Archive for September, 2014

Sep 15 2014

In Steep Decline

Published by under Musings & News

Herring Gull (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last week I learned something new.  Did you know that herring gulls are in steep decline?

On Thursday Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology published the 2014 State of the Birds Report in honor of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon who died 100 years ago this month.  The report heralds the great conservation successes of the past 100 years — bald eagles, wood ducks, Kirtland’s warbler, brown pelicans — and warns of species currently in decline that need our attention.

Especially interesting is the list of 33 common birds in steep decline.  According to the report, “These birds have lost more than half their global population. All of these species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals over the past four decades.”  We know from the passenger pigeon’s experience that steep decline can quickly lead to extinction so these birds are the ones to help right now.

Many are those I’ve written about in the past — common nighthawks, snow buntings, rusty blackbirds, common grackles — but the herring gull was a real surprise.   How can this species be threatened when we see them everywhere at the shore and the mall?

It turns out that herring gulls nearly went extinct in the 1880′s because of market hunting but made a stunning comeback to 100,000 birds by the 1980′s, thanks in part to humans’ wasteful ways (coastal refuse dumps and fishing boat waste).  Then the tide started to turn.  78% of the herring gull population has disappeared in the last 40 years.  Who knew?

There are plenty of birds who need our help.  Click here for the full report.  We can do it!

And here’s the list of 33 Common Species in Steep Decline.  You’ll find some surprises.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins)

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S19786167#sthash.nJ6TklhP.dpuf

No responses yet

Sep 14 2014

International Rock Flipping, Without A Flip

International Rock Flipping Day logo (from Wanderin' Weeta)

Today is International Rock Flipping Day and I’m participating for the sixth time in this Blog Carnival event.

But the truth is I did not flip a rock.

This year I finally realized that I don’t like to flip rocks.  I don’t want to be surprised by what’s underneath and the surprise is increased by having to stand close enough to photograph the critters.

Before this dawned on me I flipped two carefully chosen benign-looking rocks.  Predictably, there was nothing but dirt under them.  (Whew!)  Even so I followed Rock Flipping Protocol and replaced the rocks as I found them.

Then I remembered Mainly Mongoose’s 2010 blog post in which she pondered the hazards of flipping rocks in the lowveld of northeastern South Africa, a location filled with poisonous snakes. Luckily she found a rock monitor (lizard) poised in a rock crevice.  No flipping required!

So I switched strategies and photographed the most interesting crevices in the rock walls at Schenley Park.  This yielded three spider webs: a many-round-holed web, a hammock, and a funnel.  The spiders were quick to hide as I approached.

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Web between the rocks (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Hoping for more interesting creatures, I visited the groundhogs’ wall domain but no one was home until this little guy appeared, hidden behind the flowers.

Chipmunk in a rock crevice, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Not as good as a rock monitor but a chipmunk is a nice surprise.

Happy, International Rock Flipping Day.  Go out and flip a rock if you dare!  Remember to put it back the way you found it.

 

p.s. Watch this space for link(s) to the other rock-flipping bloggers around the world.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Sep 13 2014

Isabella Scoffs At Winter

Isabella tiger moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I found this Isabella Tiger moth caterpillar in Schenley Park.  Does she have a prediction for the coming winter?

Legend has it that wide brown stripes on woolly bear caterpillars predict a mild winter; narrow brown stripes mean a harsh one.

In the 1950′s the former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History surveyed a very small sample of woolly bears and found that the caterpillars had an 80% accuracy rate.  However, no one’s been able to replicate Dr. C. H. Curran’s findings.  Instead a whole host of factors influence the stripes including species, diet and age.  Especially age.  The older instars are browner.

And frankly, this caterpillar doesn’t care how harsh the winter.  It can survive to -90 degrees F, hibernating as a caterpillar (not in a cocoon!) curled up in a ball under a rock or bark.  It freezes completely except for the innermost portions of its cells which are protected by naturally produced glycerol.  In the spring the caterpillar thaws and resumes eating before making a cocoon and becoming a moth.

Theoretically this particular caterpillar is saying “mild winter” but we know it ain’t so.

Isabella scoffs at winter.

Read more here about the woolly bear legend and amazing winter feats.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Sep 12 2014

How Quickly Can You Pass These Tests?

This is a test.  For the next 3+ minutes wild New Caledonian crows will solve six physics problems in water displacement.

What will raise the floating treat?  If there are two treats which method is fastest?  The challenges are:

  1. Sand versus Water:  Will the crow know that there’s no point in dropping stones onto sand?
  2. Light versus Heavy objects:  Do heavy objects work better than light ones?
  3. Solid versus Hollow objects: Do solid objects work better than hollow ones even though the hollow objects weigh the same?
  4. Narrow water column versus Wide:  Which column takes longer to elevate?
  5. High versus Low water:  Is it faster to get the treat when the water is already close to the top?
  6. U-tube with a hidden connection:  Very hard! Will the crow figure out that one of the wide tubes governs the water level in the narrow one?

In the video the crows solve every problem but behind the scenes they faltered on the U-tube test so the scientists say they flunked it.

How quickly can you solve these physics problems?  Be quick on the U-tube test or else …

This experiment was tried with New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, and human children.  Read all about it here in PLOS One.

My favorite quote from the Discussion is: “The results from the current U-tube experiment suggest that New Caledonian crows are comparable to Eurasian jays, but differ from human children.”   ;)

 

(video from PLOS Media on YouTube)

One response so far

Sep 11 2014

TBT: A Sound Like Spring Peepers

Published by under Migration

Swainson's Thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

This is the month: Listen before dawn on a calm or north-wind night and you’ll hear a sound like spring peepers passing overhead.  Swainson’s thrushes are calling to each other as they migrate in the dark!

Read more about their call in this blog post from September 2009.   Click here to listen.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

Sep 10 2014

Waves In The Sky

Published by under Weather & Sky

Cloud ripples 12 hours before the cold front (photo by Kate St. John)

What does it mean when there are waves in the sky?

These altocumulus undulatus clouds form at mid height at the spot where moisture meets wind shear.  Straight above my camera the wind abruptly changed direction and speed.  The long lines are perpendicular to the strongest wind, just like waves on a lake.

Altocumulus undulatus are typically only 300 feet wide so the wind shear here is a narrow zone.  If you flew through these clouds you’d probably feel a bump.

The waves might mean something big is about to happen … or not.  If they thicken over time, they indicate that moisture is building ahead of an approaching front 100 to 200 miles away.  If they cover only a small part of the sky, they merely mean that something’s going on right there.

Keep looking up.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Sep 09 2014

Taking A ShortCut

Published by under Water and Shore

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

A rare gull showed up at the Pymatuning spillway last Friday in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Thanks to Mark Vass’s report and the gull’s three day stopover, many birders saw this beautiful Sabine’s gull.

Named for Edward Sabine(*) who first noted the bird in Greenland in 1818, adults in breeding plumage are easy to identify with dark gray hoods, yellow-tipped black bills, notched tails, and triangles of black-white-gray on their upper wings.  As you can see in Shawn Collins’ photos, this one is an adult.

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

What a cooperative bird!

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Sabine’s gulls breed on the tundra at the top of the world in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia.  Their breeding and dietary habits are so unusual that they’re alone in their genus: Xema sabini.  They call, fly, and court like terns.  Their chicks fledge before fully feathered like terns, but are precocial like shorebirds.  In the Arctic, adults and juveniles feed on the mudflats like shorebirds yet they live on the open ocean most of their lives.

As soon as breeding is over Sabine’s gulls leave for the southern hemisphere, covering 7,500 to 9,000 miles as they make their way to coastal upwelling currents near South America and Southern Africa.  Most migrate offshore, especially the juveniles, but a few cross the continent.  In North America the western group winters at the Pacific’s Humboldt Current while those who breed in eastern Canada and Greenland cross the Atlantic to winter at the Benguela Current near the southern coast of Africa.

Though unusual, this bird was not off course.  He knows the Humboldt Current is due south of Hudson Bay.  He was taking a shortcut.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

* Sabine is pronounced “SAB ine” where SAB rhymes with “cab” and “ine” rhymes with “wine.” For a complete (and light-hearted) list of bird-name pronunciations see Kevin McGowan’s list here.

3 responses so far

Sep 08 2014

2,400

Published by under Books & Events

Mädchen mit Schiefertafel by Albert Anker (reproduction in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This morning my blog dashboard says I’ve published 2,400 articles.  Such a lot of writing!

In honor of that feat — and because I’m on vacation — I’m taking a one-day break and directing you to two vintage posts you’ll find of interest:

  • What’s that vine that blankets Pittsburgh’s hillsides and overgrows our parks?  It has a pretty porcelain berry.
  • How do some birders know in advance that there will be good birds on a September morning?  We watch fall migration on radar.

 

(Mädchen mit Schiefertafel (Girl With Blackboard) by Albert Anker, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

One response so far

Sep 07 2014

New England. Aster

Published by under Plants

Aster in New England (photo by Kate St. John)

When I snapped this photo I was so intent on the flower that I forgot to examine the leaves.

New England (Aster novae angliae) and New York (Aster novi belgii) asters are so similar that the deciding field mark is their hairy or smooth clasping leaves.  My photo doesn’t show that.

However, the flower is in Maine at Acadia National Park (and so am I) so it’s safe to say, “In New England. An aster.”

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Sep 06 2014

Unusual Color

Published by under Plants

Late Coralroot in pink (photo by Dianne Machesney)

It sounds really exotic to say that there are orchids at Moraine State Park, but yes there are.  Last weekend Dianne and Bob Machesney found late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) including this very unusual pink one.

Late coralroot’s 1/4 inch flowers bloom from August to October so now’s the time to look for them.  Unfortunately the plant is often hard to see because it’s only 4-7 inches tall and a brownish-purple color that matches the forest floor.  But not this one.  I have no idea why it’s pink but it’s certainly pretty.  Click here to see what it looks like when it blooms in normal color.

Coralroots are very picky about habitat because they’re twice-dependent.  They are saprophytes that get their nutrients from fungi which are getting their nutrients from dead and decomposing plant material.  Coralroots are particular about the species of fungi they parasitize so you can’t find these orchids just anywhere.  Your best bet may be to look where there are pine needles on the ground.

Thanks to Dianne for this unusual photo and her description of the plant.  Now I know what to look for.

 

p.s. It should go without saying that you should not collect these plants.  They are endangered in many northeastern states and in Florida.

(photo of unusual Late Coralroot by Dianne Machesney)

No responses yet

Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ