Identifying Bird Song: You Know More Than You Think

Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)
Eastern phoebe, Schenley Park, 27 May 2018 (photo by Peter Bell)

After months of silence, spring is coming and the birds are singing again. It’s the best time of year to practice identifying birds by song.

No matter your skill level there’s always more to learn. If you’re an expert, it’s time to practice songs heard only once a year during spring migration. (Cape May warbler!)

If you’re new to bird song you probably think, “It’s so hard to learn bird song. I don’t know anything!”

Here are two hot tips to help birders at any level.

Tip #1: You’ll learn the song better if you see the bird singing. We humans are visual learners. Look for the unknown singer and watch him sing.

The eastern phoebe pictured above looks plain but he’s easy to identify by song because he says his name: FEE bee! FEE bee! The author of the video below went looking for the bird to watch him sing. It’s a bit seasick-making 😉

Tip #2: Keep at it! You already know some bird songs. Just build from there, one bird at a time.

Here are three birds most people can identify. I bet you can, too.

Bird #1 (Xeno Canto 454252, recorded in Norfolk County, MA by Will Sweet)

Bird #2 (Xeno Canto 421264, recorded in Tompkins County, NY by Gabriel Leite)

Bird #3 (Xeno Canto 399153, recorded in Harrison Hills Park, Allegheny County, PA by Aidan Place) This recording is faint so you may have to turn up the sound … and hear it raining.

You already know more than you think.

(photo of eastern phoebe by Peter Bell. Xeno Canto recordings identified and linked in the captions above)

Hays Woods Public Feedback Meeting, April 3

Hays Woods is a 660 acre forest in the City of Pittsburgh (image courtesy Friends of Hays Woods)

If you care about Pittsburgh’s city parks or you’re interested in the Hays bald eagles you’ll want to attend the upcoming Hays Woods Task Force Public Feedback Meeting on Wednesday April 3 at Holy Angels Parish.

Hays Woods is a forested 600 acre tract in the City of Pittsburgh that’s so large and so remote that most people don’t know it’s there. Its forest, meadows, wetlands and streams are surrounded by steep wooded slopes that are home to the Hays bald eagles.

Most people have never set foot in Hays Woods because it’s been private property for so long. In 2016, with an eye to making it a city park, Mayor Bill Peduto worked with the URA to purchase it from Pittsburgh Development Group II. He then appointed co-chairs Former Mayor Tom Murphy and Councilman Corey O’Connor to form the Hays Woods Task Force to make recommendations on the site’s future.

A scene from Hays Woods (photo from Western PA Conservancy’s Environmental Assessment)

On Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 6:30pm at Holy Angels Parish, 408 Baldwin Road, Pittsburgh PA 15234 the Hays Woods Task Force will present its draft recommendations and ask for public feedback.

As a member of the Task Force I can tell you that we’re very enthusiastic about Hays Woods and look forward to all of it becoming a low impact park.

Come find out about Hays Woods and the Task Force recommendations. Learn about the timeline as it moves from URA ownership to City public access to a full-fledged public park. Give us feedback on Hays Woods’ future.

For more information see:

(photo credits: Forest in the City courtesy Friends of Hays Woods, Bald eagle at Hays by Dana Nesiti Eagles of Hays PA, Hays woodland photograph by Western PA Conservancy, flyer from the Hays Woods Task Force)

It’s Time For Ducks and Robins

Ruddy duck (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

If you like to watch the seasons change take some time to go birding this weekend. Ducks, robins and blackbirds are on the move.

Last Tuesday at Moraine State Park, my friends and I saw 16 species of waterfowl including tundra swans, three kinds of mergansers, a rare red-throated loon, and ruddy ducks like the one pictured above. (Notice his breeding plumage, blue bill.)

Migrating species change as you travel east. Last Tuesday at Yellow Creek State Park — only 70 miles east — there were 855 canvasbacks! We didn’t see any at Moraine.

Meanwhile American robins are arriving in good numbers. They sing at dawn in my neighborhood even though they haven’t reached their destination. Pretty soon they’ll be singing in the dark, too.

American robin in March (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Watch for red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and killdeer. They’ve just arrived in Pittsburgh.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer,

News of Downtown Pittsburgh’s Peregrines

Peregrine at the nest ledge on Third Avenue, 28 Feb 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Every spring we wonder where Downtown Pittsburgh’s peregrine falcons will decide to nest. Thanks to Lori Maggio’s recent observations and photos, we’re pretty certain they’ve chosen their favorite site at Third Avenue. We also think this pair is still Dori and Louie (more on that later). Here’s the news from the past two weeks.

Above, the Louie perches at the Third Avenue nest ledge on February 28. Below, the pair sits atop Point Park University’s Lawrence Hall.

Peregrine pair perched on the top corners of Point Park University’s Lawrence Hall, 28 Feb 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Someone perched on a Lawrence Hall window ledge. I wish that bird was outside my window!

Peregrine on the window ledge at Lawrence Hall, 28 Feb 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

On March 1, Louie waited on the “rescue porch” railing while Dori was inside the nest area.

Male peregrine perched on the “rescue porch” railing while female is in the nest area, 1 March 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Lori snapped the following two photos while she walked across the Smithfield Street Bridge. Yes, you can see a peregrine standing in the nest area from that distance! Lori zoomed her camera.

Peregrine in the Third Avenue nest area as seen from Station Square, 1 March 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Peregrine in the Third Avenue nest area as seen from Smithfield Street Bridge, 1 March 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

On March 8 Louie was perched at the nest ledge and flew away.

Peregrine on the nest ledge and flying away, 8 March 2019 (photos by Lori Maggio)

Lori’s observations and photos helped us decide that these birds are still Dori and Louie because …

  • Their behavior is the same toward each other. (I’ve always seen a change in behavior — unusually intense courtship — when there’s a change in individual birds.)
  • They have all the same favorite perches. (New birds pick new favorite perches.)
  • The male’s feathers are pale and they always look rough, not smooth. I may be wrong but … Paleness indicates to me that this bird is male. Roughness indicates a bird in ill health or advanced age. In Louie’s case, it’s advanced age. He’s 17 this year, the same age as his mother Dorothy was when she passed away at Pitt.
  • The male is banded black/green with a silver USFW band. Though we can’t read the bands from Lori’s photos, the colors match Louie so he’s not out of the running.

Here’s another photo of the ruffled-looking male. He looks like Louie to me.

Peregrine on the nest ledge, 8 March 2019 (photo by Lori Maggio)

p.s. In case you missed it, we knew the peregrines wouldn’t nest at Gulf Tower this year because of roof construction. The nestbox was removed (temporarily) in January; the Gulf Tower camera is not operational. Gulf Tower will install a new nestbox when construction is completed. For more information read No Nest at Gulf This Year.

(photos by Lori Maggio)

Versatile White-Eyes

Japanese white-eye in Kauai, Hawaii (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Seven years ago I wrote about the beautiful white eye ring on a bird named the silvereye (Zosterops lateralis), native to Australia and New Zealand. In Hawaii I saw a similar bird, the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus).

They’re different species in the same genus, Zosterops.

Japanese white-eye and silvereye (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

It turns out there are 100 species in the Zosterops genus (minus three recently extinct). They range from Africa to India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Australia and many islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

These versatile little birds — only the size of a chickadee — usually arrive at new locations on their own. They showed up in New Zealand in 1832 and 1856, presumably blown east in a storm from Australia.

Humans helped white-eyes get to Hawaii. We introduced Japanese white-eyes to Oahu in 1929, but these resourceful little birds have now spread to all the other Hawaiian Islands.

Wherever they go, Zosterops tend to differentiate themselves quickly and become new species. Maybe the Japanese white-eye in Hawaii will morph into the “Hawaiian white-eye” in a few hundred years.

See more about the silvereye in this vintage blog: Eye Ring.

Second Peregrine Egg at Pitt

Hope with two eggs, 14 March 2019, 2:42a

Thursday morning, 14 March 2019 at 2:30am, the female peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning laid her second egg.

The snapshot below shows Hope just after she laid the egg, holding her feathers away to allow it to dry.

Watch the Pitt peregrine nest on the National Aviary falconcam.

p.s. Thank you to Luann Walz for alerting me to this event.

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

A 26-Foot Wall Of Water

In Hilo, Hawaii there’s a palm tree in the city’s bayside park with metal rings on its trunk. Each ring is marked with a year and the height in feet. The highest one (arrow on my photo above) says “26 feet, 1946.” It memorializes a tsunami that spawned the Pacific Tsunami Warning System.

Tsunamis, sometimes called tidal waves, are seismic sea waves caused by earthquakes, underwater landslides or explosions. They happen when the ocean is abruptly displaced, as shown in this tsunami animation.

In the wee hours of 1 April 1946 a massive underwater earthquake struck offshore in the Aleutians near Unimak Island, Alaska. It was so massive that it created a 114-foot wave that swept away Unimak’s new lighthouse. The rest of it raced across the Pacific Ocean at 500 miles per hour and hit Hilo five hours later around 7am.

Hilo had no idea the tsunami was coming. Some people were mesmerized as the bay sucked loudly out to sea and exposed floundering fish. When the water returned in five surging waves, the highest was a 26 foot wall of water. Everyone ran away. 159 people died. The town was destroyed. (Note the wave in the background of this photo taken as the tsunami arrived in 1946.)

People run from tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i, 1 April 1946 ( photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The palm tree was there when it happened. The 26-foot marker shows the debris line left by the 1946 tsunami plus three other large tsunamis that passed the tree: 15 feet in 1960, 12 feet in 1952 and 8 feet in 1957. This video from September 2018 explains the markers (starting at the 1:19 timemark with the narrator’s face).

The following video shows After and Before photos taken in 2010 and taken at the moment the tsunami hit the trees.

Ultimately, the disaster had a positive outcome. By 1949 the U.S. had installed a warning system, now called the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, to detect earthquakes and warn of potential tsunamis. Throughout Hawaii you’ll see signs and sirens to tell you where to evacuate and when to leave.

Tsunami evacuation signs and sirens in Hawaii (images from Hawaii Emergency Management)

It was a terrifying 26-foot wall of water but it led to a safer future.

(photo credits: palm tree by Kate St. John, 1946 photo from Wikimedia Commons, videos by Aaron and by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, Warning sign and siren from Hawaii Emergency Management)

Peregrine Nests Are Different

Hope sleeps on the perch at left while her first egg of 2019 rests nearby (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

With 10,000 species of birds on earth, there’s a lot of variety in their methods for nesting, incubating eggs, and raising young. You can see this on the Hays bald eaglecam and the Cathedral of Learning peregrine falconcam, now that there are eggs in both nests. Here’s what we’ve seen already.

Bald eagles …

  • Place their nests in trees within sight of water.
  • Build their nests of sticks and line them with grasses
  • Begin incubation(*) immediately, as soon as the first egg is laid.

Peregrine falcons …

  • Place their nests on sheer cliffs (traditional nest site) or on buildings or bridges that resemble cliffs.
  • Don’t “build” a nest. Instead they use a high ledge that has deep gravel, dirt or dust and scrape a bowl in the substrate to hold the eggs.
  • Delay incubation until the next-to-last egg is laid. Note that when it’s cold and there are only one or two eggs in the nest, the adult bird will periodically cover the eggs without heating them.

The photo above shows Hope perched at her nest before dawn without “sitting” on her first egg. Even though the temperature was close to freezing at the time, she didn’t have to keep the egg warm because she hadn’t begun incubation.

And here’s Terzo guarding the egg while Hope eats breakfast.

If you’re used to nesting robins, chickens and bald eagles, peregrines are certainly different.

Watch the Cathedral of Learning peregrines on the National Aviary falconcam. For more cool facts about them see my Peregrine FAQs.

(*) Incubation is when the bird opens its belly feathers and lays its bare skin against the eggs to heat them. Constant warmth is required for the embryo to develop.

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

First Egg of 2019 at Pitt Peregrine Nest

Hope with her first egg of 2019 (snapshot camera), 11 March 5:37pm

Monday, 11 March 2019:

This afternoon at about 5:22pm Hope, the female peregrine falcon at the Cathedral of Learning, laid her first egg of the season.

Here she is in two snapshots, above and below.

Hope with her first egg (main camera), March 13, 5:35pm

Every year she lays an egg approximately every other day until she reaches a total of four. Expect her next egg on March 13.

Watch her on the National Aviary falconcam.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at University of Pittsburgh)