Mar 27 2015

Sounds of Spring: Frogs!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you heard any frogs lately?

In early spring male frogs call from ephemeral pools to attract females to mate with them.  This week in Frick Park I’ve heard spring peepers calling in the wetland next to Nine Mile Run.  The sound is so miraculous in the City(*) that I always stop to absorb it.

Spring peepers are loud but so tiny I couldn’t find them.  Look how small they are compared to someone’s hand!  Needless to say I didn’t see the “singers” in Frick Park.

Spring peeper found at Sault College woodlot, Algoma District, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring peeper found at Sault College woodlot, Algoma District, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Peepers aren’t the only ones calling.  Right now you can hear wood frogs and others if you’re in the right habitat.  But which ones?

PA Herps does statewide surveys to confirm the ranges of Pennsylvania’s native frogs (and much more).  Based on the PA Herps Frogs and Toads List I made this table of the frogs and toads that still occur in western Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Front.  I added my own description of the calls I know.  Click here on the PA Herps website to look up each frog including their photos and range map.

Frog Name Description of Call
Eastern American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus a whirring trill
Fowler’s Toad, Anaxyrus fowleri
Cope’s Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis
Eastern Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor
Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus a low ‘hrrrrmp’
Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans a tuneless banjo twang
Pickerel Frog, Lithobates palustris
Northern Leopard Frog, Lithobates pipiens
Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvaticus sounds like ducks quacking
Mountain Chorus Frog, Pseudacris brachyphona
Northern Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer LOUD! jingle bells -or- plinking the teeth of a comb
Western Chorus Frog, Pseudacris triseriata
Eastern Spadefoot, Scaphoipus holbrookii

** See the comments for frog call descriptions from Sue.


To hear them, look them up here on the USGS Frog Quiz website.   (Your computer must have QuickTime installed.)

If you know a lot of frog calls you can test your skills at the USGS Frog Quiz here.  Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize the calls. I tried the quiz and flunked immediately.  As you can see by the gaps in my table, I don’t know many frog sounds.  It’s time to get outdoors and remedy that!


AAAACKKK!  The USGS Frog Calls website became temporarily unavailable this morning just as I was publishing their links!  I am leaving the links in place, hoping they will turn it back on by the time you see this article.  Meanwhile, here’s the sound of spring peepers.



Can you add frog call descriptions to my table? Leave a comment with your description. ** Thank you, Sue! See her comments.

* The miracle in Frick Park is a complex of meanders and wetlands completed in 2006 by the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Spring peepers found the wetlands on their own and now loudly pronounce them good for breeding every spring.

(photo of spring peeper calling by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of spring peeper on hand by Fungus Guy via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Mar 26 2015

Spring Moves North …

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Red tulip near Burlington, ON, 21 May 2014 (photo by Laslovarga via Wikimedia Commons)

The first crocuses bloomed in Pittsburgh last week but the rest of spring is taking its time.  Until today the month of March averaged 3F degrees below normal.  (Yesterday’s brought it up to -2.6.)  With that kind of track record, when will Spring get here?

Two years ago I wrote about the rule of thumb that “Spring moves north 13 miles a day“and showed how to watch it online at Journey North’s Tulip Test Garden.  I even used the rule of thumb to predict that the tulips would bloom at Clarion Area Elementary School’s Test Garden in Clarion, PA on April 20, 2013.

Was I right?  I looked up Clarion’s 2013 Tulip Test Garden results which said the tulips bloomed on April 22.  But … April 22 but was a Monday that year.  Maybe the tulips bloomed on Saturday, April 20 while the children weren’t at school to see them!  (The vagaries of data collection…)

Let’s try it this year.  Click here to read about the Rule of Thumb so you know how I’m doing this.  Then I’ll estimate …

On the 2015 Tulip Test Garden Map Durham, NC’s first tulip bloomed on March 20.  That’s 362 miles or about 28 days south of Clarion Area Elementary School (they’re participating again this year), so Clarion should bloom on April 17.

April 17 feels too early but we’ll see.  By the end of April we’ll know if “Spring moved north 13 miles a day” in 2015.


p.s. A big flock of American robins sang in the dark this morning in my neighborhood.  One more Sign of Spring!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  This tulip was photographed by Laslovarga on May 21, 2014 near Burlington, Ontario.)

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Mar 25 2015

Dorothy Then And Now

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy, March 2010 and March 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam atUniversity of Pittsburgh)

Many of you are looking forward to Dorothy having eggs and chicks this spring at the Cathedral of Learning.  Others, knowing her age, have asked about her status.  Today I’ll explain her condition and why you should not be surprised when she doesn’t have viable eggs this year.

Dorothy is 16 years old, elderly for a wild peregrine.  Her fertility dropped to a single fledgling in 2013 and collapsed in 2014 after she became egg bound.  In the top photo she was sleek and alert in her fertile years (photo from 2010).  In the second photo, she is rumpled and slow moving now.  Consistently rumpled feathers are an indication of ill health in birds.

I have watched Dorothy since 2001 when she was only two years old.  For more than a decade she was full of vitality, totally in control.  She only began to hint at her age in 2013.  This year her decline is pronounced.  There are differences in her behavior that tell me she is past her prime.

THEN: 2001 to 2013 NOW: 2014 and 2015
Many courtship flights including aerial prey exchange in January, February, March No courtship flights in 2015. No aerial prey exchange since 2013.
Perching and mating(!) on the lightning rod on top of the Cathedral of Learning Has not been on the lightning rod. Has not been seen mating this spring.
Laid down only to incubate. (Peregrines roost and sleep in a standing position) Lies down to sleep in nest though there are no eggs
Agile at all times Opens wings to steady herself while walking on nest rail. Is slow moving
Always perched above the 27th floor. Rarely perched on A/C units Perches as low as 12th or 13th, often on A/C units.
Sleek feathers, alert stance Rumpled rough feathers, hunches more often


When I see her lying down in the nest without any eggs, I worry.  This is an unnatural position for a peregrine falcon that isn’t incubating.

Dorothy sleeping on her belly, though she has no eggs (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)


For now Dorothy is staying close to home. She is often seen on camera or perched at office windows, gazing in.  These are endearing traits that make us love her more, but that does not change the fact that she is elderly.

Dorothy’s chances of producing healthy peregrine chicks this year is very slim.


(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 24 2015

The Scouts Are Coming

Adult male purple martin (photo by Cajay on Wikimedia Commons)

You know Spring has sprung when the swallows return.  Tree swallows arrive first (seen in Allegheny County already!) but soon the bravest purple martins return from Brazil.  Though they rely on flying insects for food, adult males are so anxious to begin breeding that they fly home as soon as they can.

Purple martins (Progne subis) are cavity nesters with a long term relationship to humans.  Native Americans first provided nesting gourds and European immigrants followed suit so that now, for more than 100 years, all the purple martins in eastern North America nest in human provided housing.

Purple Martin house, Cape May Point, NJ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last Thursday at Wissahickon Nature Club Bob Allnock, a purple martin landlord from Butler County, taught us about the housing and habits of these amazing birds.  We learned that the same purple martins return year after year to their successful nest sites.   The earliest males get the best condos so they hurry to get home.  The landlords call them “scouts.”

Scouts are always adult males who’ve bred before and know exactly where they’re going.  Adult females return later and then, weeks later, the subadult males and females arrive.  They’re in their first year of breeding and haven’t found a home yet.  If you’re trying to establish a new purple martin colony, these are the birds you wait for.

Right now purple martin landlords in western Pennsylvania are anxiously awaiting their first scouts.  As soon as one arrives the landlord updates the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PCMA) website with the date and location.  They also update when they see the first subadults so that landlords of unoccupied colonies can be on the lookout to attract these new birds.

How far north has Spring advanced? Where are they scouts right now?  Click here on the PCMA website for the Scout Report.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Mar 23 2015

Peregrine Quest: Mixed Results

Peregrine Quest view from Flag Plaza, 3/22/15 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Sunday afternoon five of us scoured Downtown Pittsburgh looking for the peregrine falcon pair who haven’t used the Gulf Tower nest since March 10.  They’ve got to be nesting somewhere by now, but where?  Our Peregrine Quest came up with mixed results.

Doug walked Gateway Center/Market Square.  Denise and her husband checked midtown including the 2012-2013 nesting zone. I checked Penn/Liberty and went to the North Shore for a wider view and John English went to Flag Plaza.  Only John saw peregrines and he saw them almost immediately.  (UPDATE: See Doug’s comment below.)

After John texted me with two peregrine sightings back-to-back — one flew past BNY Mellon down the Forbes-Fifth canyon and one perched on UPMC (U.S. Steel Building) —  I raced over to Flag Plaza to see them, too.  I hadn’t been there long before we saw an exciting but silent interaction.

A female peregrine was flying around UPMC and approaching the building again from the left when a male peregrine popped out from behind the building (using it as a blind) and attacked her from above!  She evaded his dive-bombing and sailed around UPMC one more time, then circled up and sailed off toward Oakland.

Here’s a map of the buildings (red pins), the peregrine perch (green pin), our vantage point (brown pin), and the peregrine flight paths during our half hour of watching.   After the attack the male perched on UPMC for a while but we missed seeing him leave.

View Downtown Pittsburgh, Peregrine Tussle, 3/22/15, 2pm in a larger map


Why would a male peregrine attack a female during nesting season?  The only time I’ve seen this happen is when the pair has eggs in the nest, the female is busy at the nest, and a new female shows up.  The male then defends his territory, nest, and mate from an intruding female.  So my guess is that the Downtown peregrines already have a nest.

We learned that they’re spending time at this end of town, but we still don’t know where they’re nesting.


(view from Flag Plaza, photo by Kate St. John with lousy late afternoon light)

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Mar 23 2015

Reminder: March 29 Outing at Schenley Park

Published by under Books & Events

Coltsfoot blooming (photo from Wikipedia under GNU Free License) Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday March 29, 8:30am in Schenley Park.  Meet at Bartlett Shelter.
(Note that Schenley Drive is closed until 9:00am for CMU Buggy Race practice.)

Click here for more information and for updates if the walk is canceled for bad weather.

Maybe we’ll see coltsfoot.


(photo of coltsfoot from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 22 2015

Birds As Musical Notes

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Birds on wire (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bird photography can be disappointing.  It’s difficult to get depth without good lighting, but every once in a while two dimensions are stunning and an eye for cropping is all you need.

This photo of brown-headed and/or bronzed cowbirds in Silao, Mexico looks like musical notes.  Can you play this tune?


Click here to see the original uncropped photo, and here to see this exceptional one in larger format on Wikimedia Commons.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the links to see the originals)

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Mar 21 2015


Published by under Weather & Sky

Analemma photo taken 1998-99 ourside Bell Labs in NJ by Jack Fishburn (GNU free licensing, Wikipedia)

The word Analemma sounds like a girl’s name or perhaps an exotic fruit but in fact it’s the name for that figure 8 hanging in the sky above.  You won’t see it in Nature but you may have seen it as a symbol printed on an old-fashioned globe of the world.

Technically speaking an analemma is the location of one celestial body as viewed from another for one complete orbit.  Practically speaking it’s the Sun’s position throughout the year at the same location and time of day on Earth.   I was surprised to learn it’s a figure 8 but that’s because the Earth’s orbit is elliptical and tilted.

This photo took a whole year to create.  Every other week in 1998-1999, Jack Fishburn took a photograph of the sun’s position from his office window at Bell Labs.  He was careful to place the camera in the exact same position and snap the photo at the same time of day (correcting back to Standard Time during Daylight Savings).  After collecting a year of photographs he overlaid them to create the analemma.

Tunc Tezel did the same thing at Baku, Azerbaijan and made it a movie here.

You can create your own analemma if you’re persistent (one whole year) and precise (same camera location and time of day for every photo) and have access to Photoshop.

When you’re done you’ll know that the top of the 8 is the summer (northern) solstice, the bottom is the winter (southern) solstice, and the crossover point is both equinoxes.  Today, one day after the Northern Equinox, the sun is very near the center of the analemma.


(photo by Jack Fishburn via Wikipedia GNU Free License. Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 20 2015

Peregrine Quest! March 22, 1pm, Downtown

Empty Gulf Tower nest, 19 March 2015 (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

The empty nest at the Gulf Tower, Downtown Pittsburgh

They’ve done it again!  The Downtown peregrines have been absent from the Gulf Tower since March 10 … yet they have been seen Downtown.

Apparently they are planning to nest somewhere else … but where?  Let’s find out.

Join Pittsburgh Falconuts on our quest to find the Downtown peregrines.  We’ll meet on Sunday March 22 at 1:00pm at the Dunkin’ Donuts at 28 Market Square and fan out from there.

If you can’t make it, wish us luck.  We’ll need it!


Thanks to John English of the Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook page for organizing this quest.

(photo of the empty Gulf Tower nest from the National Avairy falconcam)


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Mar 20 2015

Today, Stonehenge At Home

Stonehenge (photo from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) is a day late in honor of the Spring Equinox.

During today’s sun event there will be a Stonehenge effect in my neighborhood.

Click on the link to learn how the position of our houses causes Stonehenge At Home.


(photo of Stonehenge in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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