Jan 28 2015

Incredible Site Fidelity

Published by under Migration,Travel

Whimbrel ready for release in migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology via William&Mary news)

Whimbrel ready about to be released for migration tracking study (photo by Barry Truitt, courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

The U.S. Virgin Islands are so beautiful it’s no wonder people come here every winter, year after year.  Some birds do too, and they show incredible site fidelity even in their choice of rest stops along the way.

Whimbrels are large shorebirds with long decurved bills who breed on the marshy tundra of Alaska, Northwest Canada and Hudson Bay.(*)  Their breeding season is short so they make 14,000 mile annual migrations to spend most of the year in Brazil or the Caribbean.  On migration they often use the same favored stopovers on the U.S. coast.  That’s how one particular whimbrel nicknamed Hope encountered biologists from William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) in May 2009.

Since 2007 CCB had been tracking shorebird migration by fitting whimbrels with satellite backpacks at their staging areas on the Delmarva peninsula.  The satellite data, mapped by CCB and The Nature Conservancy, provided astonishing results.  For instance, from 2009 to 2011 Hope traveled faithfully from the Mackenzie River Delta to Great Pond at St.Croix, nearly always stopping at Delmarva along the way.

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map from Center for Conservation Biology and The Nature Conservancy, courtesy Center for Conservation Biology)

Migration journeys of Hope the Whimbrel, 2009 to 2011 (map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

Her amazing migration made news at Audubon Magazine and EarthSky.org, and became a conservation story in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2012 shortly after returning to St. Croix, Hope’s satellite antenna broke, rendering the tracking unit useless.  Rather than replace the unit, CCB decided to remove it and put colorful tags on her legs so that local birders could recognize her.  Here, Fletcher Smith holds her one last time before releasing her at Great Pond.

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy the Center for Conservation Biology)

Fletcher Smith about to release Hope in St. Croix after removing her damaged satellite backpack, 2012 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)


Hope retired from the tracking program but she didn’t stop her normal life.  True to her habits, she still makes her faithful journey. In August 2013 she was photographed at St. Croix having completed her first round trip to Canada without the backpack.  Here she is sporting her yellow and green leg tags at Great Pond.  She’s there this winter, too.

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, August 2013 (photo from the Center for Conservation Biology)

Hope returns to Great Pond at St. Croix, August 2013 (photo courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

We humans may visit the same places every year but for truly incredible site fidelity follow a whimbrel.

Read more about CCB’s Center for Conservation Biology shorebird tracking program and watch cool videos of the Mackenzie Delta and a whimbrel with chick here at the Center for Conservation Biology.


(photos and map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

And … three more messages:

1. Though I’m visiting St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands I will not be going to St. Croix to see “Hope.”  St. Croix is 43 miles south of St. John and there is no longer any ferry service. Like a whimbrel, you have to fly.

2. (*) These breeding and migration ranges refer to the Atlantic-migration whimbrels of North America.  Whimbrels have a worldwide distribution.

3. I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time because Internet access is spotty where I’m staying at St. John, USVI.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

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Jan 27 2015

How Brown Is A Booby?

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Juvenile brown booby in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When a brown booby shows up in the northeastern U.S. it’s usually late in the year (August to December) and the bird is usually quite brown.  That’s because juvenile birds like this one are more prone to wandering from their tropical ocean homes than are their parents.

Having never seen a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) until this week at St. John, USVI my exposure was limited to a few photos of juvenile birds from Pennsylvania rare bird alerts.  For years I assumed that brown boobies were 100% brown.  Not!

Adults are crisp brown-and-white and even have white faces that acquire color in the breeding season.

Here’s a typical adult brown booby.  Quite a different-looking bird!

Adult brown booby in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since I’m used to seabirds in Maine I think it’s very cool that brown boobies so closely resemble northern gannets (Morus bassanus) in size, shape, and plunge-dive feeding strategy.

Northern Gannet (photo by Chuck Tague)

Fortunately they’re brown enough that you don’t misidentify them as gannets when you see them on the northern ocean.


Note: Brown boobies are very common tropical ocean birds but their population is declining in the Caribbean because of encroachment and invasive mammals on their nesting islands.  They made the State Of The Birds Watch List in 2014 because they’ve declined so much.

(brown booby photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.  Northern gannet photo by Chuck Tague)


p.s. I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time because Internet access is spotty where I’m staying at St. John, USVI.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

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Jan 26 2015

First Bird On The Agenda

Banaquits arguing in Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

The first bird on my St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands agenda is the bananaquit. For me, it’s a Life Bird so I’m excited to see one.  I fear it will soon become “ho hum,” though, because it’s so common on the island.

The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) is a small, non-migratory bird — only the size of a black and white warbler — but it moves much faster than the warbler.  Can you say hyper-active?

It has a curved beak because it eats nectar for a living just like other tropical nectar-eaters: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeycreepers.

Ornithologists have tentatively placed the bananaquit in the Tanager family but its family relations are often disputed.   Scientists argue about where to place this bird; these two argue about where to place themselves.

They were photographed at Campo Limpo Paulista, Brazil by Leon Bojarczuk.


(photo by Leon Bojarczuk via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original)


p.s. I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time because Internet access is spotty where I’m staying at St. John, USVI.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

4 responses so far

Jan 25 2015

Visiting Warblers At Their Winter Home

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Black and white warbler (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Today I’m flying to a place that shares my name for a week of hiking with the Keystone Trails Association and Treks & Trails International.

When I heard about the trip last year I thought, How could I not visit St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands?  My husband wasn’t interested (he’d had obligations in Pittsburgh and now he can’t travel because of his concussion) but I knew this would be a great opportunity to visit warblers at their winter home.

Many warblers go to Central and South America for the winter but some stay in the Caribbean.  The most common ones at St. John are: northern parula, yellow warbler, blackpoll warbler, black and white warbler (above), American redstart and northern waterthrush.

I expect to see this bird in the coming week … and many birds I’ve never seen before.

Stay tuned.  :)


p.s. Internet access is spotty at St. John so I’ve written and pre-scheduled this week’s blogs ahead of time.  I might not post/respond to your comments this week but I’ll be very active online next weekend!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

2 responses so far

Jan 24 2015

Johnstown Peregrine On The News

Published by under Peregrines

Screenshot from WJAC news of Johnstown peregrine

No, this peregrine is not in jail.  It’s looking into an office window.

If you’re not a member of Pittsburgh Falconuts’ Facebook page or PABIRDS you may not know that a peregrine falcon has been hanging out at the First National Bank in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  Until last winter peregrines were unheard of in the city made famous by The Johnstown Flood.

The bird became famous himself (or herself?) when a bank employee snapped this photo from her office window.  Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the news on WJAC-TV, Johnstown.

Peregrines have never nested in Johnstown but spring is coming and this falcon may be creating a completely new territory and advertizing for a mate.

Thanks to Johnstown birder Linda Greble (seen in the video) for being such a great advocate for peregrine falcons in Johnstown.


(screenshot from WJAC-TV online news.  Click on the image to see the video)

4 responses so far

Jan 23 2015

TBT: Crows…

Published by under Crows, Ravens

American crows gather in a tree in Pittsburgh (photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) is on Friday today because of the short work week.

In the seven years since I started writing about Pittsburgh’s winter crows I can see that they’ve changed their ways.  No, they’re not less boisterous and gregarious.  No, they have not stopped gathering in huge roosts.  But they’ve made adjustments in where they roost and the flight paths they use to get there.  The huge flocks don’t fly over my house anymore.

Back in January 2008 the crows roosted at WQED and caused quite a stir which I addressed with my favorite poem called Crows by Doug Anderson.
(Click here to read…)


p.s. I carry the Crows poem with me wherever I go.  I’m probably the only person you know who carries a poem about crows in her purse.  :)

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

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Jan 22 2015

Virginia’s Peregines Thrive

Published by under Peregrines

Mother peregrine at the Tarentum Bridge, 23 June 2012 (photo by Sean Dicer)

The female peregrine at the Tarentum Bridge is from Virginia (photo by Sean Dicer)

Last week William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) published news of Virginia’s peregrine falcons in 2014.

As in Pennsylvania, Virginia’s breeding peregrine population has climbed from zero in the early 1970s to a nest count that matches the pre-DDT days.  But just as in Pennsylvania most peregrines don’t nest in the mountains anymore.

Breeding peregrine falcons in Virginia from 1977-2014. Data from CCB.

Breeding peregrine falcons in Virginia from 1977-2014. Graph courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology

In the report Libby Mojica of CCB writes, “Virginia’s falcon population is predominantly on the coastal plain with 24 breeding pairs on the coast including 10 [man-made] peregrine towers, 1 ground nest, 8 bridges, 1 Coast Guard navigation tower, 2 fishing shacks, 1 power plant stack, and 1 high-rise building. The population in the western part of the state remains small with only 3 pairs nesting on rock cliffs.”

Because of strong winds fledgling mortality is high at Virginia’s peregrine bridges so each year CCB, in cooperation with VDOT, translocates some of the bridge fledglings to hack boxes in the Shenandoah Mountains.  This gives the young peregrines a better chance at life and may even persuade a few to nest in the mountains.

“Hope,” who nests at the Tarentum Bridge, was one of those translocated birds.  She hatched on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in Hopewell, Virginia in 2008 and was hacked in the Shenandoahs but she didn’t stay there long.  Instead she flew nearly 200 miles northwest to nest on a bridge over the Allegheny River.  We’re happy to have her!

Click here or on the population graph to read more about Virgina’s peregrine falcons in 2014.  Scroll down to see a photo of a ground-nesting peregrine on the sand dunes.


(photo of “Hope” by  Sean Dicer. Graph of Virginia’s breeding peregrines courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology)

3 responses so far

Jan 21 2015

Io! Did You Know… ?

Published by under Weather & Sky

Screenshot of Io video from salon.com

Continuing my Jovian January theme …

Yo! Did you know that Jupiter’s moon Io is the most volcanically active world in the solar system?

Io is the size of our Moon but a very inhospitable place.  It’s covered in sulfur which makes pretty shades of yellow but unbreathable air.

To make matters worse, Io is so small and Jupiter is so large that Jupiter’s gravity causes 100 meter land-tides on Io’s surface.  Yes, the land rises and falls 330 feet as Io orbits Jupiter.  No wonder Io has more than 400 active volcanoes!

In 2007 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took photos of a plume coming off the top of Io.  What was it?  A volcanic eruption rising 300 miles above Io’s surface!

Click on the screenshot above (or click here) to see a video of Io in action.

Yo, Io!


(video linked from Slate.com)

p.s. Scientists to Io: “Your volcanoes are in the wrong spot.”

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Jan 20 2015

Warmest Year Ever…

Published by under Weather & Sky

Land & Ocean Temperature Departure From Normal, 2014 (image from NOAA's National Climate Data Center)


Last week NOAA’s National Climate Data Center reported that 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded on earth.  Yes, there were undoubtedly warmer years before humans were around and perhaps some warm years before we bothered to write it down but for this century and in our lifetimes, it was hot.

Even after the coldest winter the east-central U.S. can remember, the average U.S. temperature was 0.5 degrees above normal.  (Ask Westerners how hot they were!)  Here’s a month-to-month video that shows that even the East was hot in December.

Climate scientists agree(*) that the warming is caused by humans and there will be sobering results.  We’ve caused it.  We record it.  We report on it.  But will the news change anything?

On a political and media level in the U.S. this news has generated interest and talk but no real action.  On the natural level — among the air, water, birds, plants, and animals that I care about — it is big news and they’re doing something about it.  The air is hotter, the ice is melting, the sea is rising, and the plants, animals and birds are moving north or uphill.

Humans are doing something too, even here in the U.S. where our society has not taken up the cause.

Humans are coping with droughts and building bigger dikes and seawalls.  We’re trying to prevent deaths from frequent heavy downpours.  We’re planting warm-season or drought-resistant flowers and crops.  We’re rewriting insurance policies to exclude disasters that are certain to happen. In some cases we’re already abandoning land that’s altered by flood or drought.

By the end of the century our world will look very different.  Right now the news is “hot.”

Read more here.


(map and video from NOAA’s National Climate Data Center)

(*) That number is “97% of scientists agree.”  Discussion of that number can be found here.  I am not going to discuss the number. Plenty of others have already done so.

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Jan 19 2015

Non-Verbal Communication

Published by under Mammals

Emmalina in the Victory Zone (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s blog post is about animal behavior, though not about a wild animal.

I am always fascinated by birds’ and mammals’ ability to communicate without complicated language.  Gestures and eye contact are often so effective that the one who sees the look or gesture knows exactly what to do.  I’ve noticed this on the webcams among nesting peregrines and eagles who don’t have language but certainly get the point across — often with just a pointed look in the youngster’s direction.

Can gestures and eye contact achieve communication between species?  I think so.

Shown above is the animal I watch most closely.  Her name is Emmalina (or Emmy or Emmaline).  Though domesticated her heart is wild.

Emmalina makes a few sounds I understand but the rule in our house (my rule) is that meowing doesn’t get you anywhere.  If you want a treat, “sit pretty” and silently in the Treat Zone (where she’s sitting right now) and you’ll get one.  If I don’t notice her sitting there she makes a very faint “mewp” to get my attention and then sits silently.  I congratulate myself that I’ve trained her to do this.

We’ve always fed our cats in the basement, just down the kitchen stairs.  Emmalina is 8 years old and she knows the routine.  She usually runs downstairs ahead of me to be in place when her dish arrives, but last week she started to run away when I went downstairs.  She wouldn’t come down and she wouldn’t eat anything in the basement — not her canned food, not the dry food.  I began to wonder if she was ill.  (Nope! I could tell she was hungry.)   Would I have to call the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic to figure out what was going on?

Last Friday the problem was solved in such an amazing way that it generated this open letter to Cornell.

Dear Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic:

The training program was successful at last.  After two weeks of non-verbal instruction the humans have figured out that I want to eat upstairs.  It was worth refusing a week’s worth of dinners in the basement.

Relieved and vindicated,

Emmalina St. John

Notice her dish in the Treat Zone now!  She says the basement floor is too cold in winter.

Non-verbal communication does work … eventually.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic is a great resource.  As part of the Veterinary College they have extensive experience with companion animals and can tell you exactly what the behavior means and how to address it.  Don’t hesitate to look them up if you have a behavior problem with a dog or cat.

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