With almost no open water on lakes Great and small, ducks and gulls have been spending lots of time on our rivers. This year we’re also finding a higher than usual number of red-necked grebes.
Eleven years ago I saw my first ever red-necked grebe on the Allegheny River at Rosston (March 2, 2003). Still in basic plumage, he was plain gray and white with a long pointed bill slightly yellow at the base. He held up the feathers at the top edges of his head; it made his head look lumpy. But he didn’t have a red neck. He wasn’t in breeding plumage.
And so it went. I periodically saw red-necked grebes but never their red necks because they usually molt into breeding plumage after they leave Pennsylvania. Richard Crossley’s illustration from The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (above) shows the basic and breeding plumages of red-necked grebes but emphasizes their appearance in winter because the grebes don’t breed in Britain and Ireland either.
So I was excited to read Jim Hausman’s March 6 report that there was a red-necked grebe at Duck Hollow and the bird had a red neck.
I drove down after work on Friday and found two grebes molting into breeding plumage. Ta dah! Not a Life Bird but a “Life Plumage.” Here’s Jim Hausman’s photo of one of them.
After all these years I finally saw red.
(Illustration at top: Red-necked grebe by Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland), Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Photo at bottom by Jim Hausman)
This shell is so beautiful that it threatens the existence of the animal that wears it.
The candy cane snail (Liguus virgineus) is a land-based snail found on the island of Hispaniola, home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because of its beauty it has been over-collected for the shell trade, making it hard to find and endangering the snail.
This particular shell is in the collection of the photographer, H. Zell, whose photo is one of the finalists for Wikimedia Common’s 2013 Picture of the Year.
Voting ended yesterday but you can still view Picture Of The Year finalists here.
(photo by H. Zell, Creative Commons license at Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
This awesome video was featured by Russell McLendon on the Mother Nature Network last week.
It was created by Nicolaus Wegner who captured time-lapse photos of developing thunderstorms in Wyoming and South Dakota last summer, then wove them into a video named Stormscapes. Click on the image to watch it on Vimeo.
After you see it you’ll wonder how he lived to tell the tale. Learn more in this National Geographic interview.
(screenshot from Stormscapes by Nicolaus Wegner. Click on the image to watch the video)
It’s been a long winter and I’m tired of observing birds in the cold. If you are too, let’s get together at the National Aviary on Thursday evening, March 20, for the National Aviary At Night, 5:00pm to 9:00pm.
Admission is half price (members are always free) and there’s open café service and a cash bar. I’m going to start my evening near the food.
Click on the image above for more information and the menu.
Hope to see you there!
At this point in March the crocuses should be sprouting leaves and about to bloom in Pittsburgh.
Crocuses in the city typically open around March 11, a date I’m aware of because I blog about them every year. Here’s when they’ve bloomed in Schenley Park since 2009:
Do you think the crocuses will open by March 11 this year? No.
We aren’t alone in having a slow spring. Watch the delayed wave of blooming tulips on Journey North’s Tulip tracking site.
(photo by Kate St.John)
p.s. Found these tiny crocus leaves popping up at CMU this morning. I don’t think they’ll have flowers in less than a week.
The frozen Great Lakes have prompted a lot of gulls and waterfowl to visit Pittsburgh’s rivers this winter. Bird reports for the past month often mention long-tailed ducks, white-winged scoters, red-breasted mergansers, redheads and canvasbacks.
These photos by Steve Gosser reminded me that of all the birds listed above, redheads and canvasbacks are the most confusing. Both are diving ducks with red heads, black breasts, dark butts, and white or gray backs. Both could be named “redheads,” so what is the “canvas” back that makes the difference?
Despite their names the “canvas back” is not the easiest way to tell them apart. The best way is to look at their heads and bills in profile:
- Canvasbacks have long sloping foreheads and bills that make a straight line from forehead to tip.
- Redheads have round, bulbous heads and an angle where the bill meets the face.
If both birds are present, the canvasback is the larger one. If the light is good you’ll see additional distinguishing features. Let’s take a closer look.
Redheads have pale bills with a black tip. The males’ backs are gray and eyes are yellow. Up close you can really see the bulbous head.
Canvasbacks have black bills. The males have red eyes and white backs with a faint pattern like woven canvas, but that’s something you’ll never see unless you’re a duck hunter. The sloping face and forehead are really evident up close and are the main way to identify female canvasbacks who are basically brown.
It’s easy for me to tell the two ducks apart but my brain gets in the way sometimes when I have to name them. I may look at a canvasback I think, “That duck has a red head so it’s a … redhead.” Nope!
The hardest part is finding the noun.
(photos by Steve Gosser)
Having weathered another snowstorm and dipped back into the deep freeze we can take solace that winter will end this month. At least we hope so.
Unfortunately if you live near one of the Great Lakes, winter will last longer than normal this year.
On February 24 Climate.gov reported that for the first time in 20 years the Great Lakes were more than 88% frozen with four lakes — Superior, Erie, Huron, and St. Clair — 90 to 100 percent ice covered. As you can see, Lake Ontario’s and Michigan’s open water kept the percentage down, but some of their open water is due to Coast Guard ice-breakers.
When I flew to Duluth, Minnesota on February 13 (the date of this map) I saw the ice first hand. As the map attests, the entire western end of Lake Erie was frozen solid from Sandusky to Point Pelee, so solid that there were snowmobile tracks from Port Clinton to Put-in-Bay and from Magee Marsh to Sister Island.
From the air I saw the southern patch of open water on Lake Michigan and the solid expanse of Lake Superior at Duluth where I later climbed the lake’s frozen heights. I didn’t stay in Duluth long enough to make the popular cross-ice trek from Meyers Beach in Bayfield, Wisconsin to the beautiful ice caves at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Click here to see what I missed.
The very cold weather created the ice and ironically, the ice will delay the warmth of spring. In an interview with AccuWeather, Associate Professor Jay Austin of the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth said of Lake Superior, “With all of this ice, all the sunlight that hits the surface of the lake is going to get bounced back out into space, so it’s going to take longer to get warmer this spring and summer. The lake is going to just start warming this year when it will start cooling off for next year.”
Aaaarg! A short summer? That’s just what Minnesotans don’t want to hear!
(map by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data provided by the U.S. Naval Ice Center. Click on the image to see the original and read more about the frozen lakes.)
The Downtown Pittsburgh peregrines were busy yesterday despite the snow.
They started their day at the Gulf Tower nest with some early morning courtship bowing. The female (presumed to be Dori) paused for a while at the scrape.
Falconcam motion detection noticed one more visit at 1:23pm, blurry because it was snowing heavily. And then the birds surprised me.
I thought the peregrines were focusing all their attention at the Gulf Tower, never at their old nest on Third Avenue, but one of them visited the old homestead last evening.
At 6:00pm a peregrine called loudly from Amanda McGuire’s balcony at Point Park University’s Lawrence Hall. She peeked out the door and took this photo of … is it Louie? Was he asking Dori to join him at Third Avenue?
Apparently the peregrines are working both ends of town.
(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower and Amanda McGuire)
If only the sky would look like this …
… but it’s unlikely in Pittsburgh. Not only are we too far south for most aurora borealis, but our skies are often overcast and city lights drown the spectacle.
This beautiful aurora was photographed over Bear Lake at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)
While we can watch bald eagle family life online at the Hays nest in Pittsburgh, we can’t see how the male eagle captures the food he brings to his lady. His hunting happens far away.
This photo taken in Florida by Chuck Tague shows how bald eagles do it. They fly over, keep their eagle eyes on the prey, and pounce. Eight sharp talons grasp the fish (or duck) and the job is done.
Watch out below!
(photo by Chuck Tague)