Nov 22 2014

Shorebird Of The Savannah

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Spotted thick-knee, South Africa (photo by Cris Hamilton)

He looks like a shorebird, doesn’t he?  But you won’t find him in North America.

This is a spotted or Cape thick-knee (Burhinus capensis), a nocturnal(!) bird who lives in the tall grass of the African savannah.

Cris Hamilton photographed this one in the Serengeti in eastern Africa.

If you don’t want to travel that far you can see him at the National Aviary.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Nov 21 2014

Birds That Count

Published by under Bird Behavior

NYT ScienceTake screenshot: How Birds Count

We know that crows and parrots can count … but robins?

Alexis Garland at Victoria University of Wellington ran tests using a special bird feeder to see if wild New Zealand robins can count.

Click on the ScienceTake screenshot to see them do it.



(screenshot from New York Times video, ScienceTake: How Birds Count.)

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Nov 20 2014

TBT: Messing Around in Mexico

Published by under Songbirds

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What are “our” birds doing down south while it’s winter up here?

Some of the yellow-billed cuckoos are messing around in Mexico.

Click here for the story from November 2009.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Nov 19 2014

Start Looking Now

Hemlock woolly adelgid at Jacobsburg (photo by Nicholas A, Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I mentioned hemlock woolly adelgid, a really bad invasive insect that’s killing our eastern hemlock forests.  It devastated the southern Appalachians (click here to see, here to read) and has moved north into south, central and eastern Pennsylvania.  Has it conquered the Allegheny High Plateau?  Now’s the best time to find out.

Hemlock woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) have no North American predators and a very unusual lifestyle.  Originally from Japan, they kill eastern hemlocks in 4-20 years by locking onto the underside of their branches and sucking the lifeblood out of them.

The adults are female, immobile and practically microscopic.  Twice a year they reproduce asexually, laying up to 300 eggs a year in woolly white egg sacs that protect their young.  The larvae, present in April and July, are the only mobile phase and so tiny that they spread easily on the wind or hitchhike unseen on birds, animals and humans.
Hemlock wooly adelgid adults (photo by Ashley Lamb, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

Harsh winters used to protect Pennsylvania’s hemlocks but the climate is warming.  Our worst fears were realized when they were found in Cook Forest in March 2013.  Last winter’s Polar Vortex reduced that infection 90-100% but the bugs are poised to take off again. Unfortunately the only biological control, a tiny beetle, is even less winter-hardy than the pest so the only way to save our hemlocks right now is by treating individual trees with pesticide. (*)

What trees should be treated?  The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and DCNR have teamed up to survey the area from Cook Forest to New York’s Allegany State Park (click on this map to see a larger version).

Priority hemlock conservation areas on the Allegheny High Plateau (map from The Nature Conservancy and US Forest Service)

It’s a big area and they need your help.  Don’t worry, it’s easy.

In the winter hemlock woolly adelgid egg sacs are large and visible (see top photo).  If you’re in this region — even for a quick hike or birding trip — take a moment to notice the underside of hemlock branches.  Birders, you may accidentally find this while looking at a bird.

Report infections by calling or emailing the location to one of the folks on this list of contacts.  (Contact any of them and they’ll forward the information if necessary).

Do you need more information before you begin?  Contact Sarah Johnson at The Nature Conservancy,, 717-232-6001 Ext 231.

Start looking now.


(photo credits:
top photo, wool sacs: Nicholas Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons
middle photo, adults: Ashley Lamb, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,
map: courtesy The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service. Click on the map to see a larger version.


(*) Note: Work is underway to breed winter-hardy biological controls.  It just takes time.

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Nov 18 2014

Winter Is A Great Pest Control System

Published by under Weather & Sky

Frozen lake in Poland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While we brace for 150F this morning and moan that it’s 300F below normal in Pittsburgh, it’s important to look at the bright side.

Last winter’s “polar vortex” put a real dent in invasive insect populations.  It reduced the hemlock woolly adelgid population in the eastern U.S. and completely wiped out adelgids in some of the infected stands in Cook Forest.  It also killed emerald ash borers and stink bugs.

This one-to-two day cold snap won’t seriously reduce invasive insects but it may zap a few bugs caught unexpectedly outside their lairs.  Every little bit helps.

And one more thought in case you aren’t convinced.  There are no poisonous snakes in Alaska and very few in Canada and northern-border U.S. states.

Winter is a great pest control system.   :)


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

p.s.  It also reduces human pests.  No one’s “partying” at the park across the street from my house.

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Nov 17 2014

Dorothy’s Oldest Granddaughter

Published by under Peregrines

Pittstop at Medina Raptor Center, 15 Nov 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Dorothy, the matriarch peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning, is 15 years old and no longer fertile but she’s fledged 42 youngsters and has many descendants.  Last weekend Karen Lang and I traveled to Medina Raptor Center to visit her oldest granddaughter.

Pittstop has lived at the Raptor Center in Spencer, Ohio ever since she was found with an injured wing in North Olmsted on September 12, 2003. Though her injury happened in September, she’d been flying for only two months. She hatched in early June because her parents had had such an eventful spring.

Louie (Dorothy’s son) was only a year old that spring when he fought and killed Boris at the Gulf Tower and left Boris’ body in camera view. After the dust settled Louie and Tasha (a wild-born female who claimed the Gulf Tower in 1998) paired up and laid four eggs.  “Pittstop” was born in Pittsburgh and stopped in Ohio when she apparently hit a building.

Here, Annette Piechowski holds Pittstop high while she tells her story.  You can see that Pittstop’s wing is not quite right … but that’s not why she’s unreleasable.

Pittstop with Annette, glove up, 16 Nov 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

When her wing first healed Pittstop looked good in the flight cage and on the creance cord but she was stopped by incapacitating seizures. They’re related to her injury but no one knows how.  Sometimes they’re mild, sometimes grande mal, so she’s on medication to control them.  Evidently Pittstop knows when a seizure is coming on. Annette says she gets a faraway look on her face and flies down to the ground before the seizure happens.

Because of the seizures Pittstop does her educational work at the Raptor Center where she can receive immediate attention (and not alarm the public).  She’s a great peregrine ambassador.  Here she shows her concentration working with Toni McNamara.

Pittstop with Toni, 16 Nov 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


I’ve sponsored Pittstop for many years so I was anxious to see how she’s doing.  The last time I saw her she was still in juvenile plumage.  Here we had a little reunion.

Pittstop with Annette Piechowski and Kate St. John, 16 Nov 2014

Then Pittstop had a message for me though I couldn’t hear it. (She silently opened her beak.)

Pittstop says "Hey" to Kate St.John, with Annette Piechowski


Later Annette Piechowski, Toni McNamara and Jackie Cabonor gave us a great tour of the Raptor Center and showed us the many educational birds:  owls, hawks, more falcons and Migisi the bald eagle.  I’ll be blogging about these beautiful birds in the near future.

Thank you to Laura Jordan and everyone at Medina Raptor Center for the good work you do for raptors and for taking such good care of Pittstop.

It was great to see Dorothy’s oldest granddaughter.


(photos from Kate St. John’s camera taken by Kate St. John, Toni McNamara and Jacki Cabonor)

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Nov 16 2014

This Friday: Audubon Day at Pitt

Published by under Books & Events

Passenger Pigeon plate by John J Audubon, courtesy University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library

This Friday November 21 visit Pitt’s Hillman Library for their Annual Audubon Day, 9:00am to 4:45pm.

This year the event commemorates the passenger pigeon and showcases Audubon’s 1824 passenger pigeon plate, believed to be the only bird he painted in Pittsburgh.  Visit Room 363 to see this and more than 24 prints from John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

At 10:00am, in the Amy E. Knapp Room, don’t miss Chris Kubiak’s presentation on the the causes and consequences of the passenger pigeon’s extinction and the controversial effort to revive it through cloning.

Audubon Day is free and open to the public.  Call 412–648-8199 or click on the image above for more information.


(photo of John James Audubon’s passenger pigeons, courtesy University of Pittsburgh.  Click on the image to see the news release)

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Nov 15 2014

Swans On The Move

Tundra swan flock in migration (photo by Steve Gosser)

Tundra swans are migrating now over western Pennsylvania.  They’re traveling 3,600 miles from Canada’s Northwest Territory and Alaska’s North Slope to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.

Steve Gosser photographed this flock on November 12.  I saw 60 at Moraine State Park on November 13.

The flocks are composed of families: mother, father and one or two youngsters.  In the fall their trip takes about 12 weeks, a slower pace than their springtime return because their “kids” are young and need to rest longer.

Sometimes they’re hard to see.  On an overcast day they’re white birds in a white sky so listen for their voices and look up.

Do you know their call?  Click here to hear.  Start the player at the 6:00 minute mark to hear a flock approach and land at Pungo Lake, North Carolina.

Tundra swans are on the move.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 14 2014

Crows Recognize Their Friends

Published by under Crows, Ravens

On Halloween I posted a video showing how crows recognize their enemies.  Libby Strizzi wondered, do they recognize their friends?  You bet!

In Gifts of the Crow John Marzluff, who conducted the face-recognition experiments at University of Washington, tells how the same American crows that harass the mask-face fly to perch near Lijana Holmes when she arrives on campus.  She feeds them a breakfast of eggs and meat every day.  It’s not just the food.  Crows know who their friends are.

In this video from Germany “Rabenvater” offers treats to hooded and carrion crows and records their antics.  He feeds them often (see his many crow videos) and they trust him.  Their relationship is so amazing that spectators pause to watch.

Not only do the crows trust him, they’re willing to raid his pocket that holds the treats.  Watch at 2:30 as a hooded crows thinks about the pocket and at 3:40 when a carrion crow spends time pulling out the treats and throwing away the peanuts.

Crows recognize their friends.


(YouTube video by Rabenvater)

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Nov 13 2014

Black Gray Squirrels

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

Black gray squirrel in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Last month when the leaves changed color I began to notice the many black squirrels in Schenley Park.  During the summer they were hidden by leafy shadows but they stand out now among the bare trees and fallen leaves.

Black squirrels aren’t a separate species.  They’re just “eastern gray squirrels” (Sciurus carolinensis) that are melanistic.  This one isn’t 100% black.  He has white whiskers.

Read more about melanism and squirrels in this article from 2010 entitled This Is A Gray Squirrel.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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