Archive for January, 2010

Jan 07 2010

Beyond Bounds: American Oystercatchers

American Oystercatchers (photo by Brian Herman)
Two weeks ago I guaranteed you’d never see a roseate spoonbill in Pittsburgh and though “guarantee” is a dangerous word, I’ll use it again.  I guarantee – this time with more certainty – that you’ll never see an American oystercatcher in the wild in Pittsburgh.

Why am I so confident of this prediction?  Because American oystercatchers, unlike roseate spoonbills, have to live at the ocean.  They specialize in eating saltwater bivalve molluscs (oysters, clams and mussels) using their razor-sharp beaks to cut the abductor chain that holds the two shells together.  They are indeed oyster catchers.

They are also large, conspicuous and noisy.  Their faces are clown-like with red-rimmed eyes and red-orange beaks.  (The color is actually called Chrome Orange and is on their eyelids as well.)  When flying they call “kleep, kleep, kleep, kleep, kleep, kleep” to each other.  They are unmistakable.

American oystercatchers prefer sandy beaches, salt marshes and even saltwater dredge spoil piles.  This keeps them beyond the bounds of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Brian Herman photographed this pair at Cape May, New Jersey.


(photo by Brian Herman)

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Jan 06 2010

Lunch at the Library

Published by under Birds of Prey

Immature red-tailed hawk eating at the library (photo by Beth Lawry)
Before Christmas I missed one of the most exciting bird events to occur at our library in a long time.

Normally I visit the main branch of Carnegie Library several times a week.  It’s an appealing destination in winter: warm and dry, the right distance for a lunchtime walk, lots of books, free Internet access, food and drink at the cafe, a good view of the Pitt peregrines from the front steps (if they’re visible), and the possibility of running into friends.

But that week I worked through lunch so I missed Nature, red in tooth and claw — er, rather, red in beak and claw — when an immature red-tailed hawk very publicly ate a gray squirrel near the library’s front door.  (Don’t look too closely if you’re squeamish!)

The event was impossible to miss, if only I’d been there.  Fortunately I received this photo from Beth Lawry and read about it on the library’s Eleventh Stack blog.  Click on the photo to reach the blog.

Apparently I’m not the only one who spends lunchtime at the library.

(photo by Beth Lawry)

7 responses so far

Jan 05 2010

Hummingbirds on January 10th!

A Velvet-purple Coronet from Nature: Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air
It’s cold and snowy here in Pittsburgh but we’re about to be delighted by hummingbirds.  Next Sunday January 10 at 8:00pm PBS’s Nature show will feature Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air

I watched the preview last weekend and was wowed by these tiny jewels.  Did you know that hummingbirds are the smallest warm-blooded animal on earth?  That they only occur in the Western Hemisphere?  That their wings provide lift from both sides?  That they’re related to swifts?   I learned a lot, and that wasn’t even the best part.

Filmed in high definition, high speed video the producers slowed down the action so you can see the hummingbirds’ wingbeats.  There was slow motion footage of hummingbirds courting, eating and fighting (imagine that!).  The closeups are so close that you can see the claws on the hummingbird’s toes as he grasps the edge of a flower.  They recorded the 60 mph courtship dive of the male Anna’s hummingbird and the waving tail feathers of the rare Marvelous Spatuletail.  Beautiful and amazing!

The producers traveled far and wide to film these gorgeous birds.  You might even recognize the people in the film including hummingbird bander Nancy Newfield of Louisiana.  But the birds themselves are the stars. 

Click on the photo to watch previews of the show.  Then tune in at 8:00pm EST on Sunday, January 10 to see Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.   In Pittsburgh watch it on WQED or check your local PBS schedule for exact times in your area.

(photo of a Velvet-purple Coronet from Nature: Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air)

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Jan 04 2010

Whitecaps and Ice

Published by under Weather & Sky

Monongahela River in winter, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)
Day after day we’ve had unusually cold weather with highs in the teens and windchill as low as minus 10.  This may be springlike in the Arctic but it’s too cold for Pittsburgh. 

Most people stayed indoors yesterday but I was itching for a walk so I bundled up and trudged from my home in Greenfield across the Hot Metal Bridge to South Side’s riverfront park. 

I was hoping to see some really good birds but that was not to be.  Instead I was treated to whitecaps and ice. 

Yow! it was cold!  I tried to show the whitecaps in this picture but I couldn’t zoom my cell phone camera with my gloves on and my eyes watered as I faced the wind.  I’m lucky the camera could focus.

See that white skim on the river?  That’s ice.  Beyond it is a raft of ring-billed gulls riding the waves.  Periodically they lift off and ride the wind instead. 

Behind me a flock of mallards wait for their patrons to arrive with a handout of bread.  Canada geese fly to the river or fly back to the grass at the Technology Center.  A mockingbird “chakks” to claim his patch of oriental bittersweet.

If I’m brave I’ll go back to the park later this week to see what new birds show up.  The colder it gets the more likely a really good bird will arrive to take advantage of the open water.   


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jan 02 2010

Anatomy: Wing Coverts

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Turkey Vulture with lines showing underwing coverts (photo by Chuck Tague)Today I’m back to wing anatomy and the huge topic of coverts.

What are wing coverts?

As their name implies these feathers cover the important part of the wing – the flight feathers – and provide contouring so that air flows smoothly during flight.

There are coverts are on both sides of the wing:  upperwing coverts and underwing coverts.  Not only that, they are further divided and named by the part of the wing they cover.

Turkey vultures conveniently have darker underwing coverts than their flight feathers so I’ve marked the vulture pictured here to illustrate them.  The primary underwing coverts are marked in blue, the secondary underwing coverts in pink.

If you look closely inside the blue square you’ll see two layers of primary coverts which overlap like shingles on a roof.  The top layer is called the greater primary coverts.  The second layer, slightly lighter on this bird, is called the lesser primary coverts.  If there are three layers the second one is called the median primary coverts and the third is called lesser.  This three-tiered naming system applies to secondary coverts as well.  On this bird it’s hard to see if he has lesser secondary coverts.  (Have these terms made you cross-eyed yet?)

Upperwing coverts are also named primary, secondary, greater, median and lesser.  These coverts are the wing feathers you see when the bird is perched or standing.  On many birds the upperwing coverts are colorful or striped and provide key clues to identifying the species.  Take a look at warblers and you’ll see what I mean.

So how many kinds of wing coverts are there?  After tantalizing you with the topic I won’t go into it very deeply but here’s a list of as many wing covert names as I can find.  Most of these come in upperwing and underwing varieties:

  • Greater primary coverts
  • Median primary coverts (I don’t know of an example of these)
  • Lesser primary coverts
  • Greater secondary coverts
  • Median secondary coverts
  • Lesser secondary coverts
  • Marginal coverts
  • Alular quill coverts

Yow!  This is almost boring. Fortunately there will not be a quiz.

(photo by Chuck Tague, altered to illustrate its underwing coverts)

4 responses so far

Jan 01 2010

Happy New Year!

Published by under Books & Events

Snowy trail scene (phot by Dianne Machesney)

I’m taking the day off and hoping for a nice hike in the woods, but the weather doesn’t look promising.

Watch for the bird anatomy lesson tomorrow.

And while you’re waiting, check out the Hooters Calendar whose pictures made me laugh out loud (it’s not what you think).  The link shows the 2009 .pdf calendar which takes a while to download.  Sales of the calendar benefit the “models.”

Happy New Year!

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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