Jan 24 2017

A Good Long Look

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Birds are often hard to see in the field and we usually miss the details.  In museums we can take a good long look.  Here are three examples.

Did you know that mergansers have “toothed” bills?  The projections aren’t really teeth. They’re the plates or lamellae that all ducks have, but modified for catching and holding fish.  You can see the “teeth” on the red-breasted merganser, above, at Bird Hall in Carnegie Museum.  Another cool thing:  You can see through the merganser’s nostrils.

American coots swim so much that we rarely see their feet.  This specimen shows they have unusually long toes that perform like snowshoes when coots walk on floating vegetation.

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation -- like snowshoes (photo by Kate St. John)

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation (photo by Kate St. John)

A closer look reveals two more features.  Coots feet aren’t webbed for swimming.  Instead they have lobed toes.  And how about those claws!

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Western grebes have lobed toes, too …

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

… and necks structurally similar to herons and anhingas.  With needle-like bills they could stab fish if they wanted to.

Western grebe's sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Western grebe’s sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Experts can tell the sex of this bird by the size of its bill.  Female western grebes have shorter, thinner bills.  Do you think this one is male?

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

No responses yet

Jan 23 2017

Converged With The Anteater

Published by under Mammals,Musings & News

Indian pangolin, manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Indian pangolin, Manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I randomly opened an encyclopedia for the letter P and found an animal I’d never seen before.  Though he looks like an anteater he’s not related to them.

Pangolins are mammals with long thin snouts and long tails that eat ants and termites.  Instead of having fur they’re the only mammal on earth with scales.  The scales, made of keratin like our fingernails, provide protection.  When a pangolin is attacked it rolls into a ball in the same defensive posture as a porcupine.

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eight pangolin species range from Africa to Asia and Indonesia.  All are in severe decline, listed as vulnerable to critically endangered, because their meat is a Chinese delicacy and folk medicine. Even African pangolins are poached for this illegal trade.

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Anteaters can’t help them. They’re not related.

 

Anteaters are furry mammals with long thin snouts and long tails, native to Central and South America.

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They, too, eat ants and termites.

Giant anteater with his snout in an ant hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater eating insects (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Anteaters and pangolins resemble each other because they need the same tools to gather food. Similar appearance in unrelated species, called convergent evolution, is true of my favorite bird, too.

Peregrine falcons resemble hawks because they both hunt for meat, but peregrines are more closely related to parrots than to hawks and eagles.  They converged in appearance to get the job done.

 

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

No responses yet

Jan 22 2017

Coffee Beans in Schenley Park

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod from Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod with penny for size comparison (photo by Kate St.John)

Last week I found these large, dull gray seed pods beneath a tree in Schenley Park with “coffee” beans inside.

The Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is a rare tree with a wide distribution from Oklahoma to Ohio.  It was planted in Schenley Park as an ornamental more than 100 years ago.

The tree earned its name because Native Americans used to grind the roasted beans to make a beverage like coffee.  When coffee and chicory weren’t available the settlers drank this beverage, too, but they didn’t like it as well.

The pods are very tough and hard to open.  I quickly learned that the flattest ones have no beans so I chose a broken one and pried it open with a knife.

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod opened, found in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod opened, found in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The beans are dark brown, round, and hard to photograph.  I moved the biggest one so you can see it better.

Did a squirrel eat the other beans?  If so, I hope he’s immune to the cytisine alkaloid inside them.  When not fully roasted, these beans are poisonous to humans.

Want to try some Kentucky “coffee?”  No thanks. I’m sticking with Starbucks.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Jan 21 2017

Seasonal Movements: One Owl

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I mentioned that a pileated woodpecker lives in Schenley Park, but only in the winter.  Here’s another bird that seems to do the same thing.

On sunny days this eastern screech-owl perches motionless in an unusual tree opening.  He’s not there every day in winter, but he’s never there when spring comes.

Though the range maps says eastern screech-owls live in Pittsburgh year round, this individual bird probably lives in Schenley during the winter and goes somewhere else to nest.

Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)

Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)

 

Sorry … I’m not going to tell you exactly where he is because too much public attention will scare him off.  And if you find him, please don’t publicize his location for the same reason.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  In January this blog has 400-700 readers a day.  That’s a lot of public attention.

One response so far

Jan 20 2017

Eagle Season Is Warming Up

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald eagle pair at their nest in Hays, 11 Jan 2017 (photo from the Hays Eaglcam thanks to PixController and ASWP)

Bald eagle pair at Hays nest, 11 Jan 2017 (photo from Hays Eaglecam at ASWP’s Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page)

Pennsylvania’s bald eagle season is warming up.  Eagle pairs are visiting their nests and the first egg in Pittsburgh is only four weeks away.  Here’s how to stay in touch while we wait for that happy event.

Two Pittsburgh eaglecams — Hays and Harmar — are up and running thanks to the collaboration of Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP), PixController and the PA Game Commission.  The cams are on ASWP’s Eaglecam website including links to Bald Eagle Q&A and Educator Resources.

  • The Hays eaglecam in the City of Pittsburgh is broadcasting all day but not overnight until February because its solar batteries aren’t getting enough sun. (No surprise in Pittsburgh’s overcast winter.)
  • The Harmar eaglecam above Route 28 near the Oakmont Bridge is currently running overnight but may need to go into No-Night mode for the same reason.
  • You can Chat about eagles with other watchers by clicking on the chat button to the left of the camera views.

If you missed a few days of activity and want to catch up, visit ASWP’s Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page for recent news.  The Hays photo (above) and screenshot (below) are from their January 11 Facebook post.

Screenshot from Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page (click on the image to see the post on Facebook)

Screenshot from Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page (click on the image to see this post on Facebook)

 

The eagles aren’t always on camera, though, and the nestcams don’t show them in flight.  When the weather’s fine you can see a lot from the ground.  Click here for directions to the Hays viewing area or see excellent photos online by Annette Devinney and Dana Nesiti, two of the many photographers who visit our Pittsburgh area eagles.

So keep on watching in the days ahead.  If history is any guide, the first egg will appear at Hays February 14-20.

It won’t be long now!

 

(photo and screenshot from ASWP’s Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page; click on the images to see the Facebook post)

4 responses so far

Jan 19 2017

Birds Wearing Black-n-Gold

Black and yellow birds who flock together in Western Panama (photo composite)

Black and yellow birds who flock together in Western Panama (photo composite)

On Throw Back Thursday:

These birds are wearing black-n-gold!

Just before the Steelers AFC Championship game in 2011 I explained why these black and yellow species tend to flock together.

This Sunday the Steelers are again in the AFC Championship.  What better time to revisit birds wearing black-n-gold.  Read on!

Wearing Black-n-Gold!

 

(composite photo credits, top left to right, then bottom left to right:
1. Slate-throated Whitestart: Corey Finger on 10000birds.com
2. Sooty-capped Bush Tanager: Wikipedia
3. Yellow-thighed Finch: Wikimedia Commons
4. Collared Whitestart: Jan Axel on janbirdingblog.blogspot.com
5. Silver-throated Tanager: Kent Fiala’s Website
6. Yellow-throated Brush Finch: Atrevido1 at Solo Aves on Flickr
)

5 responses so far

Jan 18 2017

How Many Crows Are There?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Crows in a tree on Thackeray (photo by Peter Bell)

Crows in a tree on Thackeray (photo by Peter Bell)

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has moved … just a little.  No longer at Heinz Chapel they’ve now chosen the London plane trees between Schenley Plaza and Carnegie Library.

In front of the Library the air smells fishy, the sidewalks are blotched, and it’s slippery when it rains.  When folks figure out they’re walking on crow poo their reaction is “Yuk!” and then everyone wants to know, “How many crows are there?”

I don’t know. We’ll have to count.  Easier said than done!

Counting a crow roost is an unexpected challenge.  Crows prefer tall well-lit trees where they perch close together all over the top.  You can’t see them from street level because the streetlights shine in your eyes and obscure them.  Sneaky crows.

However, you can see them from above.  Peter Bell took this photo from an upper floor at the Chevron Science Center in 2011.  As you can see, the crows are well lit and countable.  The Cathedral of Learning would be a good vantage point for the Library crows.

Count them 1-by-1?  Nope!  There are far too many crows and they shuffle around.

To get a good estimate, wait until the crows settle in for the night (after 6:00pm) then count one tree full of crows, count the number of trees, and multiply.  Here’s how.

1.  Pick a typical roost tree and count 10 crows in it, circled below.

One group of 10 crows in a tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

One group of 10 crows in a tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

 

2.  Assume the 10-crow circle represents the size of 10-crow groups.  Count the number of circles that have crows in them.  See below.  (I made the circles bigger where the crows are sparse.)

10-crow areas in a roost tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

10-crow areas in a roost tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

3.  Multiply the number of circles by 10 to get the number of crows in the tree.  In this tree it’s 10*23 so my 1-tree estimate is 230.

4.  Now count the number of trees with roosting crows.  I think there may be 20 to 30 trees full of crows at the Library so …

5.  Multiply the 1-tree count by the number of trees.    20*230 is 4,600    30*230 is 6,900.

 

Before I did this exercise I guessed there were 4,000 crows at the Library.

Hmmm.

Anyone up for a challenge?  Want to count crows from the Cathedral of Learning?

How many crows are there?

 

(photo by Peter Bell)

p.s. My husband says that if this is too difficult, count the number of crow legs and divide by two. 😉

One response so far

Jan 17 2017

The Case of Extinct Birds

Passenger pigeon, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Passenger Pigeon taxidermy mount, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Because Earth’s current extinction rate is 1,000 times the normal background rate, scientists believe we’re at the start of the sixth mass extinction.

What does extinction look like?   I visited a large display case at Carnegie Museum’s Bird Hall to find out.

In the case of extinct birds, each species has a story. The reason for extinction is often well known but the exact date of disappearance is usually obscure, though there are exceptions.

Take, for instance, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) shown above.  Native to eastern North America, we would have seen passenger pigeons in Pennsylvania if we’d lived 200 years ago but relentless uncontrolled hunting wiped out their population until it crashed.  The last passenger pigeon died in captivity on 1 September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Extinction was caused by humans because we liked to eat them.

 

Guadalupe Storm-Petrel, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Guadalupe Storm-Petrel specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

The Guadalupe storm-petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla) disappeared more quietly. Always hard to distinguish from its close relative, Leach’s storm-petrel, this bird nested only on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California. Cats were introduced there in the late 19th century and by 1912 no storm-petrels could be found. According to Wikipedia, “Only old, abandoned burrows and the decayed remains of storm petrels killed by cats were found in the years thereafter.”  Extinction was caused by cats introduced by humans.

 

Laysan Crake specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Laysan Crake (Laysan rail) specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

The Laysan crake or Laysan rail (Porzana palmeri) couldn’t fly but that didn’t matter because he lived on the remote island of Laysan. Unfortunately his population crashed due to habitat loss when humans introduced rabbits to his island home. The final blow came in 1944 when rats jumped ship onto Laysan.  Extinction was forced by two human-introduced species: rabbits and rats.

There are many stories in the case of extinct birds.  Learn why they disappeared at Carnegie Museum‘s Bird Hall.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Jan 16 2017

A Year of Drama: Pitt Peregrine Highlights 2016

Published by under Peregrines

Terzo looks; 2nd chick is gone (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Terzo looks; 2nd chick is gone (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

When the female peregrine Hope moved from Tarentum to the Cathedral of Learning, I thought 2016 would be calm and joyful.  Instead it was filled with drama.

Here’s a recap of last year’s Pitt peregrine activity, complete with a slideshow of 2016 highlights.

To see a slideshow of highlights from the year of drama, 2016, click here or on the photo above.

 

(snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning)

One response so far

Jan 15 2017

Hawks Soaring

Red-tailed hawk soaring (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Red-tailed hawk soaring (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Though they won’t lay eggs until March or April, red-tailed hawks are already thinking ahead in western Pennsylvania.

On sunny days in January, they claim their nesting territory by soaring above their chosen land, a gesture that says “This is mine!”

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are generally monogamous and mate for life.  The pairs soar together in courtship flight, the male higher than his lady.  Sometimes both of them dangle their legs or he approaches her from above and touches her with his toes.

After the female zooms to the nest area the male goes into roller coaster mode, steeply flying up and down, ending with his own zoom to the female and then … perhaps they’ll mate.

Watch for soaring hawks today.  The weather promises to be sunny.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

4 responses so far

Next »