Archive for December, 2013

Dec 31 2013

A Big Thank You

Published by under Books & Events

Chuck Tague, Charlie Hickey, Steve Gosser, Dianne Maceshney, Marcy Cunkelman avatar, Shawn Collins (photos from the photographers)

On this, the last day of 2013, I’m sending a big thank you to the photographers who allow me to use their photos on my blog.

You’ve seen my own photographs in this space but none of them match the work of others, especially the six who contributed the most this year.  From left to right, starting at top:

  • Chuck Tague of Volusia County, Florida is the founder and interpretive naturalist at the Nature Observer News.  Formerly of Pittsburgh, Chuck was one of my first and best teachers on observing nature.  Many of us miss his infectious curiosity and enthusiasm but we know he doesn’t miss our cold, gray winters!
  • Charlie Hickey of Berks County, PA is retired and travels widely photographing birds, plants and other cool stuff outdoors.  I met Charlie online through PABIRDS because he shared a photo.  His Flickr site is rich with information on his subjects including their scientific names (click ‘more’ at each Flickr photo).  I’m adding Charlie’s exotic places to my Bucket List.
  • Steve Gosser of Westmoreland County, PA works for an insurance company but spends all his free time photographing birds.  His beautiful photos have been published in the newspapers, including the Valley Dispatch and Tribune Review, and shown in several galleries. Watch his website or Facebook page for announcements.
  • Dianne Machesney of Allegheny County, PA is an amateur botanist, certified Master Gardener, and treasurer of the Wissahickon Nature Club where she and I met.  Now that she and her husband Bob are retired they spend more time outdoors in search of birds, butterflies and plants.  Dianne’s photos always teach me something new.
  • Marcy Cunkelman of Indiana County, PA is Editor of the The Keystone Gardener magazine, a masterful gardener, monarch butterfly “tagger” and educator.  She often invites fellow photographers to spend the day in her beautiful garden, designed for butterflies and birds. Marcy’s not shy about taking pictures but she’s shy about being in them, so I’ve had to use of one her butterfly photos as her portrait.
  • Shawn Collins of Crawford County, PA has a ‘day job’ but spends all his free time photographing birds.  His work has been published in the Edinboro newspaper at GoCrawfordCounty.com.  I met Shawn online when he shared a photo on PABIRDS, then met him in person on an outing he led at Pymatuning. His photos on Facebook and Flickr have convinced me that Erie and Crawford Counties are the Shangri La of Pennsylvania birds.

These folks are only the tip of the iceberg.  So many photographers have contributed their work that there’s not room to list them all.  (See the Photographers page!)  I also owe a debt of gratitude to those who publish their work using the Creative Commons license for all to share.

So here’s a BIG THANK YOU to all the photographers who’ve given me permission to use their work.  This blog would not be possible without you.

(composite photo from each of the photographers’ websites or Facebook pages)

 

p.s. I didn’t tell the photographers in advance that I needed their portraits so I had to glean photos from their websites or Facebook.  After publication, Marcy Cunkelman sent this photo of herself.
Marcy Cunkelman

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Dec 30 2013

Prelude To A Fawn

Published by under Mammals

Here’s something you’re unlikely to see in Pennsylvania’s “Big Woods” north of Interstate 80 — a close-up view of a young 8-point buck taunting and sparring with an older one.

You’re unlikely to see this because Pennsylvania’s huge deer herd is quite out of balance up north.  Since doe hunting was suppressed more than 100 years ago the ratio of bucks to does has fallen steadily.  For example, on the first day of hunting season last month a friend saw a herd of 88 deer in Clarion County.  85 were does and the 3 bucks had only spikes for antlers.  To find out how this happened, read Bob Frye’s 2006 book Deer Wars: Science, Tradition, and the Battle over Managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania.

In no-hunt suburban areas, Pennsylvania’s deer proliferate with a good balance of males and females.  They’re used to seeing harmless humans, some of whom offer food, so they don’t mind coming close.

Sharon Leadbitter visits Allegheny Cemetery in the City of Pittsburgh to photograph the large herd.  Last summer she posted a video of a cute fawn frisking among the headstones. This month she filmed these two antlered bucks.

You can tell the young buck wants to spar as he jumps and dances. The older one persistently pushes him away and ultimately wins.

The winner will claim his favorite doe(s) and make more babies.

Their sparring is the prelude to a fawn.

(video by Sharon Leadbitter)

 

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Dec 29 2013

Take Me To The River

Peregrine bathing in the Monongahela River (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Yesterday, while the Christmas Bird Counters were absent from Duck Hollow, Michelle Kienholz stopped by to take a run on the Duck Hollow Trail.  Surprise!  From the parking lot she saw a peregrine falcon taking a bath in the Monongahela River.  Very cool!

A long time passed — at least 10 minutes — and the peregrine continued to stand in the water.  Michelle noticed a fisherman in waders standing further out than the peregrine but the falcon didn’t leave.  Why was it staying there so long?  Was something wrong?  She emailed me with a snapshot.

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

I was at home logging the 6,000 crows I counted over my house at dawn when I received her message so I drove down to Duck Hollow to take a look.  No peregrine in sight but there was a merlin in the river near the fisherman!

The fisherman left the water, the merlin flew to a dead snag overlooking the river, and my phone beeped with another message from Michelle saying the peregrine had flown upriver after 20 minutes in the water.

I looked at the snag again.  The merlin was gone, a kestrel was standing in its place, and the merlin was in the river taking a bath.  Michelle came back from the trail and I showed her the other two birds.

Here’s the merlin bathing. Quite a different bird!

Merlin bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

And then the merlin left…

Wet merlin leaving the river, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

 

I wish I’d been there earlier.  In Pittsburgh there are only three possible falcons — American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon — and Michelle saw all three within half an hour.  A Falcon Sweep!   Her sightings were added to the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.

 

p.s. One of Michelle’s photos showed the peregrines’ bands. The USFW band is pinkish and shows ‘160’ or ‘760’ (right leg, left side of photo). The color band (left leg, right side of photo) is black/green and the black seems to end in ‘5’. Who might this be?

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River at Duck Hollow (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Dorothy, the matriarch at the University of Pittsburgh nest, has a pinkish USFW band with the number 1807-77607. Her black/green band is 5/*A.   Hmmmmm!

(photos by Michelle Kienholz)

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Dec 28 2013

Bird Count News

Published by under Books & Events

Birders at Burgh Castle (photo by Glen Scott, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Today there are two local Christmas Bird Counts:  Pittsburgh and the proposed circle at Imperial.

I want to count in both circles — especially since the Imperial CBC may find a snowy owl near the airport — but I’ve opted for Pittsburgh’s because I’ve counted on the same route in my neighborhood for 13 years.  I would hate to miss the history of it.

Back on December 15 the Allegheny Front radio show covered the Lower Buffalo Christmas Bird Count in Washington County Pennsylvania, organized every year by Larry Helgerman.  Click here to see and hear the news from Lower Buffalo’s count.  Congratulations, Larry!

 

(birders at Burgh Castle, Norfolk, UK. photo by Glenn Scott, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

p.s. If you get an out-of-synch double-audio effect at the link above, click the pause button on one of the two audio feeds.  The two feeds start automatically and are sometimes out of synch.

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Dec 27 2013

Pittsburgh Eaglecam!

Thanks to Bill Powers of Pix Controller and the PA Game Commission the first bald eagle nestcam in Pennsylvania is right here in Pittsburgh!

Installed one week ago, it’s already capturing the activities of the Hays bald eagle pair at their nest above the Monongahela River.

As you can see, installing the camera involved some scary tree climbing by Derek Spitler of the PA Game Commission.  (The nest is in the center of the photo.)  Click on the TribLive screenshot below to read Mary Ann Thomas’ report and see close-ups and video of the installation.
Screenshot of the eaglecam from TribLive video

Pittsburgh’s eaglecam has already captured the pair at their nest.  The video at top was taken on Christmas Day and there are videos of the pair together on December 23 and one eagle in snow on December 26 (yesterday!).

Though the site is within the city limits it is quite remote.  There is no electricity and no Internet connection so the camera must run on solar power and transmit using the cell network.  Right now Bill Powers is working out the kinks — too little battery power to run all night and thin data bandwidth from Sprint — but he has to fix all of it within the next two weeks before his access to the site is cut off.

Bald eagles abandon nest sites with too much human disturbance so the PA Game Commission has allowed PixController to visit the camera only until January 15.  All other access is off limits.  Don’t even dream of going there yourself!  The area is posted and you’ll be fined $1,000 to $10,000.

Trib Total Media will stream the live feed on its website beginning in February.  Meanwhile you can see new video clips and watch the eagles online at PixController’s eaglecam site. If the camera is not streaming, rest assured that Bill is working on it.

 

(Pittsburgh bald eagle nestcam video by PixController. Screenshot of camera installation from TribLive.)

p.s. While you wait for activity in Pittsburgh, watch eagle chicks on camera in Ft. Myers, Florida!  The first eaglet hatched on Christmas Eve, the second on Christmas Day. Watch them on the Southwest Florida Eaglecam.

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Dec 26 2013

Tiny Mistletoe

Published by under Plants,Trees

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, female plant (photo by John W. Schwandt, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

‘Tis the season for kissing under the mistletoe but this genus is too small for the purpose.

Mistletoes are parasitic plants in the sandalwood family.  The ones we associate with kissing, Phoradendron leucarpum and Viscum album, are evergreen plants that parasitize oak and apple trees.  In winter they look like green balls in the bare trees.  Click here for a photo and description.

Dwarf mistletoe, on the other hand, is amazingly small.  Arceuthobium’s 42 dioecious species parasitize only conifers.  The female plant of American dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum) is shown above, the male below. Notice the tiny size of the plant relative to the pine needles.

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, male plant (photo by Brytten Steed, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Dwarf mistletoe begins its life as a seed that lands on a tree branch, then germinates and grows beneath the bark, sucking water and minerals.  It rarely kills the tree but the tree fights back by developing witches’ brooms or losing branches as shown on this lodgepole pine.  Foresters hate dwarf misletoe.

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, damage to lodgepole pine (photo by Mike Schomaker, Colorado State Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

 

Many mistletoes depend on birds to spread their seeds, but dwarf mistletoe takes matters into its own hands.  During the 18 months of seed maturation, water pressure builds up in the seed capsule until it finally bursts out, traveling at almost 50 mph … like this!

Dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, shoots a seed (photo by Frank Hawksworth, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Pow!  The size of a grain of rice, it can travel 65 feet!

Tiny but powerful.  Watch out below!

 

(all photos are American dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, from Bugwood.org: 1241494 by John W. Schwandt USDA Forest Service, 2141082 by Brytten Steed USDA Forest Service, 2250003 by Frank Hawksworth USDA Forest Service, 5367211 by Mike Schomaker Colorado State Forest Service)

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Dec 25 2013

Merry Christmas

Snow on Pyracantha (photo by Bob Muller, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

The colors of a Merry Christmas…

Pyracantha after a rare snowfall in Nags Head, North Carolina, February 2006 by Bob Muller.

 

(photo by Bob Muller (bobxnc), Creative Commons license via Flickr)

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Dec 24 2013

Norwegian Gifts

Published by under Books & Events,Trees

Norway spruces (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When you see a tall evergreen with drooping branches in eastern North America, chances are it’s a Norway spruce.

Native to Europe, Picea abies is cultivated widely for landscaping and is now naturalized from Connecticut to Michigan.  Elsewhere the trees must be planted but they do quite well, tolerating more heat and humidity than other conifers.

Norway spruces are easy to identify because their drooping branches resemble the fringed sleeves on a cowboy jacket and their cones are long and thin with papery scales.

Norway spruce cones (photo by Randi Hausken, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

In Germany this species became the first Christmas tree.  In fact, it’s the tree that adorns New York’s Rockefeller Center, London’s Trafalgar Square, Edinburgh’s town square and Washington DC’s Union Square right now.

Every year since 1947 the City of Oslo has given a Norway spruce as a Christmas tree to those four cities in gratitude for U.S. and U.K. help during World War II.

Here’s Rockefeller Center’s tree on the 40th anniversary, Christmas Eve 1987.

Christmas tree,Rockefeller Center, 1987, gift of Oslo, Norway (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Click on the city names above to read about these beautiful Norwegian gifts.

 

(photos of spruce and Christmas tree from Wikimedia Commons. photo of cones by Randi Hausken, Creative Commons license on Flickr. Click on the images to see their originals)

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Dec 23 2013

I Am Not Starving

Snowy owl in Wattsburg, PA (photo by Shawn Collins)

Joe Monahan of Boone County, Iowa generated a heated discussion on PABIRDS last week when he urged folks to save snowy owls by feeding them store-bought mice.  According to Joe the owls are starving: “The dead owls found here that were necropsied were found to be emaciated. Which is why I decided to start feeding the one remaining in our area.”

His idea raised ethical issues but Joe’s argument was that, based on those found dead, snowy owls are starving and ought to be fed.  The core of the discussion came down to: Were the dead owls evidence of a starving population?  Will feeding help or hurt?

Deciding the leading cause of death of a population — and what to do to help that population — based on those “found dead” is quite misleading.   If you visited Moore, Oklahoma on May 11 the majority of people found dead were killed by a tornado.  If we acted on that very real but skewed statistic we would move people out of Oklahoma because it’s a state known to have many tornadoes. However, the real leading causes of death in Oklahoma are heart disease and cancer, as elsewhere in the US.  Moving people away from Tornado Alley would not help and could hurt — upsetting some so much that they’d die prematurely (the autopsy would say it was heart disease).

Snowy owl studies by Paul Kerlinger, Norman Smith and colleagues show that as a population, wintering snowies are not starving at all.  Kerlinger’s study says: “Trauma-induced mortality was the cause of death in 64% of all cases, and starvation was implicated in just 14%, a figure the authors felt was likely inflated by several factors. Almost half of all snowy owls examined had moderate to heavy fat, and many of those lacking fat had suffered massive injuries.”   (Note that a bird that’s suffered massive injury starves because it cannot hunt.)  And, “of the 20 snowy owls Norman Smith satellite-tagged at Logan Airport, only four died – one from a plane strike and three from gunshot wounds.”  (People do hunt snowies up north.)

Will feeding help or hurt the birds?  Joe described his feeding method:  Holding a live mouse by the tail he would wait for the owl to fly toward him, then he toss the mouse when the owl was within 100 yards. Or he tossed a live mouse on a gravel road for the owl to retrieve.

Since the real leading cause of death in snowy owls is trauma, Joe’s well intentioned effort will probably backfire.  The owls will learn to trust humans and roads and may die prematurely, hit by a car or a bullet.

For everyone’s well being, learn more before you act.

“I am not starving,” says the snowy owl.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  A big new snowy owl study has just been launched. Click here for details.

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Dec 22 2013

Deck The Halls

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Bromeliad Christmas wreath at Phipps Conservatory (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Though Christmas wreaths are a northern tradition this one at Phipps Conservatory is made of bromeliads from the American tropics.

After the weather turns cold tomorrow you might be wishing you were somewhere warm.  If you’re in Pittsburgh you can warm up at the Winter Flower Show at Phipps Conservatory.  They’re all decked out for the holidays through January 12.

I love to bask in the humid warmth with tropical plants when its cold outside.  I can almost believe I’m on vacation.

 

(bromeliad Christmas wreath at Phipps Conservatory. photo by Dianne Machesney)

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