Sep 25 2014

Penguins Episode 2: First Steps

Published by under Books & Events

Rockhopper penguin tries to adopt eggcam (photo courtesy of Philip Dalton/©JDP)

If you saw Penguins: Spy in the Huddle last night you know that Episode Two will air next Wednesday on PBS NATURE.  I had the opportunity to preview it. Here’s the scoop.

“First Steps” is full of happiness, fights and danger.

Happiness when the eggs hatch and adorable chicks emerge.  So cute!

Fights when emperors and rockhoppers without chicks gang up on parent birds and forcably try to adopt their “kids.” Fights ensue. The chicks run away.  Who knew that penguins could be kidnappers?!

Danger when…  Well, danger is everywhere for baby birds.  Will there be enough food?  Will the chicks get separated from their parents?  Will any predators be successful?  Usually the birds triumph but sometimes it ends badly.  A touching scene among the emperors reminds us that mothers’ grief is universal.

The cleverly disguised spycams play an unexpected part.  Penguins and predators are both interested in the eggcams.  The penguins try to adopt them.  The predators try to eat them.  This produces very close looks at penguin belly feathers and far, tumbling views of the colonies.

Watch episode two “First Steps” of Penguins: Spy in the Huddle on PBS next Wednesday, October 1 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

Again, many thanks to The National Aviary for underwriting this series.  Their African penguins just completed their annual “catastrophic molt” and are looking good just in time for Pittsburgh Penguins hockey season.  ;)


(photo courtesy of Philip Dalton/©JDP via PBS NATURE)


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Sep 24 2014

Local And Vocal

Carolina chickadee (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Chickadees don’t migrate(*) but they’re a big help when you’re looking for migrating songbirds in late September.

Waves of warblers are still passing through Pennsylvania but they’re usually silent and hidden by leaves so you probably won’t see them … unless you listen for chickadees.

Black-capped and Carolina chickadees are vocal experts on the local scene.  They know the best places to find food and where the predators lurk.  And they’re such chatterboxes!  Visiting migrants clue into chickadee locations and often stay with them in mixed flocks.

At this time of year don’t ignore the local, vocal birds.  They may have visitors with them.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)

(* Well, I’ve since heard that some chickadees do go places … but others stay behind.)

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Sep 23 2014

Orange Or Yellow?

Published by under Migration

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Orange-crowned warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

In good light with a clear view these two warblers don’t look alike.

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

Female yellow warbler (photo by Dan Arndt)

But in poor light and partially hidden by leaves a fast-moving yellowish fall warbler without wing bars can be … confusing.

Last Sunday one of these birds had me stumped.  Without a camera to take its picture, how could I find out what it was?

Using a technique I learned from Chuck Tague, I wrote down what I saw as if I was going to draw the bird.

“Long, all-yellowish warbler with blank face, round head, blunt beak, no wing bars, no stripes.”  (Wish I’d seen the tail and leg colors.)

With this note and several field guides I was able to figure it out at home.

“No wing bars, no stripes” narrowed the field considerably.

By “all-yellowish” I meant pale yellow from throat to undertail with drabber, darker yellow on back, wings, head.  The light made the bird look very drab.  Lots of book-searching finally pointed to two possibilities:  an orange-crowned warbler or a female yellow warbler.  Range maps indicate both can occur now in western Pennsylvania so I had two viable candidates.

“Long” and “round head” can be deceiving because a squat, no-neck warbler might stretch out its neck to see me but together they lean toward yellow warbler.

“Blank face” is an excellent hint, not just a patternless face but actually flat looking.  The orange-crowned warbler has tiny white accents above and below its eyes that give its face topography even if you don’t see the accents.  Yellow warblers are known for their plain blank faces.

“Blunt beak” describes the yellow warbler’s stout bill rather than the orange-crowned’s sharply pointed bill.

So what did I see? Most likely a yellow warbler.

Oh well.  An orange-crowned would have been nice.

The key is:  Write everything down.  Pretend you’re going to draw the bird when you get home.


(photos by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license on Flickr.  Click on the images to see the originals.  Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada.)

p.s.  I used the The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle to figure this out.  It’s excellent for deciphering confusing fall warblers.

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Sep 22 2014

Highest Hawks

Kettle of hawks, Kittatinny Ridge, PA (photo by Meredith Lombard)

Every dot is a hawk.  Can you count them?  Better yet, can you identify them?

Pennsylvania’s hawk watches see their highest daily counts this month.  On a busy day the sky looks like the photo above, taken by Meredith Lombard at Kittatinny Ridge in September 2011.

Experts can tell you these are broad-winged hawks — except perhaps that white one — but you can accurately guess the species if you know the month and location of the photo.  Broad-winged hawks pass through our state in record numbers in mid September.

Up close they look like this.  Not so blurry.  Actually a bit colorful.

Broad-winged hawk on migration in Pennsylvania (photo by Meredith Lombard)

Why are there so many of them?  Broad-wings are woodland hawks.  What’s the most common and widest-ranging habitat north of here?  Woods.

By the third week in September the bulk of broad-wings has passed by.  The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch had its highest daily total of 1,880 birds on September 14.  Hawk Mountain saw 975 on September 15 and Waggoner’s Gap saw 1,333 hawks on September 16.  None of the sites have seen higher counts since but never fear, great birds are still on the way.  The Allegheny Front will make up for quantity with quality when the golden eagles come through in November.

Where are the broad-wings now?  More than 80 hawk watch sites report in daily at where you can find a snapshot of the totals on the home page (scroll down).  Drill into the sites with the highest counts and you’re likely to find the broad-wings.

Last week’s winner was…

Detroit River Hawk Watch in Brownstone, Michigan where there were incredible numbers:  39,720 on September 18, 53,055 on September 17 and 68,655 on September 16 (68,193 broad-wings!).  The site is flat (no mountain, no cliff) but southbound hawks have to cross the Detroit River somewhere and this is it.

Check out the counts at Corpus Christi, Texas.  Some of the broad-wings are already there.


(photos by Meredith Lombard)

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Sep 21 2014

Not Confusing

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

September and May are the two best months to find warblers in Pennsylvania, but in the fall many are confusing.  Adult males, like this hooded warbler, are not.

Confusing Fall Warblers got their name from four scary pages in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds where immatures and a few females are lined up to show their differences.  Hah!  They all look the same.

But I’ve learned a trick to overcome the problem.  The more you watch non-confusing adults the easier it is to identify their confusing “kids.”

Within each species the birds have the same body-shapes, feeding habits, perching styles and favorite locations (on the ground vs. thickets vs. treetops).  Often, the confusing birds have colors and markings that hint at their non-confusing cohorts.  Sometimes there’s one indelible clue — like the square of white on the female black-throated blue’s wing that matches the male’s.

Get some practice seeing adult male warblers on Steve Gosser’s new Warbler Page where he displays beautiful photos of Pennsylvania’s best.

Not confusing!


(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)

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Sep 20 2014

Who’s On First?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Question mark butterfly, fall form (photo by Kate St. John)

I am so new to butterfly identification that most of them prompt a question.  I photographed this one near the Kiski River in Armstrong County last Sunday.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark.”

No, really, I want to know.  Here’s the ventral side.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

Underside of question mark butterfly, fall form ... but cannot see the mark (photo by Kate St. John)

“It’s a question mark.”

Honestly, I’m not kidding.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark because it has a small white question mark on the underside of its hind wing.”

Well, this one doesn’t.  At least not that I can see.  Please tell me, What’s the name of this butterfly?

It’s a question mark, Polygonia interrogationis.

I give up.  Who’s on First?

(Watch Abbott and Costello drive each other nuts in this video of their Who’s on First? skit.)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 19 2014

Volunteers Count!

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at Tarentum (photo by Steve Gosser)

When a bird is on the Endangered Species List wildlife biologists pay a lot of attention to it.  When it’s de-listed funding dries up and official monitoring wanes.  How can we know a “recovered” species is doing well without official monitoring?  Volunteers count!  California’s peregrine falcons are a case in point.

This month in ESA’s Ecological Applications, Tim Wootton and Doug Bell compare California’s current peregrine population to the prediction they made in 1992.  In the process they highlight the value of dedicated volunteers.

Peregrine falcons were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970 after they went extinct in eastern North America. By 1975 the U.S. had only 159 breeding pairs so wildlife agencies in many states established reintroduction programs to raise chicks in captivity for release in the wild.  California was one of them.

By 1992 California’s reintroduction program was so successful that state wanted to end the program.  Would the peregrine population falter without human assistance?  That year in Ecological Applications Wootton and Bell published a population viability analysis that predicted the future peregrine population with and without the reintroduction program.  It looked like peregrines would be OK on their own.

Fast forward to 2014.  How are California’s peregrines doing?  Was the model right?

Wootton and Bell ran the analysis again but found that peregrine studies were hard to come by.  “The challenge was to come up with data,” said Wootton. “Once a species falls off the endangered species list, there is not a lot of funding to track how management, or lack of management, is doing.  There was limited data that was appropriate being collected on the falcon, so we turned to a couple of well-known bird censuses that cover wide geographic areas.”

Enter the volunteers!  Wooton and Bell calibrated data from the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Surveys to the few intensive surveys done by wildlife biologists.  Interestingly, the Christmas Bird Count provided the best data.  “The greater number of ‘eyes on the skies’ in the Christmas Bird Count was key to obtaining a reliable sampling of the rare peregrines … Mustering many observers lowers the likelihood of undercounting rare birds.”

So how are California’s peregrines doing in 2014?

In 1992 the authors predicted that northern California would perform best because there were some population “sinks” in Southern California where the birds didn’t do well.  Thanks to volunteers, 2014′s analysis finds that though the population is lower than hoped for it’s well within the recovery trajectory.

Volunteers, give yourselves a pat on the back!  Your bird counts make a difference.

Read more about the study here in Science Daily.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 18 2014

Next Week! Penguins: Spy In The Huddle

Published by under Books & Events

Emperor penguins with a spy in the Huddle, a PBS NATURE Special (photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP)

That’s an odd-looking emperor penguin, coasting on his belly with a black square on his chest.  But he’s not a real penguin.  He’s a spy in the huddle!

Coming to PBS NATURE on Wednesday, September 24 is the first in a three-part series Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, a unique intimate look at three species of penguins.

The series follows emperor penguins in Antarctica, rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands, and Humboldt penguins in Peru’s Atacama Desert using more than 50 life-size animatronic spycams.  The cams are so well disguised that after a brief examination the penguins generally accept the robots as one of their own.

This technique gets awesome footage.  One cam even caused marital strife.

Like many birds, male penguins arrive first on the breeding grounds and wait for their ladies to arrive.  Emperors choose a new mate every year but rockhoppers mate for life so each male waits and calls for his lady.  If she’s late, she may have died.  What’s a guy to do?  He courts a new female.  One spycam got into big trouble when a lonely male made overtures just before his lady returned.  She was late and she was angry!

Watch “The Journey” on PBS next Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

In the next two weeks I’ll also review “First Steps” and “Growing Up,” premiering on October 1 and October 8 respectively.

Thanks to our local penguin experts, The National Aviary, for underwriting this series.  Get an up-close and personal penguin fix at their Penguin Point exhibit in Pittsburgh.  Irrepressible, irresistible penguins!


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

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Sep 17 2014

Lasting Impression

Published by under Plants

Stinging nettle closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle captured my imagination at the age of seven.

In Now We Are Six, Christopher Robin offers the Little Black Hen three things if she’ll lay him an egg for Easter Day.  Of the three, the only thing she cares to see is the nettle-place on his leg which she touches gently with her wing. “Nettles don’t hurt if you count to ten.”  This left a lasting impression on me.

For decades I thought stinging nettles were foreign, exotic and only grew in England so I was awed when shown a huge patch of them in Pennsylvania.  It was spring.  They smelled like cat pee.  I kept a wide berth and vowed to always wear long pants while hiking (which I do to this day).

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. The nominate subspecies dioica that Christopher Robin encountered is introduced.  Three to seven feet tall, stinging nettle is coated with hollow stinging hairs loaded with histamines and painful chemicals.  A gentle brush against the plant causes the hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

At very close quarters the plant looks bristly.  The close-up above is of the crown at the top of the plant.
Stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Even the tiny leaf-like structures have stinging hairs.
Closeup of stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Because of my cautionary introduction to nettles, it took me a long time to believe the plant is good to eat and has a wide variety of medicinal uses.  I was skeptical about the Nettle Soup recipe in my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 Quart young nettle tops.”  (Sure!  I’m going to eat that??)  But it’s true.  Nettles are eaten around the world.  Young leaves are best. Click these links for food and medicinal uses.

Some people take nettle eating to an extreme.  There’s an annual World Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset England which began on a dare in 1986. Beer is involved.

In September stinging nettles still have a frizz of whitish flowers dangling from their stems — or perhaps seeds, I did not get close! — as seen in the whole-plant photo below.  I’ve circled the crown area of the close-ups in red.
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)


So now you know what it looks like … in case you want to try.  ;)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 16 2014

Mirage On Cold Water

Published by under Weather & Sky

September mirage of distant islands near Great Wass, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

It was brilliantly sunny with a chilly east wind when I hiked at Schoodic Peninsula on the coast of Maine last Wednesday.  Little did I know the conditions were perfect for a superior mirage.

Schoodic is one of the endless procession of peninsulas and islands that reach into the Gulf of Maine east of Acadia National Park‘s Cadillac Mountain.  Though Schoodic is part of the park it takes an hour and a half to drive there around Frenchman Bay.

That day from the top of Schoodic Head the nearby islands and peninsulas were undistorted but on the horizon the land looked really odd.  One pink granite island was shaped like an hourglass and a peninsula looked sparsely tree-covered with a flat top.

This was a “superior mirage,” so called because the upside down images are above the real objects.  They are typical in cold water zones where the inversion of warm air above cold air distorts the light.  When very complex they’re called Fata Morgana, an Italian reference to the sorceress Morgan le Fay, because reality is distorted as if by magic.

Mirages are so common in the Arctic that explorers learned to be very careful before they labeled what they saw as solid land.  In 1818 Sir John Ross gave up pursuing the Northwest Passage when he saw mountains blocking Lancaster Sound.  He named them the Croker Mountains and headed back for England despite the protests of several of his officers including Edward Sabine (for whom the Sabine’s gull is named).  The mistake ruined Ross’ career. Eighty-eight years later Robert Peary thought he saw a distant land mass and named it Crocker Land.  It too was a mirage. Beware of naming anything in the Arctic with the letters C, R, O, K, E, R. It doesn’t turn out well.

Even spookier:  A re-examination of testimony surrounding the sinking of the Titanic indicates a mirage may have hidden the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookout and hidden the Titanic from the nearest rescue ship.  Click here for illustrations that show how this could happen.

Mirages change quickly so I was able to snap only one good image before it became less interesting. I was fascinated but not fooled.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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