Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Jun 30 2010

Out of this World

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

If you watch birds in Pennsylvania a glance at this one suggests it’s a red-tailed or rough-legged hawk.  

Nope.  It’s an upland buzzard (Buteo hemilasius), native to Central Asia. 

Todd Katzner is on a field expedition in Mongolia and emailed me this picture yesterday, a sample of the stunning raptors he’s seeing there. 

A lot of my scientist friends do field work in the summer, something I’ve never done.  To get a sense of what their trips are like I’ve been reading Tingay & Katzner’s The Eagle Watchers. 

Ghostly New Guinea harpy eagles, wary and comical Steller’s sea eagles.

The birds they see on field expeditions are out of this world.

(photo by Dr. Todd Katzner of the National Aviary)

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Sep 04 2009


Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Northern Gannet diving for fish (photo by Kim Steininger)

The cool thing about going to Maine is that I get to see birds I would never see at home.  This northern gannet is a perfect example.  There’s no way this huge sea bird with a six and a half foot wingspan would be found taking a nose dive in the Monongahela River.  He needs deep saltwater for his livelihood.

I’ve seen northern gannets from the shores of Virginia and Florida in the winter but they’re far away and look like tiny arrowheads.  To get a closeup like this and to see a host of birds who never come near shore, I have to travel far off the coast on a pelagic tour.

Maine Audubon has an annual pelagic tour in October that goes 40 miles off the coast of Bar Harbor, but I’ll be in Pittsburgh then.  What to do?  A Maine birder gave me a tip:  You can see pelagic birds on the Whale Watch.  The goals of these two boat trips are different but the whale watch looks for whales up to 20 miles offshore and pelagic birds are often in the vicinity of whales because both are looking for food-filled patches of ocean.  He also said that if you can pick any day to make the trip, go when the wind is light - otherwise the wave action hides the loafing birds. 

So I went on the whale watch Wednesday morning when the waves were less than a foot high.  The weather was great and I met another birder, Andy Block, who leads birding tours to Costa Rica for Tico Tours.  For a landlubber like me sea birds are often confusing so I was really glad Andy was there to tell me what they were: 

I do enjoy these trips!  And now you see why I was thinking about waves this week.

p.s.  I nearly forgot to mention we did see a whale – one finback – plus harbor seals and harbor porpoises.

(photo by Kim Steininger.  Click on the photo to read Kim’s blog describing how she captured it.)

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Sep 02 2009

Waves Kill

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

This is no news to people who live by the sea but to those who are landlocked or work indoors the ocean looks powerful but benign when you’re standing on high ground.

Though it’s been 10 days since it happened, all the talk among the tourists at Acadia National Park is about the killer wave from Hurricane Bill on August 23 which swept over spectators near Thunder Hole, injuring more than a dozen people, dragging three into the sea and killing one of them, a seven-year-old girl. 

This picture, linked from Bangor Daily News‘ Maineville, shows the people who survived the wave crouching and trying to get back to dry land.  More spectators had been sitting on the rocks where you see foam churning – but they’re gone.  (Click on the picture to see the original photo and article.)

Tropical Storm Danny was threatening the coast with similar weather when we arrived in New England on Saturday.  We spent a very wet, windy, gray day in New Hampshire and have had beautiful weather ever since.  We’ve had no desire to look at waves.  We hear they’re 1-2 feet high today.  Good!

(photo by Paul Colby linked from Bangor Daily News’ Maineville)

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Aug 30 2009

To Acadia

Published by under Hiking,Travel

Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park (photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Hello from Maine.  We’re at Acadia National Park as usual at this time of year. 

I’m hoping to see some new birds and new places.  Will it be a good year for a warbler “fallout?”  Will the crossbills be at Acadia this fall?  What new sea birds will I see on the Whale Watch?  Will I finally see a moose?  (Can you believe I’ve never seen one in 26 years of going to Maine?)

We plan to hike some new trails and visit some new-to-us towns.  I’ll still be blogging while I’m here but less frequently.  After all, it’s a vacation!

(photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

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Jun 21 2009

Sun Solstice, Sunbird

Published by under Phenology,Travel

Male Regal Sunbird, native of central equatorial Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the Summer Solstice, the day when the sun’s rays reach the furthest north and the sun shines its longest throughout the northern hemisphere.  Here in Pittsburgh we’ll have 15 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight.  For my friends in Finland, the sun will be above the horizon for 19 hours with bright twilight for the remaining five.  It’s a happy day in Finland.

Musings about the sun and thoughts about birds combined in my head into “sunbird.” 

Did you know there’s a family of birds called sunbirds, Nectariniidae, who live in Africa, southern Asia and northern Australia?  The one pictured here is a male Regal Sunbird, Nectarinia regia, native of central equatorial Africa. 

Sunbirds have a lifestyle similar to our hummingbirds because they feed primarily on nectar.  Though the two families are unrelated they’re an example of convergent evolution: their needs are so similar that they’re equipped with the same tools.

Like hummingbirds, sunbirds they have short wings and fly fast.  Some even hover, though most species perch as seen here.  They have long bills for collecting nectar but will also collect insects to feed their young.  The males are brilliantly colored, often in metallic hues.  And like our hummingbirds, sunbirds who live where it’s cold at night are capable of entering torpor. 

Except for his curved bill and long tail this sunbird looks a lot like a hummingbird.  Unlike our hummingbirds his equatorial range means he’ll never experience summer’s longest day. 

For more about summer and our longest day, see Chuck Tague’s blog.  For more about sunbirds, click here.

(photo of male Regal Sunbird from Wikimedia Commons)

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Mar 07 2009

How many?

Snow Geese take off from Middle Creek (photo by Kim Steininger)
Look closely.  These aren’t just random black and white patterns.  These are snow geese taking flight. 

Kim Steininger took this photo at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area at the peak of spring migration.  There were probably 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese there that day.

This weekend I’ve rolled the dice and driven five hours to Kleinfeltersville, PA hoping to see the same thing.  On Friday the snow goose count was only 25,000 but the numbers change every day in early March.  There’s been a south wind, and I’m hoping there’ll be a lot of birds when I get there. 

A flock of 100,000 birds of any kind is exciting and with snow geese it’s truly exhilarating.  I always arrive before dawn, walk to Willow Point and wait.  The geese murmur in the dark.  Slowly the sun rises and the birds prepare to leave.  If I’m lucky, a bald eagle will fly by and the geese will rise up all at once. 

That must have been the situation when Kim took this picture.  The geese on the ground are craning their necks, looking worried.  The rest are jumping into the sky.  It’s a wonder that amidst all the flapping and honking they don’t knock each other out – but they don’t. 

I love to watch the chaos and patterns of snow geese.  I just have to be lucky with my timing and be there when they are.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Feb 27 2009

One Good Tern Deserves…

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Sandwich Tern (photo by Chuck Tague)…a closer look.

For as many times as I’d been to Florida I’d never seen a sandwich tern.  They may have flown by me in years past, but fast-moving gulls and terns are hard for me to identify.  I just don’t see them often enough to be good at it.  Pittsburgh is sorely lacking an oceanfront.

Last year Chuck Tague gave me a good tip on identifying terns and I wrote it in my field guide:  Look at the bills and legs.  What color and shape is the bill?  What color are the legs?

Caspian terns are easy.  They’re big and stocky and their bills look like fat carrots attached to their faces.

I now see that sandwich terns are easy too.  They’re the only “crested” tern with a black bill, and it’s a very fancy one – all black with a yellow tip.  This color combination is quite unique.  Plenty of birds have black-tipped yellow bills but in searching my field guide I can find only one other bird with a yellow-tipped black bill:  the Sabine’s gull.  I wonder why.

Another puzzle was their name.  Why are they called “sandwich” terns?  Isn’t Sandwich in England?

Again, my land-lubber roots were showing.  If I lived near the ocean I’d know that seabirds can easily occur worldwide because they find food everywhere there’s salt water – and so it is with sandwich terns.  They nest on the coasts of Europe, North and South America, and winter on the coasts of the Americas, the Mediterranean, Africa, India and the Middle East.   Birds born here are sometimes found in the Netherlands and U.K. in winter – and vice versa.

This also explains their name, given to them by John Latham in 1787 from a specimen found at Sandwich Bay, Kent, England.   Back then they bred there.  Interestingly, their Latin name recently changed from Sterna sandvicensis to Thalasseus sandvicensis after DNA tests put them in a different genus.  The “sandwich” part remains the same.

At Ponce Inlet I had a good long look at the terns as they stood in a mixed flock facing the wind only 12 feet away.  I could easily see how different they were from Forster’s terns.  (Click on the photo to see for yourself – a Forster’s tern standing between two sandwich terns.)

And finally, you can tell I’ve been birding with pun-master Chuck Tague for six days because I started this blog with an “almost” pun.  I veered away from it just in time.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 25 2009


As I had hoped, Chuck & Joan Tague helped me find a Florida scrub-jay at Merritt Island last week.   Er, rather… the scrub-jay found me.

He showed up with his family just as I expected, but of the three jays only this one visited my hat. 

By the time he hopped off my head I was laughing so hard I couldn’t ask him how he learned to do this.


(photo by Chuck Tague)




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Feb 22 2009

Speaking of Brainy Birds

Published by under Bird Behavior,Travel

Florida Scrub Jay on Joan Tague's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)Right now I’m in Florida, birding with Chuck and Joan Tague, and have learned…

Though parrots are very smart, they aren’t the only birds with brains.  Members of the corvid family – jays, crows and ravens – are darn smart too.

Pictured here is one of the wise guy corvids, a Florida scrub-jay, standing on Joan Tague’s hat. 

Corvids can remember, analyze, innovate and problem solve.  They even use tools.  As it turns out this is exactly the kind of intelligence that comes from living in complex social groups, and for that sort of family life in the bird world, you need look no further than the Florida scrub-jay.

Florida scrub-jays are extreme habitat specialists who require arid oak and palmetto scrub to survive.  East of the Mississippi this habitat is isolated to Florida and it is further isolated – and disappearing – within Florida.  This means scrub-jays usually spend their entire lives within a half mile of their birthplace.  The end result is that they are a “Threatened” species. 

Scientists conjecture that scarce suitable habitat over a long period of time has led the Florida scrub-jay to a lifestyle adaption called cooperative breeding.  It’s an unusual way to live.  Only 3% of the world’s bird species use it. 

In cooperative breeding, each pair has one to six nest helpers who feed and protect the young.  The helpers may or may not be related to the breeding pair but they learn breeding skills and increase the breeding pair’s nesting success.  Helpers also have the advantage of being on site to inherit the territory should one of the pair die. 

The arrangement works for all of them and provides a perfect setting to develop smart birds.  Because they must cooperate to survive, the better they can anticipate the actions of others, the better they can deal with life’s situations.  As Candace Savage says, “Nothing is more intellectually challenging than living in a social group, surrounded by a bunch of other animals that are sharpening their wits on you.”

So I ask you.  Is it smart for a wild bird to stand on someone’s hat?  And if yes, why?

I hope to get the chance to ask him myself.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 05 2008

One foot, Two foot, Red foot, Blue foot

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Red-footed Booby and Blue-footed Booby (photo by Deborah Acklin)Dr. Seuss was talking about fish but when I received these two photos from Deb Acklin this title immediately came to mind. 

Here are two unusual characters you’re never going to see at home.  Deb saw them at the Galapagos Islands last month.

Meet the red-footed booby and the blue-footed booby

No lie!  These birds are called boobies from the Spanish word for dunce because they’re very clumsy on land.  Their fancy feet aren’t made for walking, they’re made for impressing the opposite sex.  Same idea as stiletto heels.

The two species have different nesting habits (red-footed boobies nest in trees, blue-footed on the ground) but they have similar courtship displays in which their feet play a part.

During courtship the males of both species point their bills and tails at the sky, raise their wings and, most importantly, display their feet.  The blue-footed booby even does a dance in which he lifts and stamps each foot to show it off. 

All this is to impress the ladies who are flying by in hopes one of them will stop and get to know him.  If she does, the pair will put their feet to another use – incubating the eggs.  Boobies don’t have a brood patch so they use their feet, just like their relatives the northern gannets.

Interestingly, female blue-footed boobies have bluer feet than the males.  Click on the picture to see how blue they can get!

The boobies’ courtship efforts are successful at the Galapagos but their nesting success depends on the food supply – fish – and the food supply is governed by ocean temperature.  During an El Nino event, the ocean heats up and the fish go elsewhere.  This spells trouble for the boobies.  Their chicks starve, with as much as 70% nest failure for red-footed boobies who lay only one egg per year.  Even if the chicks survive, during an El Nino they grow so slowly that it takes a year to mature.

Sadly, red-footed boobies face another threat.  Unlike blue-footeds whose largest breeding population is on the Galapagos, red-footed boobies breed on many Pacific islands.  In some places they are in decline because the islanders eat them. 

Fortunately the Galapagos has protection programs to keep the birds safe.   I hope to go there some day and see these fancy feet for myself. 

(photos taken at the Galapagos Islands by Deborah Acklin)

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