Eastern whip-poor-will at Magee Marsh, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 May 2020

Last evening six of us stood in a dirt parking lot deep in the woods of Washington County and waited for the whip-poor-wills. Twenty minutes after sunset they started to sing.

The eastern whip-poor-will says its name: “whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL.” If you’re close enough you can hear the introductory cluck described at Birds Of The World.

Three notes are easily discerned as the bird pronounces its name, and a fourth introductory cluck may be heard at close range.

— Birds Of The World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We were that close!

Eastern whip-poor-will, Hillman State Park, 26 May 2020 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Eastern whip-poor-wills prefer dry deciduous or mixed forests with little or no underbrush. Hillman State Park, where we were standing, fits the bill. Hillman is a large former strip mine with no amenities, managed for hunting by the PA Game Commission. The habitat and lack of people appeal to the birds.

When whip-poor-wills nest the female lays two eggs on the ground on top of dry leaves, choosing a place where sunlight makes dappled patterns to match her camouflaged plumage. Hall E. Harrison’s Birds’ Nests Field Guide explains:

Incubating bird sits close; when flushed flies silently away like a moth. Eggs usually discovered by accident rather than by search. Friend of author flushed female from 2 eggs, and returning later to point out nest was unable to find it. After careful study, author detected nearly invisible female incubating 4 ft (1.2 m) away.

Birds’ Nests Petersen Field Guide by Hall E. Harrison

Since they operate at night even a singing male is hard to find. As we approached our cars to leave, a whip-poor-will sounded very close. Barb Griffith found him in the dark, calling from a flat rock. This photo isn’t the bird we saw, but you get the idea.

Eastern whip-poor-will, Lancaster, MA, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Audio recording by Kate St. John)

Spring Wanes, Summer Begins

Golden alexanders, Schenley, 24 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 May 2020

Memorial Day was certainly the official start of summer with a high of 86 degrees F yesterday, 13 degrees above normal. The signs of spring are long gone, replaced by a lot of leaves.

With spring on the wane there are fewer plants to attract attention. Here’s what I’ve seen in Schenley Park, May 10 to 24.

  • Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), a perennial in the carrot family.
  • Squaw root (Conopholis americana), a non-photosynthesizing parasite on oak roots. This is a banner year for squaw root in Schenley.
  • Columbine (Aquilegia sp.) is mildly toxic to animals, which explains why the deer haven’t eaten it.
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowering on May 17. The pawpaws in Schenley grow in single-plant clumps so the flowers are not fertilized and rarely produce fruit.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) flowering on May 10, also toxic to deer.
Squaw root, Schenley Park, 10 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Columbine, Schenley Park, 24 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pawpaw flower, Schenley Park, 17 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Mayapple flower, Schenley Park, 10 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This beautiful flower hides under the mayapple’s leaves.

Mayapple blooming, Schenley Park, 10 May 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Five Little Foxes

  • Five little foxes, Schenley Park, 25 April 2020 (photo by Frank Izaguirre)

Looking back to a month ago…

Back in April, five little foxes lived with their mother in a den under the old log cabin in Schenley Park.

During the day, while mom was asleep, they came out to play inside the chain link fence that surrounds the cabin. Frank Izaguirre photographed them on 25 April 2020 and tweeted about them here.

Inevitably the fox kits attracted a crowd.

Six people watching the fox kits in Schenley Park, 27 April 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

As soon as they were old enough to move, their mother got them out of there.

The kits have grown up and haven’t been seen in a long time.

(photos by Frank Izaguirre @BirdIzLife)


Star-flowered lily-of-the-valley, 23 May 2020, Beach 11, Presque Isle State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday, in the midst of a warbler-filled visit to Presque Isle State Park, I paused to take a photo of this flower at Beach 11.

Star-flowered Solomon’s seal or Star-flowered lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum stellatum) is so beautiful that I thought it was an alien that escaped from a garden. Thankfully it is native to North America.

Read more about it here.

(photo by Kate St. John)

That Was Quick

Morela is no longer incubating her eggs though she roosts nearby, 23 May 2020 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

23 May 2020

Yesterday morning when I wrote about Morela incubating alone I said she would eventually stop. Little did I know that she already had.

In yesterday’s Day-in-a-Minute video she’s away from the nest most of the day, then perches nearby when present. She’s certainly not incubating.

Morela will eventually stop visiting the nest. So ends the nesting season.

The eggs will remain until it’s time for us humans to perform nest and camera maintenance next December or January.

(photo and vides from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Why Isn’t He Helping?

Morela incubating eggs, 21 May 2020, 6:24a (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

22 May 2020

Many who watch the Cathedral of Learning falconcam feel bad that Morela is incubating her eggs alone. Why isn’t one of her suitors, Terzo or Ecco, helping her incubate?

A clue comes from the answer to this question: What makes an an active raptor like a peregrine falcon want to stay immobile on eggs for more than a month?

Similar to us humans, the breeding season in birds is governed by hormones. Luteinizing hormones prompt testosterone production in males and progesterone (egg formation) in females. Then, as described in the Raptor Resource Project Blog

Shortly before incubation, female birds (and male birds that share incubation duties) experience another big hormonal change. Prolactin, a hormone which promotes incubation in birds, rises sharply while other hormones decrease. Opioid peptides stimulate prolactin secretion, which may explain why even active birds become lethargic while incubating their eggs.

What Makes Birds Incubate, Raptor Resource Project Blog

Morela is an active peregrine but after she laid her second egg her incubation hormones kicked in and she slowed way down. In this Day in a Minute video from 18 May 2020 you see her lying flat and often asleep on the eggs. Ecco arrived at 6:38pm, photo below.

Ecco sometimes approaches the eggs as if he’ll incubate but mostly he’s in courtship mode (see this 13 minute video). On Tuesday morning before dawn (19 May 2020) he came to the nest and greeted Morela. When she left he approached the eggs, but didn’t incubate.

It appears that Ecco knows what to do but is unable to begin. I suspect his incubation hormones have not kicked in.

Morela will stop incubating when her prolactin shuts off. Meanwhile she’ll spend time away from the eggs on a daily basis, “stretching her legs.” Without steady incubation the eggs won’t survive.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

No Tent Caterpillars This Year?

Tentworms on a choke cherry branch, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tentworms on a choke cherry branch, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In a normal spring tent caterpillars would have constructed gauzy tents in the cherry trees just before the leaves unfurled. This year I haven’t seen any tent caterpillars and we’re already at “Full Leaf”(*) in Schenley Park. Did our unusually cold spring kill them?

The absence of tent caterpillars affects birds, especially yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos who rely on them as a food staple. Perhaps the absence of tent caterpillars explains why cuckoos are scarce this year.

To find out what we’re missing, see this May 2007 article: Tents.

(*)”Full Leaf” is my own term for the point when all the trees have leaves.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Who Says Starlings Can’t Talk?!

Starling accustomed to people, Bristol UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male European starlings mimic the sounds they hear. In the U.S. they’re an invasive alien species so they’re allowed as pets (other songbirds are not!). Put the two together and you get a #smartstarling. Click on the image to see the video.

NOTE: If you don’t hear anything when the Twitter video plays, click the speaker icon on the video at bottom right.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot from Nick P. Williams @TheFalconBirder)

Peregrine Chicks Downtown

Dori feeding chicks, male watching, 18 May 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)

19 May 2020

The only way to see into the Downtown peregrine nest on Third Avenue is to observe it from Mt. Washington. Yesterday Lori Maggio took long range photos from the overlook and saw Dori, some chicks and Dori’s mate!

Here are her photos and observations:

I looked this afternoon between 1:30 and 2 pm and saw both Dori and the male in the nest and what I believe was Dori feeding the chick(s). When I first got up there I could only see Dori and what I believe a chick under her.  When I looked a few minutes later I saw both adults.  He was standing at the opening of the nest and it appeared as though Dori was feeding the chick(s). I imagine he brought the prey to her.  After a few minutes in the nest he flew out.  So it appears that she and her mate are raising at least one chick.  I have included some pictures and one of what the nest site looks like empty so you can compare.

— email from Lori Maggio, 18 May 2020

For comparison, here’s the nest site at other times of year when there are no peregrines nesting in it.

COMPARISON PHOTO: Downtown nest site outside the nesting season (photo by Lori Maggio)
Dori and chick in Downtown nest, 18 May 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio) … Dori’s back is to the camera. Her mate has not arrived yet.
Dori feeding chicks, male watching, 18 May 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Dori feeding chicks, male watching, 18 May 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Dori feeding chicks, male watching, 18 May 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Yay! There are peregrine chicks Downtown!

Thank you, Lori, for the photos.

(photos by Lori Maggio)

No Mate In Sight

Morela with eggs, calling from the nest, 17 May 2020, 18:15 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

18 May 2020

Yesterday at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest, Morela incubated her eggs most of the time but took breaks in the morning and afternoon. This timelapse video gives you an idea of much time she spent on the eggs.

At 9:03am Morela stood up and bowed to an unseen male peregrine who was out of camera view. He never came down to the nest.

Morela bows to a male peregrine who is off camera, 17 May 2020, 9:03am

In the 6 o’clock hour Morela called but neither Terzo nor Ecco showed up.

Incubation was intermittent and no mate arrived to help. With this sort of treatment, Morela’s eggs are not going to hatch.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)