I can’t count how many times I’ve stood at the edge of a woodland, listening to a Hermit Thrush sing, trying to pinpoint the sound and find the bird in the undergrowth or on a low bough. The thrush is often impossible to locate, seemingly singing right at your feet but completely invisible, despite being a fairly large, round bird.
Therefore I was startled into near-laughter when one flew across my path the other day, and although I didn’t get to enjoy it’s lyrical, echoing song, I did get a very nice look at it’s spotted tummy and russet red tail.
Quite a treat for a winter afternoon in Pittsburgh, PA.
There’s nothing better, in my experience, than a water treatment system if you’re looking for interesting birds (of all sorts). I have spent many happy hours in these man-made wetlands, searching for bitterns and rails and warblers and sparrows, and always hoping for a raptor of some sort.
I was in Florida in January, and thoroughly enjoyed a day at Viera Wetlands, a water reclamation facility operated by Brevard County. 200 acres, split into a maze of dikes and “cells” and even a deep water lake; home to lots of big, exciting birds (and plenty of little ones too.) Coming back to bird in Pittsburgh, PA, after that trip wasn’t as disheartening as you might think, due to the area’s surprisingly rich variety of habitat – but amid all the forest and river spots, I was missing a proper man-made wetland.
Just in time, a friend pointed me in the direction of Wingfield Pines – a passive abandoned mine drainage system not far outside the city of Pittsburgh, near the townships of Upper St. Clair and South Fayette. Perfect!
Wingfield Pines is 87 acres of land, in the floodplain of Chartiers Creek (hence the mud I ran into on my visit!) Like so many places in Western PA, the land was used and abused for decades, and Chartiers Creek was filling up with 43 tons of iron oxide from nearby abandoned mines. Once the treatment/drainage system was laid in, using gravity and a series of ponds the water now arrives in the creek relatively clear of pollutants. You can see the process in action as you walk the trails and boardwalks across the site – the upper ponds are orange and murky, while the bottom ponds are bluish and green.
When I visited about a week ago it was cold and sunny, and the Red-winged Blackbirds were holding down the fort until more exciting species return from their winter ventures. A Pileated Woodpecker (or two, probably) was busy in the woods nearby, zooming across the dikes at one point to hammer on a dead tree at the center of the system. There were Killdeer scooting around in the frozen reeds, and a few Mallards in the creek.
The best bird (always, when it appears!) was a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. I saw the female first, and guessed the species based on rough size and shape even though the bird was in deep shade. Then the male popped up onto a tree branch and the winter sun threw a spotlight on him, making the deep blue on his head and back zing. What a wonderful sight!
Both birds peered around them for a bit before dropping down to get some more grub, I assume, and I lost track of them while I was digging myself out of the mud…
I’ll be back to Wingfield Pines in a few weeks to see what I see, and even if it’s nothing new, if I see the Bluebirds I’ll be more than content.
I went to check for interesting ducks around “the Point”, the spot in Pittsburgh, PA, where the 3 rivers converge (the Allegheny and Monongahela handing off the ball to the Ohio). The water was very high still, about a week ago, and there were no ducks, no gulls, or practically any other birds to speak of – save for a Double-crested Cormorant, keeping an eye on things from the top of a post a short distance from the North Shore.
It only briefly caught my interest, but caused a great deal more excitement for a couple who were out walking their dog – and I was happy to ID it for them. We marveled together at this prehistoric looking creature, then went on our separate ways, all a bit wiser and cheerier because of the meeting.
I got to spend a few hours along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, PA, the other day. There wasn’t much species diversity, or really very many birds at all, but plenty of sunshine and history to indulge in. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail is a wonderful system of paved walking/biking paths along the riverfronts in Pittsburgh, with plenty of interpretive signs that offer info on abandoned railroad bridges and weird looking barge anchorages, and clues to where Washington slept after his raft capsized in an icy Allegheny River one winter.
I took some time to thoroughly explore Herrs Island (more recently named Washington’s Landing, but only in “honor” of the fact that Washington walked across the ice and spent the night on a nearby sandbar that has since become part of Lawrenceville). Herrs Island has a lot of interesting history of it’s own, although it is mostly of a smelly sort. It served as stockyards and the home of slaughterhouses and rendering plants for many years, and was an official brownfield site by the time the city decided to redevelop it in the 1970’s.
Like many places in Pittsburgh, Herrs Island is now a testament to a terrific cleanup and conservation effort. I walked along the trail that loops the island, skirting the edge of a little neighborhood of townhouses, a pretty Marina, and the Three Rivers Rowing Association outfit. The trail is very pleasant, with numerous overlooks that offer views of downtown on one end of the island, and the Washington’s Landing Bridge at the other end.
I can imagine that in the warmer months there are a lot more little birds on the island, but as detailed in the comic above, I mostly saw Song Sparrows – which, to be clear, are a favorite bird of mine. Their busy, songful ways are always enjoyable to encounter, and although at first glance they may seem just sort of streaky and brown overall, longer looks will reveal pretty greys and reddish tints. Nothing beats their energetic song, usually broadcast from exposed perches, as though they want to fill as much air as possible with their varying trills.
I was locating yet another Song Sparrow when I caught sight of a smaller bird flitting about in the vines growing on a tall tree along the steep side of the island. It was a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, with the sun really catching the yellow cap on it’s head. I got a nice look because it actually sat still for 30 seconds.
Then it was back to the Song Sparrows (and Robins, Cardinals, and Canada Geese…) and the rest of a March afternoon on the Allegheny.
This comic does not capture the stunned look on my face when I went down to Duck Hollow (in Pittsburgh, PA) on Saturday, and saw that the Monongahela River had flooded. From the parking lot I usually look down at least 15 feet to the water level, but on Saturday I could barely get into the parking lot. Not that the birds really cared…!
I found my way to Duck Hollow (in Pittsburgh, PA) a few years ago, following the end of the Nine Mile Run trail at the bottom of Frick Park, winding with the stream through the old slag heaps until the trail ended at Old Browns Hill Road. Looking left, down under and beyond a railroad trestle bridge, I could see the glint of the Monongahela River, so I trekked down the road. At the bottom there was a big parking lot, and (as it turned out) always someone fishing off the edge.
From there, I discovered that you could walk down river on a wide paved path for a mile or so, passing beneath the Homestead Grays Bridge and continuing on to the Glenwood B&O Railroad Bridge, nearly to Hazelwood. Or for the more adventurous days, you could venture up the river on a muddy, wild “trail” of sorts, towards Braddock, as far as the Pinkerton Landing Bridge.
There is a very small neighborhood down in Duck Hollow, secreted away at the edge of the river, but despite my usual curiosity, I’ve never gone poking around among the dozen or so houses. Let the residents of Duck Hollow keep their peace.
There’s plenty to see along the river anyway – it’s one of the great spots for birds in the city. Ducks aplenty, of course, although mostly Mallards. Canada Geese usually, and in the winter there are lots of seagulls. But now and then there will be an “interesting duck”.
I revisit this memory from last winter only because every time that I have been down to Duck Hollow recently I have seen the male Common Merganser. Even through a rain-slicked windshield the other day, his sides were bright white and I could see the red of his bill.
Aside from this, the river has been quiet lately, but I’ll keep an eye out for Bufflehead and other even more interesting ducks as the winter concludes. There’s the resident Belted Kingfisher pair to say hello to as well, and soon enough the surrounding trees will have bright little warblers in them.
For now, I’m content to watch the Common Merganser patrol, and wait patiently with the rest of the birds for warmer, brighter days.
This happened the other day in Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA.
Raptors are my favorite birds, and around Pittsburgh, PA, I see Red-tailed Hawks most often. I’m never disappointed by this very common bird. They’re fierce and yet funny – big, brawny, and on a mission. They have a great air of purpose, whether they are gliding high over Nine Mile Run, or sitting stoically in a tree in Frick Park, watching the world jog by.
The other day I was excited when a little Sharp-shinned Hawk zinged past me. They’re the smallest hawk in North America, and are often seen in a blur – they’re super fast! This one was following the same path I was on, coming in the other direction, and it whizzed by only a few feet above my head. I turned to watch it zip up to the top of a huge, white-trunked Sycamore tree.
I noticed the other occupant of the tree only when I brought my binoculars up for a closer peep at the Sharp-shinned. It seemed to see the Red-tailed Hawk sitting two feet away at the same time, and pinged back into the air, feigning nonchalance I imagined, and certainly showing healthy respect for the much larger raptor.
I hope it soon found a different tree, where it could be master of its own kingdom without the shadow of another hawk looming…! I resumed my walk with a laugh.