If you have to sit outdoors in winter, you’re bound to get snowed on.
Last month during a particularly wet snowfall, Gregg Diskin found this red-tailed hawk perched in Schenley Park. The bird was trying to stay warm and dry but it was a challenge. His feathers were wet and his feet were getting cold.
See how he’s tucked one foot into his breast feathers? It looks like he’s holding his coat closed. Brrrrr!
Fortunately feathers are very good insulation. You don’t realize how well they work until the hawk scratches his head.
(photo of the Chelyabinsk meteor’s trace by Nikita Plekhanov via Wikipedia. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. The meteor also taught me two things about Russian culture: (1) Russians have dashboard cameras in their cars to protect against corrupt policemen and disputed traffic accidents, and (2) They have already made a joke about it, quoted from the Houston Chronicle: “The meteorite was supposed to fall on Dec. 21, 2012 — when many believed the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world — but was delivered late by Russia’s notoriously inefficient postal service.”
Much as we’re unhappy with the results, the introduction of house sparrows from Europe began a grand experiment in avian adaptation.
House sparrows were introduced to both the U.S. and New Zealand in the 1850s where they immediately became isolated from their native populations. More than 150 years later they differ based on where they live.
In addition to changes in plumage the birds are different sizes. In locations where winters are harsh, the birds are large. Where the climate is moderate, they are smaller. This effect is called Bergmann’s rule and is true of birds around the world.
We’re not the only ones who celebrate love this month. February is raptor courtship time.
Last year on Valentine’s Day the Decorah Eagles nestcam captured the bald eagles, “Mom and Dad”, vocalizing and mating.
This year the eagles have built a second nest that’s closer to the fish hatchery and not on camera! At this point it’s unclear which nest the eagles will use, but they’ll certainly disappoint their 60,500 followers if they choose the off camera site.
Pittsburgh’s “falconuts” experienced that disappointment a year ago when Dori and Louie chose a new nest site Downtown. Unfortunately it looks like the peregrines aren’t coming home to the Gulf Tower so we’re going to have another year of off-camera love birds.
Have you ever seen pepper on snow? Did the pepper jump when you approached?
Last weekend Marianne Atkinson found black sprinkles on the snow near her home in Clearfield County, PA.
The “pepper” is hard to see in her first photo. Here’s a closeup.
These are snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola), a springtail species that earned its name because it appears on top of snow on warm winter days and, like all springtails, it jumps like a flea to avoid danger.
They are very small, less than 0.24 inches long. To see them well you have to magnify them.
They have a spring-loaded furcula (like a tail) that they clasp under their bodies. When they let go the “tail” whaps the ground and propels them into the air.
Springtails are technically hexapods, not insects.
Most springtails live in leaf litter and topsoil where they eat decomposing plants and animals.
They are very gregarious.
They are highly sensitive to drought. Because they breathe through their cuticle (hard skin) they can’t afford to dry out.
Springtails are a sign of good soil because they are very sensitive to herbicides, pesticides and pollution. Folsomia candida are used in the lab for soil toxicology tests because they avoid — or die of — chemicals at very low levels.
There can be 100,000 springtails in one cubic meter of soil, making them one of the most abundant macroscopic animals on earth.
I’ve seen white-winged crossbills before, especially in the winter of 2009, but this year they’ve eluded me. People send news of them to PABIRDS but when I travel to their reported location they aren’t there. True to their irruptive nature crossbills are always on the move. Dang!
Last week I ran into Claire Staples while on my lunch break in Oakland. We exchanged bird sightings and Claire said she’d experienced the same problem finding crossbills until quite recently when she heard them near her home in Squirrel Hill.
The clue is their sound. Claire says they sound like typewriters, a useful tip as I actually do remember what typewriters sound like. Shows how old I am!
So now on my walks I’m trying hard not to look for crossbills as I don’t want to jinx my chances of seeing them. But I’m listening for the sound of typewriters.
Even when scientists develop an answer to why something happened, they still test the idea to make sure they’re right.
That’s what happened with the Great Arctic Cyclone of August 2012.
Last August a rare, massive cyclone formed in Siberia and swirled out over the Arctic Ocean for days. During its transit the sea ice disappeared faster than anyone had ever seen. (See the swirl here.)
By September Arctic sea ice was at an all time low. Some said the cyclone caused the lowest ice extent since record-keeping began. Did it? Or would the ice have melted anyway due to warm temperatures?
Scientists at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory ran two computer simulations of last summer’s Arctic weather. One matched the actual weather. The other included everything except the cyclone.
The result showed that yes, “the effect is huge in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, but after about two weeks the effect gets smaller. By September, most of the ice that melted would have melted with or without the cyclone,” said lead author Jinlun Zhang.
Why? Because of mixing.
Back in September most thought that the wind broke up the thin ice or pushed it into a warmer part of the ocean. Since then scientists have learned that the ocean underneath the ice is like a layered parfait. Just below thin ice is a layer of ice-cold fresh water. About 65 feet down is a layer of salty water warmed by the sun. The cyclone stirred the parfait. The ice was exposed to the warm water beneath and it melted.
The cyclone did cause the ice to melt 10 days sooner, but in the end it made less than 5% difference in the ice extent.
So yes, the sea ice melted because it was hot last year.
Click on the photo to read more about the study in Science Daily.
For four days — February 15 through February 18 — you can take part in this easy citizen science project from the comfort of your home. All you need to do is count birds for at least 15 minutes, keep track of the highest number of each species you see, and record your count here.
If you don’t have feeders, you can count birds anywhere. If you photograph birds, submit your pictures for the GBBC Photo Contest.
Count for hours or for as little as 15 minutes. Have fun!
In snow-covered fields horned larks are easy to see because their brown backs don’t completely blend into the background.
Without snow these birds match the dirt. The only way I find them is by luck — I hear them and then search for movement in the mud.
When the blizzard finally ends on the East Coast today, it will be easy to see horned larks against all that snow. In the meantime in Pittsburgh our snow will melt in tomorrow’s 50 degree temperatures.
Despite the challenge of muddy fields I think I’d rather have a hard time seeing horned larks.