Sunrise on Friday 15 January was a deep crimson red. Though it was sunny for a couple of hours yesterday, gusty wind arrived at 9:30a and rain followed five hours later.
Mackerel sky without rain.
A mackerel sky can predict rain 6-8 hours later, but that wasn’t the case over Frick Park on Saturday 9 January 2021. The day was brilliantly sunny for two hours but became overcast by 5p. These clouds were the leading edge.
Are they a “mackerel sky” or not? What do you think?
Meanwhile, I’d say the bottom right corner is a Harbinger of Gloom.
It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:
The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.
House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.
In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more. If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.
If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.
(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)
The smartest bird in the western hemisphere, the common raven (Corvus corax), has come to town and is claiming nest sites in the City of Pittsburgh. Ravens have been seen in Schenley Park, above, and are regularly found at Forbes Avenue in Frick Park. This is a big deal because…
Common ravens were extirpated from eastern North America by 1900. After 1950 they slowly recolonized remote areas of the north and Appalachians but were rarely seen in eastern cities. We were very surprised when a pair showed up at Brunot’s Island in October 2007 and eventually nested there. Since then, very slowly, ravens have become more visible in Pittsburgh.
[When the car noise abates briefly at 0:19 below you can almost hear what the raven is saying, a muted “whup … whup”.]
Yes – just down the road apiece from your boyhood diorama … here he is trying to convey his passion for another raven in the trees below the bridge but being drowned out by traffic. A cyclist saw me videoing and said, wow – that’s a really big crow! pic.twitter.com/3AC4IzaIHR
In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.
St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.
And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.
Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.
p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Zoopla; click on the captions to see the originals)
Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.
Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.
I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.
The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.
In the next 10 weeks peregrine falcons will court and claim nest sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, then lay eggs mid-March to early April. Right now through mid-March is the best time to see them. Here’s an update on recently active sites and information on locations where observers are needed. Get outdoors and look for peregrines! I hope you can help.
Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh:
Morela arrives, 8 Jan 2021, 7:54a
Morela jumps to the roof perch, 8:01a
Terzo arrives, 8:12a
Morela joins Terzo at the nest, 8 Jan 2021, 8:12a
Terzo leaves, 8:14a
Terzo returns briefly, 8:18a
Morela jumps to the roof perch, 8:19a
Terzo again, watching the sky, 11:35a
Terzo leaves after 13 mins at the nest, 11:48a
It’s easy to watch peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning because they’re on camera. The snapshot camera captured Morela and Terzo courting on 8 Jan 2021 as shown in the slideshow above. Stop by Schenley Plaza and look for them on or above the building. The streaming camera will start running in February.
If I was to bet where the Downtown peregrines will nest this year, I’d say there’s a 90% chance they’ll be at the Third Avenue site, shown above, where they’ve nested for the last three years. Though the roof rehabilitation project is done at the Gulf Tower, the nestbox probably hasn’t been reinstalled. I’m awaiting news from the Game Commission. Meanwhile, observers are needed Downtown! Let me know if you see anything.
OHIO RIVER, Neville Island I-79 Bridge — no nest in 2021 and 2022.
PennDOT’s rehabilitation of the Neville Island I-79 Bridge will encompass the full length of the bridge through the 2021 and 2022 peregrine nesting seasons. Peregrines will be excluded from the bridge during that entire time so they can’t start to nest and then fail. We hope the bridge pair finds an alternate site nearby, but we won’t know where they are until we look for them. Observers needed! Look for peregrines in the Ohio Valley. Be alert for battles over an existing site.
OHIO RIVER, Monaca Railroad Bridge:
Peregrine on South Tower, Monaca Railroad Bridge, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Closeup of peregrine on South Tower, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Female peregrine, Monaca RR Bridge, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Peregrines bow at Monaca RR Bridge, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Male flies away after bowing (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Male perches on Monaca RR Bridge, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)
Speaking of the Ohio Valley, on 4 Jan 2021 Jeff Cieslak found a peregrine pair at the Monaca Railroad Bridge, perching, bowing and flying as shown in the slideshow above. If you’d like to see for yourself, stop by the north shore of the Ohio River in Beaver and Bridgewater PA at the sites marked by Jeff Cieslak on the map below.
OHIO RIVER, Ambridge Bridge:
Again in the Ohio Valley, Mark Vass saw a peregrine at the Ambridge Bridge on 3 Jan 2021. This bridge had an active pair in spring 2020 though nesting was not confirmed. Watch this bridge for more excitement.
Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.
This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.
And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.
Went to see the European Starling murmurations in San Rafael, CA yesterday, and wow was it an experience. pic.twitter.com/Zh5Jf941Kr
Huge flocks of crows roost in Portland, Oregon in the winter just as they do Pittsburgh. By 2017 the city realized that the crows’ huge sanitation problem could not be solved with cleanup crews and pyrotechnics so they turned to a team of falconers.
This 9-minute video from Oregon Public Broadcasting, published in November 2018, shows how trained Harris hawks — which normally operate during the day — move the crows at night. Awesome!
(screenshot from OPB video; click on the caption to see the original)