Mar 28 2014

Red Rimmed Eyes

Published by under Water and Shore

Ring-billed gull in breeding plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

It’s spring and even the gulls look snazzy!

Look closely and you’ll notice that adult ring-billed gulls have put on their breeding plumage.  Not only are their heads snowy white but the skin around their eyes and beaks is bright red.

Here’s another view.

Ring-billed gull in breeding plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

Watch for them to open their mouths.  Wow!  Talk about red!


Until recently they were boring in basic plumage with speckly head feathers and black skin like this.

Ring-billed gull in basic plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

I wasn’t paying attention when they made this transformation and was stunned last weekend when one opened his very red mouth.

Look for their red-rimmed eyes while they’re still in town.  They’ll be in southwestern Pennsylvania for a couple more weeks, waiting for their breeding grounds to thaw up north.


(photos by Shawn Collins)

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Mar 27 2014

Any Wood Frogs Yet?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

This month I wrote about ducks that sound like frogs.  Here are some frogs that sound like ducks.

Wood frogs are often the first frogs to appear in the spring in eastern North America, quickly followed by spring peepers.  As the video indicates temperatures have to be in the 40s for the wood frogs to “wake up,” but western Pennsylvania hasn’t had a lot of warm weather yet.

The cold winter has made a difference.  Two years ago we had an exceptionally warm spring and the frogs came out in early March.  This year we’ve had a few blips of warm weather surrounded by temperatures in the teens, a discouraging combination for cold-blooded frogs.

Today we’re headed for a spate for warm weather that may signal the end of winter’s grip.  We’ll know it’s really spring when we hear frogs calling.

Have you heard any wood frogs yet?


(video from Great Smoky Mountains Association)

4 responses so far

Mar 26 2014


Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy preening, 25 Mar 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy laid her first egg on March 20.  It appears to be her last and she is not incubating it.

In her prime Dorothy laid an egg every 2.5 days until she completed a clutch of four or five.  She always hatched all or all-but-one.

Last year her age began to show.  Her time between eggs was prolonged, three eggs did not hatch, and one of the hatchlings was too handicapped to live.

Back in 2010 I wrote about what happens when female peregrines age (click here).  Dorothy is now 15, two years older than the average adult life expectancy of 13.  So we’re learning something.

Yesterday Mary DeVaughn coined the term “hen-o-pause” on the Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook page.  I don’t know if birds experience anything like menopause but it explains Dorothy’s solo egg and her lack of desire to incubate.

She’s certainly the right age for “hen-o-pause.”


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)



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Mar 25 2014

Mad, Mad Mergs

Three male red-breasted mergansers pursue a female

Red-breasted mergansers already look a little crazy because of their wild head feathers.  Here you see they’ve really gone nuts.

In this photo by Pat Gaines three male red-breasted mergansers are courting one female. The guys zip around and churn the water like jet skis, abruptly halt and point their bills skyward, dip their necks and crowd around her.

The lady doesn’t look like she wants this much attention.  Pat wrote that she flew away pursued by all three males and concluded, “So this is what it must be like for a beautiful woman at a singles bar.”

Click on the photo for a closeup and here for a video of their courtship behavior.


(photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Notice how the feathers around the female’s eye form a dark circle.  It looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks.  ;)

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Mar 24 2014


Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy and her frozen egg, 24 Mar 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

It’s very cold this morning:  14 degrees at the airport, 21 degrees in my city backyard.  Assuming the Cathedral of Learning is just as warm as my backyard (1.5 miles away), the temperature at the nest has been below freezing since 8:00pm last night.

For whatever reason, Dorothy stopped sheltering her egg around 9:30pm.

Peregrine falcons don’t begin incubation until they’ve laid their next to last egg in the clutch.  However, they do shelter the eggs to keep them from freezing.  In her younger years Dorothy would have been on top of the egg in weather like this, not merely standing over it, and it would look like she’s incubating.  But she’s not.

The egg is certainly frozen and will never hatch. CORRECTION!  I have since learned that it might hatch. (It was not incubated and abandoned to the cold weather so it might be viable.)

This spring Dorothy is 15 years old, retirement age for wild peregrines.  She has a reason for acting this way.  I don’t know what it is.


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh

28 responses so far

Mar 23 2014

A Brief Appearance

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocuses blooming at Phipps outdoor garden, 22 Mar2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

At last the crocuses are (or rather… were) blooming in Pittsburgh, though not in my yard.

Yesterday was a sunny and breezy day with a high of 50F.  I took a long walk in Schenley Park and found nothing blooming except a small selection of snowdrops and crocuses at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden.

Today it has already snowed a little, tonight will be 15F and the cold will continue through Tuesday so these flowers won’t last.

If you want to see spring in all its glory visit the Spring Flower Show, indoors at Phipps Conservatory.  Theirs are the only flowers that have put in more than a brief appearance.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Mar 22 2014

Dumpster Robins

Published by under Bird Behavior

The robins' dumpster and their favorite perch (photo by Kate St. John)

A few days ago I looked out my office window and saw two American robins perched on the dumpsters at Central Catholic High School.  As I watched, one dove into a dumpster and disappeared.  Soon it flew out of the flap opening on the left and the other robin dove in.

What is this?  I’m used to seeing crows, gulls and even house sparrows at dumpsters … but robins??

I tried to photograph the robins but always missed so I’ve had to settle for a snapshot of the dumpsters with a green symbol for the robins’ favorite pre-dive perch.

I wonder what attracted them into the dumpster.

I did not dive in to find out!


(photo by Kate St. John)

6 responses so far

Mar 21 2014

First Egg At Pitt!

Published by under Peregrines

pittvid_2014-03-21_07-40dorothy with her first egg of 2014 (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

First peregrine egg at Pitt!  Dorothy laid it Thursday night, March 20, at 9:37pm.


I happened to be asleep and found out this morning around 5am.
First peregrine egg at Pitt, 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)


And here’s the first moment of the first egg thanks to @PittPeregrines.  (The egg is white in infrared light.)
Dorothy lays her first egg of 2014, Mar 20 9:37pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

It seems like we waited forever but Dorothy is right on time.


(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

10 responses so far

Mar 20 2014

5 Eggs At Gulf Tower, None at Pitt

Published by under Peregrines


Last night (Mar 19) at around 9:30pm, @CathyPelican107 tweeted me with news that there were now five eggs at the Gulf Tower.  By the time I looked Dori was clamped down on the eggs and I couldn’t count them so I checked the WildEarth video archives.

During the 8:00pm hour Dori stood up and appeared to deposit an egg in the nest.  It was really hard to see!  Eventually she settled down with the egg alongside of her (above), presumably allowing it to dry.

Later she stood up to rearrange the eggs and I was able to count 5 in these two screen shots.

This afternoon you can clearly count five.

5 eggs at teh Gulf Tower (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf)



Meanwhile at Pitt, Dorothy spends a lot of time at the nest looking as if she will lay an egg … and then she doesn’t.

Dorothy at teh nes, 20 Mar 2014 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Don’t worry.  Her median first egg date is March 23.  She has plenty of time.


(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Gulf Tower and University of Pittsburgh)

p.s. The fact that I mentioned Dorothy hasn’t laid an egg will probably prompt her to do so immediately … just to prove me wrong!


7 responses so far

Mar 20 2014

The Chicken From Hell With A Pittsburgh Connection

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Illustration of the chicken from Hell (Anzu wyliei) by Mark Klingler, linked from NPR

This morning NPR has news of a newly identified dinosaur that lived 66 to 72 million years ago.

Bones of “the chicken from Hell” were first discovered more than a decade ago by Tyler Lyson at the Hell Creek formation in the Dakotas.  Specimens made their way into museum collections and intrigued Matt Lamanna at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History who suspected this was an oviraptorosaurian theropod dinosaur (bird ancestor!) similar to those found in Asia.

Now Lamanna and his team — Hans-Dieter Sues, Emma Schachner and Tyler Lyson — have figured out what animal made these bones and published their findings in PLOS One.  It was Anzu wyliei, an enormous 500-pound feathered dinosaur with a bony crest on its head.

This illustration by the Carnegie’s Mark Klingler shows what it looked like.  Wow!

Read the full story here at NPR.

(Illustration of “the chicken from Hell” (Anzu wyliei) by Mark Klingler, linked from the NPR article)

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