Monthly Archives: September 2010

Opposable Chums coming this Sunday

Last, but by no means least, on Things With Wings Sunday is a program on the inspiration, exasperation, perspiration and total elation of my favorite pasttime: birding!

First broadcast in May 2009, Opposable Chums: Guts and Glory at the World Series of Birding is all about the premier birding competition held every year on one day in May in New Jersey.  The World Series of Birding (WSB) pits teams of birders against each other and the clock to find the most species they can in 24 hours.

It's a far friendlier contest than it sounds.  Long before the competition begins the teams gather pledges toward their species counts.  As the big day approaches they scout the state for hard-to-find birds and hold a Swap Meet to trade notes on where to find them.  High counts help everyone because the pledges go toward bird conservation.  WSB raises $500,000 or more every year.

So what do birders do at the World Series of Birding?  Opposable Chums follows the teams, as fast-paced as they are.  In and out of cars, up and down the beach, bird jokes and coffee, you get the flavor of the contest and if you're a birder, you're challenged by the video clips of birds WITH NO SUBTITLE TO IDENTIFY THEM.  I caught the fever.  I had to identify those birds!  I called out their names as I watched.  I was into it!

At the end of the program I wanted to go birding.

Watch Opposable Chums at 6:00pm on Sunday September 26 on WQED ... and tell me... what's your count?   Show will also air on Sunday, 6 January 2013 at 5:00pm.

(logo from the Opposable Chums website.  Click on the logo to visit the website)

Drought Warning

Last Thursday the Department of Environmental Protection issued a drought warning for 24 counties in Pennsylvania and a drought watch in the remaining 43.  The entire state is dry but some places are worse than others. 

Here in western Pennsylvania I could see it coming.

Since July we've had no rain for weeks at a time, then a day of mere drizzle or a single downpour that ran off the packed, dry dirt.  The ground is rock hard, the plants have shriveled, and some trees have lost their leaves even though it's only September.  I was wondering when DEP would declare a drought.

A drought warning is more severe than a watch. Highlighted below are the counties in the warning zone.  As you can see, both the bottom left corner and the east central part of the state are in trouble.

In the warning area DEP asks residents to reduce water use voluntarily by 10-15 percent.  We're urged not to water our lawns, not to take long showers, to check our faucets for leaks and to upgrade our plumbing.

I'm sure DEP told industry to conserve as well.  

I hope the industries that take water without giving it back(*) will stop drawing water until the drought is over.

(Drought photo from Shutterstock)


(*)  In western Pennsylvania the Marcellus Shale drilling industry is permitted to draw 48.5 million gallons per day from the Ohio watershed.  The water cannot be given back because most of it is lost underground during hydraulic fracturing and the remainder, which cannot be treated yet to safe drinking water levels, is too dangerous to consume.  For a discussion of Marcellus Shale water issues see this paper by a law firm advising the industry, and this news article about the Monongahela River.

They’re Everywhere

Yesterday afternoon I took a walk in Schenley Park to see what I could find.

There weren't many birds -- just a flock of robins, some grackles and blue jays, one brown creeper, and a single confusing fall warbler -- but what was lacking in birds was made up by this very cute mammal.

Chipmunks were everywhere, scrabbling through dead leaves, cramming nuts in their cheeks and shouting as they ran to escape my approach.  My goodness they were busy!

Despite their apparent playfulness chipmunks are actually very territorial.  Except when they're babies they live alone, one per burrow, and defend that burrow against all chipmunks.  They threaten, they shout, they chase each other everywhere.  And they look so cute while they're doing it.

By the end of my walk I was sorry I hadn't counted chipmunks, just for fun.

Was it an illusion or were there more chipmunks than birds?

(photo by Brian Herman)

On the way to somewhere else I found…


I was Googling for a flower photograph the other day and stumbled on Flora Pittsburghensis, a blog by Christopher Bailey. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this blog -- as I was until this week -- it's a great resource on the wild flowers of Pittsburgh.  Bailey photographs native and alien wildflowers in our area, then tags them by family and posts them with extensive descriptions, primarily from Gray's Manual

This morning glory was his subject on September 1st.

Flora Pittsburghensis is a treasure chest of beauty and information.   Click on the photograph to read for yourself... and enjoy!

(photo by Christopher Bailey on Flora Pittsburghensis)

Anatomy: Wattle

Before I began researching this lesson I thought a wattle was merely the fleshy skin that hangs from the throats of some birds.  But according to Wikipedia a wattle "is a fleshy dewlap or caruncle hanging from various parts of the head or neck in several groups of birds, goats and other animals."

That means these roosters have wattles (the red fleshy flaps) hanging from their throats and from their cheeks.

The tall rooster has more to tell us.  He'll be back next week.


(photo by Ron Proctor on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original and its attribution.)

Bruce, The Fabulous

Male spruce grouse, Boot Cove, Maine (photo by Jim Honeth)
Male spruce grouse, Boot Cove, Maine (photo by Jim Honeth)

This is a Life Bird, the first spruce grouse I've ever seen.  The fact that I saw him and even have his picture is thanks to Naomi and Jim Honeth of Portland, Maine.

Now you may wonder, how did I manage to vacation in Maine for 27 years and never see a spruce grouse?  Well, I'm from Pennsylvania and I wasn't thinking.  I assumed spruce grouse behaved like Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffed grouse, which hides in the oak forest until the last minute and bursts skyward in an explosion of sound and feathers.  Silly me.  I would never have found a spruce grouse without a guide.

I first met Jim and Naomi on September 7 on Campobello Island as we watched birds, whales and seals in the turbulent water where Passamaquoddy Bay meets the Bay of Fundy.  We were pleased to see so many sea birds from land: greater and sooty shearwaters, phalaropes, razorbills and murres.  The next day it was foggy and by afternoon I was casting about for a place to find birds when I saw the Honeths in South Lubec.  We compared notes on what we'd seen, then Naomi said, "Do you want to see a spruce grouse?"  You bet!

We drove to Boot Cove Reserve.  Jim brought his camera and Naomi led the way down the narrow path in the mossy forest.  She whispered instructions on where to look and told me the male spruce grouse at this location was nicknamed "Spruce Bruce."  I wondered why.  My rainproof pants made swishing sounds.  I was afraid we'd scare off the grouse.

At the Bog Path junction we stopped to discuss what trail to take.  By this point the Honeths had expected to see the grouse and were worried he wouldn't appear.  Naomi said, "He is usually more cooperative."  I wondered what "cooperative" meant in terms of a grouse.

While we chatted we heard the whir of wings.  Jim was behind us and called, "There he is!"

The male spruce grouse landed on the path and walked toward us.  He stopped and stared.  Several times he flew to a tree branch, then back to the ground.  He decided to convince us that he owned the forest so he paused on the path, raised his bright red eyebrows, fanned his tail, puffed his chest and opened his wings. Wow!  He was so close I could see the dark brown iris of his eyes.  No wonder he has a name!

Eventually Bruce flew into the woods and we resumed our hike but soon had to stop because his lady (Betty?) was standing on the path in front of us.  She was a little shy but posed long enough for Jim to take her picture.

What cooperative birds!  Yes, spruce grouse are tame compared to ruffed grouse.

Thanks to the Honeths I saw the fabulous Spruce Bruce and his lady.


NOTE: When Picasa's website disappeared, so did my link to Jim's album of Spruce Bruce and Betty.  Here's a photo of a female spruce grouse from Wikimedia Commons.

Female spruce grouse in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female spruce grouse in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


(Male spruce grouse photo by Jim Honeth; female spruce grouse from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

A Summer of Birds

Fans of John James Audubon will enjoy the fourth show in our line-up on Things With Wings Sunday, September 26.

Based on the book of the same name, the film reenacts the summer of 1821 when Audubon secured a job as a tutor for the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Pirrie in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. 

Audubon accepted the tutoring job because he was bankrupt, a situation that nearly forced him to abandon his bird folio project.  He didn't think the job would advance his bird project at all, but that was before he spent the summer at Oakley Plantation among Louisiana's beautiful and plentiful birds. 

Audubon's summer of birds deepened his art and writing and permanently influenced that region of Louisiana. 

Don't miss A Summer of Birds on Sunday September 26 at 5:00pm on WQED, Pittsburgh.

(logo from A Summer of Birds.  Image credit: New York Historical Society. Click on the image to see a preview from Louisiana Public Broadcasting.)

Nearly missed IRFD!

Yow!  I nearly missed it!  Sunday was International Rock Flipping Day (IRFD) and I almost forgot.  If I didn't to flip a rock Pittsburgh, PA would go uncounted.

I raced to my backyard, flipped the rock that props up my bird bath, and snapped away with my cellphone camera.  Here are the before and after results.

You're right.  There is nothing of interest is under that rock.  At least nothing I was able to photograph.  I did see a centipede run away, but that was before my cellphone camera had time to respond.

Undaunted by this lack of success I looked for another likely rock to flip and found the next best thing:  an upside down birdbath I haven't used in a long time.  I flipped the defunct birdbath with better results, indicated below by the red arrow.

Here's a closer look at the spider web built at the crook of the tree roots:

Conclusion?  'Tis better to flip the old birdbath than the rock that holds up the new one. 

Click here to read more about IRFD (organized by Wanderin' Weeta) and the news from rock-flippers around the world... or click the links below to read the participating blogs.

(photos by Kate St. John)