Archive for October, 2010

Oct 21 2010


Published by under Migration,Songbirds

When I read the bird reports from eastern Pennsylvania I'm always a little jealous because they have such a wide variety of birds over there. 

It's unusual to see a species in western Pennsylvania that's not common in the east as well.  Rusty blackbirds are an exception to that rule.

Rusty blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) breed in Alaska and across Canada in wooded swamps and willow thickets.  No matter where they are, they prefer to keep their feet wet which means that glaciated, swampy, northwestern Pennsylvania is a great place to find them on migration.

Last Sunday I visited Glade Dam Lake in Butler County where a lot of the area is marked "subject to inundation" on the map.  In other words, it's a swamp ideal for rusty blackbirds -- and they were there.

Because rusty blackbirds are declining and sometimes rare I'm always careful to get a good look at them before I get excited.  Distant backlit flocks are difficult to identify in flight because they're the same size as red-winged blackbirds.  Up close they're easy.  Though they're black in the breeding season they become rust-colored in the fall and their yellow eyes stand out.  Even their voice is rusty, a noise that resembles a creaking rusty gate.

At Glade Dam Lake I heard their voices but couldn't see them in the swampy woods until the flock grazed its way to the parking lot.  Ta dah!  Rusties! 

Steve Gosser had a better view of them at Mosquito Lake, Ohio on October 14.  That's where he took this picture and a video of rusty blackbirds doing their favorite thing:  keeping their feet wet.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

3 responses so far

Oct 20 2010

Defending the Home Front

Published by under Peregrines

We had a little peregrine excitement at the University of Pittsburgh yesterday.

Around 3:00pm Tony Bledsoe called to tell me that he was outdoors by the Cathedral of Learning and he could hear our peregrines chirping-cacking. 

It's unusual for them to make noise in the fall.  As we remarked on this over the phone Tony saw why they were making noise.  "There are three peregrines.  They're chasing each other!  This might be a fight."

Indeed a third peregrine had arrived on campus and the two residents were chasing him away.  Tony saw a lot of chasing but nothing dangerous.  Eventually two of the birds -- both males -- flew off to the south.  Dorothy stayed at home to await further developments.

At 3:15pm I took my binoculars to the west window at WQED and tried to find the peregrines on the Cathedral of Learning.  One of them was perched at the southeast 38th floor corner, E2's favorite spot.  As I watched he took off and flew toward me, pumping hard to chase a bird I couldn't see to my east.  Whoever it was got the message and left.  E2 banked above Central Catholic and returned home.  Within a minute both he and Dorothy were prominently perched atop the Cathedral of Learning, warning all other peregrines to stay away.

Later Dorothy stopped by the nestbox, scuffed at the gravel, and perched at the lookout.  Waiting and watching. 

October's the time when arctic peregrines migrate through Pittsburgh and the mid-latitude falcons wander to find a territory.  Dorothy and E2 are vigilant this month, defending the home front.  They have no intention of losing their territory.

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh)

8 responses so far

Oct 19 2010

Peregrines help the Gulf Spill Investigation

Published by under Peregrines

On South Padre Island, Texas, peregrine falcons are helping scientists study the effects of BP's Gulf oil spill. 

Because peregrines are at the top of the food chain they're a good indicator species for threats to the environment.  Their population crash in the 1960's showed us the dangers of DDT.  Now they'll tell us if BP's oil spill has made its way into the food chain.

To do this, a team from The Peregrine Fund is taking blood samples from migrating peregrines who stopover at the Gulf of Mexico on their way to South America.  While on South Padre visiting arctic peregrines eat birds, some of which may have been affected by the oil spill.  Are there traces of oil in the peregrines' blood?  If so, the spill is having long-lasting effects.

The peregrines aren't exactly willing participants in the study -- they must be captured to get a sample -- but their moment for science is brief and then they're on their way. 

Read more about the study here.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

2 responses so far

Oct 18 2010

A Murder of Crows

As of last night, Pittsburgh's huge winter flock of crows had not arrived yet but I expect them any day now.  In the meantime I've been learning more about crows, and you can too.

Coming this Sunday, October 24, at 8:00pm on PBS's Nature is an excellent program on crow intelligence called A Murder of Crows

Crows have been watching us for a very, very long time but it's only recently that scientists have begun to watch back.  Here's what they've found out.  Did you know that...

  • Crows watch us more than we watch them.
  • Crows can recognize the faces of people who've hurt them.
  • Crows teach each other which people are dangerous so the entire flock knows who to avoid.
  • Crows probably got a bad reputation because we know they're a lot like us (intelligent and social), but crows will do the things that humans will do that we aren't particularly proud of.

This is just a taste of what you'll learn from A Murder of Crows this Sunday, October 24 at 8:00pm on PBS. 

In Pittsburgh, it's on WQED.  Perhaps our crows will arrive in time to see it.

(photo from Shutterstock by Al Mueller)


p.s.  A "murder of crows" is a flock.  As the show opens there's a very good black and white animation of a crow flock that is frankly rather scary.  Even I, who love crows, found it disturbing but it was the only disturbing image in an otherwise upbeat and fascinating program.

16 responses so far

Oct 17 2010

Coming Soon

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

If you didn't have dark-eyed juncos in your neighborhood all summer, don't worry they're on their way.

Juncos breed in Canada and the mountainous parts of the United States.  In October and November they move south or to lower elevations, but not far because they prefer cool climates.  Some of them spend the winter in Pittsburgh. 

I'm looking forward to their arrival in Schenley Park because "I like their clean little coveralls" (as William Stafford said in his poem Juncos). 

Soon, soon, within a month they'll be here.

(photo by Bobby Greene)

7 responses so far

Oct 16 2010


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

More amazing than a Transformer toy that changes from a robot into a spaceship, this woolly bear caterpillar will wrap himself in a cocoon and spend the winter transforming into this.

Odd and ugly caterpillars become beautiful moths.

Who becomes what?

See Chuck Tague's guide to "cats and moths" for some answers.

(photo by Christopher Jones from Wikimedia.  Click on the photo to see the original)

4 responses so far

Oct 15 2010

Anatomy: Speculum

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Waterfowl are just beginning to migrate through Pennsylvania so now's a good time to learn the name of an important fieldmark on ducks.

The speculum is a patch of distinctive color on the wing.  It is made up of secondary feathers and is usually iridescent on dabbling ducks, as shown here on this female mallard. 

It's a useful fieldmark when trying to identify mallards and American black ducks.  The speculum on mallards is blue with white borders.  On black ducks it's purple without white borders.  Unfortunately mallards and black ducks can hybridize and the result can be confusing!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

Oct 14 2010

Blue Beads

Published by under Plants

Another name for Yellow Clintonia is "Bluebead" -- and now we see why. 

The fruits taste terrible and are mildy toxic -- at least to us -- so I wonder what made three of the beads disappeared from their stems. 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

Oct 13 2010

Flock at Sunset

Published by under Migration

The grackles are back in Pittsburgh for their fall get-together. 

In the evenings I see them in Oakland heading north over Carnegie-Mellon's campus on their way to a roost... I don't know where. 

Hundreds and hundreds fly by.  I stand at the bus stop and watch them.  On the highest point of the Cathedral of Learning a peregrine stands and watches them.

Where is the roost? 

Some evening I will follow them and find out.

(photo of red-winged blackbirds at Quivera NWR, Kansas, in the public domain by Jerry Segraves. Click on the photo to see the original.)

9 responses so far

Oct 12 2010

Kingfishers on the move

If you're near a stream or lake in western Pennsylvania you might conclude there are more belted kingfishers than every before -- and you'd be right.

Kingfishers are migrating now across North America.  They breed as far north as Alaska and Hudson Bay but the northernmost birds move south in autumn because they require open water to fish.

The influx of "new" kingfishers upsets their established boundaries.  They're normally solitary birds except when breeding and will defend their favorite fishing hole against other kingfishers, even in the winter.  Defense consists of relentless chasing while shouting out the "rattle" call.  Perhaps they make new territories while on migration.  Perhaps they're just ornery.

There are certainly a lot of them here right now.  I've seen them at Schenley Park, along the Ohio, at Montour Run, and at Keystone State Park.

Kingfishers are on the move.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

6 responses so far

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