Monthly Archives: January 2009

What to Look For: Late January

Great Horned Owl (photo by Chuck Tague)We're immersed in winter but nature is still busy outdoors.

Chuck Tague published his "What To Look For" phenology for mid-to-late January, so get ready to brave the cold.  Here's a hint of what to expect in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Click here for Chuck's complete list.

  • Great horned owls are nesting now. Listen for owls hooting to establish territory and make contact.
  • Red-tailed hawks are courting too. Watch for pairs soaring together and calling.
  • Songbirds begin to sing again: northern cardinals, song sparrows, carolina wrens and tufted titmice.
  • Winter finches are still here.  I'm hoping for an evening grosbeak.
  • As the northern lakes freeze over, watch for unusual gulls on Pittsburgh's rivers.
  • Foxes and raccoons are breeding.
  • The days are getting longer.  Since December 21st, we've gained 18 minutes of daylight in the afternoon - but we've lost some in the morning.  By the end of January daytime will be 10 hours long!
  • Don't forget to look for tracks in the snow.

As Chuck says, "During winter expect the unexpected."  I agree!  There's more to see than you'd think.

(close-up of a Great Horned Owl by Chuck Tague)

Transit Birds

Pine Siskin (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Last weekend we were supposed to be inundated with snow, sleet and freezing rain.  (We weren't.)  Meanwhile there were great birds to see in the Pittsburgh area:  pine siskins and white-winged crossbills.

I was torn.  I didn't want to miss seeing these birds but I didn't want to drive in bad weather.  I live near several bus lines so why not use mass transit to go birding?  Or walk?

I put out a plea on PABIRDS asking for help finding siskins and crossbills near any bus line in Allegheny County.  Dan Yagusic came through with pine siskins at the Veterans Medical Center near Shuman.  Easy!  It's the 74A bus.  But I cheated and drove because it wasn't sleeting at that point.  (They were nice siskins, by the way.)

For Sunday's trip I vowed I would not cheat.  I would walk or take the bus.  I gave up on crossbills as their location was hopelessly far from public transit and decided to walk to South Side.  If there were no birds at least there would be hot chocolate and I could take the 59U to get home.

As I began my journey many sidewalks were covered in lumpy ice.  After a treacherous crossing of the Hot Metal Bridge (thank heaven for Yak Traks) I discovered the downriver side of the bike trail was closed for construction of two new buildings.  Dang!  I had only seen 10 birds so far - 10 individuals -  and there were none on the river.  I turned east, found an overlook and sat down to think.  It was cold and snowing.  I stared across the river.  Was this day a loss?

And then a flock of about 30 very white sparrow-sized birds flew in fast and fluttered down to a ridge of exposed dirt at the old LTV site across the river.  Very white!  All white underneath and very white on top with dark backs.  In the gray light they tumbled out of the sky like falling leaves, walked on the snowy dirt, jumped up and circled back.  They came down, flew up, down, up, and then they were gone flying fast upriver.  The flock was there for maybe 60 seconds.  I never saw them again.  Snow buntings!

They made my day.

(photo of a pine siskin by Marcy Cunkelman.  Click here to see a video of snow buntings in flight - these are in breeding plumage.)

p.s.  See my January 14th blog for more transit-accessible birding.


Peregrines on “Bird Note” Radio

Peregrine Falcon with chicks (photo by Kim Steininger)Pittsburgh birders Bill and Karen Parker moved to the Seattle area last fall but they keep us up-to-date on their activities via email. 

One of their discoveries is a radio program called Bird Note on KPLU, their local NPR station.

Today I got an email from Bill saying that Bird Note highlighted my favorite bird, the peregrine falcon.  Click here to listen.  

Bird Note didn't use the typical sound of a peregrine defending its nest on their audio segment... which got me thinking about peregrines at their nests... which prompted me to use Kim Steininger's photo of banding day in Delaware. 

To hear what this mother bird and her mate would sound like as they defend their chicks, click here for audio.  Pretty angry, huh!

Sigh.  I can't wait for spring.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Daytime Owls

Short-eared Owl (photo by Cris Hamilton)One of the best things about winter in Pennsylvania is the influx of tundra birds who spend the season here.  My favorites are the daytime owls:  snowys and short-eareds. 

Snowy owls are rare but short-eared owls are easily found in grassland habitats at recovered strip mines, especially at Volant and West Lebanon.  They're there because there's a lot of food:  mice and voles. 

It's always amazing to see an owl during the day and short-eareds put on quite a show.  They are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) so they can appear a couple of hours before sunset on dreary days.

Their flight is mothlike, floating over the fields as they hunt for small mammals.  Sometimes they "bark" when they encounter another owl or when annoyed by an enemy such as a red-tailed hawk.  Sometimes they interact in an aerial display (click on the photo above).

I'll never forget the time Marcy Cunkelman took me to see the short-eared owls at West Lebanon.  We parked on a side road in the middle of the grasslands and stood next to Marcy's car waiting for sunset.  It was cold so we pulled up our hoods and put our backs to the wind. 

The sun had set but the sky was still light when the owls finally appeared in the distance.  Marcy said, "I'll bring them closer," pursed her lips and made squeaky mouse-like sounds.  The owls were unimpressed and continued floating over the distant fields.  Marcy squeaked again and again.

Suddenly, an owl we hadn't seen flew from behind and crossed directly in front of our faces.  He looked back at Marcy as if to say, "Where'd you hide that mouse?"

I went to Volant last weekend and tried to call in the owls but I was never been able to match Marcy's squeak.  The owls ignored me completely.

(photos by Cris Hamilton, taken at Volant Strips.  Click on the photo above to see Cris' picture of two owls interacting.)

Speaking of Fritos

Fritos corn chips (photo from Frito-Lay)When I mentioned gulls and Fritos yesterday I remembered a story that has nothing to do with birds but a lot to do with hiking.

Several years ago I attended the Keystone Trails Association spring meeting in Renovo, PA.  KTA is an association of hikers dedicated to promoting hiking and preserving trails in Pennsylvania.  If you've hiked in this state, chances are you've used a trail maintained by KTA volunteers.

KTA's biannual meetings are held in different regions throughout the state and always include a selection of hikes in the local area so you can learn new trails and get to know other members. 

That Saturday I chose a day-long hike on the Donut Hole Trail with twenty others.  As we hiked through the beautiful forest we chatted and swapped stories.  Then we stopped for a break and someone pulled out a bag of Fritos.

"Did you know Fritos are the perfect hiking accessory?" said one of the seasoned hikers.  "Not only do they maintain their shape in your backpack and give you energy on the trail, but if you're cold you can burn them.  They're excellent tinder for a campfire."

When I got home I couldn't resist lighting one.  He was right; it burned like a candle.  The fat is the wax, the corn is the wick.  

Dinner or tinder.  Eat or heat.

(photo from Frito-Lay)

The dangers of junk food

Wing-tagged Ring-billed Gull (photo by Chuck Tague)If you read Chuck Tague's Nature Observer journal you've seen this picture recently.  It's a ring-billed gull with a fluorescent orange wing tag acquired as part of a gull study in Chicago.  When Chuck snapped this picture, the gull was at Flagler Beach, Florida. 

Before I saw Chuck's photo I hadn't thought much about wing-tags but suddenly there's a spate of reports on PABIRDS of tagged gulls in eastern Pennsylvania.  One gull was found in Berks County, the other 50 miles away in Bucks County.  Both were tagged for a Massachusetts reservoir study.

So how do people catch gulls?  The details made me laugh. 

One gull was captured at a Walmart parking lot in Northborough, Massachusetts using a rocket net baited with Cheez-Its.   The other was captured in Worcester, Mass using a rocket net baited with bread and popcorn.  

Junk food is their weakness. 

I wonder what tempted this guy.  Fritos?

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Look Behind You

Sandhill Cranes in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)
I know there are sandhill cranes in Lawrence County and I know they're easier to find in winter, but for years I've avoided searching for them because I am so disappointed when they elude me, and they usually do.

You'd think that gray birds nearly four feet tall with a 6.5 foot wingspan would be hard to hide - until you start looking for them.  The area to search is 15 square miles of rolling countryside, fields, thickets and wooded swamp.  During the day the cranes feed in the corn stubble with their heads down.  All it takes is a dip in the landscape to make them disappear from view.  I usually miss them entirely and my disappointment ruins an otherwise good day.

So it was with some uneasiness that I headed for Plain Grove, PA yesterday even though I knew 40 to 50 cranes had been seen there last week.  As I drove north on Interstate 79 I told myself, "You will not have a goal today!  Do not set your heart on seeing a particular bird!"

As I turned onto Old Ash Road I saw a good omen.  Four eastern bluebirds flew over and perched on the wire.  Things were looking up.

I drove slowly northwest looking out both sides of the car.  A hawk flew on the left.  Could it be a rough-legged hawk?  No, just a red-tail but  Whoa!  What is that white lump at the edge of the field?  Is it a snowy owl?

I pulled off the road and studied the bird.  It didn't move but it was so far away that the heat shimmers confused me.  I got out of the car and looked and looked and looked.  It didn't move.  It was a plastic bag.

"Well," I said to myself as opened the car door, "You might as well look behind you.  You never know."

And there they were.  Fifty-nine Sandhill Cranes.

Woo hoo!

(photo by Chuck Tague)