Oct 20 2014

Planning Their Next Move

Published by under Crows, Ravens

A small assembly of crows (photo by Tom Harpel via Wikimiedia Commons)

Last month the crows had a meeting up north.

What are we going to do when it gets cold?  We can’t stay here.

Yup. These fields have grasshoppers now but they’ll be bare as soon as the frost hits.

Vince told me there are some nice places south of here in the Ohio Valley.  He recommended Wheeling Island and Pittsburgh.

I hear Pittsburgh’s great, especially the East End. Everyone had a great time last year.  Stay away from the Cathedral of Learning, though.  Peregrines live there.

OK, so we’ll go to Pittsburgh.

When do we leave?

In October.

In the past few days Anne-Marie, Julie and Anne have seen flocks of crows at dusk in Shadyside and Oakland.

The crows are back in town. Woo hoo!

 

(photo by Tom Harpel via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

7 responses so far

Oct 19 2014

A Stellar Year For…

Published by under Plants

Honeysuckle fruits, October 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a stellar year for bush honeysuckle berries.  The stems above were just a small part of the huge display at Wingfield Pines last week.

Can you count the berries?

Honeysuckle berries, October 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Birds like to eat honeysuckle fruit so these berries will disappear over the winter.

Too bad this plant is invasive.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

One response so far

Oct 18 2014

Lots Of Robins

Published by under Migration

Flock of American rovins on the grass (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Have you tried counting robins lately?  This week it’s been a challenge.

Though it may seem pointless I usually count birds when I’m outdoors.  The reward comes later when I look back at the numbers.

Based on my counts I know that a first wave of migrating American robins came through Pittsburgh in September.  Their numbers dropped, but a second wave arrived last week to feast on the fruit in the city’s trees and bushes.

Unfortunately these birds are camouflaged by the autumn foliage.  Rust-and-brown robins match rust-and-brown leaves.  On walks in Brookline, Oakland and Squirrel Hill I counted 20, 50, 100 robins.  Why the round numbers?  I don’t know exactly how many there were.

All I know for sure is:  There are lots of robins right now.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkleman)

3 responses so far

Oct 17 2014

Who Owns The Sky?

Last week’s sensational bird video showed a red-tailed hawk attacking a personal drone in Cambridge, Massachusetts (above). The drone lost.

Drones are popular because they’re easy to fly and come with onboard videocams.  Open the box, assemble a few pieces, turn on the camera, and fly it up and into … trouble, if you aren’t careful.  Novices don’t realize who owns the sky.

When Amazon Prime announced plans last December to deliver packages using drones it sounded simple but the initial hype failed to mention the regulatory, mechanical and natural hurdles.   Blog posts at Slate and The Atlantic immediately set the record straight.

At Slate Konstantin Kakaes explained how unreliable drones are right now and how much the FAA controls the airspace.  Drone pilots looking for killer video ignore the law to their peril and have been arrested.

The next day Nicholas Lund at Slate and Megan Garber at The Atlantic were quick to mention the bird factor.  Click on The Atlantic link to see five videos of angry bird attacks.

The FAA limits personal drones to a 400-foot ceiling — that’s below the 30th floor of the Cathedral of Learning — but birds of prey limit flying threats to a much lower level than that.  Red-tailed hawks near the Cathedral of Learning are frequently reminded that peregrines own the airspace above the treetops.  Drone pilots could learn a valuable lesson from a bald eagle who strayed into Dorothy’s zone.

Birds have owned the sky for 160 million years.

Take that you pesky airplane!

 

(drone video by Christopher Schmidt on YouTube. Click on Christopher’s link to read more about the hawk video)

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Oct 16 2014

Woodpecker Toes

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Red-bellied woodpecker's toes, on banding day (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a closeup of woodpecker toes from banding day at Marcy Cunkelman’s last July.

Look at the direction of the toenails and you can you tell they belong to a woodpecker.  Two claws curl forward, two curl back.

Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet that help them cling to tree trunks.

The other foot from the same red-bellied woodpecker shows his toes open — two forward, two back.  Notice that the toes aren’t all the same length.  The little toe is Toe #1, the hallux.

Red-bellied woodpeckertoes, foot open on banding day (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Most perching birds have three toes forward while the hallux points back: anisodactyl feet.  (You might recognize these toes from yesterday’s Swainson’s thrush photo.)

Feet of Swainson's thrush (cropped photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Anisodactyl is the most common form but there are four other arrangements of birds’ toes.  Read more and see a diagram at this blog post from 2010.

 

(woodpecker photos by Kate St. John. Swainson’s thrush feet are cropped from a photo on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Swainson’s toes to see the original photo)

One response so far

Oct 15 2014

Hybrid Migration

Swainson's Thrush (photo by Matt Reinbold, Bismarck ND, from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re a Swainson’s thrush of mixed parentage you’ll probably pick a bad migration route.  It’s in your genes.

In eastern North America we see only one subspecies of Swainson’s thrush, the olive-backed (above), but in British Columbia there are two.  The russet-backed subspecies breeds along the Pacific coast and follows the coast to spend the winter in Mexico and Costa Rica.  The olive-backed subspecies breeds in the interior and migrates across the continent and the Gulf of Mexico to winter in South America.

Where their breeding ranges meet the thrushes pair up without regard to these distinctions.  Their hybrid offspring inherit a mixture from their parents, including mixed coloration.

Kira Delmore at the University of British Columbia wondered if the hybridization extended to their migration routes so she tagged hybrid Swainson’s thrushes with light-level geolocators to track their routes.

The data proved that their migration routes are inherited and that those of mixed parentage inherit a blend.  While each parent would have followed the Pacific coast or a safe route across the continent, the hybrids chose novel and dangerous compromises between the two paths.

“Instead of taking well-trodden paths through fertile areas, these birds choose to scale mountains and cross deserts,” said Delmore.

The dangerous routes probably cause more hybrids to die on migration than their pure counterparts, thus keeping the subspecies distinct.  Says Delmore, “The self-destructive behavior of hybrids could be helping to maintain the great diversity of songbirds we enjoy.”

Read more about this study here at Science Daily.

 

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

3 responses so far

Oct 14 2014

Quiz: Which Ones Are Ungulates?

Published by under Mammals,Quiz

Deer eats snow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While writing about elk, I wanted to use the word ungulate so I looked up how to spell it.  I learned more than I bargained for … and ultimately didn’t use the word.

Ungulates are mammals with hooves, right?  Well, some are obvious, some are not.  Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge.

Which of these animals are ungulates?

A.  Deer (photo above):

B.  Horse:
Nokota horses (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

C.  Llama
Llama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

D. Leopard:
Leopard on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

E. Hippopotamus:
Hippopotamus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

F. Porpoise:
Harbor porpoise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Leave a comment with your answer.

If you’re stumped, I’ll post the answer in the comments later.

Can’t wait for the answer?  Click here. No cheating!

 

p.s. See the comments for an explanation about the oddest ungulates.

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click the image to see the original.)

7 responses so far

Oct 13 2014

What If…?

Published by under Musings & News

Portraits: Christopher Columbus, Passenger pigeon (images from Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s remembrance of the passenger pigeon is, for me, inextricably linked to Christopher Columbus.

Last year I read a book that generated that association.  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus describes what North America was like before and after Columbus’ arrival.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than Europe’s and the landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people.  Europeans arrived and accidentally left behind pigs carrying human disease.  Native Americans, who had no immunity to European disease, encountered the free-range pigs and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

So I wonder …

If Native Americans had not died off, would passenger pigeons have boomed at all?

If there hadn’t been so many passenger pigeons, would we have hunted them to extinction?

What if?

 

(Two photos from Wikimedia Commons: portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.  Digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough.)

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Oct 12 2014

Not A Rose

Goldenrod gall (photo by Kate St. John)

Though shaped like a green rose this knob is not a flower. It’s a goldenrod bunch gall.

A search at BugGuide.net(*) indicates:

The gall was made by a midge, Rhopalomyia solidaginis, that lays its egg at the tip of the goldenrod stem.  “Its larva secretes a chemical that prevents the goldenrod stem from growing although it continues to produce leaves, thus a shortened bunch of leaves is formed.”(*)

The resulting rosette provides shelter for many insects as well as the midge.

This fall I’ve seen many bunch galls in goldenrod fields.  This one was at Wingfield Pines in southern Allegheny County.

Click here to read more about the midge at BugGuide.net.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

 

2 responses so far

Oct 11 2014

Fall Color Weekend

Published by under Phenology

Fall scenery, October 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This long Columbus Day weekend is a good time to get outdoors and enjoy the fall colors, especially in the forests north and east of Pittsburgh.

 

Steve Gosser photographed this beautiful scene in October 2011.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

One response so far

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