Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
This is the month: Listen before dawn on a calm or north-wind night and you’ll hear a sound like spring peepers passing overhead. Swainson’s thrushes are calling to each other as they migrate in the dark!
Read more about their call in this blog post from September 2009. Click here to listen.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
What does it mean when there are waves in the sky?
These altocumulus undulatus clouds form at mid height at the spot where moisture meets wind shear. Straight above my camera the wind abruptly changed direction and speed. The long lines are perpendicular to the strongest wind, just like waves on a lake.
Altocumulus undulatus are typically only 300 feet wide so the wind shear here is a narrow zone. If you flew through these clouds you’d probably feel a bump.
The waves might mean something big is about to happen … or not. If they thicken over time, they indicate that moisture is building ahead of an approaching front 100 to 200 miles away. If they cover only a small part of the sky, they merely mean that something’s going on right there.
Keep looking up.
(photo by Kate St. John)
A rare gull showed up at the Pymatuning spillway last Friday in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. Thanks to Mark Vass’s report and the gull’s three day stopover, many birders saw this beautiful Sabine’s gull.
Named for Edward Sabine(*) who first noted the bird in Greenland in 1818, adults in breeding plumage are easy to identify with dark gray hoods, yellow-tipped black bills, notched tails, and triangles of black-white-gray on their upper wings. As you can see in Shawn Collins’ photos, this one is an adult.
What a cooperative bird!
Sabine’s gulls breed on the tundra at the top of the world in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia. Their breeding and dietary habits are so unusual that they’re alone in their genus: Xema sabini. They call, fly, and court like terns. Their chicks fledge before fully feathered like terns, but are precocial like shorebirds. In the Arctic, adults and juveniles feed on the mudflats like shorebirds yet they live on the open ocean most of their lives.
As soon as breeding is over Sabine’s gulls leave for the southern hemisphere, covering 7,500 to 9,000 miles as they make their way to coastal upwelling currents near South America and Southern Africa. Most migrate offshore, especially the juveniles, but a few cross the continent. In North America the western group winters at the Pacific’s Humboldt Current while those who breed in eastern Canada and Greenland cross the Atlantic to winter at the Benguela Current near the southern coast of Africa.
Though unusual, this bird was not off course. He knows the Humboldt Current is due south of Hudson Bay. He was taking a shortcut.
(photos by Shawn Collins)
* Sabine is pronounced “SAB ine” where SAB rhymes with “cab” and “ine” rhymes with “wine.” For a complete (and light-hearted) list of bird-name pronunciations see Kevin McGowan’s list here.
This morning my blog dashboard says I’ve published 2,400 articles. Such a lot of writing!
In honor of that feat — and because I’m on vacation — I’m taking a one-day break and directing you to two vintage posts you’ll find of interest:
- What’s that vine that blankets Pittsburgh’s hillsides and overgrows our parks? It has a pretty porcelain berry.
- How do some birders know in advance that there will be good birds on a September morning? We watch fall migration on radar.
(Mädchen mit Schiefertafel (Girl With Blackboard) by Albert Anker, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
When I snapped this photo I was so intent on the flower that I forgot to examine the leaves.
New England (Aster novae angliae) and New York (Aster novi belgii) asters are so similar that the deciding field mark is their hairy or smooth clasping leaves. My photo doesn’t show that.
However, the flower is in Maine at Acadia National Park (and so am I) so it’s safe to say, “In New England. An aster.”
(photo by Kate St. John)
It sounds really exotic to say that there are orchids at Moraine State Park, but yes there are. Last weekend Dianne and Bob Machesney found late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) including this very unusual pink one.
Late coralroot’s 1/4 inch flowers bloom from August to October so now’s the time to look for them. Unfortunately the plant is often hard to see because it’s only 4-7 inches tall and a brownish-purple color that matches the forest floor. But not this one. I have no idea why it’s pink but it’s certainly pretty. Click here to see what it looks like when it blooms in normal color.
Coralroots are very picky about habitat because they’re twice-dependent. They are saprophytes that get their nutrients from fungi which are getting their nutrients from dead and decomposing plant material. Coralroots are particular about the species of fungi they parasitize so you can’t find these orchids just anywhere. Your best bet may be to look where there are pine needles on the ground.
Thanks to Dianne for this unusual photo and her description of the plant. Now I know what to look for.
p.s. It should go without saying that you should not collect these plants. They are endangered in many northeastern states and in Florida.
(photo of unusual Late Coralroot by Dianne Machesney)
On chilly autumn mornings, the fog rises from Pittsburgh’s rivers and envelops the town.
Our fog is nothing to the thick fogs on northern coasts.
In San Francisco, Simon Christen took time lapse photos of moving fog and wove them into his beautiful video: Adrift.
Play it above in small format or click here for the full screen version on Vimeo.
See more of his fascinating photos and videos at Simon Christen’s website.
(video by Simon Christen on Vimeo)
p.s. If the video plays haltingly on your computer, click on the HD letters at bottom right of the video window to turn off High Definition which requires lots of bandwidth.
Throw Back Thursday (TBT):
Did you know that birds have built-in compasses that they use for migration? Unfortunately a few young birds are born each year with compass errors that send them in the wrong direction. Their mistakes spawn Rare Bird Alerts but their errors can be fatal.
In November 2008 when a young brant stopped at Pittsburgh’s Duck Hollow, I learned that migratory birds make mistakes in direction but not distance. They fly as far as they’re supposed to go but some head in the wrong direction.
Click here to read more about bird navigation in this 2008 article entitled Compass Errors.
(photo of a Suunto compass from the Suunto website)
Here’s something I learned by being fooled: River otters can sound like birds.
I found this out in Belfast, Maine one summer when my husband and I walked across the footbridge in the evening. The Passagassawakeag River was beautiful at sunset as the birds gathered to roost and a family of river otters swam at the Belfast shore.
We were on the other side of the bridge when I heard a loud bird chirping. What bird was that? Intrigued, I approached the sound to find out.
For the life of me I could not find that bird. Its voice echoed under the bridge but no songbird was down there. Finally I realized the sound came from the otters. They were whistling to each other.
This recording from the University of Utah’s streaming library is close to what they sounded like:
Who knew that river otters could sound like birds?!
(photo by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Migrating songbirds need your help in the Pittsburgh area.
Last spring while traveling north, this wood thrush found himself in a hall of mirrors … and he hit one … a window in Downtown Pittsburgh. Fortunately his stunned body was found by a BirdSafe Pittsburgh volunteer who kept him safe and quiet until he recovered. In this photo he was about to be released at Allegheny Cemetery by Matt Webb.
Fall migration is underway and nighttime migrants are again lured to our city lights and vulnerable to window kills. Each year up to 1 billion birds die by hitting windows in the U.S. BirdSafe Pittsburgh is ramping up to rescue ours. They need your help.
Across North America BirdSafe projects mobilize volunteers to walk city routes at dawn, looking for stunned or dead birds. Stunned birds are rescued. All birds are counted. Last spring the Pittsburgh project confirmed what other cities know: that wood thrushes and ovenbirds are the most vulnerable to window kills.
This fall the focus will still be on Downtown but program coordinator Matt Webb says you can create your own route near your home or office if you wish. 48% of collisions happen on residential structures so it’s just as important to collect data in a residential area. Contact Matt at email@example.com or call (412)53-AVIAN if you want to explore this option.
Better yet, learn what to do and get some hands on experience at the kick-off walk this Sunday, September 7 at 6:00am at PPG Plaza. Click here for directions and PPG parking garage information or use on-street parking for free until 8:00am.
For more information, contact Matt Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412)53-AVIAN.
(photo of rescued wood thrush by Matt Web)