Feb 21 2017

Museum Full Of Wonders

Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows the the Wandering Albatross at Carnegie Museum (photo by Donna Foyle)

Collection Manager Steve Rogers displays wandering albatrosses in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Carnegie Museum is full of wonders.

Last Saturday about 50 of us went behind the scenes in the Section of Birds where we learned that…

  • The albatross cabinet smells fishy because the albatrosses’ bodies smell like fish.  Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows us the wandering albatross above.
  • A brown-headed cowbird’s egg is really much larger than a red-eyed vireo’s.  Here’s a clutch of vireo eggs parasitized by a cowbird.
Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

  • Females in the genus Cotinga, native to Central and South America, look very different from their mates.  Below, female spangled cotingas are dull brown while the males are iridescent turquoise with purple throats.
Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

  • The spotted sandpiper lays eggs that are larger than her head!  Here I’m looking at her egg through a magnifying glass. Oh my! How does she do it?
Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Her sex life is even stranger than her large egg shown below. Pat McShea explained that spotted sandpipers are polyandrous.  The female lays a clutch of four eggs but hardly incubates them if other males are available.  Instead her mate handles incubation as she leaves him for another male, mates with him and lays another clutch of four. She can do this up to three times in one season!  Her job is to lay those enormous eggs.

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Thank you to Steve Rogers, Pat McShea and all the folks at Carnegie Museum who showed us the Collection’s wonderful birds.

This is the last article in my Carnegie Museum series but it’s not the last of the museum.  You can visit Carnegie Museum of Natural History any time, except on Tuesdays when they’re closed.  Make plans for your visit here.

 

(photos by Donna Foyle and Doug Cunzolo)

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Feb 20 2017

A Selection of Nests: Downtown Peregrines in 2016

Published by under Peregrines

Dori at the left-hand scrape at the Gulf Tower, 6:58am, 20 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Dori at the Gulf Tower, pre-dawn, 20 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

2016 was another successful nesting year for the Downtown Pittsburgh peregrine falcons even though they didn’t choose the Gulf Tower nestcam site.

Click here or on the photo above for a slideshow of 2016 highlights.

Which nest site will Dori and Louie pick this year?

Dori was at the Gulf Tower this morning (above).

Stay tuned.

 

(slideshow photos by the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower, Peter Bell, Matt Digiacomo, John English, Ann Hohn, Lori Maggio and Amanda McGuire)

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Feb 19 2017

The Walking Palm

Published by under Trees

Roots of the walking palm, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Roots of the walking palm, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a tree whose roots are taller than a man and are said to “walk” 20 meters a year(*).  Really?

The walking palm (Socratea exorrhiza) is native to Central and South America where its narrow trunk grows 50-80 feet tall with stilt roots up to eight feet high. The walking palms at Wilson Botanical Gardens, Costa Rica were so tall that I couldn’t get their tops in the viewfinder.

Walking palm trees, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Walking palm trees, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The tree’s claim to fame, repeated by local guides and the BBC, is that it can “walk” more than 65 feet a year by throwing out new roots to one side, leaning toward the new roots and abandoning those on the trailing edge.

But this is not true.

Reality Check:  20 meters per year is 65.6 feet, the height of 6 story building.  At 5.5 feet per month it’s a distance that’s easy to see and hard to ignore. You would notice that the plant is not where you left it!

Scientists have measured over and over and the walking palm never walks.  But they are puzzled why it has enormous stilt roots.  It occurred to me that an old theory about the roots may have spawned the walking legend.

In 1980, John Bodley and Foley C. Benson proposed that the tree has stilts so it can recover when downed by another tree, as shown in the diagram below.

How the stilt roots of Socratea exhorriza allow it to right itself (Bodley, John; Foley C. Benson (March 1980) via Wikimedia Commons)

1980: How the stilt roots of Socratea exhorriza allow it to right itself (from a paper by John Bodley & Foley C. Benson, March 1980, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tree #4 took root from the crown that hit the ground.  Its distance from the old root system is the height of the old tree. The trees average 65 feet tall.  Hmmmm!

Other fallen trees can sprout roots, too, and later studies disputed Bodley & Benson’s theory, yet none have solved the underlying mystery.  Why does Socratea exorrhiza have such long stilts? No one knows for sure.

Meanwhile, at Wilson Botanical Gardens the walking palms stay rooted where the Wilsons planted them.  Otherwise they’d be half a mile away by now.

 

(*) Meters or centimeters? See the comments here!

(photos by Kate St. John. Diagram from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Feb 18 2017

Spring Before Its Time

Published by under Phenology

Amur honeysuckle buds opening, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Amur honeysuckle buds opening, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our weather has been running hot and cold.  When it’s hot, the buds burst. When it’s cold, it snows.

On February 9 we had four inches of snow.

Four inches of snow in my backyard, 9 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Four inches of snow in my backyard, 9 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Then on Saturday February 11 it melted in one day and warmed to nearly 60oF.

Five days later, on Valentine’s Day, the honeysuckle buds were open (above) and my daffodils were coming up.  This is at least a month ahead of schedule.

Daffodils emerging in my garden, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Daffodils emerging in my garden, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s high will be 59oF but I’m sure we’ll have another cold snap and the early plants will suffer.

It’s Spring before its time.

 

p.s.  How are your plants doing?  What’s showing up early in your yard?

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 17 2017

The UnSpotted Sandpiper

Published by under Water and Shore

Spotted sandpiper in February at the Yucatan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spotted sandpiper in February at the Yucatan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spotted sandpipers (Actitis macularius) in mid winter make you wonder how they got their name.

They spend the winter from the southern edge of the U.S. to Central and South America, but no matter where you find them they are spotless at this time of year.

Their behavior provides a clue to their identity as they forage alone and bob their tails.  The photo above, taken in the Yucatan in February, shows a blur for the bird’s tail because it’s moving.

Next month they’ll start to molt into breeding plumage before they travel north.  By the time they reach western Pennsylvania in April they’ll look like this:

Spotted sandpiper in breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

Spotted sandpiper in breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

 

During this weekend’s Great Backyard Bird Count, they’ll be “unSpotted” Sandpipers.

 

(photo of (un)spotted sandpiper from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Photo of a spotted Spotted sandpiper by Robert Greene, Jr.)

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Feb 16 2017

Why Can’t Ostriches Fly?

Published by under Musings & News

Ostrich at Ngorongoro, photo by Wikimedia user Nicor

Ostrich at Ngorongoro (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Why can’t ostriches fly?

Answer: Because the dinosaurs went extinct.

Amazingly, this is true of emus, rheas, cassowaries, and the extinct moa, too.

Read how it happened in this vintage 2010 article:

Why don’t they fly?

 

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

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Feb 15 2017

Red-tailed Hawks Adjust Their Plans

Red-tailed hawk (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Red-tailed hawk, 2012 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

If you don’t look at all the data you’ll probably be fooled.

For the past 30 years the number of red-tailed hawks migrating past hawk watches has declined across North America except at certain western sites.  With only this information to go on, you’d think that the species is in trouble.

But Neil Paprocki of HawkWatch International and his colleagues looked further. They compared hawk watch counts to the data gathered during Christmas Bird Counts in December-January and found that since 1984 red-tailed hawks have stayed in northern latitudes in much greater numbers.  They noted that red-tail counts declined at 43% of the hawk watches and increased on 67% of the Christmas Bird Counts.

As the climate warms and the winters are milder there’s less snow cover in the northern latitudes so it’s easier for the hawks to find food.  Fewer of them are bothering to travel south.

Red-tailed hawks are adjusting their plans.

 

Read more about the study here in The Condor: Combining migration and wintering counts to enhance understanding of population change in a generalist raptor species, the North American Red-tailed Hawk.  Laurie Goodrich of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was a member of the study team.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Feb 14 2017

Ornate From Head To Toe

Ornate hawk-eagle legs, Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Legs of the ornate hawk-eagle, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Museums inspire me.

The first time I saw the ornate hawk-eagle specimen at Carnegie Museum I didn’t even know the bird existed.  Its beauty impressed me (ornate legs shown above) and that was before I learned what he can do with his head feathers!  (photo below from Wikimedia Commons)

I hoped to see this bird in the wild some day, but I never expected it would happen.

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagles (Spizaetus ornatus) live in the rainforest from southeastern Mexico to Colombia but are rarely seen.  Their numbers are declining because of deforestation, so it was quite a thrill when our Road Scholar birding group saw one at San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica on 4 February 2017.  We learned afterward that none had been seen in the area since a flyover two years before and prior to that 10 years.  We were very lucky.

This video tribute to Dr. Alexander Skutch displays the beauty of these majestic birds as they nest in Costa Rica.  The video text is in Spanish. Thank you to our guide, Roger Melendez, for assisting with the English translation below.

Notes:

Ornate hawk-eagle voices are similar to those of bald eagles and ospreys.  The chick in the video, like other raptor fledglings, begs with the familiar open-wing-whining stance.

Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary is a 192 acre reserve in Costa Rica that once served as the home and outdoor laboratory of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch.

Translation of Spanish text in the video:

  • “Rapaces …”   Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica: For Knowledge and Conservation of Birds of Prey
  • “Así …”   So, when the coffin [of Dr. Skutch] approached Los Cusingos, on the branch of a tree at the side of the road was a most beautiful hawk [an ornate hawk-eagle] with outstretched wings.
  • “Ave muy …”  [This] bird is very difficult to see in this area, for which Dr. Alexander felt a particular affection.  — Luko Hilge, 2004, regarding the death of Alexander F. Skutch (“Farewell of birds”), from Alexander Skutch, The Last Great Naturalist?
  • “Dia” means Day.   Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 … since the egg was laid.
  • “Compartimos … ”  We share with you a fragment of the life of the ornate hawk-eagle, from its incubation to its first adventures around the nest, always with the hope of passing on to the viewer that “spark” of appreciation and conservation of our wonderful birds of prey.
  • Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica.
    • Video and Editing — Chris Jiménez
    • Collaboration — Pablo Comacho

 

(video by Chris Jiménez on YouTube)

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Feb 13 2017

Hays Eagle Nest Tree Went Down In Storm

Published by under Birds of Prey

A hole in the view where the Hays eagle nesting tree used to be (screenshot from the Hays Eaglecam via ASWP's Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebok page)

There’s a big gap where the Hays eagle nest tree used to be, 12 Feb 2017, 10:00pm (screenshot from Hays Eaglecam via ASWP’s Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebook page)

Hays bald eagle news flash!

Last night around 9:34pm the Hays bald eagle nest tree fell during a terrific wind storm.

The female bald eagle was on the nest at the time, incubating the egg she laid last Friday evening.  Archived video shows she flew away before the tree fell. Reports from the trail, awaiting confirmation, say that both eagles were seen flying so they are fine.

We are waiting for dawn to find out more.

ASWP will visit the site and provide news updates at the pittsburgheagles Facebook page here: Bald Eagles in Western Pennsylvania – Audubon Society of Western PA.

My thoughts about the timing of this incident:  It is good news that this happened very early in the nesting season. There were no chicks in the nest and it is so early that there is still time for the adults to re-nest nearby.


ASWP Press Release and Facebook updates as of 6:30am, 13 Feb 2017:

[Hays, PA, February 12, 2017, approx 10:00pm] – It appears that the tree that is home to the Hays Bald Eagle nest has been damaged in tonight’s wind storm. From our Bald Eagle camera view, at www.aswp.org, the tree is no longer visible.

“The tree was impacted by tonight’s storm and we will need to wait until daylight to get onsite and determine what has happened,” says Jim Bonner, executive director, Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. The status of the nest and the eagles cannot be verified until daylight, when Audubon can safely visit the site.

We will continue to keep the media updated on the status of the nest and the Bald Eagles. Please see below a screen shot of the current view from the camera. The tree and the nest are not visible.

[Update from ASWP at approx. 11:00pm via Facebook]

Update: Just reviewed the archives, the tree fell at 9:34 pm. Looks like the female was on the nest. She was awake at the time and flew off of the nest as the tree fell out of view. These are admittedly not the world’s best screen grabs, but you can see the eagle awake just as the tree starts to go, then getting off of the nest as the tree goes down.

[Update from Annette Devinney via Facebook, 13 Feb 2017, 7:15am]

Hays bald eagle nest tree blew over at its root (screenshot from Pixcontroller.com)

Hays bald eagle nest tree blew over at its root (screenshot from Pixcontroller.com)

The tree fell over at the root ball.  My comment on this: The ground was extremely soggy after 4″ of snow melted all at once on Saturday.  It’s very common for trees to fall like this when the ground is soggy.

 

Update from my visit to the Hays Trail, Mon Feb 13, 4:20pm:

Many people are visiting the Hays Eagle Viewing Site to check out the eagles’ status. About 8 people were in the vicinity when I arrived at 4:00pm. I’m happy to report that the eagle pair is doing well and easily seen flying, perching, hunting and mating. The male brought sticks in his talons a couple of times while I was there so they are already thinking about a nest. If I was to lay bets … I bet that a month from now they’ll have a new nest in the vicinity of the old one and she’ll lay eggs again. I’d also bet (based on the lack of big trees within nestcam view) that we won’t be able to see it on camera. Hopefully they’ll pick a site we can see easily from the trail.

 

 

(screenshot from Hays Eaglecam via ASWP’s Bald Eagles of Western PA Facebook page. Screenshot from PixController via Annette Devinney)

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Feb 12 2017

Foggy Morning At The Gulf Tower

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

This morning at dawn I saw a peregrine falcon at the Gulf Tower nest. It was 7:20am.

Then she woke up and…

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

gone

gone …

I think the bird was Dori, the female of the Downtown pair.

 

There’s nothing to watch right now but if you’d like to check on the nest, here’s the link to the Gulf Tower falconcam.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

 

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