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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Feb 11 2017

In The Subduction Zone

Published by under Travel

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on a trip to Costa Rica, Jan 27-Feb 6, 2017:

One of the unusual features of Costa Rica’s landscape is the bumpy-looking surface in the subduction zone.  Pennsylvania has nothing like it.

Near Costa Rica’s Pacific shore the Cocos tectonic plate dives under the Carribean plate.  This slow but relentless movement causes ripples in the landscape with small stand-alone hills and pockets where the surface was dragged under. (Here’s a diagram of tectonic subduction.)

The photo above was taken in the subduction area on Route 34 near Quepos.  Below, I’ve marked light pink circles for each small hill and dark pink for the visible subsidence pockets among the grass.

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

This isn’t a stable place to build anything.  Even the road has dips and ripples.

We don’t have a subduction zone in southwestern Pennsylvania but we know something about subsidence.  In Washington and Greene Counties, longwall mining machines remove the coal seam and then back out of the mine causing the roof and surface to collapse.  You can see its effect in the roller coaster appearance of Interstate 79 in Washington County.  Click here for DEP photos of longwall subsidence problems on Interstate 70 and here for a map of locations where longwall mining has undermined both I-70 and I-79.

Pennsylvania’s man-made subsidence has a cost.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 10 2017

Life Came Back Really Fast

Published by under Musings & News

Artist's rendering of Chicxulub impact (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to disasters it’s hard to beat the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals, including the dinosaurs.

The asteroid hit near the Yucatan and fried everything within 1,500 km (930 miles) — a huge area that includes Cuba, Florida, and a wide arc to Myrtle Beach, Nashville, Dallas and central Mexico.  The impact left behind a huge crater called Chicxulub, half of which is underwater today.

Last year geologists pulled core samples from the crater’s underwater peaks and discovered an amazing thing.  Life came back to the crater’s edge in only hundreds, not millions, of years.

The pioneering organisms were microscopic plankton, members of Thoracosphaera (spheres) and Braarudosphaera (dodecahedrons), whose tiny shells were found just above the devastation line.  Here are examples of these tiny structures, so small that they can only be seen with an electron microscope.

A Thorascosphaere species (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Thorascosphaere (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

 

Even though the ocean was toxic at the time, plankton recolonized it rapidly after Earth’s fifth mass extinction.

Oddly enough, this makes me hopeful.

Based on Earth’s current extinction rate of 1,000 times the normal background rate (predicted to become 10 times worse) scientists believe we’re at the start of the sixth mass extinction.  I’ve already seen population declines in many of my favorite birds and I worry for the future of all plants and animals … and humans, too.

Life came back really fast after the last mass extinction. I hope it will do it again.

 

Read more here in Science News.

(painting of asteroid impact by Donald E. Davis in public domain, Thorascosphaere photo from Wikimedia Commons, Braarudosphaera bigelowii image linked from DodecaBeing blog. Click on the images to see the originals.)

p.s. The February 13&20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker has a great cartoon about the asteroid. Click here to see.

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Feb 09 2017

Peregrine Season Is Warming Up

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower nest, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower nest, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

The weather turned cold and snowy last night but Pittsburgh’s peregrines are warming up for nesting.  Here’s the news from nest sites around our area.

Downtown Pittsburgh:

The Downtown peregrines own the entire city with many potential nest sites from the rivers to the Hill District.  This week they’ve been visiting the Gulf Tower nest.  That doesn’t mean they’ll nest there but it does mean they haven’t rejected the idea so we have our fingers crossed.  Watch for peregrine activity at their three known nest sites to get a clue as to which site they’ll choose next month: Gulf Tower (on camera), Third Avenue between Smithfield and Wood Streets, and Fifth Avenue at Scrip Way.   As far as we know this pair is still Louie and Dori, but things could change.

Cathedral of Learning:

Hope and Terzo courting at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo courting at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo have been courting in flight and on camera at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.  Hope often visits the nest alone and calls to Terzo to join her.  They’re warming up to egg laying next month.

McKees Rocks Bridge:

Peregrine at the McKees Rocks Bridge, 30 Jan 2017 (photo by Leslie Ferree)

Peregrine at the McKees Rocks Bridge, 30 Jan 2017 (photo by Leslie Ferree)

Peregrines are usually hard to see at the McKees Rocks Bridge but Leslie Ferree got lucky.  She saw one perched on the bridge abutment on January 30, above, and on the bridge structure on January 25.  Maybe the pair will be more visible this year.

Neville Island I-79 Bridge:

Anne Marie Bosnyak reports that two peregrines were perched on a tree near the Neville Island Bridge on January 29. The pair at this site are Magnum and Beau, confirmed in May 2015.  However, that could change. Magnum tried to claim the Cathedral of Learning last June.

Tarentum Bridge:

Rob Protz reported two peregrines perched on the up-river navigation lights on the evening of January 29.  Who are these birds?  We don’t know.  The male is definitely a mystery.  The female, however, is sometimes Hope who visits her old home at the Tarentum Bridge.  We’re hoping for photographs of the Tarentum birds so we can read their bands.

Watch for peregrines at these nine sites in western Pennsylvania.  Let me know what you see!

  1. Downtown Pittsburgh
  2. Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh
  3. Westinghouse Bridge, Allegheny County
  4. McKees Rocks Bridge, Allegheny County
  5. Neville Island I-79 Bridge, Allegheny County
  6. Monaca-E.Rochester Bridge, Beaver County
  7. Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny-Westmoreland County
  8. The Graff Bridge, Route 422 Kittanning, Armstrong County
  9. Erie, PA Waterfront, Erie County

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at the Gulf Tower and University of Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks photo by Leslie Ferree)

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