Aug 21 2014

TBT: Laying Eggs

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Cicada on a tree branch (photo by JohnTsui via Wikimedia Commons)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

August is a busy time for cicadas.  Though there aren’t a lot of them this year, those that are here are busy mating and laying eggs for the next generation.

Did you know that cicadas lay their eggs under the bark of tree twigs?  Eventually you can tell where they’ve done it because the leaves turn brown on the branch tips.

Brown tips on tree branches because of cicada egg-laying (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 2008 I caught one in the act.  Click here to read about cicadas laying eggs.

 

(photo of cicada on tree branch by John Tsui via Wikimedia Commons.  photo of brown tree tips from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on each image to see its original)

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Aug 20 2014

Birds Can Recover Lost Hearing

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Dr. Edwin Rubel works to restore human hearing by studying birds (photo from Univ of Washington Dept of Medicine )

Dr. Edwin Rubel studies chicks’ ability to re-grow their hearing nerve cells. Univ. of Washington Dept of Medicine

My visit to an audiologist for a baseline hearing test revealed an awesome thing about birds.

This summer I had my hearing tested because I noticed I could still hear faint rustling sounds with my right ear but not with my left.  For a long time my left ear has been slightly “less good” but this spring was the first time I didn’t have stereo for everything.  I was looking in the wrong direction for the very quiet birds.

The hearing test showed that my right ear is still above average but I’ve begun to age and am very slowly losing the top end of sound.  My left ear has lost more than my right — hence the lack of stereo — but for a human I have good hearing.  The sounds I’ve lost would only be noticed by a cat (or a birder).  Since those sounds aren’t in the “human” range, the loss is not correctable.

But if I was a bird, I could correct it myself.

We hear thanks to tiny “hair cells” that line the cochlea of our inner ear.  Not “hairs” at all, they are actually protein-filled protrusions that vibrate when sound reaches them and transmit it electronically to the brain.  Age, loud noises, and toxins, including strong antibiotics, damage these cells.  Mammals cannot regenerate hair cells.  Birds can!

The photo above, from a 2004 article at the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine, shows the man who discovered this with a bird that helped him prove it.  In the late 1980′s Dr. Edwin Rubel at the University of Washington and Dr. Doug Cotanche at the University of Pennsylvania simultaneously discovered that birds can recover their hearing.  After hair cell loss they grow the hair cells back again!  Later research uncovered this same ability in fish.  (Click here for the 2004 UW article and here for information in the 2012 Hearing Journal.)

Their discoveries have led to work on a wide range of possible solutions, none of which are perfected yet.

For now, I compensate when I hear a faint bird sound — I turn my head.

Some day, thanks to birds, there may be a cure for us mammals.

 

(photo of Dr. Edwin Rubel from a 2004 article about his research at the University of Washington Department of Medicine)

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Aug 19 2014

Beer Bee!

Published by under Vocalizations

Male American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

I know American goldfinches are nesting when I hear the call “beer Bee!”

Loud or soft, the accent is on the second syllable.  Birds of North America Online spells it “bay bee”.  I hear “beer BEE.”

The call is a warning. Goldfinches use it near the nest when there’s a dangerous predator nearby.  Last Saturday I heard it repeated loudly for an hour while an immature Coopers hawk perched in my neighbor’s spruce tree.  As soon as the hawk left the goldfinches stopped saying it.

Listen for the call and you’ll learn two things:

  1. There’s a goldfinch nest nearby and …
  2. There’s also a hawk, cat or other danger in the vicinity.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 18 2014

Last Month Of Summer

Published by under Migration,Quiz

Common nighthawk closeup (photo by Dan Arndt)

August. The last month of summer.  School starts next week in Pittsburgh.

This bird knows summer is almost over.  By the end of the month he’ll leave for South America.

Do you know who he is?  Do you know why he leaves so soon?

 

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

p.s. Check the comments for the answer.

4 responses so far

Aug 17 2014

Yo, Joe!

Published by under Plants

Joe-Pye Weed closeup, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

These are the tiny flowers of a very large plant.

Joe-Pye Weed is huge — 10 feet tall! — and stands out in any setting.  Its small flowers are arranged in large dome-shaped clusters, 6 to 9 inches across, that give dramatic tops to these perennials.

Their size is amazing considering they achieve it in only four months.  Click here for a view of the entire plant.

Two common species in our area, Sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) and Spotted Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum), are distinguished by the colors on their stems but they hybridize and mix it up.

So big and beautiful, I don’t care which one it is.

Yo, Joe!

 

(photo by Kate St. John, taken at Jennings Prairie, Butler County, Pennsylvania)

p.s.  Read Marcia Bonta’s blog to find out why it’s called “Joe-Pye.”
p.p.s. The genus name only recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium, another case where I prefer the old name.

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Aug 16 2014

Love This Blue

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Red spotted purple butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

The color of indigo buntings and mountain bluebirds, this butterfly is pretending to be something else.

Its name is “Red Spotted Purple” (Limenitis arthemis) — no mention of blue! — and its color mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail.   I suppose the orangish red spots on its underside gave it its name.

This one was mud-puddling with other butterflies at Jennings Prairie last weekend, but I ignored them because they weren’t this color.

I have never seen the deep blue Pipevine Swallowtail.

Love this color.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 15 2014

Raging Chickens

Lest we think that peregrines are the only birds that fight, take a look at this slow motion video of dueling sharp-tailed grouse from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Though they don’t have meat-tearing beaks and sharp talons these grouse are doing some damage to each other.

You won’t see this in August, even if you’re at the northern grasslands they call home.  Fighting is an activity that sharp-tailed grouse reserve for springtime courtship.  The males gather at the lek (courtship stomping grounds) and mix it up to prove who’s best.

Click here for a larger view of the video.

 

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube)

 

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Aug 14 2014

TBT: Spunky

House Sparrow at Schenley Plaza (photo by Kate St. John)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

By August Pittsburgh’s house sparrow flocks have grown substantially and the birds are bold.  At Schenley Plaza they ask for handouts.

Click here for my encounter with a spunky sparrow in August 2008.   They’re up to the same tricks this week.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 13 2014

Late Nesters

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

Cedar waxwing on nest, early August (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Marcy Cunkelman found a cedar waxwing nesting in her garden.  For other birds, this would be a very late nest but for cedar waxwings it’s right on time.

Waxwings build their first nests in mid June when other birds have already fledged young.  They start late because their main food source is sugary fruit and that’s not available until mid-summer.  Yes, waxwings eat insects (have you seen them fly-catching?) but they only feed insects to their young during the first 1-2 days of life.  After that they feed them mostly fruit.

This early August nest is the pair’s second brood.  In order to complete the cycle before the end of summer Mrs. Waxwing starts building her second nest before the first “kids” have flown, on approximately Day 10 of their 15.5 days in the nest.  By the time she finishes building, her first kids are fledging and she’s laying eggs.

She’s able to do this because her mate does the vast majority of the feedings.  He feeds her on the nest and he feeds the “kids” until 6-10 days after they’ve fledged.  In August he’s one busy bird!

Cedar waxwings’ dependence on fruit makes them highly nomadic with little site fidelity.  They’ll nest where there’s lots of fruit — cherries, dogwoods, raspberries, crabapples, honeysuckle and ornamentals  — and won’t come back if it’s gone.

Marcy has plenty of fruiting trees and shrubs in her garden.  The waxwings obviously love it.

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 12 2014

Dorothy Is Challenged

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy flies in to roust a challenger, 10 Aug 2014 (photo by Peter Bell)

On Sunday afternoon I received a text from Peter Bell, “Intruder at Pitt. On about 4th floor windowsill of Union.  Dorothy and E2 are at top corners angrily e-chupping and diving.”

I live only 10 minutes away so I hopped in the car and went over to see.

As I waited for the light at Schenley Plaza I saw a solo peregrine flying eastward over Posvar Hall.  I surmised that I’d missed them and I was right.  Peter was waiting on the corner to fill me in.

Returning from a weekend trip, he’d gotten off the airport bus near Pitt’s Student Union and immediately heard unusual peregrine sounds.  Peter looked up to see three peregrines on the building.  Two angry birds had claimed the high ground.  The third was in an uncomfortable spot on the 4th floor windowsill.

Peter happened to have his camera so he fired off as many shots as possible while the action unfolded.  Ultimately Dorothy zoomed in and chased off the third bird (shown above).  I arrived in time to see E2 bringing up the rear.  Click on the photo to watch a slideshow of the action.

August seems an unusual time for an intruder but I know why she’s here.  Dorothy is 15 years old and has many physical challenges.  In March she laid only one egg, then became egg-bound.  She survived by expelling the malformed egg, then started to molt early.  Three months later Dorothy still looks very ragged, a sign that she’s not in good condition.

On camera at the nestbox she exhibits “tired” behavior.  After 13 years of watching her, I now see her pausing in new postures as if she aches.  In the slideshow the intruder looks sleek and nimble.  Dorothy does not.  Dorothy is challenged in more ways than one.

Under these circumstances, it’s obvious to other peregrines that Dorothy is not at the top of her form.  Wandering female peregrines will try their chances to win the site.  Sunday’s challenger flew away but she, or another, will be back.  Dorothy will chase again but at some point a new female will return to the Cathedral of Learning and Dorothy will not.

This is not unusual or “terrible” activity.  Chases and fights are the normal, natural way that peregrines insure strong birds own every site and produce healthy young peregrines for the future. Old humans fade away slowly, surrounded by family (or not).  Old peregrines go out with a bang.

We are privileged to watch and learn.

 

(photos by Peter Bell)

p.s.  Peter saw in his photos that the intruding female is banded.  He couldn’t read the band but the colors are Black/Red.

10 responses so far

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