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.
Eastern Screech-Owls are very common in wooded places, but like most owls they are creatures of the night and are more often heard than seen. However, if you’re lucky enough to discover a nook or tree cranny where one lives, you may be able to catch these little owls at home during the day. They are a grey or reddish-brown (”rufous”) puff ball with ear tuffs. You might get to meet their big yellow eyes, but during the day you are likely to come across them sleeping.
The one I saw recently in Schenley Park, here in Pittsburgh, PA, was just waking up and thinking about breakfast, perhaps. I first saw it a year ago and have gone to visit it now and again, not always finding it at home – but when I do, I get an overwhelming feeling of peace and ”all’s right with the world”.
During Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count 2017, I caught sight of a tiny, mouse-like Winter Wren bouncing along the edge of the stream in Frick Park. As I got my binoculars on it, a passing dog startled me, nearly sending me backwards into the snow and reeds. While I composed myself and gave the dog’s owner a curt nod, the Winter Wren, of course, disappeared.
I (and other birders) spent the better part of 3 hours continuing to look for it throughout the rest of the day. It did not turn up again along the edge of the Nine Mile Run, and I was forced to content myself with the abundant Carolina Wrens.
On Monday (1/15/18) I decided to go visit the Eastern Screech Owl that lives in a particular tree in Schenley Park. It was snowy and cold, and the owl wasn’t home when I arrived. Somewhat moodily I trudged down to the little stream that runs through Panther Hollow, figuring at least the icicles and snow sculptures would be interesting to look at.
The sun came out for a bit, lighting everything up and lifting my spirits too. I skittered down the icy path, trying not to slip into the stream but feeling quite cheerful about things in general. Suddenly a scampering movement caught my eye.
Winter Wrens are even smaller, rounder, and bouncier than other wrens. They don’t like flying much so they tend to skip, hop, and scurry along fallen logs, poking under roots and along the edge of streams looking for grubs and other insects. They aren’t flashy, but their mottled coloring has a nice checkered look to it. Their song makes up for their diminutive size – fun fact: per unit weight, a Winter Wren sings its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster! While not a rarity, they are simply harder to find than the other types of wrens that frequent this area.
I got a staccato look at the little guy, following it down the stream for a few moments as it popped in and out from behind snow-covered twigs and rocks, before it disappeared with an almost audible poof!
I continued along the little stream all the way down to where it puddles into Panther Hollow Lake. The shallow lake was frozen over, beyond where the water cleared a patch of reeds and cattails, and there were kids playing hockey on the ice.
The boys’ shouts carried across the water from the far side, intermingled with the call of a Song Sparrow – kimp-kimp!
Actually, on a second listen it was another Winter Wren, playing peek-a-boo in the reeds – or possibly the same wren from before, having bounced its way down the stream. I watched the wren until it tumbled out of sight, and the hockey game until my feet started to get cold.
Back home, to my surprise I found myself marking off the Winter Wren as a “life bird” on my list (kept officially since I was teenager) – yet more proof that Pittsburgh is one of the “birdiest” places I’ve ever lived, now that I am paying attention.
The annual Christmas Bird Count is a unique event – a community science project that has been going on for 117 years.
It began in 1900 when an ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed a “bird census” on Christmas Day, instead of the traditional “side hunt”, where hunters would compete to bring in the most quarry over the course of the day. Somehow, even on that first count, 27 birders went out in 25 different locations across the USA and Canada, and accounted for 90 species of birds.
The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running wildlife census of its type, and the collected data is important to numerous organizations and scientists who are monitoring bird health and developing conservation initiatives. It now takes place anytime between Dec. 14th-Jan. 5th depending on local organizers, and each year thousands of folks go out to officially check in with their neighborhood bird populations. The “CBC” has been managed by the Audubon Society since the beginning, and you can read more about the history of the event HERE.
I have fuzzy memories of going on Christmas Bird Counts as a kid with my Dad when we lived in New Mexico, getting up while it was still dark and walking out into the hogback to look for owls, or driving to a lake where sleepy ducks made funny noises as the sun crept over the top of the mesa.
My first CBC in Pittsburgh, PA, was not quite as mysterious – but it met the assumed CBC criteria of braving the elements in service of the birds. After a week of moderate temps, I woke on Dec. 30th to 18 degrees and snow. The roads in the city were treacherous, to say the least.
I had connected with the Three Rivers Birding Club a few weeks prior, and been assigned a portion of Frick Park that I frequent regularly, so fortunately for me I spent the day only a mile from my house (although to my credit – or as proof of my craziness – I never went home to warm up).
I wasn’t out before dawn, but I was down in the park by 8 AM. I had high hopes for the day, but faced with the weather my expectations, at least for the moment, were fairly low. I headed into Frick Park, at the Nine Mile Run end by the Irish Center, and hadn’t walked more than 5 steps before I saw a Northern Flicker. Even as I properly took note of the bird, other motion caught my eye and a Golden-crowned Kinglet materialized with a flutter. From there, despite the snow that fell relentlessly until 1 PM, the day’s bird activity didn’t even remotely disappoint.
It almost seemed like the birds knew what was up, and presented themselves for accounting. I saw more species than usual, more or less checked off the list of possibilities for the area. Granted, I was at it all day. But for example, when I hiked up the hill to where I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker 8 months before, there was a Pileated Woodpecker for me, winging through the woods in spectacular fashion and then pecking away at a nearby tree until I got hungry myself and had to wander off to find my own lunch.
I met up with some of the other Three River Birding Club members around 12:45 PM, at the home of founders Jack and Sue Solomon. Food was shared, and birding tales were told. Some folks who had been out since 5 AM knocked off home or at least snatched a nap on the couch, but a couple of groups went back out for more counting. I took Sue and a couple of fellows back down to Frick Park to help me look for a possible Winer Wren that I’d caught an inconclusive glimpse of earlier.
We spent an hour quietly poking along the edge of the Nine Mile Run, hoping to coax a wren out, but only turned up the more typical Carolina Wrens and a couple of Song Sparrows. I took Sue and company back home, and then returned to the park for a few more hours.
The snow had finally stopped, and although it was cold and less birdy in the afternoon, I still ticked off a few more species as I made my way up a different hillside, and then into Falls Ravine.
I was determined to find an owl, or rather I desperately hoped that I would. There are a couple of species of owls that live in the park, but I had never found one despite other days of “desperate hope”. Still, this day felt lucky.
I didn’t find an owl until just after 5:00 PM, when dusk was definitely settling and I was turned towards home at last. The little Eastern Screech Owl turned up sitting, of all places, in one of the bird boxes that the park has provided. It was a dark little puff of owlish face, framed against the wood of the box, and I had to stifle a gleeful shout. I got a nice long look at it before some bikers passed by and spooked it away.
The owl was pretty much my last bird of the day, and a very pleasant note to end on. All together I saw 21 species of birds (and walked 7.5 miles back and forth across the bottom of Frick Park) which, given the snow and temps, was a solid turnout and a job well done, I thought. Home at last to warm up, eat, and tally before both myself and the birds tucked in for a good night sleep.
A “rare bird” is a special phenomenon, something that even folks outside of the birding community understand and celebrate. People travel long distances to see a rare bird. Sometimes the bird itself is rare – scarce or endangered – but more often what makes it special is that it is in an unusual spot. For example, last year an incredibly common American Red-winged Blackbird stowed away on a freighter and wound up in the U.K., where it caused quite a sensation (folks were chartering flights to Orkney to get a peep at it, as reported HERE!)
I’d say “quite a sensation” was also caused a few weeks ago when a Snowy Owl paid a visit to Pittsburgh’s football stadium, Heinz Field. Stadium employees were considerably startled when the glorious, huge white owl winged its way across the field (your average Snowy Owl can stand 2 ft high and often sports a 5 ft wingspan…!) The workers called the nearby National Aviary and an expert popped round to verify the sighting. And then the eBird alert went out, and local birders came flocking.
I made it over to the stadium a few days after the initial sighting and spent 3 hours wandering back and forth across the street from the shuttered field, scanning every inch of the rooflines, field lights, seats, etc.
Snowy Owls are listed as vulnerable (one step below endangered) and there are probably only about 30,000 of them in the wild. They live up in the Arctic, where they eat mostly Lemmings, and when it’s a good year for Lemmings it’s a good year for Snowy Owls. We are enjoying a larger-than-normal migration this winter, and there have been owl sightings all across the Lakes Region and the northeastern U.S. – good news for researchers who are scrambling to understand these nomadic birds.
I did my part to “research” the Heinz Field Snowy Owl, looking like a right weirdo staring at the stadium through my binoculars, withstanding the perplexed looks of passing tourists and rubbernecking motorists (a few of whom stopped in the road to ask if I’d SEEN it?) I was pleased the make the acquaintance of a few other birders, and although we were complete strangers we spent a few hours strolling around together and shrugging ruefully when the owl continued to be a no-show.
Sadly for me, I didn’t see even a speck of snowy white owl that afternoon – just a lot of pigeons.
Eventually I wandered down to the edge of the Ohio River where I consoled myself with interesting ducks (!) – a rubber ducky-like Bufflehead and a couple of blue-billed Lesser Scaup.
Of course it is possible that the owl was sitting somewhere among the field lights that whole afternoon, chuckling to itself as it watched the human spectacle. Although no one at all wound up seeing it that day, a week later it or maybe even a totally different Snowy Owl was seen in downtown Pittsburgh checking out the holiday lights.
Oh well. Maybe I’ll get another chance this winter.
Meanwhile, I hear there’s an Iceland Gull hanging out at the head of the Ohio River…