Category Archives: Peregrines

A Swift Game of Skittles

Peregrine approaches, dangling a menacing foot, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

19 September 2021

The rooftop deck of my building overlooks the largest chimney swift roost in the Pittsburgh area, the Cathedral Mansions chimney, so I wasn’t surprised when Sarah Koenig of Audubon Society of Western PA emailed to arrange a location for a live online Chimney Swift Watch.

(Roosting chimney is on the left, below, with a sun pillar coming up on its right during today’s sunrise.)

Sun pillar next to tall chimney (swift roost) at Cathedral Mansions, 19 Sept 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately the situation at this chimney looked boring for a live event. Since Hurricane Ida I haven’t seen many swifts but I decided to make sure. On Thursday evening, 16 September, I went to the roof at sunset to count the swifts.

Chimney swifts near a peregrine nest site in Ohio, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

By 7:40pm about 100 swifts were circling the chimney and one had just dropped in. Suddenly I was distracted by a large bug that banged right into me. I brushed it away and I looked at the chimney again and there were no swifts at all! I’d been distracted for mere seconds and I know it takes many minutes for the flock to drop in. Where did they go? As I waited and watched, the swift inside the chimney came out and flew away, too. Huh?

I tried again last night, Saturday 18 September. This time I looked for all species. I saw 400+ crows heading for Oakland after sunset and a peregrine perched on the Cathedral of Learning.

As the sky darkened I focused exclusively on the chimney. Again, 100+ swifts circled the chimney and I waited to count them when they dropped in. It was 7:40pm.

Cathedral Mansions chimney with swifts circling, September 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

And then they were gone.

But this time I knew why. As I watched a peregrine approached the chimney from the darkened eastern sky. He could see the flock silhouetted against the sky but the swifts couldn’t see him until he flew through the flock and scattered them like bowling pins.

Peregrine approaches a flock, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

For the peregrine it was a game of skittles. For the swifts it was life or death. Peregrines can grab swifts in the air. Maybe he did.

Peregrine with chimney swift prey at St. Ignatius, 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

This swift game of skittles is new behavior for the Pitt peregrines but it may be that Ecco is trying out new things during his first autumn at Pitt.

I hope he gets over these sunset games. I’d like to see a lot more swifts at the chimney.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Kate St. John, Michelle Kienholz)

Bonding and a Lot of Preening

Morela and Ecco pair bonding, 10 Sep 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

12 September 2021

The Pitt peregrine falcons, Morela and Ecco, are staying close to home and watching fall migration as it passes through Pittsburgh. Every day they visit the nest, bow to strengthen their pair bond, and preen on camera. On 10 September they met twice at the nest, shown below.

A few days ago I wrote about birds that twist their necks. Watch Morela preen the spot between her shoulder blades. I can touch that spot with my fingertips but it’s a stretch!

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

Some Peregrines Don’t Migrate

Peregrine in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons by Imran Shah)

7 September 2021

As fall migration continues, raptors swell the southbound stream. At the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (closest to Pittsburgh), broad-winged hawks peak in September, sharp-shinned hawks in October, red-tails in late October, and golden eagles in November. Peregrines are rarely seen, averaging just 34 individuals per season. Their numbers peak in the first week of October.

Peregrines are rare at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch because they are not numerous to begin with and the watch is far from their typical migration routes. However, many peregrines are never counted on migration because they don’t migrate at all. It depends on where they breed.

Arctic peregrines are truly migratory. Their food sources — nesting shorebirds, seabirds, and songbirds — leave the arctic from July through September so the peregrines must leave, too. A decade ago The Southern Cross Peregrine Project (SCPP) satellite tracked a dozen arctic peregrines wintering in Chile and found that those that breed in northeastern Canada always leave around the September equinox.

From there, unless major weather diverts them, northeastern arctic peregrines typically fly due south to join the Atlantic Flyway. In the spring they track west and follow the Central Flyway. The map below shows five years of satellite tracking of an arctic peregrine, “Island Girl,” on her migration south from Canada to Chile (red) and returning in the spring (blue).

5-year map of arctic peregrine -- Island Girl -- migration routes (map from Southern Cross Peregrine Project)
5-year map of an Arctic Peregrine’s migration routes (Island Girl map from Southern Cross Peregrine Project) NOTE: As of 2021 frg-org is no longer on the Internet

Meanwhile adult peregrines in eastern North America generally don’t migrate at all. Urban peregrines remain on territory year round because their food supply is constant (pigeons) and actually increases in the fall when migratory songbirds arrive for the winter. Adult peregrines may move a short distance during winter scarcity but not necessarily south. Juveniles definitely wander.

The animated PA Game Commission map below shows nine months of wandering by a juvenile peregrine that hatched at the Gulf Tower in Spring 2002. The bird left Pittsburgh on 1 July and wandered to New Jersey, the Chesapeake, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. This was only the beginning.

Telemetry map of juvenile peregrine falcon banded at the Gulf Tower in Spring 2002 (animation from PA Game Commission, 2003)
Telemetry map of juvenile peregrine falcon banded at the Gulf Tower in Spring 2002 (animation from PA Game Commission, 2003) This animation is no longer available on the PGC website

Juvenile peregrines wander until they reach maturity at age two, then wander to find a breeding territory. Good nesting “cliffs” are scarce so these floaters may wander for years. When they finally claim a nesting site they won’t leave home unless an even better site becomes available.

Peregrine falcon flies by in Trenton, MI, September 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Do Pittsburgh’s peregrines migrate? No. I see them in person and on the National Aviary nestcam from November through February when migratory peregrines are in South America.

Pittsburgh’s peregrines stay close to home.

Read more about Canada-to-Chile migratory peregrines in these vintage articles: Going The Distance and Follow an Arctic Peregrine on Migration.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Telemetry map of juvenile peregrine falcon banded at the Gulf Tower in Spring 2002 (animation from PA Game Commission, 2003). This animation is no longer available on the PGC website)

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)

A Tree in the Nestbox?

What is growing in the Pitt peregrine nestbox? (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

29 August 2021

Something big and green is growing in the Pitt peregrines’ nestbox. What is it?

It first appeared as a small green smudge in late July. You can barely see it in this photo of Morela.

By 2 August the smudge matched the green perch. Ecco ignored it.

By 27 August it was hard to ignore. Ecco gave it more space.

The leaves remind me of black locust but trees usually don’t have a growth spurt in late summer. Weeds do.

It’s probably a weed. Can you identify it?

Meanwhile, don’t worry that the weed will be a lasting problem. We plan to remove it during annual nestbox maintenance this winter. Even if we didn’t it won’t interrupt nesting. Young peregrines are fine with weeds as shown in this 5 June 2010 snapshot from the Gulf Tower.

Click here and scroll to the bottom for an up-to-date look at the Pitt snapshot camera. What do you think it is? Is it wild senna?

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Univ of Pittsburgh in 2021 and Gulf Tower in 2010)

A Little Pair Bonding

Morela preens at the green perch, 12:24pm 12 August 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

15 August 2021

Mid-August is a quiet time for the Cathedral of Learning peregrine falcons. This year’s youngsters have left the area to begin their life adventures while the adults stay close to home and wrap up their annual molt.

Morela and Ecco rarely visited the nestbox in July but last Thursday 12 August they spent eight minutes bowing together. They were not courting. They were strengthening their pair bond.

In other news, I usually don’t check the snapshot camera but when I did so on Monday 9 August at 4:44am Morela was perched there in the dark. This was a one-time event.

Morela before dawn, 4:44am, 9 August 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

To check the snapshot camera scroll down on this webpage to see the 2nd image. NOTE: The first image is the streaming camera which is not functioning now.

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

Peregrines up, Goshawks down

Peregrine falcon mother feeding chicks, Ohio, 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

4 August 2021

“The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners today gave preliminary approval to remove the peregrine falcon from the state’s threatened species list and place the northern goshawk on the state’s endangered-species list.” — PA Game Commission Press Release, 24 July 2021

In Pennsylvania peregrines are up, goshawks are down.

Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) went extinct east of the Mississippi in the 1960’s due to the long lasting effects of DDT. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1972 peregrines were among the first to be added to the list. Pennsylvania had gone from 44 nesting pairs to none.

Peregrine falcon at Gull Point, Presque Isle State Park, 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Thanks to the Peregrine Recovery Program, captive-bred peregrines were released in the eastern U.S. in the 1970s through 1990s. The descendants of those birds thrive in new places, including Pittsburgh, in cities and on man-made structures. There are now 73 nesting pairs in Pennsylvania and their population is secure. Their recovery took 50 years.

Peregrine falcon Dorothy at the Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, June 2012 (photo by Peter Bell)

In my lifetime peregrine falcons went from extinct in Pennsylvania to my very own Yard Bird. What a happy day!

Unfortunately the news is not happy for northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) a shy, fierce raptor of the northern woods. Goshawks are so shy in the U.S. that human presence in their nesting zone can cause the nest to fail. (They are not as shy in Europe, photo below.)

Northern goshawk, Netherlands, 2018 (photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Goshawks have experienced range contraction and a dramatic population decline in Pennsylvania in the past 20 years. Though never plentiful, I haven’t seen one since 2018 and that was in Newfoundland, Canada.

Northern goshawk on nest, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Classifying the northern goshawk as an endangered species would further protect it by limiting or delaying certain activities within northern goshawk breeding habitat during courtship and nesting seasons.” — PA Game Commission Press Release, 24 July 2021

I look forward to a brighter future for the northern goshawk.

Approval of the peregrine’s and goshawk’s status will be brought to a final vote at the PA Game Commissioners’ September 2021 meeting.

For more information read this Trib-Live article by Mary Ann Thomas and the PA Game Commission 24 July 2021 press release.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Steve Gosser, Peter Bell, Martha de Jong-Lantink and Wikimedia Commons; click on the linked captions to see the originals)

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)

A Little Pair Bonding

18 July 2021

This spring Ecco and Morela successfully raised four young peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning. All four fledged in early June and became independent in the subsequent weeks. One or two stopped by for a handout in early July but Ecco and Morela were having none of it. “You’re on your own.”

Now that the “kids” are gone (wrong! see below), Ecco and Morela are molting and staying close to home. In the past two days they have visited the nest several times and bowed together for a little pair bonding.

p.s. In the slide with Morela’s open wings, notice that she is replacing her middle two tail feathers. The white tips are halfway down her tail.

UPDATE 18 July 2021 at 5pm: The “kids” aren’t all gone. One of the youngsters was circling and begging loudly at 5pm at the Cathedral of Learning.

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