Dec 05 2016

A Serrated Tongue

A Canada goose challenges the photographer (photo by David Amamoto)

Canada goose challenges the photographer (photo by David Amamoto)

Canada geese challenge their enemies by honking and rushing forward with head low, mouth open and tongue raised.  Normally we humans don’t see this up close but a goose challenged David Amamoto and revealed its amazing tongue to the camera.

Since Canada geese don’t have hands, their mouths are equipped with the tools they need for plucking grasses, sedges, grains and berries on land and in the water.

Their bills are serrated for cutting stems and threshing grain.  Their tongues have serrated edges for sieving water from each mouthful of underwater food.  The tongue’s crosswise bumps help grip the vegetation.

Food doesn’t get away from this serrated tongue.

Fortunately David escaped without being nipped.


(photo by David Amamoto)

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Dec 04 2016

Funny Face is Flehmen Response

Published by under Mammals

If you have a cat, I’m sure you’ve seen it sniff something and then raise its head with its mouth open as shown in the video above.

This gesture is called the flehmen response or flehmening and it’s how cats inhale and analyze pheromones.

Many mammals flehmen in response to pheromone laden scents. They bare their teeth, close their nostrils and breathe through their mouths to direct the scent into the vomeronasal organ (VNO) located above the roof of the mouth.  In felines, there’s a duct just behind their front teeth that leads to the VNO.

Horses flehmen, too.  When I was a kid there was a TV show called Mister Ed, the Talking Horse, whose face looked like this when he “talked.”

Flehmen response of a horse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Flehmen response of a horse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I’ve seen this photo, I’ll bet the trainers put an interesting smell under Mister Ed’s nose to provoke the flehmen response.  And they said he was “talking.”


(video by Kyle Hayes on YouTube. photo of horse flehmen response from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 03 2016

Christmas Bird Counts near Pittsburgh

Published by under Books & Events

Scanning the field for birds (photo by Gary Peeples via Wikimedia Commons)

Scanning the field for birds (photo by Gary Peeples via Wikimedia Commons)


‘Tis the season to count birds.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is an annual year-end tradition of tallying birds, now in its 117th year.  Each count is a 7-mile radius circle manned by volunteers who count the birds they see in a single 24-hour period.

There are 14 counts planned for the Pittsburgh area between now and early January.  See the table below for the list and click here for a map of the local count circles compiled by Bob Mulvihill at the National Aviary.

It’s easy to participate and no experience is necessary!  You can count at your own feeders or go out in the field, paired with another birder.

Call the compiler ahead of time to let him know you’re coming, especially if the count will be held over the holidays.  The Pittsburgh Count on December 31 has so many participants that each section has its own compiler.  Click here for the sections and contacts.

I’ll be counting in the Pittsburgh circle.

I hope to see you in the field.

UPDATE on 12/5/2016!  The Imperial CBC is on Sunday 12/18/2016, not on 12/28.  The table below has been corrected.

2016 Christmas Bird Counts in the Pittsburgh Area

Date County CBC Name Compiler Contact Info
Sat. 12/17/2016 Beaver Beaver Rick Mason 724-847-0909
12/17 Butler,
Butler Glenn Koppel
Mary A Koeneke
12/17 Butler,
Buffalo Creek Valley George Reese 724-353-9649
12/17 Allegheny,
Pittsburgh South Hills Nancy Page 412-221-4795
12/17 Greene Ryerson Marjorie Howard 724-852-3155
12/17 Washington Washington Tom Contreras 724-223-6118
Sun. 12/18/2016 Allegheny,
Imperial Bob Mulvihill
12/18 Greene Clarksville Terry Dayton 724-627-9665
12/18 Washington Buffalo Creek Larry Helgerman 412-508-0321
Mon. 12/26/2016 Indiana Indiana Roger & Margaret Higbee 724-354-3493
Wed. 12/28/2016 Westmoreland Bushy Run Dick Byers 724-593-3543
Sat. 12/31/2016 Allegheny Pittsburgh Brian Shema 412-963-6100
There are compilers for each section of the circle. Click here for details.
Mon. 1/2/2017 Westmoreland Rector Matt Webb 412-622-5591
Sat. 1/7/2017 Butler South Butler Chris Kubiak 412-963-6100


Read more about the Christmas Bird Count here at

(photo by Gary Peeples via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 02 2016

How We’ll See The Stars Again

In my blog two weeks ago, the night sky video Lost in Light made me wonder how we’ll ever see the stars again.

Since then I’ve learned that our outdoor lights waste money and energy, disrupt wildlife, and ruin our own sleep patterns.  What we can do?

The video above from McDonald Observatory shows a simple answer.  Use lampshades.

The quick demonstration below shows why.


Right now our cities and towns are switching out incandescent street lights for LEDs.  It’s the perfect time to put on lampshades.    You can shade your home lights, too.


p.s. Stay tuned for a future blog about blue light versus red spectrum LEDs.  Yes, the color matters.

(videos from McDonald Observatory and

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Dec 01 2016

Whose Winter Nest?

Published by under Quiz

Whose winter nest? (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Whose winter nest? (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Bare trees reveal secrets in December that we couldn’t see in October.

On Throw Back Thursday, here’s a quiz about a common winter nest we see in Pennsylvania.  Whose is it?

Quiz: Whose Nest?


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Nov 30 2016

Moving The Crows

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Thousands of crows roosting at the University of Pittsburgh this month have finally worn out their welcome. Their slippery “fallout” on the sidewalks, especially near Heinz Chapel, tipped the scales against them. This week Pitt began using crow scare tactics to make them move.

Scaring crows is a noisy process that takes days or weeks to be effective. Pitt’s first step is to play a very loud recording of screeching birds in distress and kakking peregrine falcons (click here to hear). The tape was playing yesterday at 4:30pm near Clapp Hall, so loud you could hardly think!

If the recording doesn’t work the next steps are even noisier. The video above shows how Penn State uses pyrotechnics to convince their crows to leave, but it can take a while. Crow expert Margaret Brittingham explains how the crows learned to circumvent the deterrents with amusing results.

So now I’m curious. How long will it take to convince the Pitt crows to leave? And where will they go?

Time will tell.


p.s. This is the first year that Pitt’s “new” peregrines, Hope and Terzo, have experienced the scare-crow recording. I don’t know what Terzo’s reaction is but Hope has been visiting her old site at Tarentum a lot lately. She was there yesterday afternoon.

(p.p.s. On the audio track the single crow sounds like a raven to me.)

(video from Penn State University)

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Nov 29 2016

What Good is a Collection?

Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)

Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)

We think of museums as places where the public views samples of the natural world, but in every museum there are far more specimens in storage than on display.  At The Carnegie that ratio for birds is about 200 to 1.  And so we wonder …

What good is a collection? and Why are there so many specimens?

In the late 1800s to mid 1900s museums collected birds for taxonomic research:  What species exist?  What are their characteristics?  and What species are they related to?  Collections still provide taxonomic answers:

  • Field guide and bird artists use behind-the-scenes specimens to produce accurate work.
  • Historic distribution of species is derived from the specimens’ geographic locations and dates.
  • We didn’t know about DNA when most of the birds were collected, but we now compare specimens’ DNA to each other and current birds.
  • We document regional variation in the same species (for instance, fox sparrows) by studying large collections made throughout its wide range.  That’s why it’s good to have so many specimens.

Many new questions arose long after the birds were collected.  In 2004 Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor at the University of Alaska Museum, pointed out that museum specimens helped provide these answers:

  • DDT caused eggshell thinning in peregrine falcon eggs, leading to their population crash, 1967.  Derek Ratcliffe measured eggshell thickness in museum egg collections to compare pre- and post-DDT eggs.
  • Mutations were discovered in local fauna after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1997.
  • Mercury levels increased in North Atlantic seabirds in the late 20th century, 1998.

Collections are excellent for monitoring change because they provide a snapshot of life on earth for the dates and places where specimens were collected.

The snapshot of birds is very detailed from the 1880s to the 1930s but what about birds at the turn of the 21st century?

Bird collecting dropped off considerably in the mid 20th century but it continues today in a smaller, non-traditional way at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Each year up to 1 billion birds die by hitting windows in the U.S.  In 2014 the Carnegie joined North America’s BirdSafe project to document dangerous windows, rescue injured birds and collect the dead ones.  During spring and fall migration BirdSafe Pittsburgh adds a couple of common birds each week to the Carnegie’s collection.


(photo of roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall by Kate St. John)

Further reading, an excellent article:  Natural History Museums in a Postbiodiversity Era by Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor, University of Alaska Museum (of the North), Fairbanks, Alaska.

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Nov 28 2016

Fifteen Mile Commute

Published by under Peregrines

Hope at Tarentum Bridge, Tuesday morning, 11/22/16 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope at Tarentum Bridge, 11/22/2016 around 10am, (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Tuesday morning, November 22, a beautiful female peregrine perched close to Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser at the Tarentum Bridge. Her close approach reminded Steve of the peregrine Hope who used to live at the bridge before moving to the Cathedral of Learning.

Steve was able to photograph her bands, black/green, 69/Z, and yes indeed she was Hope.

Hope's color band, morning of 11/22/16 at Tarentum Bridge (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope’s color band at Tarentum Bridge, around 10:30am, 11/22/16 (photo by Steve Gosser)


Did she stay at the bridge?  No.

Steve saw her at Tarentum until he left at 11:00am.  Then at 12:12pm the falconcam caught Hope courting with Terzo at the Cathedral of Learning.

Hope and Terzo bow at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:12pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo bow at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:12pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

She’s recognizable on the falconcam by her distinctive “muddy” gray face and her green right-leg band.  (It’s even greener-looking in subsequent photos.)

Hope at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Below, her left leg band shows black/green as she leaves the nest.

Hope leaves the nest area showing her black/green color band, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope leaves the nest area showing her black/green color band, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)


So … Hope is using both her old and new territories this fall.

It’s only a 15 mile commute … as the peregrine flies.


p.s. If you search the WildEarth archives for this footage, you’ll find it on 11/22/2016 at 13:12.  WildEarth’s archive clock remains on Eastern Daylight Time so it doesn’t have to be reset for the nesting season.

(photos at Tarentum Bridge by Steve Gosser. photos at Cathedral of Learning nest from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

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Nov 27 2016

Cars And Deer

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

It’s that time of year again when cars and deer come into conflict.

From October through December white-tailed deer hormones surge for the mating season.  Males become aggressive, spar with their rivals, and challenge anything they see as a threat.  Both sexes roam in search of mates and barely pay attention to their surroundings.  Cars are the last thing on their minds.

Last year, Pennsylvania won the “prize” for the most deer-vehicle collisions in the U.S.   According to a September 2015 article by Ad Crable at Lancaster Online, we hit 127,275 deer with our cars — and those were only the collisions reported to insurance.   When compared to hunting season, which took more than 353,000 deer that year, we’re making a sizable dent with our vehicles.

A case in point is in Schenley Park where hunting is prohibited, as in all Pittsburgh City Parks.  Deer used to be rare but they moved in about 10 years ago (perhaps longer) and their population has exploded in the past five years.  I knew we’d reached a milestone when I saw a first ever road-killed deer in the Park along the Boulevard of the Allies, hit on November 5 or 6.

I’m sure the person who hit that 6-point buck was very, very surprised.  So are those whose dogs are challenged by aggressive deer.  Every year since 2015, a buck has killed a dog in the City’s east end parks.

So be careful out there, especially at dusk and dawn when deer are most active.  Use your brightest headlights and slow down.  Don’t become a statistic.


Reminder: Deer (rifle) season begins tomorrow, Monday November 28, in Pennsylvania. Wear blaze orange when you’re outside the city.

(photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Nov 26 2016

Tiny Lichens

Published by under Plants

Trumpet lichen, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Cladonia lichen, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Lichens are interesting shapes if you look closely enough.

Two weeks ago I found these tiny green trumpets in the pine woods at Moraine State Park in Butler County, PA.  I don’t know much about lichens but a Google search placed them in the Cladonia genus.  The best photo match was the trumpet lichen (Cladonia fimbriata).

Here’s a closer view.

Trumpet lichen close up, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Cladonia lichen close up, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

What are the cups for?  New Hampshire Garden Solutions explains them for  the Cladonia chlorophaea species:

Mealy Pixie Cup (Cladonia chlorophaea) lichen look like little trumpets from the side but from the top they look like tiny cups. The cups are where the spores form and this lichen relies on raindrops falling in them to disperse its spores. This lichen is called “mealy” because of the grainy reproductive structures (soredia) covering its outside surface.

Do you know the name of this lichen?


(photos by Kate St.John)

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