Nov 12 2014

Check Every Vulture

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Zone-taile Hawk illustration from the Crossley ID Guide Raptors via Wikimedia Commons

Last week at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival I wanted to see a zone-tailed hawk but the only way to do it was to check every vulture.

The relationship between zone-tailed hawks and turkey vultures goes way back.  Both are South and Central American birds who’ve hung out together for longer than we can imagine — so much so that the hawks now resemble the vultures.  Turkey vultures moved into North America but the hawks didn’t commit that far, only coming to Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas in the summer.

Zone-tailed hawks (Buteo albonotatus) like to soar with turkey vultures and they easily blend in.  The hawks are slightly smaller, have the same bi-color underwings (dark leading edge and pale trailing edge), and soar with their wings set in a dihedral.

Where I come from a dark, soaring V means vulture so I wouldn’t give those birds a second thought, but look at the three birds soaring at the top left of Crossley’s illustration.  One of them isn’t a turkey vulture.  Can you tell which one?

Our trip leader, Bill Clark, told us how to find a zone-tailed “needle” in the turkey vulture “haystack.” Check each bird’s head and feet.

Turkey vultures have tiny, bald, reddish heads.  Zone-tailed hawks have dark, feathered, hawk-sized heads.  Turkey vultures have drab legs and feet.  Zone-tailed hawks have bright yellow legs and feet.  Turkey vultures have plain tails.  Zone-tailed hawks are named for the white “zone” band on their black tails.

Fortunately my “Life Bird” zone-tailed hawk flew quite close.  I saw his dark head, his yellow legs and feet, and the white zone on his tail.  Woo hoo!

Now that I’m back in Pittsburgh it’s a relief that I don’t have to check every vulture.  ;)

 

(illustration from The Crossley ID Guide Raptors via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 11 2014

Road Closed For Ocelots

Published by under Mammals

Ocelot (phti by USFW via Wikimedia Commons)

At the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival I visited many birding hotspots but didn’t have time to see Laguna Atascosa. Exploring it on my own would not have helped.  The 15-mile Bayside Drive loop road is closed for ocelots.

Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are about the size of a Maine Coon cat (15-30 pounds, one foot high and 3 feet long from nose to tip of tail) with short fur in a beautiful spotted pattern.  Because the pattern is unique to each cat they can be identified as individuals in photographs.

Though ocelots are widespread in Central and South America they’re endangered in the U.S., seen only in Arizona and south Texas.  They used to range across South Texas into Arkansas and Louisiana but the land looks nothing like it did 50-100 years ago.  Ocelots need thick native vegetation to hunt and raise their young but 95% of that has been cleared and drained for farms and towns.  There’s nowhere for the ocelots to go.

In 1995 there were 80-120 ocelots in south Texas but the number is now just under 50, all of them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  A ranch and Laguna Atascosa are the only places in the U.S. where ocelots breed.

With only 12 ocelots at Laguna Atascosa each sighting is a gift.  In March and May trail cams recorded a cute female kitten and a year-old male. USFW also captures and radio tags the ocelots so they can target the cats’ preferred areas for protection.

Unfortunately road-kill history and the radio tags have shown that ocelots frequently walk Bayside Drive during the day.  Since 1995 about half of all ocelot deaths in Texas have been road kills.

As bad as it is to run over an abundant animal, imagine the horror of killing one of only 12 endangered animals.  To stop their decline U.S. Fish and Wildlife closed the loop road to private vehicles on October 15, 2013.

Though I couldn’t drive my rental car on Bayside Drive, I’m glad the road is closed to protect these beautiful cats.

Click here to read more and see ocelot photos at Friends of Laguna Atascosa.

 

(photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Nov 10 2014

Flame-chested Crooked Beak

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Pyrrhuloxia in Arizona (photo by SearchNetMedia on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To a Pennsylvania birder (me) this looks like an odd female cardinal but it’s actually a male pyrrhuloxia.

Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are closely related to northern cardinals and their ranges overlap in the southwestern U.S.  The pyrrhuloxias take the driest habitats, the cardinals take the wet ones.  If you live in southern Arizona or south Texas you may have both at your feeders.

How do you tell the difference at a glance?  Look at the beak.  Pyrrhuloxias have short, stubby, yellow beaks with a smaller and curved upper mandible.  Adult northern cardinals have bright red-orange beaks while immatures have dull brown-red.

The beak accounts for part of the pyrrhuloxia’s name.  Birds of North America Online explains that “Pyrrhu” comes from Pyrrhula, the genus for bullfinches meaning flame-colored or red. Loxia is the genus name for crossbills and means crooked.

Its a desert cardinal with a flame-colored chest and a crooked beak.

 

(photo taken in Tuscon, Arizona by SearchNetMedia via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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Nov 09 2014

My, How Time Does Fly!

Published by under Books & Events

Bird blog's 7th Birthday Cake (graphic by Joan Guerin)

Seven years ago today I published my first-ever blog post.  Who knew I’d still be writing Outside My Window seven years later and enjoying every minute of it? My, how time does fly!

You, dear reader, are the reason I keep going.  Your interest and enthusiasm encourage me every day.

How much have I written, how much have you commented?  Every year I look at the numbers.

  • Number of posts since Outside My Window began: 2,461
  • Total number of comments on the blog (not including Facebook & Twitter which probably double this total): 10,354   Wow!  Thank you! I love to hear from you.
  • Most prolific topic: Peregrine falcons, of course.  523 entries
  • Top viewed post in the past year:  By far the winner in this category is an article from 2012: Peregrine Versus Bald Eagle: Guess Who Won.  On June 23, 2014 this article was linked in a Reddit conversation about Rufus the Hawk of Wimbledon fame.  More than 6,660 people clicked through to see Peter Bell’s excellent photos of Dorothy attacking a bald eagle over Schenley Plaza.  It was an amazing one-day spike at WQED.org.  Outside My Window accounted for more than 77% of the entire site’s traffic.  The referral came from “steve626.”  Thank you, Steve Valasek!
  • Highest number of comments on a post this year came from your congratulations on my retirement on September 30: More Time to Bird and Blog.  I’ve been retired more than a month and am thoroughly enjoying myself. Busier than when I worked!
  • Thanks to blogging I was most amazed to learn: Satellites can measure groundwater and the Armillaria fungus is the world’s largest living organism.  These two lessons were doubly impressive because their news hit me twice. The satellites reported that the American West has a lot less groundwater than we thought and I felt dumb when I didn’t realize that Armillaria was what killed this tree.

I enjoy writing and am grateful for your comments, suggestions, and “shares” on social media.  I’m also grateful for the many photographers who contribute photos and videos to this site.  Without their photos I’d just be a pile of words.

Thank you, everyone. My, how time does fly!

 

(bird-thday graphic by Joan Guerin: The rook is watching a flock of pigeons.)

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Nov 08 2014

He Also Says His Name

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Great Kiskadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every South Texas bird I’ve mentioned this week has a name that describes his song.

The green jay has onomatopoeic Spanish names, the chachalaca calls “cha-cha-lac,” and the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), above, is easy to find because he always says his name.

Click here to hear.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 07 2014

Cha Cha Lac!

Watch the video and you’ll hear this bird say his name.

The plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is the same size and shape as a female ring-necked pheasant but unlike the pheasant it lives in forests and scrublands from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Costa Rica.

The chachalaca’s call has been described as “loud and simply indescribable,” deafening, ear-splitting, and “ranking with the call of the howler monkey” for shear loudness. (*Descriptions are from this link at Birds of North American Online)

The video shows only one bird calling so you might wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  To really understand the sound click here to hear a flock calling just after sunrise in Starr County, Texas.

At the beginning of the recording you’ll hear high falsetto calls. The females and immature males have high voices while adult males have deep ones because their tracheas are more than twice as long and wider in diameter.  Young males, like human teenagers, have to wait for their voices to change.

Chachalaca’s do their loudest whooping in the spring, so I won’t have to cover my ears when I encounter this bird … But I may have to wait for the rain to stop before he puts in an appearance. (It’s been raining in South Texas for 3 days!)

Cha-cha-lac!

 

(video posted by Robert Straub on YouTube)

 

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Nov 06 2014

Introduce Me

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Aplomado falcon, Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re as long as a peregrine but only half their weight.  They fly like accipiters or even nighthawks.  They hunt cooperatively and can use motorcycles to flush prey.

Aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis) used to nest in savannas, grasslands and shrub-steppe from Arizona to the lower Rio Grande Valley but they disappeared from the U.S. in 1952 due to habitat loss and DDT.  They were listed as endangered in 1986.

In 1987 The Peregrine Fund established an aplomado reintroduction program similar to the captive breeding program that restored the peregrine.  Since the 1990’s they’ve hacked 1,500 aplomado chicks in South Texas but restoration has been slow and difficult because the young birds face so many dangers in the wild. 

The aplomado is still on the Endangered Species list but now breeds again in South Texas. To help the young survive The Peregrine Fund provides special nesting boxes which the adults prefer because the boxes protect their chicks.

Thanks to the reintroduction program I now have the chance to see an aplomado falcon at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

He’s my goal this week.  Introduce me!

 

(photo by Elaine R. Wilson from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw one today, 11/6/2014. Yay!

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Nov 05 2014

Bad Tempered?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Green jay, Cyanocorax yncas, Venezuela (photo by Dilankf from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a green jay?  I haven’t yet, but I’ve haven’t been in his native range until today.

While my husband holds the fort at home I’ve flown to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, just inside the northern edge of the green jay’s range. I hope I see this Life Bird.  He’s common in Central and South America but you have to be in this corner of Texas to see him in the U.S.

In Texas Cyanocorax yncas is called a green jay but many jays are green in Central and South America so elsewhere he’s called an Inca jay, Querrequerre, Quinquín, Querqués or Carriqui.

The bird in the photo above is a “querrequerre” from Venezuela.  His South American population is separated from the Central American group by 900 miles so a querrequerre looks slightly different and uses different habitats than the green jay of Texas.  He’s larger, has a crest, and lives in humid forests instead of mesquite thickets and open woodland as they do in Texas.

He also has an attitude that’s given his onomatopoeic Spanish name an additional meaning.  In Venezuela querrequerre is slang for a grumpy person with a bad temper who’s easily upset and angered.

An article by Eduardo Lopez for Audubon of Venezuela explains how the jay got this bad name.  As an example, he tells the story of a ranger at El Ávila National Park who tried to rescue a trapped querrequerre and was attacked by the querrequerre’s family.  The birds drew blood!   Obviously it was a big misunderstanding but the ranger swore he would never help those jays again.  (If you can’t read Spanish, use Goggle Chrome or Google Translate when you click on this link to Lopez’ article.)

Do green jays in Texas have bad tempers?

I hope to find out in the next five days.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken in Warairarepano National Park, Caracas, Venezuela.  Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s.  Some day the South American Cyanocorax yncas may be called a separate species.

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Nov 04 2014

How Starlings Stick Together

Watch this video of a starling flock evading a peregrine falcon in Torino, Italy and you’ll see some truly amazing coordinated flying.

How do starlings wheel and turn in such tight balls?  How do they compress and expand without hitting each other?  The mystery has puzzled humans since the first time we saw it and recent explanations that each bird keyed only on his nearest wing-neighbors did not seem to answer the problem.

Now a study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains their behavior in an elegant model.

Using agent based modeling of self-propelled particles researchers from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics created a simulation that behaves just like a starling flock attacked by a hawk.

Their video below plays the simulation twice.  Isn’t it uncanny how much this matches what the flock is doing above?

Changing patterns of light and dark within the flock are the key to each bird’s movement.  They all want to be near each other but they need to see what they’re doing.  The team writes, “We show that large flocks self-organize to the maximum density at which a typical individual still can see out of the flock in many directions.”

Lead researcher Daniel Pearce explains the model’s rules: “Each bird is represented by a particle which each have an identical set of rules to follow (and likelihood of making a mistake). In this case the rules are (a) follow your nearest neighbour and (b) move towards the areas of the projection containing the most information. When lots of these particles are introduced, the result is a collective motion much like that of a real flock of birds.”

What is “information” in this context?  The technical answer is “the birds fly toward the resolved vector sum of all the domain boundaries.”  Hmmmm!

Click here to read more in Science Daily.

 

(peregrine-starling video by “greenkert” on YouTube. Simulation video by Daniel Pearce on YouTube.  Information from University of Warwick, Revealed: The mystery behind starling flocks” in ScienceDaily)

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Nov 03 2014

Siskin Surge

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Pine sisken (photo by Shawn Collins)

Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted pine siskins would move south this winter but no one expected the numbers seen in eastern Pennsylvania in the third week of October.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counted about 3,000 per day for several days, including 3,147 on October 23.  Andy Markel and Bill Oyler counted 739 heading southwest in Horse Valley, Franklin County on October 25.

Numbers were lower in western Pennsylvania where the largest count mentioned on PABIRDS was 50 on October 20 in Allegheny County.

Interestingly, Pittaway’s forecast accounts for this.  In his assessment of northern tree seed crops (i.e. finch food) he wrote:  “Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario … East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England States.”  That means that pine siskins northeast of the Appalachians would certainly move through Pennsylvania while those directly north of Pittsburgh might find a good seed crop and not bother to fly this far south.

Though they’re still being reported in Pennsylvania the numbers are more normal now in random flocks of 15 to 20 — at least on PABIRDS.

Where will that surge of siskins end up?  West Virginia?  The Great Smoky Mountains (where it snowed already)?  It’s probably too soon to tell.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins, Crawford County, 2 November 2014)

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