Archive for March, 2010

Mar 11 2010


Published by under Plants,Schenley Park


I found these crocuses blooming at Schenley Plaza and saw my first turkey vulture in Oakland this afternoon.  Spring is on its way!

Update, Friday morning, 5:15am:  Robins are singing in the dark outside my house.  This is new; they must have arrived overnight.

Update, Saturday morning, 9am: Grackles in my back yard, the first of 2010.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Mar 11 2010

Beyond Bounds: Snow Geese

Snow geese are so unusual in southwestern Pennsylvania that it's incredible there are 120,000 of them in the state -- and none here -- but that's how many were at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area yesterday.

Middle Creek is on the border of Lebanon and Lancaster Counties, squarely on the migration path of waterfowl travelling from the Atlantic coast to their breeding grounds in the Arctic and northern Canada.  In early March the lake hosts as many as 250,000 snow geese, 8,000 tundra swans and a wide variety of ducks.

I went there last Sunday to get my annual dose of birds.  The weather was great and all day long the waterfowl numbers increased.  As we watched from Willow Point more birds arrived from the south than flew off to the north.  Every day must have been like that this week.  There were 45,000 snow geese last Sunday.  Now there are three times as many.

Yes, 120,000 birds in a huge flock on a small lake.  Imagine when the entire flock takes off at once in fear of a lone bald eagle overhead.  Their flight is controlled chaos.  Such noise and excitement!   It's a wonder they don't hit each other in the air.

So if you can, set aside some time to visit Middle Creek this weekend.  (Click the links in the text above for more information.)

What a migration spectacle!

(photo by Kim Steininger.  We were both there last Sunday.)

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Mar 10 2010


Published by under Peregrines

Pittsburgh's peregrines will soon lay eggs.  I know this because the females won't sleep at the nest until they're a week or two away from their first egg - and here they are last night.

Pictured at left is Dorothy at the University of Pittsburgh before dawn this morning, illuminated by the webcam's infrared light.  She was sleeping on her perch and woke to preen just as twilight began.  As the sky got brighter she called to rouse her mate, E2.  Twenty minutes later she left the perch even though it was still dark.  Perhaps she saw him fly away to get her breakfast.

Meanwhile, before dawn at the Gulf Tower, Tasha2 was puttering on the ramp in front of the nestbox when she heard her mate call to her.  She replied with faint "ee-chups" and Louie called again.  Soon she walked up the ramp and waited in the nest scrape at the back of the box.  She was waiting for breakfast.

As female peregrines approach egg laying time, their mates provide their food.  For the males this is a heavy responsibility that comes at the same moment when they must defend their territories against intruders.  Only a strong male peregrine can fulfill all these tasks -- and this is only the start.  When the eggs hatch he provides food for the entire family until the chicks are beyond the brooding stage.

You, too, can see and hear Pittsburgh's peregrines at their nests.  Click here for the Cathedral of Learning webcam and here for the Gulf Tower webcam.  Because there are infrared lights, you can watch them both night and day.

(photos from the National Aviary peregrine webcams at the Cathedral of Learning and the Gulf Tower)

p.s. If your computer can't stream, watch the snapshot camera at Pitt that refreshes every 15 seconds.

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Mar 08 2010

Signs of Spring

Published by under Trees

Sycamore seeds on snow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)After a weekend of above freezing temperatures and bright sunshine -- yay! -- here's a sign of spring you might see on the dwindling snow.

These are sycamore seeds, about a half inch long.  They've been in seed balls on the trees throughout this long, rough winter.

By now the binding that holds the balls together is weak and the goldfinches are hungry.  The finches pull apart the balls and eat what they can but the rest floats to the ground.  The tiny hairs help the seeds disperse in the wind so instead of a big clump you'll find them littering the snow.

Watch for the seeds in your neighborhood.  You'll find sycamores with their distinctive peeling bark near water sources, especially near creeks.  In Pittsburgh our London plane trees are similar to sycamores and you'll see this same seed effect below them.

Thanks to Marcy Cunkelman for reminding me to watch for this.  Yes, spring is on its way.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Mar 07 2010

The Sun Gets in the Way

Published by under Weather & Sky

Artist's rendition of AMC-21 satellite (from Orbital Sciences Corporation news room)I find out the coolest things by working in television.  Here's one about a "bird" I don't normally discuss.

Last week I received an email from PBS Engineering with a list of dates and times when PBS stations will experience satellite interference from the Sun on the AMC-21 satellite. 


PBS uses AMC-21 to send programming to the stations.  PBS beams it up and each station has a dish to pull it down for pre-recording or broadcast. 

AMC-21 is a geosynchronous satellite so it orbits the earth at the same speed the ground is moving.  From our perspective on earth, the satellite never appears to move so we can point our dishes to just one place and never have to adjust them.  Unfortunately the sun reaches that same sweet spot twice a year.

In the weeks near the equinox the sun gets in the way.  For about 15 minutes per day the sun's path is directly behind (in line with) the satellite.  The sun emits a lot of radio waves and in this position it confuses our dish receivers.  The dates and times of the interference depend on your location on earth.  It's worse in heavy sun spot years.  This year "there should be minimal Ku-Band sun outage disruptions due to the low level of solar activity" according to PBS. 

For WQED most of the interference happened earlier this week.  Our last episode will be today from 3:45pm to 3:59pm but you'll never notice it on the air.  We correct for it in our engineering department. 

The sun is on the move (actually the earth is traveling around it) so this phenomenon will stop soon.  To read more about it, see this informative article from Australia's IPS Radio and Space Services.

And yes, some people call satellites "birds."  It's confusing!

(artists rendition of the AMC-21 satellite from Orbital Sciences Corporation)

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Mar 06 2010

Beyond Bounds: White Ibis

Published by under Beyond Bounds

White Ibis (photo by Steve Gosser) 
Just eleven days ago I saw these birds everywhere but now I'm in Pennsylvania, way beyond their range.

White ibises are warm water wetland birds who feed in shallow, fresh or salt water and on soggy land nearby.  They breed near the coast from North Carolina to Louisiana.  They're everywhere in Florida. 

White ibises are very conspicuous.  Their pink faces and decurved bills look almost silly as they methodically poke their beaks into water and sod.  They often graze in flocks through golf courses, parks and cemeteries.   They act like wind-up toys.

One of my favorite moments at work was when Rick Sebak called me down to the edit room where he and Kevin Conrad were preparing A Cemetery Special.   They were editing a segment from the cemetery in Key West.  While there, Rick and his crew had startled a flock of very odd-looking birds who landed on top of the tombs. 

"Can you tell me what birds these are?" he asked. 

In the film the birds peered at the camera nervously with pink faces that looked old and sad.  They shuffled into a tighter group.  They bumped into each other to avoid falling off the tombs.  Then they flew off, showing their black primaries. 

White ibises. 

They won themselves a cameo appearance at the end of Rick's show, A Cemetery Special, and made it into the promo here

Steve Gosser found this one in Florida.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Mar 05 2010

Anatomy: Nictitating Membrane

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Great horned owl blinking its thrid eyelid (photo by Chuck Tague)

Great horned owl blinking its thrid eyelid (photo by Chuck Tague)

This great horned owl is winking sideways!

He's closing his nictitating membrane.

The nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, is named for the Latin word "to blink" (nictare).   Its function is to protect and moisten the eye while allowing the animal to see.  Sometimes the membrane is transparent, sometimes translucent.  It depends upon the species.

Birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians have nictitating membranes but in most mammals it's only a vestigial remnant in the inside corner of the eye.  Mammals who swim frequently, such as polar bears and beavers, are one exception to that rule.  They have transparent, fully functional third eyelids which they use like underwater goggles.

Though all birds have nictitating membranes it's rare to see birds blink.  Sometimes you can capture a raptor blinking because its eyes are so big and it uses its third eyelid a lot.

Birds of prey close their nictitating membranes while capturing prey.  They can't afford to have the prey scratch their eyes!  Peregrines rapidly blink their nictitating membranes while diving at top speed and close them while feeding their sharp-beaked young.

Having said it's hard to see a bird blink, I'll show you two examples.

Here's a female peregrine with her third eyelid closed.  Notice that it's white.

Peregrine falcon sleeps at her nest (photo from National Aviary webcam)

Peregrine falcon sleeps at her nest (photo from National Aviary webcam)

And here's a Eurasian collared dove with its eyes closed.

Eurasian collared dove with its nictitating membranes closed (photo by Chuck Tague)

Eurasian collared dove with its nictitating membranes closed (photo by Chuck Tague)

It's all in the blink of an eye.  😉

(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Mar 04 2010

It’s Peregrine Time!

Published by under Peregrines

Falconcam splash screen (from the National Aviary and
Hooray, the falconcams are up and running!

Last month the National Aviary installed new webcams with streaming video, audio and infrared night vision at the Gulf Tower and the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nests in Pittsburgh.  Both cams are now live on their website.

At the Gulf Tower you can see and hear Tasha2 dig the scrape where she’ll lay her eggs.  Sometimes she stands on the nest, all puffed up, and chirps to tell Louie she’s there.

At Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning there are two cameras.  The new one broadcasts sight and sound when Dorothy or E2 arrives at the nest and calls to the other for courtship bows.  The original camera provides snapshots of the action on the same webpage at lower right. 

Both nests have infrared lights now and all three cameras can “see” it so you’ll be able to watch the birds day and night.  Wow!

This new technology was installed by PixController and streams from  They’re the ones who set up the famous Lily the Bear webcam where viewers saw Lily give birth to a cub on January 22.  PixController is based near Pittsburgh and has lots of streaming experience including their own Pennsylvania Woodland Cam where you can watch deer, wild turkeys, foxes, squirrels and birds. 

The falconcams have been live at for a week or two.  If you’ve been watching there you’ll be happy to see that the Aviary’s webpage images are a little larger.

So bookmark the pages below, click on the Play arrow and keep watching.  You’ll be glued to your computer – just like me – watching Dorothy and Tasha2 lay their eggs.

See the Cathedral of Learning webcams here ( or click on the splash screen above.
See the Gulf Tower here (
And for quick reference I've posted the links as "Resources" in the left hand column of this blog.

It’s peregrine time!

(This photo of Dorothy by Pat Szczepanski is the splash screen for the National Aviary’s webcam at the University of Pittsburgh.)

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Mar 03 2010

Snow, go away!

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine (Beauty) in deep snow, Feb 27, 2010 (photo from Rochester, NY webcam)
It looks like this peregrine is complaining about the snow last weekend.  Was this in Pittsburgh? 

No, it's Rochester, New York where they got even more snow than we did during last Friday's storm. 

This is Beauty at the Times Square nest box in Rochester.  She's staying close to the nest because she's facing stiff competition for this prime site and she's determined not to lose it.  Beauty hatched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2007, daughter of Dorothy and Erie.  I'll bet this box reminds her of where she was born.  

It's easy to watch Beauty on the web this spring.  Rochester Falconcam has two cameras at the Times Square nest box and two at the Powers Building, an alternate nestbox nearby.  Read about Rochester's peregrines and watch Beauty on camera at this link.  And don't miss Carol Phillips' photos of the peregrines in Rochester, NY.

Yes, peregrine nesting season is coming - ready or not.  The snow is already melting and by the end of the month there will be eggs in most of the nests.  Can you believe it!?!

(photo of Beauty from the Times Square webcam in Rochester, NY)

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Mar 02 2010

So cute

Published by under Birds of Prey

Great horned owl mother and owlet (photo by Chuck Tague)
One of the highlights of my trip to Florida was a visit to Fort Matanzas National Monument to see the great horned owl's nest.

I say the great horned owl's nest because it's so easy to see that it's become one of the Fort's main attractions - at least to birders.

The nest is on the branch of a huge live oak about 20 feet above the sidewalk behind the Visitor's Center.  It is so centrally located that everyone who takes the boat tour must walk beneath it.  The backyard slopes up from the live oak and on that rise the National Park Service has set up scopes with a view straight into the nest.  The father owl always perches nearby and there's a scope on him too.  You can see the entire family close up.  Amazing!

The day I visited, mother owl was brooding her baby who sleepily stirred on the nest.  The baby yawned and blinked.  He stretched and poked at the ferns with his beak.  Mama sheltered him with her wing and Papa watched from his nearby roost.  All was peaceful.  This baby is well protected by two powerful adult owls with sharp beaks and talons and by signs and explanations from the National Park rangers.

Chuck took plenty of pictures while we were there and returned a week later to see how much the baby had grown.  Click on the photo to see what he looked like last weekend.

So cute!

(photos by Chuck Tague)

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