because of the “Polar Vortex.”
This year is much warmer — so much so that yesterday’s snow melted overnight, as seen at the Pitt peregrine nestbox.
My Audubon calendar had a surprise for me this morning. Today is National Bird Day, a little-known celebration established in 2002 by BornFreeUSA in coordination with the Avian Welfare Coalition. Since both organizations focus primarily on the well being of captive animals and birds, the celebration has not gained much notice in the birding community. However it’s a great excuse to celebrate my own favorite bird.
The peregrine falcon pictured above is the only wild bird I’ve ever been able to recognize and learn as an individual. Dorothy arrived at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in 2001 at age 2 and had her first successful nest in 2002, the year that National Bird Day was established.
As I got to know Dorothy I learned about her species and became addicted to peregrines. She also taught me a lot about herself and in retrospect the unique characteristics of her generation, the peregrines that repopulated eastern North America.
Dorothy died eight years ago and still is in my heart, especially as nesting season approaches. Here’s a look back at what a great bird she was. Never captive. Always wild.
Peregrines are the fastest animal on earth when they dive at 200 mph to catch their prey in flight. In fact they dive even faster when they’re hunting an evasive bird. The higher speed increases turning force so they’re more accurate at catching prey.
In 2005 Ken Franklin went sky diving with a peregrine to clock its maximum freefall speed at 242 mph (389 km/hr). In 2018 scientists wanted to study the details of the peregrines’ dive, but it was too hard to do in real time, so they created 3D simulations of a stooping peregrine pursuing a European starling.
The simulations showed that optimal speed for catching a bird in straight flight is 93 mph but if the prey is zig-zagging in the sky the best speed is 225 mph.
You’d think that the higher attack speeds would make it more difficult for falcons to adjust to a moving target. But the opposite turned out to be true: The predators were more maneuverable at higher speeds because they could generate more turning force; only then were they able to outmaneuver the highly agile starlings. So stoops don’t just help falcons quickly overtake prey—they also help the predators change directions.