Archive for October, 2008

Oct 15 2008

Monster of the Ohio

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Sam Hall with monster walleye, Ohio River at Coraopolis, Oct 11, 2008I'm the bird expert at WQED but when it comes to fish, talk to Sam Hall.  Sam works in the Finance Department but his real love is fishing.  He and I trade stories about great outdoor places.  He knows rivers, lakes and streams; I know forests and fields.  Often our favorite places overlap but this week I learned a new one.

On Monday morning Sam sent me this picture from his cell phone.  Here he is on the wild shores of Coraopolis holding the Monster of the Ohio.  Who knew a walleye this big lurked near Neville Island?

It was nearly dusk last Saturday when Sam felt a nibble on his line - not a fish this big.  He thinks a smaller fish was going for the bait when this big guy came in to eat it.  Zap!

The Monster was hard to land.  Sam says river walleye are muscular because they swim against the current all the time.  Sam's line was strong enough to pull the fish through the water, but when he got it to shore the line was too weak to land him so Sam had to push him out by hand.  The fish bit him.  Undaunted, Sam got the walleye out of the water, detached the hook and asked some people nearby to take his picture.  Then he let him go.

By Sam's estimate this walleye is about 30 inches long.  Who knows what he weighs!

As Sam wrote:  "Saturday evening at the mouth of Montour Run as it goes into the Ohio, at least 5 pounds bigger than any walleye I have ever caught in the rivers.  Thought you guys would get a kick out of these pix.  Just a photo opportunity for he and I together and now he is swimming around there again.  Might go back and see if he wants to chat again this coming weekend.  He took a nice chunk of my left index finger and thumb with him, might have a taste for human flesh now."

The Monster's back in the Ohio, folks.  Watch out!

(photo from Sam Hall)

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Oct 13 2008

What’s in a name?

Published by under Songbirds

Palm Warbler, non-breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)Yesterday I saw this bird in Beaver County while hiking at State Gameland #285

If you're not familiar with warblers and you try to identify this bird by his picture alone, he's pretty confusing.  However, he has a telltale field mark that's obvious when you see him in person - he incessantly wags his tail up and down.  He's the only warbler that does this, so when I encounter him in the field I don't even need to see what color he is.  His movement gives him away.  He's a palm warbler.

If you relied on his name to locate him in palm trees, you'd never expect to see him in Pennsylvania.  Actually palm warblers were named from a specimen found in winter in Hispaniola, the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In winter, palm warblers may hang out near palm trees but in summer they breed in the bogs and fens of Canada.  They're the second most northerly nesting warblers.   So much for the name!

And there was another naming twist on my hike:  "green frogs."  I found five green frogs standing under a waterfall, but all of them looked brown.  If I hadn't learned their field marks from April Claus at Fern Hollow Nature Center, I would have been fooled.  Green frogs have two raised ridges that run down their backs and their tympanum (outer eardrum) is easy to see.   Indeed they are not always green.  Click here to learn about the many colors of green frogs.

So, what's in a name?   Well, sometimes it's just there to fool you. 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 11 2008

Color & migration at Schenley Park

Ash tree at Schenley Park, Oct 11, 2008 (photo by Kate St.John)Not much to report - but it was a sunny day in Pittsburgh so I ignored my Saturday chores and took a walk in Schenley Park.

The fall colors are beautiful, as you can see by my photo.

I had my binoculars with me (always!) and searched the Cathedral of Learning for the peregrines when I got within view.  It didn't take long to find them.

A light southeast wind was carrying migrating red-tailed hawks over Oakland.  The migrants didn't know there are peregrines at Pitt and inevitably tried to catch an updraft at the Cathedral of Learning.  When they did, one of the peregrines would pop off the building and attack them.  This was bewildering for the hawks but I must admit I enjoyed watching the action after so many boring months of peregrine inactivity.

Between mock attacks, Dorothy and E2 perched up high to wait for the next red-tail.  It was a perfect day for hawk watching.

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Oct 10 2008


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Praying Mantis (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)This warm fall weather is the last hoorah for bugs.  Some of them are searching for crevices to crawl into.  Others are mating and laying eggs.  There's not much time left before winter, so they're getting ready.  

Unfortunately, my office has become a favorite overwintering site for alien insect species.  They sneak through the cracks around my office window, then crawl and fly around until I can't take it any more. 

A few years ago I was invaded by Asian lady beetles (harmless ladybug look-alikes).  This year it's Asian stink bugs.  Lady beetles are kind of cute in small numbers but even one stink bug is too many.  The battle is on! 

Perhaps I need a bug that will eat them.  Maybe a praying mantis?  My coworker, Jenny McGrail, says she has a lot of them in her yard right now.  Should I try one?  Or are they invading too?

No, they're just being conspicuous so they can be promiscuous.  😉

Praying mantis adults can't live through the winter but their eggs do, so they have a burst of mating activity in autumn.   Mantids are normally hard to find but that changes in mating season.  Unlike cicadas and crickets who call to attract a mate, mantids use their eyesight.  They hang out in likely feeding areas and try to be noticeable.  I'm sure they don't want us to see them but it's hard for such a large insect to advertise for a mate without being seen by everyone. 

Praying Mantis eggs (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Though there are 20 native mantids in North America they all live south of here so it's likely that Jenny's bugs are Asian too.  Chinese praying mantises were imported to eat agricultural pests, as were Asian lady beetles.  Happily the mantids are not as annoying as the lady beetles...

...unless you bring an egg mass indoors. 

If you do, you'll be overrun by them unless you take precautions.  The egg masses, like the one pictured at right, contain up to 400 eggs that hatch after several weeks of warm weather.  It's always warm indoors so they're going to hatch inside - ready or not! 

If you bring an egg mass indoors, my friend Marcy suggests keeping it in an open jar with a paper towel securely fastened over the opening with a rubber band.  And store the jar in a cold place.  Better safe than sorry!

(Thanks to Marcy Cunkelman for her photos of a praying mantis and its egg mass.)

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Oct 08 2008

Decline or Extinction: What can we do?

Common Grackle (photo by Chuck Tague)Common grackles aren't so common any more.  In the last 40 years they've declined 61%.

Sadly, the grackles' situation is not unique.  As I mentioned in my last blog, one in eight species face extinction and many common birds are in decline.  The reasons vary but they come down to a few basic things:  climate change, loss of habitat, and direct human threats. 

When it comes to climate change, my home state of Pennsylvania plays a pivotal role.  We're the 22nd largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world (page 10 here), so anything we do to reduce our emissions will improve conditions worldwide.

Still, the problem seems immense.  I'm only one person.  What can I do?  

  • Use less electricity.  We retired our old refrigerator and were amazed how much it saved on our electric bill!  Click here for all the tips.
  • Drive less.  Eighteen months ago I decided to get more exercise by walking to work three days a week.  The walk takes 40 minutes and there's a side benefit:  I see more birds. 
  • Drive a hybrid car.  Save money on gas, too.
  • Buy electricity that doesn't emit greenhouse gases.  Despite the billboards that claim coal is "clean and green with new technologies," our coal-fired power plants don't use those technologies and they don't capture their carbon dioxide.  Click here to find out how to buy low-emission electricity in PA.
  • Help those who help birds.  There are lots of organizations to choose from.  I joined Audubon.  You can too.

Of course there's a lot more we can do.  This is just a start. 

Do what you can and don't give up.  It took generations to get where we are today, it will take generations to undo it.  Bird by bird we can make sure their fate will be only decline, not extinction.

(photo of a Common Grackle by Chuck Tague)

p.s.  To save grackles, we'll have to get farmers and the USDA to stop poisoning them.

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Oct 06 2008

Decline or Extinction?

Published by under Musings & News

Snow bunting (photo by Chuck Tague)Will species like this snow bunting exist 100 years from now?  Right now their future looks bleak.

Two recent reports have underscored - again - that human actions and climate change are pushing many birds to extinction.  This affects not just the birds on remote islands but common species who breed and winter in Pennsylvania.  There's a very real danger that "our" birds won't be here for our grandchildren to see.  It will happen that fast.

Last month in Argentina, BirdLife's World Conservation Conference met to discuss the prognosis for birds.  The grim news is that one in eight bird species are in danger of extinction and common birds around the world are in decline.  This comes one year after Audubon published the state of North American birds, a report that highlighted the alarming decline since 1967 of our own common species:  Northern Bobwhite down 82%, Eastern Meadowlark -77%, Snow Bunting -64%, Common Grackle -61%.

Then last week the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on how climate change will affect Pennsylvania in the next 100 years.  If the process can't be slowed, it will be bad for both humans and birds:  90-degree days all summer, the loss of cool-climate forest, and a subsequent decline in birds such as ruffed grouse, white-throated sparrow, and magnolia warbler.

Pennsylvania is the 22nd largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world.  Because we burn so much coal - and don't capture the greenhouse gases - our state outranks most countries.  Interestingly, this puts the problem in manageable terms.  If Pennsylvania makes a change for the better, it will really change the world.  

The decline in bird species is so depressing that I usually avoid thinking about it because it makes me so sad.  But avoidance doesn't make it go away.  There are things we can do to help - yes, as individuals - and I'll talk about them in my next blog.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 04 2008

Any excuse to talk about peregrines

Published by under Peregrines

E2 gazes from the Cathedral of Learning, June 2008 (photo by Richard Tourville)I don't know about you but I'm going through peregrine falcon withdrawal.

It's not that the peregrines at University of Pittsburgh have left their territory.  Far from it!   I saw Dorothy and E2 perched on the Cathedral of Learning just yesterday.  They stay here all winter because there's enough to eat.

No, I'm in withdrawal because they're far less active and interesting in autumn than during the breeding season.  Though I see them nearly every day, they're just sitting around.  They don't stay busy without babies to feed.

So I offer this:  a photo of E2 taken by Richard Tourville last June when the nestlings fledged.   I like this picture because it's what a peregrine might look like on a cloudy October morning.  

Perhaps I should go over to Pitt and see...


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Oct 02 2008


Published by under Mammals

Mario Le Pew, skunk, meets Innes Donahue (photo by Maren Cooke)Pictured here - safely "deodorized" and in a cage - is the only docile animal that strikes fear in my heart. 

It's been a month of skunks for me, beginning on the first night of our Maine vacation.  After 9 hours of sitting in airports, on planes and buses, we arrived at our hotel.  Though it was 9:00pm we needed to stretch our legs so we took a walk around the parking lot. 

At the wildest corner of the parking lot - if a collection of shrubs can be called "wild" - I smelled a hint of something unpleasant.  Fox?  We took a few more steps in the dark.  Is that a black cat at the edge of the lawn?  No!  A skunk!  I grabbed my husband's arm and we jumped back a step.  There were two skunks near the trees and one of them was stamping his feet.  We were out of there!

A similar thing happened the next night - different place, different time, another skunk in the dark - so when the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center brought a disarmed skunk to the Group Against Smog and Pollution picnic last Saturday, I was intrigued.  Here was a skunk I could get close to.  Here's what I learned:

  • Skunks have good senses of hearing and smell (imagine!) but they cannot see beyond about 10 feet.
  • They have muscles near their anal scent glands which allow them to accurately spray 7-15 feet.
  • Their scent gland is empty after 5-6 sprays and it takes 10 days to refill so they conserve the spray by warning you with foot stamping, hissing and holding their tails high.  (Thank heaven!)
  • Even when a skunk's scent glands are removed the scent is still part of them, though fainter.  If you handle a skunk, you will pick up that faint scent on your hands and clothes.  After a while you won't notice it - but members of your carpool will.
  • Skunks can carry rabies for five or six generations without exhibiting symptoms.  That's why pet skunks must come from breeders, not the wild.

And how does this relate to birds? 

It turns out that other than humans, the skunks' only predator is the great-horned owl ... because the owl doesn't have a sense of smell!

(Thanks to Maren Cooke for the picture of "Mario Le Pew" from the ARL Wildlife Center getting acquainted with her daughter, Innes Donahue, at the GASP picnic.)

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