Gentle With Their Young

Male Eurasian sparrowhawk plucking prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 February 2024

Birds of prey are fierce while they gather food but gentle with their nestlings. Watch as this mother Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) protects her babies from the rain.

If she looks familiar it’s because Eurasian sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) are the same genus and slightly larger than our sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus). But female sparrowhawks are brown compared to males, whereas adult male and female sharp-shinned hawks wear the same colorful plumage.

Here are photos of all three: female Eurasian sparrowhawk, adult (male / female) sharp-shinned hawk, and male sparrowhawk.

Eurasian sparrowhawk, female in UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Adult sharp-shinned hawk (left) + adult male Eurasian sparrowhawk (Wikimedia photos are at the links)

Did you notice the difference in eye color? Sparrowhawks have yellow eyes. Sharpies have orange eyes.

See more nature videos at Robert E. Fuller’s channel on YouTube.

(credits are in the captions)

Seed Swap! March 2

Common milkweed seeds tumbling out of the pod, Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 February 2024

March is right around the corner and gardening season is almost here. Are you itching to get started? Do you want to try new seeds in your garden? Do you have seeds to share with others? Then you won’t want to miss the 12th Annual Seed Swap at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Saturday 2 March, 10am – 2pm.

What: 12th Annual Seed Swap: A Celebration of Seeds
Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main, at 4400 Forbes Ave in Oakland.
When: Saturday, March 2 | 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
Event Partners: Phipps Conservatory, Grow Pittsburgh and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Virgin’s bower a.k.a. Old man’s beard. Gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Now in its 12th year, the Seed Swap is an annual collaboration between Phipps Conservatory, Grow Pittsburgh and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Phipps Conservatory’s website describes the event:

Bring your untreated, non-GMO seeds to share or just pick up seeds donated by local gardeners, farmers and seed companies! Any guest bringing seeds will be eligible to enter a raffle of fun gifts from Phipps and Grow Pittsburgh.

Event Features:

  • Free seeds
    • A new batch of seeds will be released every hour, on the hour!
  • “Ask a master gardener” table
  • Workshops on seed starting, seed saving, and organic gardening 
  • Creative activities for children and teens
  • Historic items on display and conversation with Rare Books Specialist
  • Raffle eligibility for attendees who bring seeds to swap

Show up any time but keep in mind that new seeds will be released every hour on the hour!

The Seed Swap is free. Registration is encouraged but not required. Click here to Register.

photo embedded from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Seed Swap registration page

p.s. Here’s another helpful tip from Phipps’ website: “Interested in purchasing seed? We’ve compiled a list of seed vendors for your reference. Check out Phipps’ Smart Seed Shopping web resource for more information!

(photos of seeds by Kate St. John, 2018 photo of Seed Swap by Nick Shapiro courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

First Egg at the Hays Eagle Nest, 2024

Hays bald eagle pair + first egg in nest, 21 Feb 2024, 6:57am (screenshot from the Hays Bald Eagle Nest Camera)

21 February 2024

If you haven’t been watching the Hays Bald Eaglecam, now is a good time to start. Sharp observers saw the first egg of the 2024 nesting season last night, 20 February 2024, at 8:16pm.

The female incubated all night long, then just before dawn she turned the egg for all to see.

Hays bald eagle female turns her first egg of 2024, 21 Feb, 6:50am (screenshot from the Hays Bald Eagle Nest Camera)

As the sun rose she settled down and her mate called to her.

Female eagle on the nest at Hays, 21 Feb 2024, 6:54am (screenshot from the Hays Bald Eagle Nest Camera)

… So she left the nest to perch next to him (shown at top).

First egg at the Hays bald eagle nest as seen on 21 Feb 2024, 6:55am (screenshot from the Hays Bald Eagle Nest Camera)

Watch for one or two more eggs in the days ahead and stay tuned for the first pip on this egg about 35 days from now. Here are all the links you need.

(screenshot photos from the Hays Bald Eagle Nest Camera)

Elephants Close to Us

Elephants drink at the Chobe River, Botswana, 28 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 February 2024

When I signed up for Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari (19 Jan-2 Feb 2024) I knew I would see hundreds of Life Birds but did not realize there would be an added bonus. Our tour was in the KAZA region, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, where wildlife roams freely. KAZA is home to the largest population of African elephants in the world.

KAZA Projects ArcGIS map from World Wildlife Fund, Germany — screenshot annotated with our locations

We saw elephants every day in the areas marked on the KAZA map above. Here is what I learned.

African bush elephants, also called African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are an endangered species having gone from a high of more than 2 million in 1800 to a low of 1,000 in the early 1900s. Now they number about 45,000 but are threatened by human encroachment, poaching, big game hunting (which prizes large tusks thus removing the best genes) and climate change.

Elephants live near fresh water because they must drink and bath so much. Climate change brings drought. Drought kills elephants. This summer there is a drought in southern Africa because of El Niño.

African elephants eat trees, leaves and even the cambium layer of bark. To chew this material they have four molars which they replace throughout their lives until they lose their last molar at age 40-60. Without molars they starve, a common cause of death. (This also happens to white-tailed deer who starve when their teeth wear out.) Tusks are modified teeth and both males and females have them.

We learned about elephant behavior by observing them.

Khulu Bush Camp, Zimbabwe:

Elephants lived close to us at Khulu Bush Camp. At night they roamed between our tent buildings; I could hear them munching. At midday they came out of the forest to the watering holes near camp to drink and coat themselves with mud against the 97°F afternoon heat.

The camp provides a pool of water and minerals attractive to elephants near the dining area which is elevated and protected by a small boma. We could safely view the elephants as they came quite close.

The elephants were close at hand at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

The females and young elephants move to the watering hole in a matriarchal herd.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

At first only one elephant drank from the pool.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

Then the crowd came close.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two days later a bachelor group showed up while an older male was drinking at the pool. The older male challenged them with a stern look. The younger males backed off.

Male elephant standoff at Khulu Bush Camp, 26 Jan 2024(video by Kate St. John)

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe:

On safari at Hwange National Park we saw a male elephant hanging out with a lone female. She disappeared into the forest while he appeared to be annoyed that we showed up. Perhaps he was guarding her as his own.

Chobe National Park, Botswana:

From a pontoon boat on the Chobe River we saw wildlife walking the shore at Chobe National Park. In late afternoon a small herd of elephants came to the river to drink and douse themselves with water. As this mother left the river we saw her baby nursing.

All these photos were taken with my cellphone! What a privilege to see African elephants so close.

p.s. Despite the threats to elephants there is one activity that helps them. Wildlife tourism is the #3 industry in the region & it prompts governments and people to protect wildlife.

Ecco Likes to Touch Beaks

Ecco and Carla touch beaks, 17 Feb 2024 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

19 February 2024

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.

Ecco and Carla court at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest, 17 Feb 2024 (video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Fingers crossed that everything has settled down.

Find out what happens next on the National Aviary Falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

Dr. David Livingstone monument at Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe, 22 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari, 19 Jan – 2 Feb 2024

18 February 2024

This statue of Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone stands in Zimbabwe at the western end of Victoria Falls. After African independence, European monuments were removed and European towns renamed but Livingstone’s statue still stands, the falls still bear the name he gave them(2), and the nearest town across the river is Livingstone, Zambia.

Twenty years ago, two attempts were made to remove Livingstone’s statue but “resistance to the removals from the local community has ensured that Livingstone’s statue remains where it was first erected, gazing sternly out towards Devil’s Cataract.(1)

Our Zimbabwean guide pointed to a word carved on the monument that is key to Livingstone’s legacy in Africa.


Dr. David Livingstone, 1864 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In America we think of Livingstone as a great explorer but in Africa it is his never-ending fight to end the slave trade that holds him in African hearts. Livingstone went to Africa as a Christian missionary doctor and fell in love with exploring, ultimately mapping three long journeys in southern and eastern Africa covering 40,000 miles(2).

Journeys of Dr. David Livingstone, final journey in red (map from Wikimedia Commons)

During his second expedition to the Zambezi River (1858-1864) he witnessed the horrors of the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade and vowed to end it. Men, women and children were captured in the interior and marched to trading posts on the Indian Ocean coast, one of which was Zanzibar a British colony ruled by Arabs.

East African slave trade (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone reasoned that if he became famous for finding the source of the Nile he could influence the British government to end the slave trade so he returned to Africa in 1866 to accomplish both goals.

Five years later, in the absence of news, Livingstone was presumed dead or lost. Instead he was still exploring, very weak and sick with malaria and without quinine to treat it because someone stole his medical kit. Meanwhile he wrote letters to Britain describing the slave trade but the slavers were the only ones available to carry his letters to the coast. Knowing that Livingstone was against slavery, they delivered only one of his 44 letters.

Livingstone’s disappearance was such a great mystery that the New York Herald sent journalist Henry Morton Stanley to Africa where he caught up with Livingstone at Ujiji in October 1871 and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Henry Morton Stanley greets Dr. David Livingstone at Ujiji (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone did not want to leave Africa so Stanley took Livingstone’s dispatches to Britain where they exposed the appalling massacres and cruelty of the slave trade.

British reaction was swift but Livingstone did not live to see it. “One month after his death, Great Britain signed a treaty with Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, halting the slave trade in that realm. The infamous slave market of Zanzibar was closed forever.(2)

More than any of his contemporaries, Livingstone succeeded in seeing Africa through African eyes.

Princeton University Library: David Livingstone, 1813-1873

p.s. In the U.S. most of us don’t realize that the West African slave trade that our country participated in was not the only source of slaves. Britain outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 but it continued elsewhere. For instance, Mauritania in West Africa did not impose penalties on its local slave trade until 2007. Today slavery persists in some parts of Africa. Read about Slavery in Contemporary Africa here.

(credits are in the captions) Footnotes on sources.

  1. Information on Dr. David Livingstone’s Statue, Siyabona Africa website.
  2. Summary of Livingstone’s life, Princeton University Library.
    • “Victoria Falls was the only site in Africa that Livingstone named with English words.”

In Which a Magpie Stalks a Cat

Eurasian magpie (by Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

16 February 2024

Why is this magpie annoying the cat?

When they aren’t viewing cats as threats to their young, Eurasian magpies (Pica pica) will follow them to sources of food.

Four Eurasian magpies and a cat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as this cat found a snack …

Eurasian magpie watches a cat eating bratwurst (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

… the magpie showed up to wait.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded)

Pollution Prevents Night Pollination

White-lined sphinx moth (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 February 2024

Plant pollination has been declining for many reasons including the absence of insects due to pesticides and habitat loss. Now a new reason has surfaced that has nothing to do with the number of flowers and bugs. Research has found that air pollution prevents nighttime pollination by turning off the scent of flowers.

The white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) is an important nighttime pollinator of purslane, primrose and rose. The research team led by J.K.Chan in eastern Washington, teased out the chemical emitted from pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) that attracts the hawkmoths.

Pale evening primrose, Oenothera pallida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The moths were particularly tuned to two different flavors of monoterpenes, a class of chemicals found in plant oils [that] evaporate quickly in the air. Moths, whose antennae are roughly as sensitive as a dog’s nose, can pick up the scent several kilometers away from a flower.

But there is an Achilles heel. When the researchers exposed the monoterpenes to NO3, it reacted with the oils, causing them to degrade by between 67% and 84%.

Anthropocene Magazine: Nighttime pollination is plummeting. Some clever sleuthing pinpointed a surprising culprit.

Air pollution doesn’t just change the scent of flowers. It erases the scent. The moths can’t find them.

Anthropocene Magazine continues, “While NO3 [a component of NOx] is less of a problem during the day because it breaks down in sunlight, it accumulates at night, when many pollinators, including the hawkmoths, are active.”

NOx causes trouble for humans, too, because it combines easily with VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) to create ground-level ozone (the bad ozone) and fine particulate which is inhaled so deeply into our lungs (PM2.5).

How pollution forms ground-level ozone (diagram from Wikimedia Commons)

If we reduce NOx pollution we help ourselves and plants at the same time.

(photos and diagram from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

New Peregrine Pair in East Liberty

Peregrines’ favorite location, probable nest site, East Liberty Presbyterian Church (photo by Adam Knoerver)

14 February 2024

Last week when I wrote that Charles Bier had seen two peregrines at Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Presbyterian Church in January, Adam Knoerver responded that he has too.

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.

Peregrines’ favorite location, East Liberty Presbyterian Church (photo by Adam Knoerver)

On Monday 12 February Adam saw peregrines circling the steeple and perching on nearby buildings.

Peregrine circling East Liberty Presbyterian steeple, 12 Feb 2024 (photo by Adam Knoerver)

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
Peregrine perched at Walnut on Highland building, 12 Feb 2024 (photo by Adam Knoerver)

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.

Google satellite view of East Liberty Presbyterian Church with steeple marked for peregrines
Google Street View of East Liberty Presbyterian Church from 199 S Whitfield St

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.

Distance between Cathedral of Learning and East Liberty Presbyterian Church via gmap-pedometer

Thank you, Adam, for keeping us up to date!

Check out the latest news in the private Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook group.

(photos by Adam Knoerver; maps from Google Maps)