American oystercatchers look so unusual that it’s hard to mistake them for anything else: big orange bill, yellow red-rimmed eyes, bold black, white and brown pattern, and thick beige legs.
Gintaras Baltusis found these two at Breezy Point, New York in late September. Look closely and you can see they aren’t the same age.
The juvenile (below) has the same feather pattern but doesn’t have yellow eyes and his bill is still half black.
Before Mark Catesby renamed them in 1731 American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) were called Sea Pies because of their pied plumage. Fortunately their new name describes what they eat and cannot be confused with what we eat, a casserole called a Sea Pie.
Can you think of other pie-named birds? I know of three in North America.
Here are two free bird events coming up next week in Pittsburgh.
Monday November 18, 4:30pm, Guam Rail Reintroduction Presentation at the National Aviary
Laura Barnhart Duenas, manager of the Guam Rail and Micronesian Kingfisher captive breeding program at Guam’s Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources, will present a lecture on the successful bird conservation work she’s doing to reintroduce the Guam rail and other birds wiped out by the invasive brown tree snake.
The flightless Guam rail became extinct in the wild in the late 1980′s but has been bred in captivity and returned to small snake-free islands in the Mariana archipelago (Guam’s island zone). The National Aviary has bred Guam rails since 1984, hatched 57 chicks and returned 23 of them to Guam.
Friday, November 22, 9:00am to 4:45pm, Annual Audubon Day at the University of Pittsburgh
Next Friday the University of Pittsburgh will host their annual Audubon Day at Hillman Library. More than two dozen original John James Audubon prints will be on display in the Special Collections Reading Room, Room 363.
In addition, from 10:00am to noon, Joel Oppenheimer, one of the world’s foremost Audubon experts, will deliver a presentation titled “Audubon’s Art and the Published Editions from the Nineteenth Century to the Present” in the Amy Knapp Room on Hillman’s ground floor.
For more information including the day’s agenda, click here.
(photo of Guam rail at the National Aviary from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flamingo print by John James Audubon, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh)
Since late October, Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has been big and brash in Oakland. At dusk they flood the sky, gathering on roofs and treetops to choose a place to sleep. Last week they roosted in the trees around Pitt’s Student Union and the Cathedral of Learning. This got them into big trouble!
Every night pedestrians dodged the “rain” from trees filled with crows and every morning the sidewalks were a slippery crow-poop mess. The crows had to go. But how to convince them?
Last weekend Pitt positioned a loudspeaker on the low roof of the Student Union and played very loud bird distress calls over and over all night. They ran it for five nights, Friday through Tuesday, Nov 8-12.
Most people didn’t know it was a recording. In the dark it sounded like birds fighting and dying: a robin in awful distress, an unidentified bird screaming and a peregrine kakking.
Late Saturday night Jason Carson recorded the video above and tweeted me with the question: “What is this? Are the peregrines fighting?”
Initially I was fooled and thought it was real, though it didn’t make sense. Any bird suffering that much would have died after the first assault and the noise would not repeat. Then Pat Szczepanski told me she heard it Sunday night at 6pm and it dawned on me. Duh! It’s a recording.
Usually crows are not impressed by bird distress recordings. They are way too smart to be fooled for long. Sometimes the only thing that will move them are bird-scare firecrackers like the ones they use at Penn State (click here for videos of Penn State’s “crow wars”).
Why were a few nights of noise enough to move Pittsburgh’s crows away from the Cathedral of Learning? I have a theory and I think it’s pretty good.
Crows are afraid of peregrines but they’re more afraid of great horned owls. They know Dorothy and E2 live at the Cathedral of Learning and they know peregrines hate great horned owls so they probably figured “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and they chose to roost at Pitt.
But last weekend there was an awful ruckus and the sound of peregrines defending their home. “Oh my gosh!” thought the crows, “The owl must be here! I hear the peregrines attacking it!”
In the dark Dorothy and E2 swooped low to investigate the noise. “Oh no!” said the crows, “The peregrines are here! Fly away!”
The crows didn’t move far but they moved far enough. By Monday evening they were avoiding the trees on campus and roosting instead on the roof of Soldiers and Sailors Hall. Just far enough to avoid the owl and the peregrines. Just far enough that Pitt is happy. Just far enough that the noise has ceased and Dorothy and E2 can get a good night’s sleep.
Without real live peregrines at Pitt, the crows would not have been fooled.
Twice a year Dr. Pilar Fish (head avian veterinarian) and Cathy Schlott (manager of bird training) conduct three two-hour classes that provide practical resources and information to lower frustration and keep the bird united with the owner.
I spoke with Dr. Pilar Fish about the classes. She’s a life-long parrot owner, former rescuer and parrot advocate. In fact she became a bird veterinarian because of her love for parrots. She can tell you that owning a parrot is a totally absorbing hobby, a lifelong relationship and a lifestyle-changing commitment. As she says, “I’ve been there. I want to be a resource.”
Most people don’t realize that parrots are advanced, complex animals. They have the intelligence and problem-solving skills of toddlers (African Grays are like 6-year-olds!) but the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old. Imagine a child in its “terrible twos” confined to a small space with a single toy and the same food day after day. Of course he’ll have tantrums!
In class you’ll learn how to adjust for the bird’s natural behavior. What do these birds do all day in the wild? If you provide your parrot with his natural routine and toys to occupy his mind he’ll be much happier. So will you. In class you’ll get a “cookbook” of habitats, schedules and tips and you’ll make toys to occupy your parrot and enrich his life.
The second part of Positive Parroting is about problem solving. Cathy Schlott teaches how to train your bird in a positive way, reward good behavior and deal with behavioral issues. She gives live demonstrations using the Aviary’s own parrots, some of whom are former pets.
Fall classes have already begun. The first class, The Healthy Happy Parrot, was held on October 26. Still to come are:
Pet Bird Enrichment, this Saturday November 16, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm. (enhance natural behaviors)
Training Your Pet Bird, Saturday December 7, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm (problem solving)
Breach an earthwork like the one above, give back land to the sea, and you’ll get fewer floods.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, U.S. emergency managers and town planners are discussing giving back land to the ocean as a way to protect still-viable coastal communities. It’s a concept called “managed retreat,” a name that conjures loss and sometimes sparks defiance in those who live at the ocean’s door.
In the U.K. they’ve recently returned more than 450 acres to the sea by breaching an earthwork just five miles from this one at Chidham Point. The locals are excited about it. They expect the resulting salt marsh to increase tourism. Here’s how:
At Medmerry on the south coast of England, shingle(*) sea walls were supposed to protect towns and undeveloped land but in recent years have proved inadequate. Stronger storms and higher tides frequently flooded the low-lying communities, especially the caravan (campers) vacation parks. Some sections of Selsey and Bracklesham Bay are below sea level. It wasn’t working.
In 2011 the U.K.’s Environment Agency began a managed retreat project in West Sussex. They built four miles of new sea walls up to a mile inland around the developed areas. They also built drainage ditches and ponds, two parking lots for visitors, and 10km of bicycle paths and horse trails. Then they breached the earthworks and gave land back to the sea. The resulting salt marsh buffers the ocean’s rage.
It’s also great for wildlife. Even while construction was underway migrating water birds stopped by to visit the growing new salt marsh. Bird watching improved immediately and is expected to get even better in the months and years ahead. The new salt marsh will be a birding tourist destination.
Give back to the sea and get back safety and tourism. Compromise with Mother Nature is good.
Read more about this project and see a video here at the BBC News.
(photo of dike at Chidham Point, West Sussex, UK, located about 5 miles from Medmerry)
(*) The British word “shingle” means the sand, pebbles, cobbles and shell-pieces that make up the beach.
Back in September an amazing asteroid flew by in outer space.
It first appeared as a fuzzy dot, seen by a PanSTARRS Survey telescope in Hawaii. Wondering what it was, astronomers directed the Hubble Space Telescope to take a look. Boy, were they surprised. It has six tails!
This is not a normal asteroid. Asteroids are very tiny planets and — until now — they don’t have tails. This one is only 700 feet across and is traveling around the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Like it’s traveling companions in the Flora asteroid family, its probably a chunk left over from a planetary collision.
So why does it have tails? Comets have tails because they are made of ice, dust and small rocks. When they get near the sun the ice evaporates, causing a long streamer of debris. But this asteroid has no ice. It must be streaming dust. Lots of it.
Scientists named it P/2013 P5 and ran its behavior through modelling software at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. The model showed this asteroid is spinning so fast that anything loose on the surface (dust) is traveling toward its equator. There it accumulates and episodically escapes the asteroid’s weak gravity, arcing into outer space. Yow! Six tails!
Why is it spinning so fast? Scientists theorize that the pressure of sunlight could have pushed P/2013 P5 into a tail spin.
Photos, above, from the Hubble Space Telescope show it spinning like a lawn sprinkler in the sky.
As of today I’ve been writing Outside My Window for six years. The crows are crowing, “Yow!”
Every year I provide statistics, but since this is a Saturday I’ll keep it brief so we can get back to our errands or play time. (In my case, errands.) Here we go:
Did you know you’re one of 574 visitors per day (this year’s average) who generate 21% of all traffic to WQED.org?
Some days are more popular than others. Sadly the most visited blog entry was the news of Silver Boy’s death on June 14. More than 3,000 people read about him that day, 79 commented here, and many more commented via Facebook and at the news websites.
Falcon or Hawk? from 2011 continues to win the top prize from Google search.
We use this phrase all the time to describe a small voice warning of imminent environmental danger. Before modern instruments, miners took canaries underground as indicators of unsafe conditions. If the canary was in trouble, the mine was unsafe.
Birds tell us about the world around us if we know how to look and listen. A new exhibit opening today at the National Aviary, Canary’s Call, highlights five unsafe conditions and links birds as the indicators of human overpopulation, pollution, habitat loss, invasive species and over-consumption.
Last night I attended a special preview of Canary’s Call.
The exhibit is absolutely gorgeous!
Located in the arc beyond the Tropical Rainforest Room, this area of the Aviary used to be a dark and tunnel-like place. It’s now beautifully lit by hundreds of photos that tell the story of human impacts on the world of birds.
New with this exhibit are six Malayan flying foxes, indicators of human overpopulation. These mega-bats eat fruit so they have large bright eyes, small ears and faces like foxes. I didn’t expect to like the bats but these ladies are really cute! All six are female. Be sure to ask why when you visit them. (Yes they are hanging upside down in this photo.)
Canary’s Call has four signature bird species – canaries, rhinoceros hornbills, Guam rails, and rainbow lorikeets — that are sentinels for pollution, habitat loss, invasive species, and over-consumption. I was amazed by the Guam rails’ story as a “canary” for invasive species.
The exhibit is fun and educational. The photos are stunning. I found so much depth, so much to learn: What bird is this? Where is that desert located? When was the canary photographed in the mine? I learned something new each time I looked.
Don’t miss this beautiful, new exhibit at the National Aviary. Canary’s Call opens today.
(photo of a canary (not from the exhibit!) is from Wikimedia Commons. Photos of the Canary’s Call exhibit are courtesy of the National Aviary)