Nov 16 2012

About Rooks

When five rooks came to celebrate my blog’s anniversary last week they piqued my interest because we never see them in North America.

Rooks are Eurasian relatives of crows, found from Ireland to Japan.  At a distance they look like American crows with very long beaks but this is an illusion.  Their beaks look long because the skin on their faces is naked and matches the beak color.

Close up the skin is obvious and a bit disturbing if you’re not used to it.  When they perch with wings hunched and feathers puffed they resemble the Grim Reaper.  Actually, artists probably chose rooks as their model for the Grim Reaper and not the other way around.

Like blue jays, rooks can store food in their throat bags, then carry it elsewhere.  The throat becomes distended as you can see briefly in the video above.

Rooks are more social than their American relatives.  They nest communally in the treetops in collections called rookeries.  In North America we have no rooks but our herons use the same nesting technique so we call their groupings heron rookeries.

Like crows, rooks are curious and really smart but this can make them annoying.  To a rook, it’s normal to make holes to hide food but this is a liability if you keep one indoors.  Fortunately, few people do.

Early this year I enjoyed reading Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson in which she tells the story of her rook named Chicken, a very smart and engaging bird, but I agree with the Daily Mail which said, “Yet perhaps the best measure of Woolfson’s candidacy for sainthood is the permission she has given Chicken to dismantle the plaster and lath on her hallway wall so that the rook has its own food storage space.”

…You see what I mean…?

Smart… but not good pets.

(video by Goldfinch Garden on YouTube)

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Nov 15 2012

A Lasting Impression

Published by under Beyond Bounds

This feather is 150 million years old, give or take a millenia.

Found in Solnhofen, Germany and documented by Hermann von Meyer in 1861, the Urvogel Feather (“Original Bird” Feather) caused a sensation for several reasons:

  • It was the first and oldest single feather fossil ever found.
  • It was paired and described with the first feathered dinosaur, Archaeopteryx lithographica, a species that displayed characteristics of both dinosaurs and birds.
  • It was discovered only two years after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and was hailed as evidence of evolution.

Feather fossils are rarely found because they must form in finely grained material in an anoxic environment.

Back in the Jurassic period when the Urvogel feather fell from an Archaopteryx’s wing, Bavaria was a group of tropical islands.  The feather landed on water — probably still attached to the dead dinosaur — and eventually settled to the bottom in a “dead zone” where the lack of oxygen prevented it from decomposing.

The sediment became limestone so finely grained that it led to the invention of lithography in 1796.  These quarries produce high quality stones for print-making and uncover many fossils.

Eventually 11 fossils were identified as Archaeopteryx, a raven-sized feathered dinosaur shaped like a magpie.  In 2011 scanning electron microscopy revealed that some of its feathers were black.

Naturally “Archy” has generated a lot of discussion over the years — from analyses placing him in the trajectory of dinosaurs to birds, to arguments denouncing evolution that said his fossils were fake.  (Those arguments were easily debunked because their authors misunderstood geology.)

150 million years since it died, 150 years since it surfaced, the Urvogel Feather has made a lasting impression.

(photo taken at Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin where the Urvogel Feather was on display for its 150th anniversary.  Click on the image to see the original on Wikimedia Commons)

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Nov 14 2012

Hazy Inversion

Published by under Weather & Sky

Three weeks ago I wrote about radiation fog and inversions.  We had another inversion recently, this time without fog.

Here is the view last Sunday from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.  It looks like a bad picture of beautiful scenery but it’s actually a good illustration of a hazy inversion.  Notice how the near trees are colorful and Wills Mountain, 10.5 miles away,  is bland and washed out.  You can’t see the fire tower on Kinton Knob.  The colors are cancelled by bad air.

This was a classic temperature inversion but the first time I was able to measure it.  As I drove to the hawk watch my car’s outdoor thermometer registered 43o in the Laurel Highland valleys and 57o on top of the mountain.  Normally the hawk watch site is far colder than anywhere else in western PA.

The weather was topsy-turvy.  Warm air aloft trapped cold air below and with it pollutants that made the air smell bad in the cold zones.

Bad air was not limited to cities and industrial zones.  On my way to the Allegheny Front I saw quite a few outdoor wood boilers creating thick white smoke that blanketed rural areas.  These relatively new devices burn wood in backyard sheds to heat water for radiators in homes.  Because outdoor wood boilers are small scale polluters they weren’t on the bad air radar at first, but their smoke is much worse than typical burning because the fire smolders when indoor heat demand is low.  I saw valleys where wood smoke enveloped nearby homes and neighbors.

At the hawk watch the air was nice and warm.

So when there’s an inversion, go to the mountain.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 13 2012

The Trees With Leaves Are…

At this point in November most of the trees in western Pennsylvania have lost their leaves.  There are exceptions and you’re likely to find them in parks and residential areas.

Yesterday morning I took this picture at the big bend on Greenfield Road in Schenley Park.  If you didn’t know it was a recent photo you’d think it was taken in early October at the peak of autumn color.

These are Norway maples whose native range in Europe extends further north than Pittsburgh.  Our short November days are the same length as those they experience in October back home.  For instance, the sun will be up for exactly 10 hours today in western Pennsylvania.  That’s the day length in mid October in Scandinavia.

Right now our native trees are bare or retain just a few leaves at the top (tulip trees) or brittle brown leaves overall (oaks and beeches).

The non-natives plants are out of synch and late November is the one time of year when you can easily see them across the landscape.

Make an effort to identify the trees and plants with green or colorful leaves and you’ll find that they’re probably imported.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 12 2012

Follow Peregrines With The Bird Guys

Birders and peregrine fans!  If you’re an early-to-bed person, get your beauty rest this Thursday November 15 and plan to stay up for the 10:30pm broadcast of The Bird Guys With Vern and Bob on WQED.

It’s a fun half-hour program that follows Vern Laux and Bob Shriber as they visit Monhegan Island, Nantucket Island and the Florida Keys during fall migration.  They’re on the trail of peregrine falcons but as dedicated birders they show us lots of other birds along the way.

Vern Laux is a fun guy and excellent birder who writes a birding column for the Cape Cod Times and hosts a radio program on the Cape and Islands’ public radio stations. When a rare bird is found on Nantucket, Vern’s the one who finds it.  (Remember the first North American record of a red-footed falcon in August 2004?  That was Vern.)

Bob Shriber is a birder and television producer from New York who’s worked with Vern on several videos. When you don’t see Bob on camera it’s because he’s filming the show.

The Bird Guys have a great time as they follow birds down the East Coast.  Always hoping to see peregrines they hit “pay dirt” at Marathon Key where they see at least five peregrines in view at all times.  And that’s not all they see.  Don’t miss Vern’s encounter with a skunk!

Vern and Bob make birding fun.  Watch The Bird Guys on Thursday, November 15 at 10:30pm on WQED.

(image linked from Click on the image to see the original)


p.s.  Speaking of peregrine migration, the arctic peregrines have already made it to South America.  See Island Girl’s trajectory at the Southern Cross Peregrine Project.

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Nov 12 2012

This Friday: Audubon Day at Pitt

Published by under Books & Events

This Friday November 16, from 9:00am to 4:45pm, visit Pitt’s Hillman Library for their second annual Audubon Day.  This free event includes a display of 20 to 24 prints from John James Audubon’s Birds of America, and a presentation and book signing by Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New York Historical Society at 2:00pm.

Click on the image above for event locations and times.

(photo from the Pitt Chronicle news release.  Click on the image to see the complete news release)

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Nov 11 2012

Will I Ever See…?

I have never seen an evening grosbeak, but this winter I might get my chance.

For the first time in years, evening grosbeaks are coming south in big numbers because there aren’t enough tree seeds in Canada.  Without food at home they’re on the move in a variable migration called an irruption.

Winter irruptions are not uncommon, but evening grosbeaks are.  Last winter snowy owls came to western Pennsylvania, pine siskins and white-winged crossbills visited in 2008-2009 and redpolls in 2007-2008.  But evening grosbeak sightings have declined over the years.

Happily, on November 5 the grosbeaks arrived at Marcy Cunkelman’s yard in Indiana County (here’s a beautiful male at her feeder), but alas, they were gone by this weekend when I could travel to see them.

So now I wait for news of a reliable *weekend* flock of evening grosbeaks near Pittsburgh.

Will I see my first one this winter? I hope so.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Nov 10 2012

Storm-tossed Skimmers In Pittsburgh

As Hurricane Sandy blew through New York and New Jersey it picked up many sea birds and blew them inland.  Some rode the storm’s high winds, others were trapped in the eye of the hurricane and flew all night inside its calm center, waiting for daylight so they could see where to land.

By midday Tuesday, October 30 there were near blizzard conditions and 45 mph winds over Pennsylvania’s southern mountains as the eye of the storm hovered over Bedford County before turning north.  At this point many water birds dumped out of the storm onto Shawnee Lake where Mike Lanzone reported at least 10 unusual species including a black-legged kittiwake, American oystercatchers, a leach’s storm-petrel, and pomarine and parasitic jaegers.

Many storm birds flew home immediately but five days later these two juvenile black skimmers showed up in Pittsburgh.  As soon as Mark Vass reported them on the Ohio River at McKees Rocks, Pittsburgh area birders flocked to see them including Jeff McDonald who took these pictures.

Black skimmers (Rynchops niger) are quite common on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey at this time of year where they eat small fish from the ocean’s surface.  They capture them by skimming the water with their long lower mandibles.  You can see this odd beak as a bird casts a pellet below.


And here you can see one skimming.

But there might not be enough food for skimmers in the Ohio River in November.  In North America skimmers are strictly coastal birds because the sea serves up small fish every day, but in Pittsburgh the river fish drop into deep water in winter, unreachable by skimmers.

Now, a week later, there is only one black skimmer at the marina.

(photos by Jeff McDonald)

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Nov 09 2012

They Say It’s Your Bird-thday!

Look who showed up this morning!  It’s a British Invasion and they’re singing their own version of the Beatles Birthday song,

They say it’s your Bird-thday
We’re gonna have a good time…
Yes we’re going to a party party.
Yes we’re going to a party party.

Hello, Rooks! Thanks for coming all the way from Britain to celebrate Outside My Window’s 5th birthday.  Do you have any requests?

“Yes, we’ve been reading your blog and learning a lot of useful stuff about birds, weather, plants, flowers, and interstellar space.  Now we have 5 questions.”

1.  What numbers describe Outside My Window?
That’s easy.  The blog averages 577 visitors a day and creates 22% of all traffic to   (A big THANK YOU to my readers!)

2.  Which posts had the most readers in the past year?
Dorothy wins the prize. Top readership goes to Peter Bell’s amazing pictures of Dorothy attacking a bald eagle over Schenley Plaza.  Last year’s Falcon or Hawk? continues to win the top prize from Google search.

3. What spawned the most comments?
When National Audubon posted Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately? on their Facebook page it generated 63 comments, but the stand-alone prize goes to Mouse In The House with 26.  The mouse struck a cord, eh?

4.  What were your favorite photos in the past year?
Wow, that’s hard!  Here are three: Peter Bell’s Peregrine versus Bald Eagle (of course Dorothy’s always a favorite), Steve Gosser’s Chick at Tarentum and Chuck Tague’s Walking On Air.

5.  Which posts were your personal favorites?
Morning Glory clouds and Move-In Day taught me the most, but I have to say that my favorite was the coming home story of Beauty, the peregrine queen of Rochester, New York in Whose Egg Is This???.

“Oooooooo. Peregrines?!?  We do not like peregrines!”

Sorry, guys.  In compensation I’m letting you eat the entire cake.   (Now that they’re standing on it, it’s theirs!)

(party rooks by Joan Guerin)

p.s.  Do you have a favorite post?  A suggestion for new topics?  Leave a comment and let me know.

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Nov 08 2012

Next Week: A DUCKumentary

Fall migration brings waves of ducks through western Pennsylvania, so now’s the perfect time to learn more about them.

Next Wednesday, November 14 at 8:00pm PBS NATURE will premiere  An Original DUCKumentary, a delightful program about the birds who’ve mastered water.

The show opens as baby wood ducks hatch and prepare to leave their nest.  Their mother comes to greet them, then flies to the pond and calls.  Whoa!  She can fly but they must fall 70 feet to reach her!  No wings, just the will to join their mother, and off they go.  The first rule of a baby duck’s life:  Mom calls, we follow.

The baby ducklings learn and grow.  We see their tiny feet paddling underwater and slow motion video of their parents leaping from water into air.  And wow!  Their dad is beautiful!

That’s not all.  Ruddy ducks make powerful dives using only their feet.  South American torrent ducks master river rapids.  Common eiders literally fly underwater to reach the ocean floor.   And sprinkled throughout we meet the cutest baby birds on the planet — like this little redhead.

Watch An Original DUCKumentary on WQED, Wednesday November 14 at 8:00pm.  If you’re outside WQED’s viewing area, check your local PBS listings.

You’ll see ducks from a whole new perspective.

(photo from PBS NATUREAn Original Duckmentary)

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