On icy winter afternoons, just before sunset, intrepid birders gather at Pittsburgh’s Point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio. Dressed in their warmest clothes they stand around on the ice gazing through their scopes and cameras. On January 31, Tim Vechter was among them and took these pictures.
Whatcha lookin’ at?
While the weather is icy, the gulls stay in Pittsburgh.
Each evening the flock starts small. Birders wait and watch as the gulls gather. Among the thousands of ring-billed and hundreds of herring gulls there’s bound to be a couple of rare birds from the Arctic.
That evening Tim photographed two rarities including this glaucous gull identified by his bulky build, white wing tips (herring and ring-billed gulls have black wingtips) and pink legs.
With very cold weather on its way tomorrow it’s hard to believe that … In three to four weeks ice will start to break up in southern Pennsylvania and ducks will begin to migrate north. When they do, they’ll be in an amorous mood.
Last month Cornell Lab eNews featured this video of courtship behavior in mallards, king eiders, common goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers. Watch the video and you’ll learn their moves before their return in early spring.
When the ice breaks up goldeneyes will throw back their heads and “crow.”
When a brown booby shows up in the northeastern U.S. it’s usually late in the year (August to December) and the bird is usually quite brown. That’s because juvenile birds like this one are more prone to wandering from their tropical ocean homes than are their parents.
Having never seen a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) until this week at St. John, USVI my exposure was limited to a few photos of juvenile birds from Pennsylvania rare bird alerts. For years I assumed that brown boobies were 100% brown. Not!
Adults are crisp brown-and-white and even have white faces that acquire color in the breeding season.
Here’s a typical adult brown booby. Quite a different-looking bird!
Fortunately they’re brown enough that you don’t misidentify them as gannets when you see them on the northern ocean.
Note: Brown boobies are very common tropical ocean birds but their population is declining in the Caribbean because of encroachment and invasive mammals on their nesting islands. They made the State Of The Birds Watch List in 2014 because they’ve declined so much.
(brown booby photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals. Northern gannet photo by Chuck Tague)
The roseate tern has been called the most beautiful tern on earth for his pale rose-colored breast and long fluttering tail streamers. In the photo above, a roseate tern (Sterna dougallii) chases a common tern at Petit Manan Island, Maine. Look closely and you can see the pale pink blush on the tern in the foreground, so pale that the color is not one of its field marks.
The beautiful bird has a good reason for chasing the common one. Roseate terns are listed as endangered in the Northeast and where both species nest, such as Petit Manan, the common terns push out the roseates.
The roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a South American bird whose U.S. population was decimated during the plume-hunting era. Now that its carmine, orange, and rose-colored plumes are no longer used for hats, it’s made a modest comeback in Florida and the Gulf Coast states. In Chuck Tague’s photo you can’t see the bird’s orange upper tail but you can see why its name is “roseate.” What a pink bird!
And finally, even a dragonfly can be rose-colored. The roseate skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) ranges from the southern U.S. to Brazil and has been introduced in Hawaii, perhaps because it’s beautiful. Chuck Tague photographed this one in Florida.
Though their shades of pink are not the same, all three deserve a roseate name.
(Photo of a roseate tern chasing a common tern from US Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Photos of roseate spoonbill and roseate skimmer by Chuck Tague)
While seven feet of snow fell on parts Buffalo, New York last week, the birds on Lake Erie did their best to avoid the storm. Because they can fly, it wasn’t hard to do.
The lake effect storm was so localized that it hammered communities south of Buffalo but barely snowed Downtown. On November 18 Alfonzo Cutaia recorded the amazing wall of white picking up moisture from the lake and carrying it away from Downtown Buffalo.
That night it snowed three inches at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA but conditions had improved by the next morning. Jerry McWilliams described the scene at Sunset Point: “The severe winter storm that was hitting the Buffalo area continued out over the lake until at least 0800 hours [with] heavy storm clouds and whiteout conditions about a mile out on the lake. This may have been the reason for a massive movement of waterfowl this morning, especially Red-breasted Merganser. Except for Redheads which were mainly moving east, most ducks were moving west.”
Jerry counted 11,400 red-breasted mergansers flying away from the storm.
The ducks escaped but I can only wonder what happened to the songbirds. I hope they left on Tuesday during the first break in the three-day storm.
Tundra swans are migrating now over western Pennsylvania. They’re traveling 3,600 miles from Canada’s Northwest Territory and Alaska’s North Slope to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.
Steve Gosser photographed this flock on November 12. I saw 60 at Moraine State Park on November 13.
The flocks are composed of families: mother, father and one or two youngsters. In the fall their trip takes about 12 weeks, a slower pace than their springtime return because their “kids” are young and need to rest longer.
Sometimes they’re hard to see. On an overcast day they’re white birds in a white sky so listen for their voices and look up.
Are you hooked on penguins? Would you like to see more of them from the comfort of your home?
Check out the new online citizen science project, Penguin Watch, where you can view more than 175,000 photos of Antarctic penguins, chicks and eggs.
Because penguins are declining, scientists are monitoring them using remote cameras. The cameras have taken a lot of pictures — so many that the task of counting the penguins and their breeding success is impossible for the few scientists involved. That’s where citizen science comes in.
Zooniverse put the photos online and made an easy tool for counting the penguins. Look at the photo. Click on every penguin. Done! The clicks become a crowd-sourced map of Antarctica’s penguins.
It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes because crowd-sourcing smooths out the errors. You can even chat about the images with other volunteers and the researchers at Penguin Watch Talk.