Category Archives: Peregrines

On Finding Pellets

Red-tailed hawk casting a pellet, 2018 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

22 January 2023

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.

Peregrine pellets from Cathedral of Learning nestbox, 9 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

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!

Closeup of peregrine pellet (photo by Kate St. John)

I imagine the pellets came from Morela since the green perch is one of her favorite places to rest and digest.

Morela casting a pellet, 17 Dec 2021 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

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.

Pellet found at Audubon Greenway, 18 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alternate view of pellet found at Audubon Greenway, 18 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A Google search revealed that great horned owl pellets are 3 to 4 inches long, usually cylindrical and tightly compacted. This one may have opened up because it was soaked by heavy rain.

Great-horned owl clutching a feather (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So what did the owl eat? Whose big tooth was that?

Learn more about owl pellets at The Owl Pages: Digestion in Owls.

* p.s. There is no fur in peregrine pellets because they don’t eat mammals, only birds.

(photos from Chad+Chris Saladin, Kate St. John, the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh and Wikimedia Commons)

Up To The Rooftop

Ecco about to leap up to the roof at the Pitt peregrine nest, 20 Jan 2023

21 January 2023

Peregrine news at the Cathedral of Learning is pretty quiet lately.

Morela did not stop by the nest yesterday but Ecco visited a couple of times including a surprise approach to the snapshot camera.

His favorite way to leave was by jumping to the roof.

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

Pitt Peregrine Highlights in 2022

Morela defends her chicks on Banding Day, 26 May 2022 (photo by Mike Drazdzinski at Univ of Pittsburgh)

15 January 2023

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.

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)!
  • When the chicks began ledge walking Yellow Girl fell in the gully. Red Boy came down to visit her. She jumped back up a couple of days later.
  • We had fun at Fledge Watch in early June.
  • Red Boy was found dead at the Allegheny County Airport on 28 June just 23 days after he fledged.
  • Both female chicks were loud! Yellow Girl demanded a handout and Silver Girl screeched all day on 6 July. Eventually they left home for good.
  • Ecco and Morela molt in July and August.
  • And they remain at Pitt year-round.

26 April 2022: Pitt Peregrine Chicks on Hatch Day, 4pm Feeding

28 May 2022: Ooops off the nest! One of the chicks falls in the gully.

31 May 2022: Back in the nest! Yellow Girl returns from the gully.

6 July 2022: Screeching all day … in July! Silver Girl demands a handout.

(slideshow photos by The National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, Mike Drazdzinski at Univ of Pittsburgh, John English, Jeff Cieslak)

Nestbox Maintenance With Peregrines

10 January 2023

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.
Deterioration on the back wall of Pitt peregrine nestbox (photo, October 2022)

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.

Before and After: The sun lights up the dirt on the snapshot camera (photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

When we come back Morela will get another chance to feel triumphant that we left because she chased us off. 😉

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

A Few Things Seen

A red oak felled at Anderson Playground in Schenley Park, 30 Dec 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

7 January 2023

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.

(nest photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh, all other photos and video by Kate St. John)

Winter Sojourn at the Nest

Morela in snow at the nest, 19 December 2022 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

20 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. 😉

(snapshots from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh; music from YouTube: The Closing of Summer by Asher Fulero)

Pigeon For Lunch

SW carrying pigeon prey, Cleveland, Ohio in 2010 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

13 December 2022

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!

Keystone carrying pigeon prey, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

The feathers drifted slowly to the ground. Pigeon feathers.

Someone had pigeon for lunch.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)

p.s. As partial compensation I saw a merlin at Schenley Park’s golf course at 2:42pm in a setting like this.

Variable Cloudiness

Rising moon reflected in the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 5 Dec 2022, 4:23pm (photo by Kate St. John)

10 December 2022

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.

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 2 Dec 2022, 7:16am (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Crepuscular rays at sunset with crows in flight to Mt Washington’s “Saddle,” 3 Dec 2022, 4:42pm (photo by Kate St. John)

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?

Peregrine on Heinz Chapel scaffolding, 6 Dec 2022, 12:39pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night’s clouds partially obscured the waning moon while moonlight made a colorful halo.

Moon halo, 9 Dec 2022, 7:57pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’re back to overcast skies with 85% to 96% cloud cover for the next two days. Alas. No variation until Tuesday.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seven Years After Dorothy

Dorothy at the Cathedral of Learning, 5 March 2012 (photo by Pat Szczepanski)

1 December 2022

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.

The key to Dorothy’s long life may have that E2 was such a good mate.

p.s. Hope turned out to be Hopeless but that’s a story for another day.

(photo at top by Pat Szczepanski in 2012)

Just a Little Peregrine Activity

Male peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 19 November 2022 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

22 November 2022

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!

Cathedral of Learning with two peregrines, 17 November 2022 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

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.

(photos by Dana Nesiti, Jeff Cieslak and the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Definition: “cliff” = in the urban setting their home cliff is a bridge or building.