Oct 25 2013

An Alien Takes Aim At Old Treasures

Hemlock woolly adelgid at Jacobsburg (photo by Nicholas A, Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons)

Last spring the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) reached Cooks Forest, scary news for the old-growth eastern hemlocks there.

The pest is easy to recognize by its white egg sacs that cling to the underside of the branches.  They kill hemlocks by sucking the juice out of the needles.  Infected trees look gray-green instead of deep green and, under a heavy infestation like the one shown above, can die in only four years.  This is sad anywhere but especially unfortunate in Cooks Forest where the old growth hemlocks are over 300 years old.

It has taken a long time for the bug to reach Cooks Forest.  HWA arrived from Asia in 1924 but moved very slowly across the eastern U.S.  By 2007 it was present in 50% of the eastern hemlock’s range, unable to spread far northward because of harsh winters. Unfortunately our climate is warming so new adelgid territory opens up every year. (Notice on this NOAA plant hardiness map that the location of Cooks Forest warmed enough to change growing zones.)

HWA was first spotted in eastern Pennsylvania in 1967 but took about four decades to cross the Allegheny Front into western PA.  Slowly, slowly it crept toward Cooks Forest.  By 2010 it was in the vicinity.  This year it was there.

Knowing the imminent danger DCNR has treated the area and the old growth trees.  They use biological controls — Asian beetles that eat adelgids, though not enough of them — and soil or bole-injected insecticides on specific trees.  The poisons are systemic, similar in concept to the insecticide treatments for emerald ash borer that kill or repel all insects.  The treated trees will have fewer insects living on them.  Will this make them less useful to birds?

The question hardly matters.  Nature can’t produce a 300 year old hemlock as fast as the adelgids can destroy one.   In the case of our oldest treasures our task is clear.  Save these trees if we can.

For more information on the hemlock woolly adelgid, click here for DCNR’s report.


(photo via Wikimedia Commons by Nicholas A. Tonelli at Jacobsburg, Northampton County, PA. Click on the image to see the original)


p.s. Thanks to Kim Getz for alerting me to this news.  Because of the adelgids activity cycle, DCNR treated the old-growth trees in May and again in October.

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Oct 24 2013

Counting Cranes

Published by under Cranes

Sandhill cranes in northwest Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

Pennsylvania counts!  We have so many sandhill cranes that we’re now part of US Fish and Wildlife’s eastern Fall Crane Survey.

Sandhill cranes are much more common out west but the eastern population has grown to 60,000 birds.  They used to be rare in Pennsylvania where our first crane was noted in the late 1980’s, first breeding was recorded in 1993 in Lawrence County, and the first photograph of a nest was in 2009.  Sandhills have now been spotted in more 30 Pennsylvania counties — nearly half the state!

This is your opportunity to make history.  Put your name, location, count, date and time on record.  It’s significant if you visit a likely crane place and don’t find any.  Yes, even ZERO counts.

Here are links and tips on what, where, when and how from the PABIRDS announcement by Lisa Williams, PGC:

  • What to count.  Tips on what a crane looks like and how to recognize a juvenile crane.  (Is it flying? Cranes keep their necks and legs stretched out when they fly.)
  • Where to count: Look for cranes in wetlands and nearby agricultural settings. Cranes often forage in shallows and mud flats along lakes, ponds, and swamps or in nearby agricultural fields and pastures, but they can be found in a variety of odd sites during migration.   (Pittsburgh birders: visit Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford counties)
  • When:  Sunday, October 27 through Saturday, November 2.  Ideal dates are October 29-31.  Counts are best conducted just after sunrise or just before sunset when birds are concentrated in their roost sites. (It’s easier to find cranes at that time of day, anyway.)
  • How to count and how to submit your data.

After you practice on cranes, you’re ready to count crows.  😉

(photo by Steve Gosser)


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Oct 23 2013

The Crows Are Back In Town!

Published by under Crows, Ravens

Two American crows ook intently at... (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Guess who’s back?

Their numbers grew quietly this month, gathering at the edges especially near Wilkinsburg.  Last night it was official.  The crows are here.

Peter Bell and Anne Marie Bosnyak emailed reports from Oakland.  My husband called from Squirrel Hill.

Anne Marie said, “Saw a murder of crows at the playground across the street from the Church Brew Works last night and a coworker saw them this morning in Schenley!   Borrowed from Thin Lizzy (source: http://www.lyricsondemand.com/)

The crows are back in town! The crows are back in town!

Guess who just got back today?
Them wild-eyed crows that had been away
Haven’t changed, haven’t much to say
But man, I still think them cats are crazy.”

Silence isn’t their strong suit.  The crows will have lots to say in the days ahead.

Let me know when you see them.

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

9 responses so far

Oct 22 2013

Strong Opening


If you’ve ever had a pet starling, you know their beaks are very powerful when opening.  That’s because European starlings have the unusual characteristic that their jaws are strongest in reverse.

It’s a counter-intuitive trait.  Our jaws are strongest when we clamp down.  William Beecher discovered that starlings’ jaw muscles are at their best when they spring open and that their eyes automatically rotate forward for binocular vision as they open their beaks.  This gives them an excellent look at potential prey in the hole they’ve just probed open and probably contributes to their success in winter.

Even as pets, starlings can’t help but probe.  It’s in their blood.  HayleyM‘s pet starling, Lolly, opens her son Aidan’s mouth as a dentist might.  Notice that beak action!

Don’t try this at home!


Click here to view the original video and read in the comments how this orphaned starling became a pet.  Also read the important notes in the p.s. below.

(video on YouTube, uploaded January 2011 by HayleyM)


p.s. Important notes:

* In North America, European starlings are one of only two wild birds (the other being the house sparrow) that can be kept as pets without a permit.  Both species are listed as invasive.

* In addition to the possibility of people catching disease from birds, HayleyM added this note to the video: “After review by my good friends at Starling Talk (www.starlingtalk.net), I have found out that this is an ill advised practice. Apparently the bacteria in the human mouth can actually make a bird sick.”

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Oct 21 2013

Eats Poison Ivy

Published by under Bird Behavior,Plants

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

How many of us get a rash from poison ivy?  (Raise your hands.)

It looks like the vast majority of us are allergic to it while some are not sure.

I know only one person who’s immune to poison ivy.  The rest of us get a rash, mild to severe, or avoid the plant so carefully that we haven’t tested the limits recently.

Birds are not only immune to poison ivy’s itchy oils — they eat its berries.

Here, a migrating yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) inspects a cluster of poison ivy berries, and then he swallows one.

Yellow-rumped warbler about to swallow a poison ivy berry (photo by Cris Hamilton)

It makes my throat itch to think about it.


(photos by Cris Hamilton)

p.s. Notice this warbler’s wide field of vision.  In the first photo you can see both of his eyes from the top of his head.

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Oct 20 2013

Courtship In October

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy and E2 at the nest, 7 Oct 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy and E2 keep up their pair bond in the “off” season by bowing at the nest.  So far this month they’ve visited it every three or four days.

Here’s a selection of the best snapshots.  At this time of year their visits are very quick so there’s usually only one snapshot per episode.

Dorothy and E2 at the nest, 4 Oct 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

On October 4 E2 bows very low with his back to the camera.


Dorothy and E2 at the nest, 7 Oct 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
They’re a blur on October 7.


Dorothy and E2 at the nest, 10 Oct 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
They pause in perfect bowing position on October 10.


Dorothy and E2 bow at the nest, 18 Oct 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

“Come bow with me,” says E2 last Friday, October 18.


Serious courtship is months away.  Meanwhile they stay close to home.

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

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Oct 19 2013

Fishing At Bayswater

Published by under Birds of Prey

Osprey at Bayswater, NY (photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

Some cities have great birds.

Even though New York is the largest city in the U.S. they have a wide variety of habitat and some great places to go birding.  I didn’t know about Bayswater until Gintaras Baltusis, a long time follower of this blog, told me about it.

Gintaras was in Queens at Bayswater Park last weekend to photograph airplanes approaching JFK airport.  While he was focused on airplanes this osprey came over with a newly caught fish.



(photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

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Oct 18 2013

The Virtuoso

The weather changed and it feels like fall today in Pittsburgh.  The warblers have left, the sparrows are migrating, and none of the birds are singing.

On the other side of the world it’s spring and time to sing.

In the video above a male Australian magpie sings his very best imitations, a quiet serenade in a back garden.

Can you recognize the sounds he’s imitating?  Listen for dog barks and budgie sounds.

Quite a virtuoso.

(video by candykim22 from YouTube)

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Oct 17 2013

Catch-22 For Cape Vultures

Cape vulture in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds love to perch on wires and power poles, the bigger the bird the bigger the wire.  Unfortunately this affinity poses a threat to very large birds because their long wings can touch two wires at the same time and electrocute them.  Vultures are especially vulnerable because they roost in large gregarious groups.  If they jostle their buddies too much … ooops!

Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) of southern Africa, like most Gyps species, are declining.  They are listed as threatened because of decreased carrion for their chicks, poisoning from medication in livestock carcasses, electrocution and collision with wires, and exploitation for traditional medicine/religion.

Cape vultures live a long time and reproduce slowly so significant losses of any kind pose a problem.  There are protected areas in southern Africa where the vultures aren’t exposed to so many threats but there is also a growing power grid.

W. Louis Phipps and his team decided to find out how cape vultures used the power grid so they affixed GPS trackers on nine cape vultures — five adults and four immatures — to see where they would go.  The results were somewhat surprising.

The cape vultures’ home range is larger than expected; some traveled more than 600 miles one way.  Given the opportunity to travel the power corridors, that’s what they did.  Cape vultures are cliff birds so the power towers gave them high perches and clear sight lines in formerly useless habitat.  The study also found that the vultures fed more often on private farmland than in protected areas.  (The vultures would say, “Well, that’s where the food was.”)

It’s the classic Catch-22.  The power corridors have expanded the cape vultures’ range but the wires sometimes kill them.  In a declining population it makes a difference.

For more information read the full study here at PLOS One.

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

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Oct 16 2013

Deer Among The Dead

Published by under Mammals


On Monday I described how American Indians shaped the landscape before European arrival.  We shape it too, though we don’t always realize how.  Case in point: There are more deer in North America now than there were before Columbus landed in 1492.

Because deer are a prey species, their abundance is tied to their predators.  When American Indians ruled the continent they hunted deer for food and to control the population so the animals would not decimate their crops.  They knew that either no deer or too many deer meant less food.

European Americans are still figuring out how to balance the deer population.  We overdid it a century ago by uncontrolled hunting that killed all the deer in Pennsylvania.  Uh oh!  Pennsylvania passed hunting laws and imported deer from Virginia to repopulate our state.

Now we’ve erred on the other side.  We’ve eliminated the deer’s other predators and protected them from hunting so well that their population has exploded into every nook and cranny including city neighborhoods.

Sharon Leadbitter spends a lot of time photographing nature at Allegheny Cemetery in the city’s Lawrenceville district.  Deer are often her photo subjects because they’re everywhere.  In a conversation with the president of the cemetery she learned that about 300 deer live there in three herds.  This is way too many deer for the land to support so they move throughout the neighborhood eating gardens, shrubs, flowers and handouts.

Since most of the “inhabitants” are dead and the living come quietly to pay their respects, the cemetery’s deer are almost tame.  Sharon says this is both a blessing and a curse, “Some of the blessings are that the deer will eat out of your hand if they know you. The curse would be this great interaction. People feed all manner of things to these animals. White bread, cereal, I’ve even seen a candy bar being fed. It only takes once for someone to be bitten or kicked. These are not pets but because the animals have lost most of their healthy fear, people don’t realize that they are still semi-wild.”

Deer browse and gambol among the headstones, unconcerned by living visitors.  Sharon filmed a fawn playing among the tombstones last June while his mother watched.

“The cemetery is a great place to have some quiet time and reconnect with nature,” says Sharon. “Come check it out but always maintain a respectful distance, or even better stay in the car”  when you visit the deer among the dead.

(video by Sharon Leadbitter)

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