Aug 26 2014

A Look Back at the Hays Eagles

 

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than two months since crowds flocked to the Three Rivers Heritage Bike Trail to see the bald eagles fledge at Hays.  A few dedicated eagle watchers still visit the site but this month they usually come up empty-handed.  The young eagles have left for parts unknown and the adults lounge out of sight.

Boring as the eagles are right now, they’ve fostered a huge fan club and several reunions including a picnic last Saturday. Love for these birds has created many lasting friendships.

WQED’s Michael Bartley captured the excitement when he visited the bike trail in May.  On site, he chatted with me about the eagles’ popularity and with the National Aviary’s Bob Mulvihill on what to expect from the eagle family in the weeks and months ahead.  Though the video was filmed on a weekday in May you can see the trail was crowded with watchers.

As Michael says, “We haven’t seen the last of bald eagles in Pittsburgh. If you can’t wait til next year, here’s a look back at the birds that flew away with the city’s heart.”

 

(webisode by WQED Pittsburgh)

 

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Aug 25 2014

Why Does Thunder Rumble?

Published by under Weather & Sky

Lightning over Schaffhausen and Kohlfirst (photo by Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons)

After a week of daily thunder and heavy rain we’re finally getting a spate of clear weather.  Today’s interesting thunder facts can’t be applied immediately but we’ll get another chance before long.

We’re all familiar with the crack of lightning and thunder’s low rumbles.  Sometimes we hear another loud bang in the middle of the series.  Why does thunder rumble and what are those mid-bangs about?  I found an explanation at the UK’s Weatheronline website.

First, let’s review the basics about light and sound.  Lightning travels at the speed of light, thunder at the speed of sound.  There’s such a time lag between them that we can figure out how far away the lightning is by counting the seconds between the flash and the sound, 5 seconds per mile.

The initial thunderclap is the closest part of the lightning but (amazingly!) the bolt itself is several miles long. We see it flash in twists and turns, branches and offshoots.  Every piece makes a thunderclap but many of the parts are so distant they sound like rumbles instead of booms.

What’s the bang in the middle?  It might be a new lightning bolt but … it could be the same bolt zigzagging closer as it travels through the sky.  The closest part is that middle bang.  Click here for an illustration showing how sound lags within a single lightning bolt.

Thunder rumbles because lightning is not a short, contained flash.  If it was we would hear a single loud boom, like the boom of an electrical transformer blowing up on the pole outside your house.  (I know something about this!)

And here’s a cool note about the photo:
Do you see the birds flying below the cloud?  It’s actually only one bird!  The lightning flashed four times while the shutter was open so the bird appears four times as it flies through the storm.  Brave bird!

 

p.s. It’s hard to see four birds in this small reproduction. Click on the image to see the original including annotations.

(photo of lightning in Switzerland by Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons)

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Aug 24 2014

A One Day Wonder

Red-necked phalarope at Conneaut Harbor (photo by Steve Gosser)

Pittsburgh birders always hope that a trip to Lake Erie’s shore will uncover a rarity.  Will there something awesome at the end of that 2.5 hour drive?

This rare bird showed up at Conneaut, Ohio nine days ago.  The August 15 rare bird alert reported an immature red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) on the sand spit.  Birders flocked to see him so far from his species’ normal migration routes west of the Mississippi and offshore in the Atlantic.

Steve Gosser photographed him less than 24 hours later.   Isn’t he gorgeous!

Red-necked phalarope at Conneaut Harbor, 16 Aug 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

That was Saturday.  I drove to Conneaut on Sunday and the bird was gone.

I should be more nimble if I want to see these One Day Wonders.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 23 2014

Waxwing Update

Cedar waxwing nestlings (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Remember the cedar waxwing nest I wrote about this month?  Marcy Cunkelman sent me an update this morning.

The eggs hatched more than a week ago and the parents have been busy feeding the nestlings.

All those trips to the fruit bushes have paid off.  Three healthy youngsters are tall enough now to be seen in the nest.  They have yellow wrinkled “baby” beaks and crests that look like bad toupees.

It won’t be long before they fly.

Keep growing, little guys.  Your”hair” will look better soon.

Click here to see what a just-fledged cedar waxwing looks like.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 22 2014

Very Close To Bears

Published by under Mammals

If you want to see black bears, northern Minnesota is the place to be.

Ely is home to the North American Bear Center where PixController‘s webcam made Lily the Bear internationally famous, and just west of Orr the American Bear Association’s Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary allows brave photographers to get very close to wild black bears.

The Vince Shute Sanctuary protects wild bears and provides educational opportunities in its 360-acre sanctuary.  The bears are encouraged to visit a two-acre clearing at the heart of the property where, on the summer evenings, the general public can watch them from the sanctuary’s elevated viewing platform.   Photographers wishing a close encounter can pay hundreds of dollars, learn about bear safety and sign a release. Then up to four photographers at a time can stand on the ground among the bears during the day.

Sparky Stensaas visited in early June and signed the release.  “Basically you sign your life away,” he says, but you can see why the sanctuary does that.  The bears come that close!

Watch Sparky’s video for cute cubs and a very close bear encounter.  Click here to see his video on Vimeo’s full screen and read more about his experience with the bears.

 

p.s. Listen to the sound track for crows and some odd calls that sound like humans saying “wooo.”  Those are ravens!

(video by Sparky Stensaas, The Photonaturalist)

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Aug 21 2014

TBT: Laying Eggs

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Cicada on a tree branch (photo by JohnTsui via Wikimedia Commons)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

August is a busy time for cicadas.  Though there aren’t a lot of them this year, those that are here are busy mating and laying eggs for the next generation.

Did you know that cicadas lay their eggs under the bark of tree twigs?  Eventually you can tell where they’ve done it because the leaves turn brown on the branch tips.

Brown tips on tree branches because of cicada egg-laying (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 2008 I caught one in the act.  Click here to read about cicadas laying eggs.

 

(photo of cicada on tree branch by John Tsui via Wikimedia Commons.  photo of brown tree tips from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on each image to see its original)

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Aug 20 2014

Birds Can Recover Lost Hearing

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Dr. Edwin Rubel works to restore human hearing by studying birds (photo from Univ of Washington Dept of Medicine )

Dr. Edwin Rubel studies chicks’ ability to re-grow their hearing nerve cells. Univ. of Washington Dept of Medicine

My visit to an audiologist for a baseline hearing test revealed an awesome thing about birds.

This summer I had my hearing tested because I noticed I could still hear faint rustling sounds with my right ear but not with my left.  For a long time my left ear has been slightly “less good” but this spring was the first time I didn’t have stereo for everything.  I was looking in the wrong direction for the very quiet birds.

The hearing test showed that my right ear is still above average but I’ve begun to age and am very slowly losing the top end of sound.  My left ear has lost more than my right — hence the lack of stereo — but for a human I have good hearing.  The sounds I’ve lost would only be noticed by a cat (or a birder).  Since those sounds aren’t in the “human” range, the loss is not correctable.

But if I was a bird, I could correct it myself.

We hear thanks to tiny “hair cells” that line the cochlea of our inner ear.  Not “hairs” at all, they are actually protein-filled protrusions that vibrate when sound reaches them and transmit it electronically to the brain.  Age, loud noises, and toxins, including strong antibiotics, damage these cells.  Mammals cannot regenerate hair cells.  Birds can!

The photo above, from a 2004 article at the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine, shows the man who discovered this with a bird that helped him prove it.  In the late 1980′s Dr. Edwin Rubel at the University of Washington and Dr. Doug Cotanche at the University of Pennsylvania simultaneously discovered that birds can recover their hearing.  After hair cell loss they grow the hair cells back again!  Later research uncovered this same ability in fish.  (Click here for the 2004 UW article and here for information in the 2012 Hearing Journal.)

Their discoveries have led to work on a wide range of possible solutions, none of which are perfected yet.

For now, I compensate when I hear a faint bird sound — I turn my head.

Some day, thanks to birds, there may be a cure for us mammals.

 

(photo of Dr. Edwin Rubel from a 2004 article about his research at the University of Washington Department of Medicine)

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Aug 19 2014

Beer Bee!

Published by under Vocalizations

Male American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

I know American goldfinches are nesting when I hear the call “beer Bee!”

Loud or soft, the accent is on the second syllable.  Birds of North America Online spells it “bay bee”.  I hear “beer BEE.”

The call is a warning. Goldfinches use it near the nest when there’s a dangerous predator nearby.  Last Saturday I heard it repeated loudly for an hour while an immature Coopers hawk perched in my neighbor’s spruce tree.  As soon as the hawk left the goldfinches stopped saying it.

Listen for the call and you’ll learn two things:

  1. There’s a goldfinch nest nearby and …
  2. There’s also a hawk, cat or other danger in the vicinity.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 18 2014

Last Month Of Summer

Published by under Migration,Quiz

Common nighthawk closeup (photo by Dan Arndt)

August. The last month of summer.  School starts next week in Pittsburgh.

This bird knows summer is almost over.  By the end of the month he’ll leave for South America.

Do you know who he is?  Do you know why he leaves so soon?

 

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

p.s. Check the comments for the answer.

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Aug 17 2014

Yo, Joe!

Published by under Plants

Joe-Pye Weed closeup, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

These are the tiny flowers of a very large plant.

Joe-Pye Weed is huge — 10 feet tall! — and stands out in any setting.  Its small flowers are arranged in large dome-shaped clusters, 6 to 9 inches across, that give dramatic tops to these perennials.

Their size is amazing considering they achieve it in only four months.  Click here for a view of the entire plant.

Two common species in our area, Sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) and Spotted Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), are distinguished by the colors on their stems but they hybridize and mix it up.

So big and beautiful, I don’t care which one it is.

Yo, Joe!

 

(photo by Kate St. John, taken at Jennings Prairie, Butler County, Pennsylvania)

p.s.  Read Marcia Bonta’s blog to find out why it’s called “Joe-Pye.”
p.p.s. The genus name only recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium, another case where I prefer the old name.

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