Archive for February, 2009

Feb 09 2009

Ice Jam

Published by under Weather & Sky

Ice jam on Raccoon Creek (photo by Kate St. John)After weeks of bitter cold, Raccoon Creek was icy and quiet yesterday when the temperature reached 55 degrees at the Wildflower Reserve.

Muddy water flowed through an ice-free channel but after two warm days the creek was high and made soft gurgling sounds as it passed under the remaining ice.  It looked peaceful while I paused to eat my lunch.

Then crack! Boom!  Upstream a large slab of ice broke free, crashed into a submerged tree and jammed.  More ice joined it, spinning in the flow.  The pressure cause a big section to break free and scrape the shoreline with an ugly tearing sound.

Chunks from the breakup floated down to a small jam in front of me.  When they reached the blockage their back ends tipped down, their noses tipped up, they flipped over, submerged and were sucked under the ice sheet.  I watched them pop out on the other side and bob downstream.

This didn't last long.  Soon the entire channel filled with ice, the water rose rapidly and flooded the shore.  Then the ice rose too, buckled and broke.  Jamming and breaking, the amazing thing was that this action was caused by liquid and solid water rubbing up against each other.

I'm glad the episode at Raccoon Creek was small.  I didn't get wet.  This morning's news reported an ice jam on Neshannock Creek in Lawrence County where three people were rescued from the rising water.

(photo of an ice jam on Raccoon Creek on February 8, 2009, by Kate St. John)

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Feb 07 2009

Have You Seen Me?

Rusty Blackbird - standing behind a mourning dove (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

They're the poster child for bird decline.  So many have gone missing their pictures should be on milk cartons. 

Have you seen me?  I'm talking about the dark bird in this picture.  The rusty blackbird.

Rusty blackbirds have declined 85-99% in the past 40 years.  No one is sure how this happened or even how many are left but for the next nine days you can help find out.

From February 7 to 15, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, the PA Game Commission and the Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group have teamed up to sponsor a Rusty Blackbird Blitz to find and document the location and concentration of rusty blackbirds on their wintering grounds. 

Rusty's are a wetland species that breeds in the boreal forest of Canada and winters in wooded wetlands from the Rust Belt to the Gulf Coast, from Oklahoma to the Atlantic.  Pennsylvania is on the northern edge of the rusty blackbirds' winter range so we can play a part. 

All you have to do is look for rusty blackbirds and submit your observations online at e-Bird.  There are no complicated time or location restrictions.  Look for rusty's in wooded wetlands, swamps and pond edges wherever, whenever and as often as you like.  Then let e-Bird know where you found them.

For clues on how to identify them, click here or on the picture.

And good luck!

(A lone rusty blackbird has visited Marcy Cunkelman's yard in Indiana County for two winters in a row.  He's being coy in this picture, partially hidden behind a mourning dove.  Photo by Marcy Cunkelman.)

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Feb 05 2009

Hey, Dorothy!

Published by under Peregrines

E2 calls to Dorothy from the nest (Peregrine falcons at the Univ of Pittsburgh)Though February is dull and cold it has one bright spot:  it's peregrine courtship time.

Pittsburgh's peregrine falcons lay their eggs from mid March to early April.  If history is a guide Dorothy and E2 will nest in only seven weeks at the University of Pittsburgh.  The pair at the Gulf Tower will nest in six. 

This makes February especially fun for a peregrine fanatic (me). 

Since last fall the birds have been sedentary and hard to find.  Until now they had no reason to do more than sleep, hunt and eat.  But after the winter solstice their hormones began to kick in, prompting them to advertise and defend their territory, attract their mates and cement their pair bond.  

At first the signs were subtle.  In early January Dorothy and E2 began to roost near each other in the vicinity of the nest.  Now, as spring approaches, they perform more and more of their rituals.  If you're near the Cathedral of Learning you'll see them:

  • Soaring high above the nest cliff (well, it's a building but to them it's a cliff).
  • "Flappy" flying around the cliff: a slow flight in which they flap their wing tips, not their entire wings.  It's very noticeable to their mates, possible intruders and anyone who's looking up.
  • Flying in acrobatic displays, alone or together.  This includes undulating flight, cliff racing, loop-the-loops and figure eights.  When they do this together it takes my breath away.
  • Exchanging food.  The male brings prey to his mate and they exchange it either in mid-air or on a ledge, just as they do when they have nestlings.

There is one ritual you can see only on the webcam:  the Head-Low Bow.  The male arrives at the nest and calls to his mate, "Ee-chip."  When she arrives he bows with his head quite low.  "Ee-chip, ee-chip."  She bows to him too and says "ee-chup."  The bowing lasts as long as she's interested.  Then he leaves.

Last Saturday, E2 visited the nest and called his mate to join him, "Hey, Dorothy!  Come here!" 

They bowed briefly and were gone.  Oh boy!  Can spring be far behind?

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Feb 02 2009

Groundhog Day or What to Look For in Early February

Published by under Phenology

Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog (photo from his very own website)It's Groundhog Day, the mid-point of winter and a very special time in western Pennsylvania when a rodent named Punxsutawney Phil comes out at dawn and tells us what to expect outdoors for the next six weeks.  He saw his shadow today so - as the legend goes - there will be six more weeks of winter.  We believe it.

Chuck Tague's prediction is much more detailed and was ready online before Phil woke up:  a western Pennsylvania phenology for early February.

Here's a hint of what Chuck says to look for outdoors in the coming weeks.  Click here for his full report.

  • We'll have snow and ice, quick thaws and flooding.
  • The bird population is at its annual low, but don't despair...
  • When the Great Lakes freeze we'll see more gulls and waterfowl on Pittsburgh's rivers.
  • Peregrines start courting this month!  (my own addition to the list.)
  • Bald eagles and great-horned owls are on eggs now.  Watch an eagle on her nest at the Friends of Blackwater NWR Eagle cam.
  • Watch for animal tracks in the snow.  You'll be able to see where they go.
  • And if you're lucky, by a creek in the woods you'll see pepper on the snow.  They're springtails, nicknamed "snow fleas."  They're not related to fleas; they're just that small.

(photo of Punxsutawney Phil from his very own website.  Click on Phil's picture to read all about the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania - 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.)

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Feb 01 2009

February is Bird Feeding Month

Published by under Books & Events

European Goldfinches (photo from Wikimedia Commons)This month is jam-packed with bird feeding events. 

Did you know that February was declared National Bird Feeding Month more than 10 years ago?  I didn't know until I heard ...

Sunday Baroque will honor National Bird Feeding Month on February 8 by featuring classical music which imitates European cuckoos, nightingales, European goldfinches (shown here) and swans.  

Why so many European birds?  Because most classical music composers lived in Europe; those are the birds they knew.

Next Sunday you can hear the program from 8:00am until noon on WQED-FM 89.3 in Pittsburgh, or WQEJ-FM 89.7 in Johnstown.  Or click here for our live online stream. 

And finally, February 13 to 16 will be the 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual four-day bird counting extravaganza across North America!  From the warmth of your home you can count birds in your backyard for as little or as long as you like, then add your information to the website.  It's really easy to do and your data helps bird science.  Sign up here and fill your bird feeders!

p.s. It would be lovely - but impossible - to have two European goldfinches at my feeder.  Aren't they beautiful?

(photo of European goldfinches (not in North America!) from Wikimedia Commons via the Attribution 2.0 License)

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