Oct 02 2014

Penguins Episode 3: Growing Up

Published by under Books & Events

Emperor penguin chicks (photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP)

Last night(*) in the second episode of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle we saw how vulnerable young penguin chicks can be.  Fortunately, the dangerous period doesn’t last long.  In this final episode they’ll grow up and become independent.  Whew!

Independence is forced on penguin chicks because they’re so hungry.  Both parents have to fish to keep up with their kids’ demands so the chicks are left largely alone.  Young emperors naturally huddle in a crèche but rockhopper teenagers have to be poked to join the group by the few non-breeding adults who watch nearby.

The crèches are safe places to learn from each other but everyone’s equally clueless.  How do we walk on ice?  What is this wet stuff (melted ice)?  My gosh, my down is falling out and I’m getting feathers!

The chicks learn to fight their attackers.  Their parents bring food.  Life is good.  And then…

Their parents don’t come back.  Amazingly this triggers a desire to walk to the ocean, a place they’ve never seen.  Everything is new but they figure it out and even get help from some unexpected allies.

By now we’re all convinced that penguins chicks are clumsy … until they jump in the ocean.  Oh my!  They fly underwater!  Faster and faster, the rockhoppers make beautiful bubble trails as they disappear in the distance.  Such joy!

Watch the final episode of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, “Growing Up,” on PBS next Wednesday, October 8 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

 

(*) If you missed Episode 2 last night because of the Pirates’ wildcard game, WQED will rebroadcast it on Friday Oct 3 (tomorrow) at 4:00am. Perfect for a DVR.

(photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP via PBS NATURE)

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Oct 01 2014

The Blue Jay Forecast

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Blue Jay (photo by Steve Gosser)

When folks wonder why blue jays are scarce they turn to the Internet and find my 2012 blog post “Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?”   In the past two+ years 116 readers have commented on the status of blue jays where they live.

The most recent comments are on the absence of jays:  Where have they gone?  Why did they leave?  When will they come back … if at all?

Over the winter blue jays eat acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts and other mast (nuts).  Their range map looks as if they never migrate but they will leave if nuts are scarce.

How can we know if the blue jays will leave? Check the Blue Jay Forecast.

Every fall Ron Pittaway produces a Winter Finch Forecast for Canada based on the abundance of tree seeds in Canada’s forests.  The finches in his report eat a wide variety of seeds including spruce, fir, birch and mountain ash.  If food is abundant the birds stay home all winter.  In poor mast years they irrupt southward.  Here in Pennsylvania we wait for Pittaway’s forecast to tell us which species will visit us in coming months.

Blue jays depend on tree nuts too and they often move when the finches do, so Pittaway includes them in his forecast.  This year he says “Expect a good to heavy flight (many more than last year) moving westward along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and soft mast crops averaged low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario.”

If you live in Ontario, don’t expect to see a lot of blue jays this winter.  Lots of them are in Pittsburgh — at least right now.  Guess where they came from.   ;)

Click here for Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast.   Scroll down to read about blue jays.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 30 2014

More Time to Bird and Blog!

Published by under Books & Events

Kate St. John (photo by David Hallewell)

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”   Well, that’s how I feel today, September 30, 2014.

Today I’m retiring after 39 years in computer science, 24.5 at WQED — a little bit early, but I do look younger than I am.

I’ve been dreaming of this day since the moment 18 years ago when I paused on the Glacier Ridge Trail in Butler County and thought, “I want to retire now.  How many more years must I work?” At that point I’d already worked 21 years and thought I had 22 to go.  Groan!  I wasn’t even halfway! Luckily my husband and I didn’t have to wait that long.

I say “retired” but I also view this as a career change from computer management to birds.  I’m not changing what I love to do, I’m just doing more of it including this blog.  The best part is that I don’t have to find an employer for my new career.  I’m my own boss.

So tomorrow I’m not going to sit at a desk.  I’ll be off to see what’s new in the great outdoors.

Ya hoo!

 

p.s. Don’t worry that by leaving WQED I’m leaving this blog behind.  No way!  Outside My Window is my own copyright, I own it, it goes where I go.   I’ve been happy to work at WQED.  I’m happy to keep hosting my blog at wqed.org.

 

(Thanks to Dave Hallewell (at WQED!) for the photo above. Click on his name to see his popular Flickr site that just hit 1 million views last week.)

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Sep 29 2014

Follow An Arctic Peregrine On Migration

Published by under Migration,Peregrines

Arctic peregrine, Island Girl (photo from the Southern Cross Peregrine Project)

Since 2007 the Falcon Research Group’s Southern Cross Peregrine Project (SCPP) has satellite-tracked some of the longest migrating peregrines in the Western Hemisphere.  Tagged at their wintering grounds on the coast of Chile, these peregrines have shown amazing stamina as they travel back and forth from Chile’s coast to the tundra cliffs of northern Canada.

Over the years the project has tracked 13 birds but now only “Island Girl,” pictured above, has a working transmitter.  First tagged in 2009 she’s provided many years of data.

In the screenshot below SCPP mapped her 2009-2013 north and south migrations.  As you can see she changes her route a bit year to year and season to season.  Heading south (red) she prefers to fly the shortest route to Chile, often across the Gulf of Mexico.  On her way north (blue) she travels by land and arcs across central Canada.  Click on the screenshot to see Island Girl’s combined 5-year map and explore her routes.

5-year map of arctic peregrine -- Island Girl -- migration routes (map from Southern Cross Peregrine Project)

Winter comes early to the Arctic so Island Girl began her southward journey this month, leaving her Baffin Island home on September 17.  By the time she roosted last night she’d already traveled 1,478 miles and was spotted by satellite at Vandeleur, Ontario just west of Eugenia Lake.

Where will she go today?

Click here for Island Girl’s Tracking Page, then drill into a date on the right to see her latest location.  Zoom the map to see the data points or click here for detailed location maps.

Follow an arctic peregrine as she migrates over North America on her way to Chile.  Go, Island Girl!

 

(photo and map from the Falcon Research Group’s Southern Cross Peregrine Peregrine Project.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Sep 28 2014

Stunningly Blue

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Purple honeycreeper, Trinidad (photo by Greg Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Though he’s called a purple honeycreeper this bird looks stunningly blue in photographs.

Since deep purple can be misinterpreted as blue by the camera lens I wonder … Is this bird purple in real life?  I’d have to visit northern South America or Trinidad to verify his color.  He doesn’t migrate.

Click on his scientific name — Cyanerpes caeruleus — for his range map.

 

(photo by Gregory “Greg” Smith via Flicker, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 27 2014

Beech Drops Up Close

Published by under Plants

Close-up of beech drops' flower (photo by  Kate St. John)

From a normal distance beech drops (Epifagus americana) look brown and dry.  (Click here to see.)

I didn’t know its tiny flowers are purple and white with yellow pistils … until I took this photograph.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 26 2014

Storing Food

 

Fall’s here now. Winter’s coming.  Birds who stay through the winter are already using their best survival strategies.

Blue jays bury acorns, nuthatches hide seeds in bark crevices, but the real champion of food storage is a bird who doesn’t live in Pennsylvania.

Check out this Cornell Lab video from southern California.  I think California is a warm place where a bird couldn’t possibly need a large pantry but acorn woodpeckers never stop.

 

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube)

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Sep 25 2014

Penguins Episode 2: First Steps

Published by under Books & Events

Rockhopper penguin tries to adopt eggcam (photo courtesy of Philip Dalton/©JDP)

If you saw Penguins: Spy in the Huddle last night you know that Episode Two will air next Wednesday on PBS NATURE.  I had the opportunity to preview it. Here’s the scoop.

“First Steps” is full of happiness, fights and danger.

Happiness when the eggs hatch and adorable chicks emerge.  So cute!

Fights when emperors and rockhoppers without chicks gang up on parent birds and forcably try to adopt their “kids.” Fights ensue. The chicks run away.  Who knew that penguins could be kidnappers?!

Danger when…  Well, danger is everywhere for baby birds.  Will there be enough food?  Will the chicks get separated from their parents?  Will any predators be successful?  Usually the birds triumph but sometimes it ends badly.  A touching scene among the emperors reminds us that mothers’ grief is universal.

The cleverly disguised spycams play an unexpected part.  Penguins and predators are both interested in the eggcams.  The penguins try to adopt them.  The predators try to eat them.  This produces very close looks at penguin belly feathers and far, tumbling views of the colonies.

Watch episode two “First Steps” of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle on PBS next Wednesday, October 1 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

Again, many thanks to The National Aviary for underwriting this series.  Their African penguins just completed their annual “catastrophic molt” and are looking good just in time for Pittsburgh Penguins hockey season.  ;)

 

(photo courtesy of Philip Dalton/©JDP via PBS NATURE)

 

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Sep 24 2014

Local And Vocal

Carolina chickadee (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Chickadees don’t migrate(*) but they’re a big help when you’re looking for migrating songbirds in late September.

Waves of warblers are still passing through Pennsylvania but they’re usually silent and hidden by leaves so you probably won’t see them … unless you listen for chickadees.

Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are vocal experts on the local scene.  They know the best places to find food and where the predators lurk.  And they’re such chatterboxes!  Visiting migrants clue into chickadee locations and often stay with them in mixed flocks.

At this time of year don’t ignore the local, vocal birds.  They may have visitors with them.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

(* Well, I’ve since heard that some chickadees do go places … but others stay behind.)

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Sep 23 2014

Orange Or Yellow?

Published by under Migration

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

In good light with a clear view these two warblers don’t look alike.

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

But in poor light and partially hidden by leaves a fast-moving yellowish fall warbler without wing bars can be … confusing.

Last Sunday one of these birds had me stumped.  Without a camera to take its picture, how could I find out what it was?

Using a technique I learned from Chuck Tague, I wrote down what I saw as if I was going to draw the bird.

“Long, all-yellowish warbler with blank face, round head, blunt beak, no wing bars, no stripes.”  (Wish I’d seen the tail and leg colors.)

With this note and several field guides I was able to figure it out at home.

“No wing bars, no stripes” narrowed the field considerably.

By “all-yellowish” I meant pale yellow from throat to undertail with drabber, darker yellow on back, wings, head.  The light made the bird look very drab.  Lots of book-searching finally pointed to two possibilities:  an orange-crowned warbler or a female yellow warbler.  Range maps indicate both can occur now in western Pennsylvania so I had two viable candidates.

“Long” and “round head” can be deceiving because a squat, no-neck warbler might stretch out its neck to see me but together they lean toward yellow warbler.

“Blank face” is an excellent hint, not just a patternless face but actually flat looking.  The orange-crowned warbler has tiny white accents above and below its eyes that give its face topography even if you don’t see the accents.  Yellow warblers are known for their plain blank faces.

“Blunt beak” describes the yellow warbler’s stout bill rather than the orange-crowned’s sharply pointed bill.

So what did I see? Most likely a yellow warbler.

Oh well.  An orange-crowned would have been nice.

The key is:  Write everything down.  Pretend you’re going to draw the bird when you get home.

 

(photos by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license on Flickr.  Click on the images to see the originals.  Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada.)

p.s.  I used the The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle to figure this out.  It’s excellent for deciphering confusing fall warblers.

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