Archive for August, 2014

Aug 31 2014

Swift Migration

Published by under Migration

Vaux's Swifts go to roost in Chapman Elementary School chimney in Portland, OR (photo by Dan Viens)

Just a reminder that swift migration is heating up across the continent: chimney swifts in the east, Vaux swifts in the west.

Stake out a chimney at dusk and watch the excitement as the swifts swirl and drop into the chimney to roost for the night.

Early to mid September is prime time for this activity in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Check out these chimneys in Pittsburgh:

  • At South St. Clair Street, across the street from 5802 Baum Boulevard, look at the chimney across the parking lot.  Three Rivers Birding Club usually visits this chimney at least one evening during migration… and then we go to The Sharp Edge for beer.
  • In Oakland on Clyde Street near Central Catholic High School, watch the tall chimney on an apartment building on the left.
  • In Dormont, start at the corner of West Liberty Ave and Edgehill Ave.  Walk up the right side of Edgehill Ave to the second telephone pole that has a sign on it saying Weight Limit 9 Tons.  Stop and look across the street & you’ll see the chimney.
  • In Squirrel Hill at the corner of Murray and Forward Avenues there are lots of chimneys.  I’m not sure they’re used by swifts but it’s worth a look. Stand on Pocusset.
  • Check out the closed public schools: the former Schenley High School, former Gladstone Middle School, etc.  I bet you’ll find swifts.

If you’ve never seen this you’re in for a treat.  It’s awesome!

Here’s more information about swift migration from Georgia Wildlife.  Or watch the trailer for On The Wing, a movie about Vaux swifts in Portland, Oregon and their famous chimney.

 

(photo from Dan Viens, creator of On the Wing)

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Aug 30 2014

The Good Thistle

Published by under Plants

Swamp thistle in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Can a thistle be good?  This one is.

Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum) is practically smooth.  Its hollow 6-foot stem has no spines and its deeply cut leaves look pointy but aren’t very sharp.  It is very beautiful with big purple flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths.

Compare this native biennial to other big thistles and this is the one you’ll prefer to touch.  Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) is more prickly though it smells very sweet.  Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) and non-native Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) are so spiny they’re absolutely scary. Wear stout gloves!

The easiest way to identify Swamp thistle is by its bud which looks cob-webby with fine white hairs.  Here’s a closeup.

Swamp Thistle bud (photo by Kate St. John)

Swamp thistle is native to eastern North America from Labrador to Louisiana (and Texas) where it grows in swamps, wet woods and thickets.

I photographed these two at Jennings Prairie in Butler County, Pennsylvania earlier this month.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 29 2014

From Billions To None, Sept 7 on WQED

Published by under Books & Events

Digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough via Wikimedia Commons
 

Monday, September 1, marks an important day in history.  On that day 100 years ago the passenger pigeon went extinct.  To commemorate the event WQED will broadcast From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm.

As told by Joel Greenberg, author of The Feathered River Across the Sky, the story is compelling, powerful, and heartbreaking.

At the height of its population there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in North America, roughly equivalent to the number of birds that overwinter in the United States every year.

Their extinction was shocking in its swiftness. In Wisconsin it took only 28 years — from the largest communal nesting ever recorded, 136 million birds in 1871, to the last wild bird shot dead in 1899.

Humans caused the extinction. Aided by new technology (trains and telegraphs) and in the absence of hunting laws, there was uncontrolled killing at the communal nesting grounds.  By the late 1870′s there were signs of great decline.  Advocates pleaded for hunting controls but across the U.S. businessmen who traded the birds as meat and legislators successfully argued against protection.

History repeats itself today.  The documentary describes how cod nearly went extinct when fishing technology improved and how cod fishing was banned, yet after 20 years the population has not rebounded.  Today, sharks and one out of eight bird species are in trouble.

But the program also gives us hope.  When we stopped killing whales and sandhill cranes, they rebounded.  We banned DDT and brought back bald eagles and peregrine falcons.  If we put forth the effort we can choose to preserve.

Watch From Billions to None on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm on WQED.  Then stay tuned for a related program at 4:00pm, The Lost Bird Project (reviewed here).

Thanks to our friends at the National Aviary for underwriting both programs.

 

p.s. Click here to see the trailer From Billions to None on Vimeo.

(digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 28 2014

TBT: What to Look for in Early September

Published by under Phenology

Turtleheads (photo by Tim Vechter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In a few days it will be September.  Plants and animals are changing as fall approaches.  What will we see outdoors in the month ahead?

Phenology is the study of the times when natural phenomena recur.  Back in 2008-2009 Chuck Tague and I collaborated on a year-long phenology series for western Pennsylvania.  His website held much more information than mine but, alas, it disappeared when Apple discontinued web.me.com.  My series remains as a collection at the Western PA Phenology tab at the top of this blog.

What can we expect in early September?  Click here for the phenology forecast.

 

(photo of turtleheads by Tim Vechter)

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Aug 27 2014

Birds *Are* Dinosaurs

Published by under Musings & News

Four-winged dinosaur, Changyuraptor yangi, discovered in China (illustration by Stephanie Abramowicz, NHM)

(illustration by Stephanie Abramowicz, NHM)

News broke in mid-July of a newly discovered dinosaur with four wings and a very long tail.  As a member of the Microraptoria clade, Changyuraptor yangi is unusual.

Microraptors had been characterized as 2.5 – 3 feet long weighing up to 2.2. pounds, but this one broke the mold.  Changyuraptor is four feet long with 30% of its length made up of foot-long feathers at the end of its tail.  The animal is “four-winged” because it has long feathers on all four limbs.  And it was heavy — probably 9 pounds — which is four to six times heavier than a peregrine falcon, more similar in weight to a male bald eagle.

Changyuraptor’s long tail showed that this non-avian dinosaur had good flight control.  If you watch a big (modern) bird coming in for a landing you’ll see it slow its air speed by pushing down its tail and holding its head high.  The July report in Nature Communications said this dino could do that too.  Unfortunately the feathers on the raptors forewings (arms) were not well preserved, so scientists can’t tell if it could take off from the ground or only glide from trees.

Though he could fly Changyuraptor yangi is non-avian in other respects.  He had teeth instead of a beak and bones in his tail.  But he was clearly a forerunner to birds.  If you ask someone who knows a lot about dinosaurs what he thinks of birds you get a very cool answer.

In a video from the Syndey Morning Herald (click on the illustration to see the video) science columnist Peter Spinks interviews two paleontologists, one in the studio and one on the phone.  He asks both of them, “Does this clinch the deal for you that dinosaurs were the precursors of birds?”

Both answer that the deal was clinched for them long ago.  And then the second paleontologist, Mikael Siversson, adds, ““Not only are birds descended from dinosaurs, but in fact birds are dinosaurs. They are highly specialized surviving dinosaurs.”

Woo hoo!

 

Read more here at Science Matters.

(illustration of Changyuraptor yangi by Stephanie Abramowicz, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

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Aug 26 2014

A Look Back at the Hays Eagles

 

It’s hard to believe it’s been less than two months since crowds flocked to the Three Rivers Heritage Bike Trail to see the bald eagles fledge at Hays.  A few dedicated eagle watchers still visit the site but this month they usually come up empty-handed.  The young eagles have left for parts unknown and the adults lounge out of sight.

Boring as the eagles are right now, they’ve fostered a huge fan club and several reunions including a picnic last Saturday. Love for these birds has created many lasting friendships.

WQED’s Michael Bartley captured the excitement when he visited the bike trail in May.  On site, he chatted with me about the eagles’ popularity and with the National Aviary’s Bob Mulvihill on what to expect from the eagle family in the weeks and months ahead.  Though the video was filmed on a weekday in May you can see the trail was crowded with watchers.

As Michael says, “We haven’t seen the last of bald eagles in Pittsburgh. If you can’t wait til next year, here’s a look back at the birds that flew away with the city’s heart.”

 

(webisode by WQED Pittsburgh)

 

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Aug 25 2014

Why Does Thunder Rumble?

Published by under Weather & Sky

Lightning over Schaffhausen and Kohlfirst (photo by Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons)

After a week of daily thunder and heavy rain we’re finally getting a spate of clear weather.  Today’s interesting thunder facts can’t be applied immediately but we’ll get another chance before long.

We’re all familiar with the crack of lightning and thunder’s low rumbles.  Sometimes we hear another loud bang in the middle of the series.  Why does thunder rumble and what are those mid-bangs about?  I found an explanation at the UK’s Weatheronline website.

First, let’s review the basics about light and sound.  Lightning travels at the speed of light, thunder at the speed of sound.  There’s such a time lag between them that we can figure out how far away the lightning is by counting the seconds between the flash and the sound, 5 seconds per mile.

The initial thunderclap is the closest part of the lightning but (amazingly!) the bolt itself is several miles long. We see it flash in twists and turns, branches and offshoots.  Every piece makes a thunderclap but many of the parts are so distant they sound like rumbles instead of booms.

What’s the bang in the middle?  It might be a new lightning bolt but … it could be the same bolt zigzagging closer as it travels through the sky.  The closest part is that middle bang.  Click here for an illustration showing how sound lags within a single lightning bolt.

Thunder rumbles because lightning is not a short, contained flash.  If it was we would hear a single loud boom, like the boom of an electrical transformer blowing up on the pole outside your house.  (I know something about this!)

And here’s a cool note about the photo:
Do you see the birds flying below the cloud?  It’s actually only one bird!  The lightning flashed four times while the shutter was open so the bird appears four times as it flies through the storm.  Brave bird!

 

p.s. It’s hard to see four birds in this small reproduction. Click on the image to see the original including annotations.

(photo of lightning in Switzerland by Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons)

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Aug 24 2014

A One Day Wonder

Red-necked phalarope at Conneaut Harbor (photo by Steve Gosser)

Pittsburgh birders always hope that a trip to Lake Erie’s shore will uncover a rarity.  Will there be something awesome at the end of that 2.5 hour drive?

This rare bird showed up at Conneaut, Ohio nine days ago.  The August 15 rare bird alert reported an immature red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) on the sand spit.  Birders flocked to see him so far from his species’ normal migration routes west of the Mississippi and offshore in the Atlantic.

Steve Gosser photographed him less than 24 hours later.   Isn’t he gorgeous!

Red-necked phalarope at Conneaut Harbor, 16 Aug 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

That was Saturday.  I drove to Conneaut on Sunday and the bird was gone.

I should be more nimble if I want to see these One Day Wonders.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 23 2014

Waxwing Update

Cedar waxwing nestlings (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Remember the cedar waxwing nest I wrote about this month?  Marcy Cunkelman sent me an update this morning.

The eggs hatched more than a week ago and the parents have been busy feeding the nestlings.

All those trips to the fruit bushes have paid off.  Three healthy youngsters are tall enough now to be seen in the nest.  They have yellow wrinkled “baby” beaks and crests that look like bad toupees.

It won’t be long before they fly.

Keep growing, little guys.  Your”hair” will look better soon.

Click here to see what a just-fledged cedar waxwing looks like.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 22 2014

Very Close To Bears

Published by under Mammals

If you want to see black bears, northern Minnesota is the place to be.

Ely is home to the North American Bear Center where PixController‘s webcam made Lily the Bear internationally famous, and just west of Orr the American Bear Association’s Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary allows brave photographers to get very close to wild black bears.

The Vince Shute Sanctuary protects wild bears and provides educational opportunities in its 360-acre sanctuary.  The bears are encouraged to visit a two-acre clearing at the heart of the property where, on the summer evenings, the general public can watch them from the sanctuary’s elevated viewing platform.   Photographers wishing a close encounter can pay hundreds of dollars, learn about bear safety and sign a release. Then up to four photographers at a time can stand on the ground among the bears during the day.

Sparky Stensaas visited in early June and signed the release.  “Basically you sign your life away,” he says, but you can see why the sanctuary does that.  The bears come that close!

Watch Sparky’s video for cute cubs and a very close bear encounter.  Click here to see his video on Vimeo’s full screen and read more about his experience with the bears.

 

p.s. Listen to the sound track for crows and some odd calls that sound like humans saying “wooo.”  Those are ravens!

(video by Sparky Stensaas, The Photonaturalist)

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