Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Feb 17 2014

Intrepid Minnesotan

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

I’m back in the ‘Burgh with a fond look at my time in Minnesota at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival.

Though I never found a great gray owl I saw seven Life Birds(*) and learned a lot about snow and cold.

Cold… was not a problem.  I didn’t have to cope with the worst of this winter in Minnesota but -13F was a typical morning in the bog.  Three to four layers of clothes are important. Toe warmer heat packets inside Sorels are indispensable.  I was never cold.

Snow… is a way of life.  If you’re afraid to drive in snow in Minnesota you’re homebound for half the year.  So you just do it.

Minnesota snowplows are awesome, huge, coordinated.  I arrived during a Winter Weather Advisory (4”-6”) and left during a Winter Storm Warning (5”-7”).  No problem.  All the roads and parking lots are plowed, not to bare pavement but quite passable.  The airport is plowed down to bare pavement.  My flight out of Duluth was delayed only by de-icing.  Check out this video of clearing the runway.

Birds … are intrepid in Minnesota’s winters.  The easiest to find are ravens and black-capped chickadees.  The rarest are Carolina wrens and robins.  The gray jay is the cutest and most intrepid.

Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) look like oversized chickadees but have the typical corvid attitude.  They’re bold and curious and willing to eat anything including berries, insects, fungi, other species’ nestlings and small mammals.

Jess Botzan saw this one at Sax Zim Bog during the coldest of the cold weather last month and the bird wasn’t phased by it. Gray jays are so intrepid that they lay eggs in March while temperatures are still below freezing and snow is on the ground.  They don’t even bother to nest again in May and June when the weather is easy.

Like everyone else in Minnesota, the gray jay is intrepid in snow and cold.

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

(*) Life Birds seen:  Pine grosbeak, black-billed magpie, boreal chickadee, gray jay, northern hawk owl, black-backed woodpecker, Bohemian waxwing.

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Feb 17 2014

I Climbed Lake Superior

Published by under Travel,Weather & Sky

Walking on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday’s Sax-Zim-Festival field trip to Duluth held an unexpected surprise.  Every year the birding trip stops at Stoney Point to observe gulls and waterfowl in the open water on Lake Superior.  But there is no open water.  The lake is 95% frozen.  Locals say this hasn’t happened for 20 years.

In the absence of birds we walked down to the lake, and then on it — a moonscape experience.

The inshore ice was flat and walkable but the pressure of offshore ice and wind had left a landscape of broken plates stacked in piles and covered in snow.

Ice chards at Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Each piece was thick and clear like a pane of glass.
Man holding ice chard from Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Fifty yards out the pressure was orogenic, so strong that it created a mountain ridge of bluish, broken ice more than 15 feet tall, so high we couldn’t see the lake beyond it.

Blue ice on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

In this video from my cell phone you can see how big and strange it is.

 

Inevitably, the ice mountain posed an irresistible challenge.  Two guys climbed it.  Eventually I climbed too.  Going up was like climbing a hill of shale but coming down was a butt-slide in an ice cube tray.

So now I have three “Life Lake” experiences:  I saw Lake Superior for the first time, I walked on it, and then I climbed it.

 

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

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Aug 03 2013

Visiting Shorebirds

Marbled godwit at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio (photo by Steve Gosser)

Shorebirds are migrating but we’re not likely to see them in Pittsburgh because we don’t have a shore. However there’s an excellent place north of us that does:  the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio.

Conneaut’s harbor was formed where Conneaut Creek flows into Lake Erie.  The lake’s waves can be rough so the harbor has been sheltered by two breakwaters.  These allowed the creek (and probably the harbor dredge) to deposit a sand spit and mud flat so extensive you can park on it.

Visiting shorebirds feed at the water’s edge and rest on the sand.  Sometimes they’re so close you have to back up to see them with binoculars!

The harbor is more than two hours away but the trip is well worth it.  Steve Gosser photographed this marbled godwit there in July.

Click here for a map and the harbor’s eBird checklist.  The best place is called the “sand spit” on the map.

More shorebirds coming.  Visit them at Conneaut.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Mar 12 2013

The Importance Of Fire

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in California, Oct 2007 (photo by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons)

Early this month it was scary to read Chuck Tague’s account of a brush fire that came within two miles of his Ormond Beach home.

While the fired burned in Florida I was in another fire-prone place, San Diego, listening to a speech by Dr. John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which he touched on how important fire is for scrub habitats and for the survival of the Florida scrub-jay in particular.

To most of us wildfire is rare but it’s a natural cycle in scrub communities where plants, animals, and birds rely on its regular occurrence.   “Regular” is important.  If fire happens too often or too infrequently that’s bad too.

It has taken a while to learn this.  Dr. Fitzpatrick described how they studied fire and birds at Archbold Station in Highlands County, Florida.  For two decades Archbold suppressed fires and watched the scrub-jay population surge then dangerously decline.  After 20 years scientists burned small tracts and watched the scrub-jays surge again.  They learned that the Florida scrub-jay’s optimal habitat is at 5-15 years after a fire.  At 15 years the scrub gets too tall, the jay’s predators increase and the birds decline.

Fire is necessary.  The trick in populated areas is to manage it so it happens only when and where it’s needed.

In San Diego the local government conducts brush management programs to protect homes and businesses.  According to San Diego Audubon, these programs sometimes make matters worse.  If workers clear away native chaparral, it not only destroys endangered bird habitat but results in fire-prone grassy weeds that burn more easily. Proper management of native habitat actually lowers the risk of explosive fire.

So though we fear it, fire is important.  Without it we wouldn’t have Florida scrub-jays, California gnatcatchers and coastal cactus wrens, to name a few.

(photo of a helicopter dropping water on a California wildfire, by FEMA via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Mar 05 2013

The Triple Fence

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

Border Fence at Canon de los Sauces, 2012 (photo by Jill Marie Holslin)

Travel is very educational.  Not only are there different birds in San Diego but the threats those birds face are different from what I’m used to in Pittsburgh.  One issue particularly grabbed my attention because we never have to deal with it at home.

Where I come from it’s hard to imagine the wall that defines the southern edge of San Diego County.  Like the Berlin Wall it’s patrolled by armed guards, edged by cleared land for easy enforcement, and in places triple-fenced.

The border has been patrolled for a long time but the Real ID Act of 2005 mandated the border wall and exempted its construction from every environmental law including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.  Exemptions like this bring to mind mountaintop removal in West Virginia.

During design of the Triple Fence, San Diego Audubon and other groups tried to prevent the worst environmental damage but it was impossible to stop the juggernaut.  Now that the wall is up, they’re working with California State Parks and the Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve to monitor the wall’s effect on sedimentation, erosion, and invasive plants.

There are lots of problems to monitor.  Here are just two examples.

The fence through Yogurt Canyon, shown above, disrupts the natural drainage into the Tijuana Estuary to the north.  This affects everything that depends on the water, including birds.

At Border Field State Park, shown below, the wall’s construction leveled Litchy Mesa and filled Smugglers Gulch.  There used to be a single fence.  Now there’s a massive valley-fill and all the issues that come with it.
Smugglers Gulch before and during the Triple Fence project  (photos by Jill Marie Holslin)

Ironically, the wall has an unintended consequence.  In the old days workers used to migrate back and forth like the birds — north for planting and harvesting, south to their homes in the winter.

In his 2001 book, Crossing Over, Rubén Martínez described how the patrols even then were ending the return migration.  It’s now so dangerous at the wall that those who get here can rarely leave.

I’m sure that’s not the result the wall’s proponents had in mind.

Read more about the border fence and how it affects the land and people of Tijuana and San Diego in Jill Marie Holslin’s blog, At The Edges.

(photos used by permission of Jill Marie Holslin from her blog, At the Edges. Click on each image for more information.)

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Mar 04 2013

Thrashing It Out

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

California thrasher (photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia Commons)

We’re starved for thrashers in Pittsburgh right now.  Of the eight species in North America only one, the brown thrasher, occurs in the eastern U.S. and he’s away on migration.  All the rest are western or southwestern birds, several of which occur in California.

This one has “California” in his name.  He doesn’t migrate — in fact he hardly moves away from his birthplace — so if you want to see him you have to be in California or northern Mexico.

The California thrasher loves dense desert chapparel but is sometimes found in scrubby or suburban habitat where he encounters a bird whose habits are quite similar.

Northern mockingbirds eat the same food and forage in the same way as California thrashers.  Both are highly territorial so when a mockingbird moves into a thrasher’s territory constant warfare ensues.

Imagine the two contestants hopping and lunging.

Hey, Mr. Mockingbird, watch out for that beak!

Fortunately for northern mockingbirds, few of them like dense chaparral so these species are usually in separate places.

Good for the thrasher too.  What a waste of energy to be constantly thrashing it out!

 

(photo by Alan Vernon from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see its original)

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Feb 28 2013

Romancing The Wind

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

My love of birds has me fascinated with almost anything that flies.  Perhaps this is true for you too.

Last month my sister-in-law sent me a link to this 2004 video called Romancing The Wind.  Produced by Robert Holbrook, it shows professional kite flyer Ray Bethell flying three kites simultaneously in an aerial ballet.  Music from Leo Delibes’ The Flower Duet complements the kites.

Ray Bethell is an amazing man.  Over 80 years old, he’s a Multiple Kite World Champion from Vancouver, Canada who holds world records in endurance and number of simultaneous kites flown.  Here you see him flying three kites at Vanier Park, holding one in each hand with a third tied to his belt.  He’s used this same technique to fly 39 kites at the same time!  Read more on his website here.

Like the falcons, Ray Bethell’s kites court in the wind.

 

p.s. The kite model Ray is using has a falcon name:  Kestrel.

(video of Ray Bethell by Robert Holbrook on Vimeo)

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Dec 17 2012

Singing Sand

Published by under Musings & News,Travel

I rarely spend time near sand dunes so I was amazed to learn that sand can sing.  In fact there are 35 places around the world where the dunes sing a low frequency hum in the bottom half of a cello’s range.

The droning happens naturally when the wind causes a sand avalanche.  People can force the song by pushing sand downhill.  The songs are well known but people have always wondered how and why they happen.

Some of the “how” is already known.

Singing dunes are crescent-shaped barchans with their backs to the wind and their horns pointing downwind.  The slipface is inside the crescent (downwind) with its surface at the angle of repose and a stationary layer beneath.

Experiments have shown the importance of the grains themselves.  If they’re spherical,  0.1 to 0.5 mm in diameter, and contain silica, they will sing in the lab when they slide down an incline.

This year physicists from Paris Diderot University discovered that grain size determines the tune.  They studied two dunes:  one in Morocco, one in Oman.   The Moroccan dune has grains 150-170 microns and emits a 105 hz sound (for musicians that’s near G-sharp two octaves below middle C).    The Omani dune has a variable grain size from 150 to 310 microns and its sound varies, too — from 90-150 hz (F-sharp to D).

Researchers took the Omani sand back to the lab and sifted it down to a nearly uniform size — 200 to 250 microns — and sent it down an incline.  Voilà.  The sand made a sound of 90 hz, close to the song of the Moroccan dune.  (Click here for more information about the study.)

What are the songs like?  In this video, filmed in Morocco, a man shows how he learned to make the sand sing.  Turn up your speakers and you’ll be able to hear a variety of sounds as he puts the sand through its paces.  The video is in French with subtitles, some of which are surprisingly translated as in the first sentence that says “Beware” when it means the less dangerous-sounding “Be aware.”

Thanks to science we’ve learned how the sand sings, but we still don’t know why.

(video from YouTube)

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Sep 14 2012

Banner Waving

Published by under Travel,Weather & Sky

Two weeks ago the mountain was wearing a hat.  Today it’s waving a flag.

Banner clouds are stationary, orographic clouds that only form in high wind on the leeward side of an isolated, steep mountain.  The Matterhorn, pictured above, is famous for them.

Banner clouds are so picky that we’ll never see them in western Pennsylvania simply because we have no isolated steep mountains.

… except …

Under the right moisture conditions a banner cloud can form above or just behind an airplane’s wings. Click here for an example.

Airplanes form banner clouds because there’s lower air pressure on top of their wings (to generate lift).  The lower pressure results in lower temperature which results in condensation.  Hence a cloud.

My favorite banners are the wing tip clouds that look like streamers.

And for a really weird effect, check out this cloud around a fighter jet on the verge of breaking the sound barrier.  The shape is so perfect it’s hard to call it a banner.

(photo by Zacharie Grossen on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

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Sep 08 2012

Mirror Gannets

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Northern gannets were the most numerous sea bird on my whale watch trip this year.  Some were adults, some were juveniles, but few had the peachy colored head feathers of these breeding adults.

This pair was a lucky shot.  When the photographer took their picture they were mirror images of each other.

Posed perfectly. Frozen in time.

(photo by Des Colhoun via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original, including a link to its geographic location.)

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