In fall and winter you've probably heard large flocks of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) having loud conversations in thick trees or bushes. Then suddenly the flock falls silent and takes off.
Here's a good audio example: Listen for 53 seconds to a lot of noisy chatter. Then the birds fall silent and you hear them take off in a whoosh. (If you don't want to wait 53 seconds, click in the middle of the audio bar after it starts rolling.)
What signal do starlings use to trigger their escape? Is it an audio cue? Or is it visual?
Willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) hide in plain sight by blending into the tundra landscape. They're speckled brown in summer and white as snow in winter. They virtually disappear when they close their eyes.
In late November Dan Arndt found willow ptarmigans in the snow at East Kootinay, British Columbia, Canada.
Sidney and Bette are "expecting." Today may be the day.
Sidney and Bette are African penguins (Spheniscus demersus), members of a critically endangered species that lives in a colony at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. The birds nest in burrows or under bushes so the Aviary has provided a special cubbyhole for the pair that's equipped with a nestcam so we all can watch.
Here's the action up to now, described by the National Aviary:
Penguin parents, Sidney and Bette, laid two eggs on November 7th and 11th. The first egg is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18, and the second egg is expected to hatch between December 18 and 22. If all goes well, the chicks will eventually join the National Aviary's current colony of 20 African Penguins. This is the fourth set of chicks for Sidney and Bette who have had 6 chicks together at the National Aviary (not including these two)!
It's quite a privilege to watch African penguins nesting. There used to be 4 million of them in 1800 but now there are less than 25,000 pairs in the wild. When these eggs hatch they'll be a significant addition to the population.
Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the African Penguin Nestcam at the National Aviary.
Will today be the day? Only Sidney and Bette know for sure.
This is the last thing a pigeon wants to see ... and sometimes it is.
On Monday I went down the Ohio River to find birds at Rochester Riverfront Park. It was a disappointing trip for the most part with only the usual suspects -- Canada geese, mallards and ring-billed gulls -- until I looked at the big black railroad bridge that spans the Ohio River from Monaca to Beaver. (Click on the photo below for a larger view of the bridge.)
There was a peregrine falcon at the top of the central tower ... here.
As I watched, the peregrine flew off the tower flapping hard downriver. She'd seen a second peregrine in the distance chasing a pigeon toward the bridge, and the pigeon was escaping. She flew off to help her mate.
The peregrines corralled the pigeon in the air so it dove straight down to the water but one of them dove faster and hit it hard. Dead or stunned, the prey fell in the water and started to float away.
I thought they'd lost their meal. The peregines circled above the floating prey ... and then the female flew low over river, skimmed the water with her talons, and picked it up.
Ta dah! She flew back to the bridge to pluck and eat. Here's a very poor photo of her back while she was eating.
I'd never seen a peregrine grab prey out of the water. It made my day.
And no, I didn't take that in-flight photo at the top of this article. That's Chad+Chris Saladin's photo of "Keystone" hunting pigeons near a bridge at Heritage Park in Cleveland, Ohio.
p.s. The peregrine pair nests at this bridge but their young are never banded because the site is inaccessible. Where might they be nesting? Look at the holes in the tower below the perch. My guess is they nest in there. Both towers have holes with whitewash below them.
The description says: "Internal surface of the peridium of the rare myxomycete Tubifera dudkae is covered with folds resembling sea waves. Among them oval shaped reticulate spores occur."
In other words, the blue waves and brown beads are part of the same organism, a slime mold called Tubifera dudkae. It is a rare member of the Myxomycete class. I don't know if it occurs in North America but I do know it lives in Crimea (thanks to the photos from Wikimedia Commons) and in Tasmania, Australia (thanks to the Myxomycetes website by Sarah Lloyd, an expert in slime molds).
In the photo, the blue waves are the inner surface of the protective layer that holds the spores until they're ready to release. This layer is called the peridium.
The brown beads with squiggly lines on them (i.e. reticulated) are the spores.
Here's what this slime mold looks like from the outside at normal size, sitting in a matchbox.
And here's the amazing thing: Are slime molds plants or animals?
In their reproductive stage, slime molds release spores.
When the spores settle down they become one-celled organisms similar to amoebas that move around looking for food. They don't need to swim in water to do this.
At some point in their life cycle, the amoeba-like individuals are drawn to each other and meld into one big cell with millions of nuclei. Yes, there's only one cell wall. This cell is called a plasmodium and it's slimy.
The plasmodium can move! In fact it oozes across the forest looking for food: bacteria, fungi, other slime molds. Some slime molds can stretch 10 feet.
Reports from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay indicate this may be a great winter for seeing snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus). Tony Bruno traveled to Ohio last weekend and found this one at Headlands Beach.
There are clusters of snowies this month along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast as shown in purple on this eBird map. The screenshot shows only December 1-8, 2017 data. Click it to see the latest snowy owl eBird map for December 2017.
Is it time for a road trip? Or will the owls come south to Pittsburgh? Rumor has it they already have.
Though the ocean will never flood Pittsburgh, I'm still fascinated by the rising sea. (*)
Back in October I wrote about sea level fingerprints, the pattern of tiny elevation changes in sea level caused by uneven gravitational forces around the globe. The highest ocean peaks are in the tropics, the deepest valleys are near melting glaciers. As the land loses mass (ice) its gravitational pull decreases and it stops hugging the ocean to its shore. The water has to go somewhere so it goes to the tropics.
This means that glacial melt affects sea level rise in two ways: (1) It adds water to the ocean that used to be sequestered on land and (2) it alters the sea level fingerprint, lowering the ocean nearby and raising it far away.
If you do the complicated math, you can find out how individual melting glaciers will affect sea level at specific locations.
Last month, scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab did just that when they published a paper in Science Advances and an online tool that illustrates how glaciers will affect 293 coastal cities. Let's take a look at Miami.
Almost half the sea level rise in Miami will be caused by glaciers (47.4% of total sea level rise) and almost half of that will be Greenland's fault (20% of total sea level rise). That's why Greenland is so red in the screenshot above.
The next highest glacial contributor in Miami will be Antarctica (12% of total sea level rise). In the screenshot below you can see that South American glaciers help, too.
In fact, the entire northern hemisphere is endangered by Antarctica's melting ice because it's so far away. Ironically the safest place to be is right next to a melting glacier. Sea level will go down at those sites.
(*) Pittsburgh's Point is 711 feet above sea level. My immediate family lives 10 to 25 feet above sea level in Virginia and Florida.
(screenshots of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami from the online tool at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. On the first screenshot I added a pink circle to highlight Miami. Click on the images to use the online tool.)