Oct 10 2014

Click On Every Penguin

Penguin Watch: count the penguins (image from Zooniverse Penguin Watch)

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.

Help scientists understand why penguin populations are declining and how to protect them by visiting www.penguinwatch.org or these links on Facebook and Twitter.

Look at the photos.  Click on every penguin.  That’s all you have to do.

 

(remote camera photo of penguins in Antarctica from Zooniverse Penguin Watch.  How many do you see?)

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Oct 09 2014

TBT: Remembering Their Dialects

Published by under Vocalizations

Swamp Sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

October is sparrow time in Pennsylvania. Migrating warblers have left.  Migrating sparrows have arrived.

Though swamp sparrows aren’t singing right now, the species is famous for their regional dialects.  Over the winter they’ll be exposed to other sparrows with other dialects.  Will they change their accents to match their winter friends or retain their dialects to use next spring?

How do swamp sparrows remember their songs?  The answer is in this 2008 blog post:  It’s Done With Mirrors

 

(photo of a swamp sparrow by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 08 2014

Gallinule On Steroids

Purple swamp Hen at Wollongong botanic gardens (photo by Toby Hudson)

Have you ever seen this bird?

It resembles a purple gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) but it’s the size of a chicken with darker plumage and scary-looking feet.  It looks like a gallinule on steroids.

This is, in fact, a purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), native to Africa, tropical Asia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, but you don’t have to travel that far to see one.

I learned in an ABA article by Bill Pranty that purple swamphens mysteriously appeared at the Silverlakes development in Pembroke Pines, Florida in 1996.  Some speculated that the birds had escaped from Miami MetroZoo during Hurricane Andrew four years earlier, but the zoo hadn’t lost any swamphens.  Closer inspection revealed that two breeders a quarter mile from Silverlakes had allowed their purple swamphens to roam free.  Naturally some of the swamphens didn’t come home.

By October 2006 purple swamphens were so prolific that Florida’s wildlife managers decided to eradicate them, but more than two years of shooting had no effect.  The swamphens continued to expand their range.  The failed eradication program ended in December 2008.

The first time I ever saw a purple swamphen was last December at Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach, Florida, about 40 air-miles from their original release point.  I’ve birded in Palm Beach County numerous times since the swamphen’s release — especially at Wakodahatchee Wetlands where they appeared in 2000 — but it took 20 years for me to see one.

Though the bird was added to the official ABA Checklist in February 2013, their reputation is tarnished.  When I pointed out my new Life Bird to another birder standing nearby she said, “They aren’t a good thing to see.”

Read about the purple swamphen’s history, the unsuccessful attempt to eradicate them, and their expansion in Florida in this article by Bill Pranty.

 

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

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Oct 07 2014

Water Cuts Rock

Published by under Musings & News

Kiskiminetas River at Roaring Run near Apollo, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Amazing as it seems none of the hills in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau were ever mountains.  They were all made by water cutting rock.

When dinosaurs roamed the earth, Pittsburgh was at the shore of a shallow inland sea to our west.  At the time our soil was composed of sandy beaches, mudflats and swamps. The sand became sandstone, the mud became shale, and the decayed swamp plants became coal.

No geologic events deformed our rocks.  To our east the Appalachians slammed into the edge of the plateau and pushed up the Allegheny Mountains.  To our north the retreat of the glaciers made the land rise in a bounce-back from the pressure release.  Our plateau remained essentially flat, tilting slightly to the south and west.  Indeed the rock layers in our area are horizontal.  You can see this at highway road cuts.

But Pittsburgh doesn’t look flat.

Water transformed us, cutting dendritic paths in the landscape as it drained to the inland sea (now the Gulf of Mexico). The paths became deep valleys.  When you stand in a valley you see hills.

Vegetation now hides what happened to the land. You see the hills but none of the water cuts as shown in this view of the Kiskiminetas (Kiski) River at the mouth of Roaring Run.

Take a short hike up Roaring Run and see what water can do.

Water cuts rick at Roaring Run, Armstrong County (photo by Kate St. John)

Here the creek is carving a notch in weak shale.  The valley walls are steep and narrow.  The notch is big enough to wade in.

Eventually Roaring Run may look like the Kiski with tree-covered hills.

It all comes from water cutting rock.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 06 2014

Locate And Protect Eagle Roosts

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald eagle adult and two juveniles, Crooked Creek (photo by Steve Gosser)

In the winter, bald eagles are more social than your typical bird of prey.  Most raptors are paired or alone in the non-breeding season but bald eagles congregate in large numbers where food is plentiful.  Visit Conowingo Dam in November and you’ll find hundreds of eagles every day.

Eagles have to sleep somewhere so when night falls they roost together.  Sometimes a few choose a temporary location.  Often a large group roosts in the same place every year.

Roosts are so important to bald eagles’ lives that they’re protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act which prohibits disturbing eagles in any way that “substantially interferes with their normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior.”  On paper this protects their roost trees from being cut down even when the eagles aren’t there.

But the Act can’t protect a place no one knows about.  Where are the roosts?

To answer this question the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has been mapping bald eagle roosts in North America using their own and others’ eagle tracking data. (CCB and others have fitted eagles with satellite backpacks.)  So far they’ve located more than 1,000 roosts.  Now it’s our turn to help.

Last month CCB launched an online Eagle Roost Registry.  Click here to see a map of the 1,000 roosts.

Do you know of a roost that’s not on the map?  Contact Libby Mojica at the Center for Conservation Biology (ekmojica@wm.edu, 757- 221-1680) or visit the online registry to sign up.

Click here for more information at the Center for Conservation Biology.

 

(photo of bald eagles at Crooked Creek by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 05 2014

Graupeling

Published by under Weather & Sky

Garupel in Elko, NV (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday afternoon I was caught in a graupel storm.

I was standing on Bellefield Avenue looking at the Cathedral of Learning through binoculars when the clouds darkened, the wind increased and it started to rain.  I was trying to find the peregrines.

The rain turn white and then, between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel, it didn’t come down.  It floated up.  What was this?

A woman ran past me talking on her cellphone, “I’ve got to hang up. It’s hailing out here.”

Why was it hailing in 46 degree weather without a thunderstorm?

When I got home I looked up the NOAA weather forecast discussion which said, “Shortwaves combined with cold air aloft will bring scattered showers to the region today.  Some isolated graupel is also possible.”

Graupel is a German word for “precipitation that forms when supercooled droplets of water collect and freeze on a falling snowflake, forming a 2–5 mm ball of rime.”(*)

The balls look like hail but they’re fluffier.  No wonder they were floating on the updraft at the Cathedral of Learning.

It wasn’t hailing. It was graupeling.

 

(photo of graupel in Elko, Nevada via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

(*) definition from Google.  By the way, “graupel” fails all my spell-checkers so I’m guessing that “graupeling” is spelled with one L as is normal when adding ‘-ing’ to ‘el’ in American English.

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Oct 04 2014

On Milkweed

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Milkweed bug and grasshopper on milkweed pod (photo by Kate St. John)

Thursday evening at Fern Hollow Nature Center I found two insects perched on a milkweed pod.

The grasshopper is doing his best to blend in.

The milkweed bug doesn’t need to.  He eats milkweed so he’s poisonous.

He wears ‘danger colors’ like the monarch butterfly:  black and orange.

Milkweed bug (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 03 2014

He’s In A Rut

Published by under Mammals

Elk among the flowers (photo by aul Staniszewski)

This animal is in a rut.  Which one?

Rut (1):
1.  a long deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles.
2. a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.

Rut (2):  An annual period of sexual activity in deer and some other mammals, during which the males fight each other for access to the females.

In September and October Pennsylvania’s elk herd has an annual period of sexual activity.  The males pursue the ladies, spar with other males, and “sing” their bugling love song.

Visit the Elk Country Visitor’s Center in Benezette to see and hear what this is like.  For a preview, watch this handheld video of the herd in October 2010.  The elk are so preoccupied that they ignore the people.

So yes, in October this elk is in a rut.

If things don’t go well, he may feel he’s in a habit or pattern of behavior that’s become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.”

 

(Thanks to Paul Stanszewski for the photo.)

(*) Definitions of rut from GoogleRut(1) comes from the same word as “route.”  Rut(2) comes from the same word as “roar.”

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Oct 02 2014

Penguins Episode 3: Growing Up

Published by under Books & Events

Emperor penguin chicks (photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP)

Last night(*) in the second episode of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle we saw how vulnerable young penguin chicks can be.  Fortunately, the dangerous period doesn’t last long.  In this final episode they’ll grow up and become independent.  Whew!

Independence is forced on penguin chicks because they’re so hungry.  Both parents have to fish to keep up with their kids’ demands so the chicks are left largely alone.  Young emperors naturally huddle in a crèche but rockhopper teenagers have to be poked to join the group by the few non-breeding adults who watch nearby.

The crèches are safe places to learn from each other but everyone’s equally clueless.  How do we walk on ice?  What is this wet stuff (melted ice)?  My gosh, my down is falling out and I’m getting feathers!

The chicks learn to fight their attackers.  Their parents bring food.  Life is good.  And then…

Their parents don’t come back.  Amazingly this triggers a desire to walk to the ocean, a place they’ve never seen.  Everything is new but they figure it out and even get help from some unexpected allies.

By now we’re all convinced that penguins chicks are clumsy … until they jump in the ocean.  Oh my!  They fly underwater!  Faster and faster, the rockhoppers make beautiful bubble trails as they disappear in the distance.  Such joy!

Watch the final episode of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, “Growing Up,” on PBS next Wednesday, October 8 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

 

(*) If you missed Episode 2 last night because of the Pirates’ wildcard game, WQED will rebroadcast it on Friday Oct 3 (tomorrow) at 4:00am. Perfect for a DVR.

(photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP via PBS NATURE)

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Oct 01 2014

The Blue Jay Forecast

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Blue Jay (photo by Steve Gosser)

When folks wonder why blue jays are scarce they turn to the Internet and find my 2012 blog post “Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?”   In the past two+ years 116 readers have commented on the status of blue jays where they live.

The most recent comments are on the absence of jays:  Where have they gone?  Why did they leave?  When will they come back … if at all?

Over the winter blue jays eat acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts and other mast (nuts).  Their range map looks as if they never migrate but they will leave if nuts are scarce.

How can we know if the blue jays will leave? Check the Blue Jay Forecast.

Every fall Ron Pittaway produces a Winter Finch Forecast for Canada based on the abundance of tree seeds in Canada’s forests.  The finches in his report eat a wide variety of seeds including spruce, fir, birch and mountain ash.  If food is abundant the birds stay home all winter.  In poor mast years they irrupt southward.  Here in Pennsylvania we wait for Pittaway’s forecast to tell us which species will visit us in coming months.

Blue jays depend on tree nuts too and they often move when the finches do, so Pittaway includes them in his forecast.  This year he says “Expect a good to heavy flight (many more than last year) moving westward along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and soft mast crops averaged low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario.”

If you live in Ontario, don’t expect to see a lot of blue jays this winter.  Lots of them are in Pittsburgh — at least right now.  Guess where they came from.   ;)

Click here for Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast.   Scroll down to read about blue jays.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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