Sep 26 2012

Morning Glory

Published by under Weather & Sky

A morning glory is a flower, right?

Yes, and it’s also the name of these very rare roll clouds that stretch as much as 1000 km.  That’s 620 miles, the distance from Pittsburgh to Dallas, Texas!

I’ve never seen a morning glory cloud but the literature says they are low and tubular and appear to be rolling on their horizontal axis.  They travel up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph) over a landscape that has no wind at ground level — until they arrive.

Morning glories bring wind with them and such great updrafts on the leading edge that glider pilots flock to the only place on earth where these clouds reliably occur:  northern Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria from August to November.  Some have ridden these clouds for 500 km (310 mi).

Morning glory clouds can form (rarely) in response to severe thunderstorms but in Queensland they’re caused by sea breezes that flow onshore overnight at the Cape York Peninsula.  The moist air comes from both east and west, meets in the middle over the peninsula, and rises into a stack of cold, turbulent air.  Before dawn the stack is blown westward over the Gulf and causes ripples in the sky, each one carrying a long roll cloud.

Right now it’s spring in Australia and prime season for this rare phenomenon.  In Burketown, Queensland the glider pilots awake before dawn, hoping for glory.

(photo by Mick Petroff via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 25 2012

Grab Hold And Shake

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Did you know that bumblebees purposely vibrate flowers to release their pollen?

Bumblebees collect both nectar and pollen to feed their young.  For the most part they travel from flower to flower and quickly gather what they need, but when a good food source is uncooperative they may resort to force.

When the flower entrance is nearly sealed, as in closed gentians, the bumblebee forces her way in.  When the flower’s anthers won’t release pollen, the bumblebee shakes them.  She does this by grabbing hold of the flower and vibrating her flight muscles — that’s what makes her buzz — so the technique is called buzz pollination.

A small percentage of plants must be shaken to release pollen but others benefit from it including shooting stars (Dodecatheon) and the Solanum genus: tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant.

Thus, bumblebees are often hired to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.

Grab hold and shake!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 24 2012

Please Take A Number!

Published by under Migration

Last week Peter Bell alerted me to this awesome photo of more than two dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds.   Taken on September 18 by Illinois photographer jeffreyw, the feeders are mobbed by tiny birds.   Jeffrey aptly calls this, “Please take a number.”

If you feed hummingbirds, I’m sure you find this scene as amazing as I do.  Normally a single hummer dominates the feeder and chases all others away.  Who knew that when large numbers feed together they line up peacefully!

See how nicely they’re behaving?


And here’s a quick video of Jeffrey’s feeders in mid-August. You can hear them chirping. Wow!

I asked Jeffrey how he attracts so many hummingbirds.

He wrote,  “We mount feeders according to demand, one early [in the season], then adding until we get to 5 feeders. We could add more but have restricted ourselves lest the project gets out of hand. As the birds migrate away we remove feeders until we are back to one and leave that one till the freeze.
We have been building our flock for 25+ years.”

Persistence pays off.  Feed them (a lot!) year after year, and they will come.

Thanks to JeffreyW for permission to use his photos.  Hummingbirds aren’t his only subject.  Check out his photos and food on the What’s 4 Dinner Solutions blog.

(photos and video by jeffreyw)


p.s.  Very soon all the ruby-throats will have left the eastern U.S. for their winter home.  If you’re addicted to hummingbirds and up for a challenge, leave your feeder out, keep it from freezing, and you just might attract a Selasphorus (rufous or Allen’s) hummingbird newly arrived from western North America.  Here’s Scott Weidensaul’s advice on how to attract these unusual western hummingbirds and Rob Protz’ history of rufous hummers in Pennsylvania.

16 responses so far

Sep 23 2012

Wild Bird in Red

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Here’s a beautiful bird called a red-headed finch (Amadina erythrocephala).

Because of their beauty they’re sometimes kept as pets but this is a wild one, photographed at Sossusvlei in the Namibian desert.

Though his range is slated to decrease as Earth’s climate becomes hotter, it looks as if he will still occur here in 2085.

(photo by Hans Hillewaert, Picture of the Day 27 Feb 2008 at Wikimedia Commons)

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Sep 22 2012

A Pretty Color But…

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Are you collecting fall foliage to dress up a flower arrangement?

Don’t touch this plant!

Poison ivy is putting on quite a show as it turns beautiful shades of red and orange that highlight its white berries.  Birds love the berries but most humans develop a rash — or worse — from touching the plant.

If you’re not sure how to identify poison ivy, click here for the clues that will spare you an itchy experience.

Leaves of three, let them be!  … even when they’re red.


(photo of poison ivy in Schenley Park this week, by Kate St. John)

5 responses so far

Sep 21 2012

Confusing Fall Warbler

Published by under Songbirds

In Peterson’s Eastern Field Guide To The Birds there are four pages labeled “Confusing Fall Warblers.”

For years I avoided those pages.  The birds on them are too similar to each other and so different from their spring counterparts that they may as well be new species.

But you can’t avoid them.  Confusing fall warblers do show up at this time of year.

On Tuesday this confuser visited Marcy Cunkelman’s windowsill.  It’s a blackpoll warbler.  I’m guessing it’s female.

She looks nothing like a springtime male (left) who has crisp black and white feathers, an all-black cap, a white breast and bright yellow legs and feet.  This bird is greenish yellow and stripe-y (right).

But to me, she fairly shouts blackpoll because:

  • She’s the same size and shape as the springtime bird.
  • She perches the same way — tail down.
  • She has 2 wing-bars.
  • She looks as if she was dipped head first in a greenish yellow wash, then painted with thin gray stripes on her back, chest and flanks.  (The color and stripes are my biggest clue.)
  • Her undertail coverts are white, which fits with the idea of being dipped head first.
  • Her feet are light-colored, not black.  In this case they’re orange.

Fall blackpolls resemble fall bay-breasted warblers, except that fall bay-breasted’s aren’t stripe-y and they usually have a faint pink wash on their sides.  Click these links for views of spring bay-breasted and fall bay-breasted warblers.  The spring birds look nothing like blackpolls!


Here are two more of Marcy’s photos to show off this blackpoll’s features.

Notice how she has dark legs and orange feet.  The guides say her legs should be light-colored too but her two-tones are very cool.  They remind me of snowy egrets’ black legs and fancy yellow feet.

So.. my best tip on identifying this confusing fall blackpoll is:  Think stripes.


(fall blackpoll photos by Marcy Cunkelman, spring blackpoll by Chuck Tague)

p.s.  Her beak is two-toned, too.  What a cool bird!

One response so far

Sep 20 2012

Free Admission in Allegheny County

Published by under Books & Events

In the next three weeks over 40 venues and programs will offer free admission as a way of saying “Thank you for your support.”

Here in Allegheny County we pay an additional 1% sales tax, half of which goes to the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) to provide funding for regional libraries, parks and trails, sports facilities, arts and cultural programs.

Every year RAD-supported organizations say “Thank You” to the public by offering free admission and programs during the Asset District’s “RADical Days,”  this year from September 20 (today!) through October 13.

There are many, many arts and cultural offerings.  Listed below are nine fun and free science and nature activities coming up soon:

  • Today, Thursday September 20: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, free admission 9:30am to 5:00pm.   That’s where this orchid was photographed.
  • Sunday, September 23:  Free admission to the Carnegie Science Center, 10:00am to 5:00pm.  Great exhibits and hands-on science.
  • Sunday September 23:  Free admission, 11:00am to 3:00pm, to Riverquest‘s EXPLORER, the world’s first green educational vessel, docked next to the Carnegie Science Center.
  • Saturday, September 29:  Allegheny County Parks Hartwood Acres Hay Day.  Fun fall activities for kids of all ages.  Free admission 11:00am to 4:00pm.
  • Sunday September 30:  Free admission to the National Aviary, 10:00am to 5:00pm.  See birds!
  • Sunday September 30:  Free admission to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, noon to 5:00pm.  See dinosaurs!
  • Saturday October 6:  Upper St. Clair Boyce-Mayview Park free admission, 2:00pm to 8:00pm, to The Outdoor Classroom’s guided creek explorations, birding, insect safaris, crafts, plus an evening campfire roasting marshmallows.
  • Sunday October 7:  Free admission to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, 9:00am to 5:00pm (admission gates close at 4:00pm).
  • Saturday October 13: Allegheny County Parks‘ South Park Hay Day.  More fun fall activities for kids of all ages.  Free admission noon to 4:00pm.

And that’s not all!  Click here for the complete list of RADical Days events and all the information you’ll need to participate.

(photo of an orchid at Phipps Conservatory by Sage Ross, March 2011, on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


p.s. WQED-FM is one of the many arts and cultural organizations offering free admission.  On Saturday October 13, noon to 1:00pm, take a free tour inside our Carolyn M. Byham Studio and meet “QED Morning Show” host Jim Cunningham as he broadcasts LIVE from Katz Plaza, 655 Penn Ave in the Cultural District, Downtown Pittsburgh.

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Sep 19 2012

Red Sky At Night

Published by under Weather & Sky

The sunset was gorgeous last night after yesterday’s heavy rain.  It reminded me of the old saying:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.

Though this saying is folklore, it’s a fairly accurate way to predict the weather.

When the sun is at a low angle, its light passes through more of the atmosphere and the blue-green wavelengths are stripped out, leaving mostly red.  We see a pretty sunset when the reddish light reflects on the underside of clouds.

Clouds are key to the folklore weather prediction.  They come from the west, they indicate moisture, and they might bring rain or storms.

As shown in last night’s photo, during a red sunset the clouds are close to us and the sky is clear in the far west.  Clear skies in the west mean good weather is on its way.

During a red sunrise, the clouds are overhead or in the west but the clear skies have already passed over to the east.   Morning clouds often indicate bad weather will arrive that day.

Taking a cue from last night’s sunset, I can safely predict that today will be a very fine day.

NOAA says so, too.   ;)

(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Sep 18 2012

The Pirate

Published by under Beyond Bounds

This morning the #ABArare Twitter feed is full of news of a piratic flycatcher at Rattlesnake Springs in Eddy, New Mexico.  I usually don’t follow up on rare birds that far away but the name of the bird intrigued me.

Native from central Mexico to northern Argentina the piratic flycatcher is a small bird, 5.75″ long, that eats insects and fruit.  Those on the edge of their range migrate toward the center.  The bird in New Mexico went too far or perhaps in the wrong direction.

And he’s a pirate?

Yes.  He steals the nests of other birds.

Though smaller than a sparrow piratic flycatchers steal the domed nests of birds as big as crows!  Those of crested oropendolas, for instance.

They don’t attack the nest owners.  Instead they keep showing up and vocalizing and being so totally annoying that the rightful owners abandon their nest even if they’ve laid eggs in it.  When persistence pays off, the pirates throw out the abandoned eggs and the female lays her own.

These birds even look like pirates.  They wear the pirates’ mask.

(photo by Dominic Sherony from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

3 responses so far

Sep 17 2012

Does This Word Sound Like A Bird?

Published by under Quiz

Can you recognize the name of a bird in a language you’ve never heard?

Last weekend I found a 2009 New York Times science quiz where you can test this skill.

The quiz is a sample from a study conducted by anthropologist Brent Berlin at the University of Georgia.  In it he showed that human names for the natural world usually incorporate qualities of the organisms, so we can tell the difference between a bird name and a fish name even if we’ve never heard the language.

The questions in the study, and the quiz, present pairs of bird and fish names in a very foreign language: the Huambisa language of Peru. Brent Berlin pronounces the words in audio clips.

The original study participants correctly guessed the bird name 58% of the time.  My hunch is that birders will score higher than that.

I did amazingly well, correctly choosing 9 out of 10 bird names.  This photo shows the bird whose name I missed.

Can you tell if a word names a bird?  Click here to take the quiz.

(photo of a male purple-throated euphonia by Dario Sanches from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

8 responses so far

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