Archive for February, 2010

Feb 17 2010

Where is the Nature Observer?

Published by under Books & Events

Brown marmorated stink bug (photo from The Bugwood Network via Wikimedia)Those of you who read Chuck Tague's blog have noticed he hasn't updated it since January 21.

I did too.  Around the end of January I emailed him saying "You must be away having fun since there's no news on your blog."

No, he isn't away.  He's alive and well but his blog has a bug.  There's some kind of software problem that causes it to crash the minute he tries to change anything.  The best he is able to do is post this comment on his last entry.

JANUARY 28, 2010

Meanwhile, Chuck's been busy birding and taking pictures while he waits for Apple to make the bug go away.  It's a pesky one and it's still not solved.

It may be a real bug but it's not a "true bug" like this brown marmorated stink bug that plagues us indoors.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons, via The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia.  Click on the photo to see the original at Wikimedia.)

2 responses so far

Feb 16 2010

Who cares if it snows?!

Published by under Peregrines

E2 visits the nest in the snow, Feb 14, 2010 (photo from the National Aviary's webcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Believe it or not, spring is coming.  I can tell because the peregrines are courting.

Despite deep snow in the nestbox Dorothy and E2 have been bowing and courting at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning.

The motion detection camera captured two of their visits last weekend: an extended one with lots of bowing on Saturday and a quick visit by E2 alone on Sunday.  Here, E2 seems to be saying, "What are you looking at?"  In fact he's probably wondering why Dorothy did not answer his call at the nest box on Valentine's Day.

Click his photo to see a slideshow of both of their visits.  (If you rest your mouse pointer on the slides, you'll see the captions.)

(photos from the National Aviary webcam at University of Pittsburgh)

12 responses so far

Feb 15 2010


Published by under Mammals

About to fall (photo by Kate St. John)Put on your detective hat.  It's time to solve a minor mystery.

First the clues, then the quiz.

The clues:  I took this picture during the last four weeks in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

The quiz: 

  • What happened to this tree and who did it?
  • What land feature is this tree near?
  • How long do you think it took to get the tree into this condition?
  • What kind of tree is it?
  • Will the tree fall?
  • If the tree falls will anyone get hurt?
  • Approximately when in the last four weeks did I take this picture?
  • Can you guess where this is?

Click the photo for the answers or, rather, my best guesses at them.

(photo by Kate St. John)


7 responses so far

Feb 14 2010

Happy Valentine’s Day

Published by under Bird Behavior

American Avocets in courtship dance (photo by Kim Steininger)
American avocets look so romantic when they court. 

Before they mate they do some ritualistic preening and splashing.  Afterward they dance together.  He puts his wing over her shoulder, they entwine their necks, cross their bills and strut a few steps.  How sweet!

Happy Valentines' Day

(photo by Kim Steininger)

2 responses so far

Feb 12 2010

Anatomy: Axillaries

Published by under Bird Anatomy

American Robin showing its axillaries (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)If you thought we were done with bird anatomy because we reached the tail last week, think again. 

There are plenty of obscure anatomy words I haven't covered yet.  For instance, what about axillaries?

Axillaries are the bird's armpits, circled here in yellow. 

Usually they are unremarkable because they match the wing color but every once in a while there's a surprise.  Black-bellied plovers and rose-breasted grosbeaks are two examples.  The American robin is another. 

If you hadn't seen this picture would you have known that the orange color of the robin's breast extends to its axillaries? 

Marcy Cunkelman snapped this photo at just the right moment.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

One response so far

Feb 11 2010

Beyond Bounds: Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover (photo by Steve Gosser)
I had promised myself that for the next two blogs I would not mention snow, but this is the photo that came up in rotation for my "Beyond Bounds" series.  I can't help it.  He's a snowy plover.

Once upon a time, in August 2002, a snowy plover stopped at the pond at Imperial grasslands in Allegheny County.  This bird is so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many, many birders made the trip to see it but I procrastinated. For a short time the pond was the Mecca of Birding and then the bird was gone.  I had procrastinated too long.  I missed him -- and he would have been a Life Bird (the first I'd ever seen in my life).

Snowy plovers are uncommon in North America.  Because they rely on sparsely vegetated beaches they are listed as endangered in Mississippi and threatened in Florida and along the Pacific coast.  Fortunately they also breed at inland alkaline lakes so they're not completely dependent on the sandy coast.

Eventually I saw my Life Bird snowy plover at Henderson, Nevada's sewage treatment plant, also known as the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve.  As I scanned the empty empoundments with my binoculars I stopped my gaze at a little group of shorebirds.  When I saw one that looked like this I thought, "That's a snowy plover."  Years of flipping through the field guide had paid off.  It felt like I'd seen him before.

But I haven't seen one since.

Steve Gosser photographed this one in Florida.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Feb 10 2010

Not Shy… Right Now

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at Tarentum (photo by Steve Gosser)
Peregrine nesting season is coming soon and our local birds are showing it.

When peregrines court they are very noticeable.  Lone peregrines with a territory but no mate fly conspicuously to advertise their availability.  Peregrines with both a nest and a mate engage in dramatic courtship flights to signal that their site is taken.  In both cases they mean to be seen.

The best time to observe this behavior in southwestern Pennsylvania is during February and March so, despite the snow last Sunday, Steve Gosser went down to the Tarentum Bridge where he'd seen a pair of peregrine falcons a year ago.  And there they were.

According to Steve, "they both came perching on a beam practically right above where I was standing."  He got some great photos (this is one of them) and confirmed that this is the same pair Dan Yagusic identified at the bridge on December 20.  Their continued presence is a good sign they intend to nest there.

Conspicuous peregrine activity lasts until the female lays eggs (late March or early April).  Then they become quite secretive and if you didn't watch carefully you'd think they were gone.

So make the effort in the next two months to watch for peregrine falcons near potential nest sites.  You won't be disappointed.  The peregrines aren't shy ... for now.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

4 responses so far

Feb 09 2010

Say it ain’t so!

Published by under Weather & Sky

Snow in Pittsburgh, 8:00am, Feb 6, 2010 (photo by Kate St. John)
The weatherman says it's going to snow 6 to 10 more inches in the next two days with gusty winds and blowing, drifting snow.  Oh no!

Where will we put more snow?  Will the wind break the trees that survived until now?  Will the power stay on?  Will my street ever get plowed?  When will garbage collection resume?  When will the 56U bus, the one I take to work, start to run again?  Will any buses be running?  Will I be able to walk in the street to get to work without being killed?

I'm losing my resilience. 

It was pretty, but enough already!

(Snow in Greenfield, 8:00am Saturday Feb 6, 2010, photo by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Feb 08 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb 12-15

Published by under Books & Events

Child with binoculars (linked from
Get ready for the easiest bird count you'll ever do 'cause you can do it in your jammies.

This coming weekend -- February 12 to 15 -- is the Great Backyard Bird Count.  Participants across North America will spend time counting birds and recording the greatest number of individuals they see per species.  The results show trends in winter bird populations.  It's a great "citizen science" event for all ages.

And it's easy.  You can be as ambitious or laid back as you like.  You can go outdoors looking for birds in cold, windy places, or you can fill your feeders and count birds outside your window while you lounge in your pajamas.  You can count every day for four days, or you can count for as little as 15 minutes in the comfort of your home.  When you're done, just turn on your computer and report it online at Birdsource.

Don't want to count alone?  Do your kids want to learn about birds?  There will be many opportunities to gather and learn at events across North America.   In the Pittsburgh area, Fern Hollow Nature Center will hold children's workshops and bird-count walks in Sewickley Heights Borough Park.  (NOTE ON FEB 11, 2010:  THE WALKS IN THE PARK ARE CANCELED DUE TO SNOW DEPTH.)

And if you like to take pictures you can enter the Great Backyard Bird Count photo contest.

So no matter what the weather is - even if it snows two feet - you can safely plan to count birds next weekend.  Click on the photo above for all the details.


(photo linked from Click on the image to see the original article about Birding for kids)

One response so far

Feb 07 2010

Wishful Thinking

The Tropics sign at Phipps Conservatory, Feb 6, 2010 (photo by Kate St. John).
This morning dawned clear and cold at 5oF.   We're back in the deep freeze, but this time with an official 21.1 inches of snow.  This is the fourth largest snowfall since Pittsburgh began keeping records in 1884 and it sets the record for February.

After the snow stopped falling yesterday, the sun came out and the air felt almost balmy.  Heavy snow began to fall off the trees, people came outdoors to dig out their cars and I took a walk to Schenley Park to see what was going on.

The snow was up to my knees.  I had to walk in the road, but so did everyone else and there were very few cars.  If I hadn't been able to walk where it was plowed I'd never have made the 3.7 miles round trip.

When I got to Phipps Conservatory I found this sign.  Yes, there are tropics inside their building but it was closed.  All the action was on Flagstaff Hill, mobbed by thrill-seekers with snowboards, saucer-sleds and makeshift toboggans.

As promised I took a lot of pictures - though low quality on my cell phone.  If you click on the Tropics picture you'll see a slideshow from yesterday when it felt warm.  (If you rest your mouse pointer on the slides, you'll see their captions.)

The tropics are definitely wishful thinking today.

p.s. Here's a map of the total snowfall.  Notice how Pittsburgh, Westmoreland County and the mountains got the most snow!

(photos by Kate St. John)

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