Next week the last survey window opens for counting nightjars by the light of the moon. It’s a fun way to go birding on a moonlit night — June 20 to July 6, 2018.
Nightjars are a worldwide family of nocturnal/crepuscular birds that eat flying insects on the wing. They have long wings, short legs, short bills and very wide mouths. Two of these cryptically-colored species are found in Pennsylvania:
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), in flight above, breeds in cities and open habitat, grasslands, dunes.
Nightjar surveys are easy to perform and will not take more than two hours to complete. Volunteers conduct roadside counts at night, on scheduled bright moonlit nights, by driving and stopping at 10 points along a predetermined 9-mile route. At each point, the observer counts all Nightjars seen or heard during a 6-minute period.
A Virginia Rail out in the open. Why is it visible? (Mittry Lake, AZ, 23 April 2018. photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Shaking off water (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Gathering food (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Carrying food ... where? (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail feeding 2 chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks following parent (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Wait for us! (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
The further south you go, the earlier the birds nest. In late April we’re excited that Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) have just returned to Pennsylvania. In southern Arizona they already have families.
Steve Valasek found this out when he went looking for black rails (a very rare bird!) at Mittry Lake in Yuma County, Arizona on 23 April. He didn’t find a black rail but he did find tiny rails that were black.
When he spotted a Virginia rail out in the open he wondered, ” Why isn’t it hiding like they normally do?” In this slideshow of his photos you’ll find out why.
p.s. The Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania says the median egg date for Virginia rails in our state is 6 June. Since the eggs are incubated for 19 days and the chicks are precocial (they walk from the nest), the right time to see a Virginia Rail family in Pennsylvania would be early July. Good luck! They’re usually impossible to find.
We don’t think of swallows as songbirds but indeed they do sing. Our largest swallow, the purple martin (Progne subis), has a unique sound that carries far. With practice, you can recognize their voices even when you can’t see them.
Purple martins nest communally so the best place to learn their song is near a purple martin colony.
In early summer near their nests, you’ll hear songs, creaky rattles and the sound of begging juveniles. (Purple martins vocalizing near their nest, including begging calls of young, from Xeno Canto XC139568 by Russ Wigh)
The throaty, gurgling chirps are unique to purple martins. When you hear it overhead, look for a nearby colony and go see the swallows sing.
At this time of year the weevils appear. I found one on black locust leaves in Schenley Park on Friday June 8.
At first, they hang out on plants but they can fly. In a “big year” they spread everywhere, landing on buildings and people and just about anything. By late June people are freaking out. They think they’re ticks.
But you won’t freak out. You’ll know what they are.
This is a yellow poplar weevil (Odontopus calceatus), a vegetarian that feasts on yellow poplars, tuliptrees, sassafras and cucumber magnolia trees. He’s usually kept in check by predatory insects but in “big years” there aren’t enough predators and his population goes wild.
The weevil’s body structure shows why he’s not a tick:
Ticks have 8 legs (they’re related to spiders). Weevils have 6.
Ticks don’t have wings. Weevils have wings under their elytra (wing covers). Though they don’t fly much you may see one raise his wing covers and zoom away.
Ticks do not have snouts. Weevils have snouts like inflexible elephants’ trunks and 2 antennas on the snout.
Ticks never swarm. Weevils swarm in June because they’re mating.
Later in June when the weevils swarm, amaze your friends . “Nope, it’s not a tick.”
Here’s a plant you don’t see every day in Pennsylvania.
False Indigo or Indigobush (Amorpha fruticosa) is a shrub-sized member of the legume family (Fabaceae) native to North America. It normally occurs from south central Canada to northern Mexico but it’s cultivated for gardens and has escaped to the wild in New England and the Pacific Northwest.
The escapees have caused problems. False indigo is easy to grow and it tends to form dense thickets. Since each plant is 4-18 feet tall and even wider than tall, it’s a problem where it’s unwanted. Connecticut and Washington state have listed it as invasive.
The flowers are unusual for the pea family. The plant’s 3-8 inch racemes are covered in small purple or dark blue flowers with yellow anthers sticking out. Unlike normal pea flowers false indigo’s have only one lip, hence the genus name for the plant: Amorpha, meaning formless or deformed.
Its common name is “false” indigo because it produces such a tiny amount of indigo pigment.
Yesterday Patience Fisher and I went birding in Clarion County. On the way back I said, “Let’s go look at peregrines.”
Promising a view of peregrine falcons can ruin one’s credibility but I was hoping to see them at the Rt 422 Graff Bridge near Kittanning. I thought they’d be there but their nesting status hadn’t been confirmed yet. So why not try?
As soon as we got out of our cars in Manorville I heard and saw a begging juvenile calling from the power tower. Before I could get him in the scope he left the tower, pursuing another peregrine.
We walked the Armstrong Trail in the direction the two birds flew. Finding the adult pictured above was easy. She was perched on the bridge catwalk, looking down into the trees below, and kakking. Elsewhere under the bridge — not nearby — we heard another begging juvenile.
Success! I borrowed Patience’s cellphone to digiscope the adult.
We certainly saw one adult and one juvenile. I think the distant begging sound was a second juvenile. Here’s how I reached that conclusion:
Guess #1: The first juvenile pursued the adult to that area of the bridge but he landed below in a place she considered unsafe, so she was kakking to tell him to move. I’ve seen this kind of interaction at Pitt. Kakking means “I see danger.” Kakking without dive-bombing means the danger is not a predator to be driven away — so the danger is something else.
Guess #2: I think there are two juveniles. The other begging call was far away from the original action and its tone sounded like a juvenile who thought it couldn’t/wouldn’t fly to pursue the adult.
Guess #3: The adult was female. This is the shakiest guess of all. Could have been the male.
If you’d like to see these birds for yourself, visit the viewing area soon. Click here for directions.
(photo by Kate St. John; thanks to Patience Fisher for loaning her cellphone)
If you miss seeing nesting peregrines on camera here’s a raptor family to watch online. As of last night (June 5), there were two chicks and one egg still to go at an osprey nest in Montana.
The nest is in Hellgate Canyon next to the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana. It looks like a very public place but the birds are right next to the river. The Hellgate valley is so narrow here that the river, the railroad, some businesses, and Interstate 90 are all close by. We see and hear I-90 traffic in the background. (Click here for a map of the site.)
Peregrine nesting season is in transition. Some nests have fledged, others are still in progress. Here’s an update from last week’s most active peregrine sites in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh
Peregrine watching was exciting near Heinz Chapel last weekend.
Peter Bell’s video above (Pitt Peregrines Facebook page) shows how close the birds were. As he says, “The challenge of photographing peregrines … they’re comfortable up high and far away. This is Hope on Heinz Chapel – what is considered extremely low, about 250 feet up.”
Peter snapped the top photo around 3:30p on Saturday (June 2) as Hope flew away from two aggressive juveniles on the Heinz Chapel roof. She was carrying prey but she wouldn’t let them have it because it was part of her lesson plan. Ignoring the lesson, they rushed her.
I joined Peter at 4p and we walked — sometimes ran — to follow the action in the air. Overhead two really loud juveniles whined for food, flew at breakneck speed, and chased their mother. On the ground, wedding after wedding emerged from Heinz Chapel and posed for photos by the lawn.
Eventually the two dramas nearly collided. Dangling prey, Hope flew from Heinz Chapel toward the Cathedral of Learning urging a juvenile to flip upside down to receive it. He flipped, she dropped it, and … he missed! Good thing it hit the lawn and instead of the bridesmaids!
The two youngsters fledged May 29 and 31, spent the first few days landing on the Cathedral of Learning, then graduated to Heinz Chapel and Alumni Hall. By yesterday afternoon, June 4, the entire family was hard to find. They’re further away from home as the parents teach the young how to hunt.
Westinghouse Bridge over Turtle Creek, Monongahela watershed, Allegheny County
John English and I visited the Westinghouse Bridge around noon on Sunday June 3 and found the juveniles ledge walking and shouting at their mother, “Feed me!” We eventually saw the entire family — both adults flying and three juveniles on the arch.
In the photo below, a juvenile has his head turned away to look at his mother. You can see the “eye spots” on the back of his head that are meant to fool predators.
Elizabeth Bridge, Monongahela River, Allegheny County
John and I then drove up the Monongahela River to look for peregrines at the Elizabeth Bridge. From our vantage point at the waterfront we saw two adults and heard a youngster begging from the nest area but we didn’t see any juveniles. What we didn’t know is that a juvenile had flown recently because …
Around 2pm a young peregrine was seen on the road in the center of the bridge’s northbound lane but traffic in the construction zone was too intense to stop (reported here by Walter Marchewka). Fortunately Philip Tyler was able to retrieve the bird and take him to rehab. The youngster hit his head quite hard and is being treated for head trauma. (Click here for Philip Tyler’s report on Facebook.)
UPDATE, Tuesday afternoon, June 5: Sadly another juvenile peregrine was found dead on the bridge deck (road surface) this morning. Game Warden Doug Bergman retrieved its body.
Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River, Allegheny-Westmoreland Counties
Amber VanStrien has good news from the Tarentum Bridge last weekend. Using her zoom camera from the nearby upstream park she photographed two chicks moving around in the nest box.