Feb 07 2016

Great Backyard Bird Count, February 12-15

Published by under Books & Events

Birds at Marcy's feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

How many birds can you count? (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Are you ready to count birds?  Next weekend is the 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count: Friday through Monday, February 12 to 15.

It’s easy to participate in this citizen science project.  Just watch your feeders or go out birding.  Don’t forget to …

  1. Register here.
  2. Count birds for at least 15 minutes, keeping track of the highest count per species, the time you spent counting, and your location.
  3. Enter your counts via the GBBC website or eBird. (The Great Backyard Bird Count uses eBird and tags your entry as part of the weekend count.)

Download the instructions on the 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count or read more here.

Have fun!


p.s.  Photographers, submit your photos to the GBBC Photo Contest to win one of these prizes.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Feb 06 2016

Mud Season

Daffodil leaves, 3 Feb 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Daffodil leaves, 3 Feb 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

In this weirdly warm winter all the snow melted a week ago, the daffodil leaves poked out further, and we didn’t have to wear jackets.  At 61o on January 31 it was 26 degrees above normal!

Though yesterday’s temperature was exactly on target, today will be 8 degrees above average.  That’s not a huge difference but enough to maintain our early mud season.

We already had mud in our neighborhood ballpark when rain on Wednesday morning enhanced the creamy mudscape.

Mud season in Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

An early mud season in Pittsburgh, 3 Feb 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Off the beaten path at Schenley Park it was muddy too, though navigable.

Schenley Park, Falloon Trail, 3 Feb 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park, Falloon Trail, 3 Feb 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Are the plants in your area waking up early?  Put on your mud boots and go out to see.


(photos by Kate St. John)




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Feb 05 2016

The Reddish Egret’s Water Ballet

February is the month when birds are at a low ebb in Pittsburgh and birders want to get out of town.  Many of us think of Florida.

Whether or not you’re heading south you’ll enjoy this video of heron life at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Filmed and narrated by Jo Alwood, it shows the reddish egret at his best — dancing his water ballet.


(YouTube video by Jo Alwood. Click here for her YouTube channel)

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Feb 04 2016

Birds’ Body Language

Published by under Bird Behavior

Peregrine mother, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day, 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, defends her babies on banding day in 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)

On Throw Back Thursday, I found this gem in the archives from 2009.

What do birds mean when they puff up or raise their head feathers?  Imagine if we used the same signals.

Read more here about Body Language.


(photo of Dorothy, 2004, by Jack Rowley)

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Feb 03 2016

Pitt Peregrine Highlights, 2015

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy feeds the chick, 24 May 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy feeds the chick, 24 May 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Looking back, 2015 was an emotional roller coaster for Cathedral of Learning peregrine fans.  It began at a low ebb with Dorothy showing her age and ended with Hope for the future.

As promised, here’s the long awaited slideshow of Pitt Peregrine Highlights, 2015 with a summary below:

To see a slideshow of Pitt peregrine highlights in 2015, click here or on the photo above.


(photo from May 24, 2015 at the National Aviary falconcam, University of Pittsburgh)

*NOTE:  A healthy chick normally doesn’t fall on his back and if he does he’s able to right himself quickly.  In reviewing the snapshots for this slideshow I discovered that Dorothy had been flipping the chick for weeks. She was so quick we hadn’t noticed.

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Feb 02 2016

Drinking Blood?

Yellow-headed caracara on a cow in Venezuela (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-headed caracara on a cow in Venezuela (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When I wrote that yellow-headed caracaras pick ticks off of mammals Dr. Tony Bledsoe pointed out that, based on the similar behavior of an African bird, it’s possible the caracaras are also drinking the animals’ blood.

Ewww!  What gives?

In Africa, there are birds called oxpeckers (two species in genus Buphagus: yellow-billed and red-billed) that also perch on mammals and eat ticks, lice, fleas, and biting flies found on the animals’ skin.  Studies have shown that individual oxpeckers eat up to 100 engorged ticks or 13,000 nymphs per day.  Quite a benefit to the animal!

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a large bovine mammal in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-billed oxpecker on a large bovine mammal in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Engorged ticks contain tiny blood meals so it’s not a big leap that the oxpeckers sometimes to go directly to the blood source, pecking and plucking at an animal’s wounds.  Despite this parasitic and perhaps painful behavior, many mammals tolerate the oxpeckers although elephants and some antelopes shoo them off when they land.

Yellow-headed caracaras are unrelated to oxpeckers but their tick-eating behavior extends to blood meals as well. The Handbook of the Birds of the World includes this remark about the caracara’s eating habits:

“Perches on cattle and Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) to pick off ticks; picks flesh from open wounds on backs of cattle, which often seem oddly indifferent to the process.”

It sounds gruesome but the benefits of having your own portable tick-remover apparently outweigh the occasional blood meal.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)

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Feb 01 2016

Get Ready For Groundhog Day!

Published by under Books & Events,Mammals

Get ready for Groundhog Day!

Tomorrow is the mid-point of winter, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  February 2 is also the day when a very special rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges from his den to predict the weather for the next six weeks.

Phil never makes his prediction in isolation.  His day in the sun (or shade) spawns a huge celebration in Punxsutawney, PA.  Preview the excitement in his eight minute promo video above.

If you don’t like winter, then hope for an overcast sky so that Phil has a day in the shade.  Here’s why.



(video from Punxsutawney Phil on YouTube)

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Jan 31 2016

Near Open Water

Published by under Birds of Prey

Eastern screech-owl near Loyalhanna Dam, 28 Jan 2016 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Eastern screech-owl near Loyalhanna Dam, 28 Jan 2016 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Often the best birds are near open water, even if they don’t eat fish.

Anthony Bruno found these two at Loyalhanna Dam on January 27 and 28 — an eastern screech-owl (who doesn’t eat fish) and an immature bald eagle (who does).

Immature bald eagle, Loyalhanna Dam, 27 Jan 2016 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Immature bald eagle, Loyalhanna Dam, 27 Jan 2016 (photo by Anthony Bruno)


As we head into February, birds are harder to find in western Pennsylvania.  It’s the low ebb of our birding year.

Check out the places with open water and you’ll have better luck.

Look closely.  They may be camouflaged.


(photos by Anthony Bruno)

p.s. I went to Loyalhanna Dam today and saw 5 bald eagles but I missed the eastern screech-owl.

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Jan 30 2016

Not A Bluebird

Published by under Beyond Bounds

The bluest bird. Only a subspecies? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The bluest bird. But only a subspecies? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This is a blue bird but he’s not a bluebird.

He used to be in the thrush family, just like our eastern bluebirds, but he’s been reclassed as an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae).

He is from the Old World.  He breeds in the Himalayas at 9,800-14,500 ft and migrates downhill to spend the winter at 4,900-8,200 ft.  This particular bird was photographed in winter in the mountains of Thailand.

But who is he?

When the photo was taken he was called a Himalayan bluetail (Tarsiger rufilatus) but his species distinction is up in the air. Though he’s a short-distance migrant and much bluer, he’s under consideration as a subspecies of the orange-flanked bush-robin (Tarsiger cyanurus).  For now his old exotic name has disappeared.

He’s not a bluebird.  He’s not even a Himalayan bluetail.


(This is a Featured photo on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)



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Jan 29 2016

How To Raid A Wasps’ Nest

There’s a bird of prey in South America that likes to raid wasp nests to eat the larvae.  The problem is that red-throated caracaras (Ibycter americanus) have bare skin on their faces and throats, an easy target for stinging wasps.

How do the birds get the larvae without a lot of pain?  Do they chemically repel the wasps?

In 2013, Canadian Sean McCann and colleagues studied red-throated caracaras in French Guiana on the north coast of South America.  They learned that, no, the birds don’t repel the wasps.  The caracaras are attacked but they compensate in other ways.

Watch the video to see how the birds nab their tasty meal.  They know something about wasp behavior that we had been ignoring.

Click here to read more in their PLOS ONE paper, Strike Fast, Strike Hard, or here at ibycter.com.

(video from YouTube)

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