Archive for December, 2010

Dec 21 2010

Quiz: Where do rabbits go in the winter?

Published by under Mammals,Quiz

Today's quiz is something I've been wondering about.

In spring, summer and fall rabbits were everywhere and easy to find.  Now that the ground is snow covered, I haven't seen any and I've found only one set of tracks in all my travels. 

So where did the rabbits go?  Are they hiding?  Or sleeping? 

My reference guides make it sound like the winter life of rabbits is barely different from summer's except that they change their diet from leaves to twigs.  I find it hard to believe that that's the only difference.

If you know what rabbits do and where they go in the winter, please leave a comment to let me know. 

I'm sure many of us will learn from it!

(photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikipedia. Click on the photo to see the original.)

32 responses so far

Dec 20 2010

Sun and Moon Tomorrow

Published by under Weather & Sky

Tomorrow will be jam-packed with astronomical events, but you'll miss the first one if I don't tell you now.

In the wee hours of tomorrow morning -- at 3:15am Eastern Standard Time (EST) on December 21, to be exact -- the last full moon of 2010 will reach its fullest.  Two minutes later it will turn blood red. 

That's because there will be a full lunar eclipse tonight that will reach totality at 3:17am.  The eclipse will start 27 minutes after midnight (00:27am on 12/21) and end at 6:06am EST.  When the moon is completely eclipsed it usually turns red.  This will be visible across all of North America (where there isn't cloud cover). 

The second event is the winter solstice, the moment when the sun "stands still" at its farthest point south for the year.  Though this is far less dramatic you can think of it when it occurs at 6:38pm EST.

So if the sky is clear tonight, go to bed early so you can get up to watch the moon. 

Don't worry.  You can afford to lose sleep.  Tomorrow will be a very short day.  😉

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 responses so far

Dec 19 2010


Doesn't this duck look fancy!

Harlequin ducks are named for the male's colorful plumage.  Not only does he look dramatic but he appears to be wearing a "harlequin" mask.  From a distance the dot on his head masquerades as an eye, making him look like he's facing the opposite direction.

His scientific name reinforces the theme:  Histrionicus histrionicus, "dramatically exaggerated."

These ducks have a dramatic lifestyle, too.  They breed on fast flowing northern rivers and spend the winter in the most turbulent water on North America's rocky coasts.  They like turbulent water so much that many adult harlequins are found to have broken bones. 

I have never seen a male harlequin duck but that's because I haven't spent time on our rocky coasts in winter.  Eastern harlequin ducks are listed as endangered in Canada so I really should make the effort to see one. 

Maybe I'll visit Barnegat, New Jersey this winter.  That's where this bird was photographed.

(photo by Peter Massas from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

2 responses so far

Dec 18 2010


Published by under Weather & Sky

One of the best things about snow is that you can see who's been there before you and guess what they were doing. 

Last weekend at Moraine State Park I was pleased by the tracks in the snow.  My favorites were made by a red fox who walked at least a mile on the North Shore bike trail.  For the most part he just put one foot front of the other, literally placing each back foot in the print of his front foot like a cat.  On and on he walked until...  

Something caught his eye and he broke into a gallop.  He rushed at a pine tree with squirrel tracks at its base but his prey must have escaped.  No blood, no struggle in the snow, and the fox resumed his walk with only one backward glance as if nothing had happened.

Behind him came a coyote who walked only a short section of the bike trail, then veered off to a thicket for some serious hunting.  His prints showed him sniffing in all the corners, then digging near a culvert.  Something edible must have been hiding there.  I saw rabbit and vole tracks but were they what he was after?  I don't know.

Birds make tracks, too.  Shown above are the tracks of a wild turkey walking alone in the snow.  It would have been fun to find out where he went and if any other turkeys joined him.

So despite the cold I'm not tired of the snow (yet).  I'm out looking for tracks!

(photo by Tim Engleman of Saxonburg, PA via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

3 responses so far

Dec 17 2010

Anatomy: Fat Reserves

Published by under Bird Anatomy

How do birds survive when it's cold or food is scarce?  They live off their fat reserves. 

In cold weather, warm-blooded animals burn more energy to maintain their body temperatures.  Pound for pound, fat's the best to burn because it provides twice the energy of protein and carbohydrates.  Polar explorers know this, so when they have to travel light they carry fat for food: butter, chocolate and nuts.

Birds prepare for scarcity and cold by eating more and storing fat under their skin.  At first the fat is in discrete patches but as the bird gains weight the fat comes a continuous subcutaneous layer.  You've probably seen this on the chicken you buy at the grocery store.

Shown above is a magnolia warbler in late fall with bulging yellowish fat reserves under its belly skin.  This bird was banded and photographed at Powdermill Avian Research Center where the bander blew on its belly feathers to assess the bird's fat reserves and fitness for migration.  (Fat reserve information is noted for all banded birds.)

Large birds can store more fat on their bodies and go longer without eating.  A warbler might not survive a day without food in 33o to 50oF temperatures but an American Kestrel with a fat supply can last five. 

The champion of fat storage is the male Emperor Penguin who fasts for two to four months during the Antarctic winter while incubating his lone egg and waiting for his mate to return from the sea.  He prepared for this feat by nearly doubling his body weight.  Good thing he did!

This week it's been quite cold so we're all stoking up our fat reserves.  That's why the birds -- and we -- are so hungry right now.

(photo linked from Powdermill Avian Research Center.  Click on the photo to see the original.  And my thanks to Frank B. Gill's book, Ornithology, which supplied much of this information.)

2 responses so far

Dec 16 2010

Death By a Thousand Cuts

Published by under Musings & News

(Indulge me for a moment.  This blog contains a lot of facts and a couple of opinions.  The opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of WQED.)

For the past 100 years Pennsylvania has been great habitat for forest-nesting birds.  We've provided the nursery for 17% of the world's scarlet tanagers and critical breeding grounds for wood thrushes and black-throated blue warblers.

But this is changing.  Right now.

Pennsylvania is at the beginning of the Marcellus Shale gas boom which will last for 30 years.  Now there are less than 3,000 wells.  If the boom goes as planned there will be 30,000 to 60,000 more.

Each well pad is a five acre industrial site connected by pipelines, compressor stations and roads.  This Google map shows what it already looks like near Jefferson in Greene County.

From above you can see that the forest is fragmented by empty dirt squares and roads.  The scarlet tanagers that used to nest here are in Peru right now.  When they return they'll find their nesting sites are gone or compromised.  There will be fewer nests and fewer scarlet tanagers born in Greene County next summer.  This is death by a thousand cuts.

Fragmentation isn't new in Pennsylvania.  We've been doing it for farming, residential and commercial purposes for a very long time.  What's new about this boom is that the fragmentation is industrial and is no longer around the forest edges or in farmland like Jefferson, PA.  The Marcellus boom is going to the very heart of our prime forest habitat because the State Legislature has ordered DCNR to lease the state forests for gas drilling.

What does a drilled forest look like?  Below is a satellite image of the forest near Snow Shoe in Centre County last summer.  Except for the large field at upper left, all those patches and lines are gas drilling sites.  (This image is zoomed out further than the first one.)

Sadly this fragmentation will last longer than it needs to because Pennsylvania has no money to restore the habitat when the drillers are gone.  We could have had that money but our state leaders, especially our Governor-elect and the State Senate, oppose a Marcellus severance tax that would pay for habitat restoration and remediate a host of other problems caused by the gas boom.

What will happen to our forest birds?  It doesn't look good, especially for black-throated blue warblers.  Read more here in Audubon Magazine and this extensive report by The Nature Conservancy on the effects of wind and gas energy development (the Marcellus summary is on page 30).

Will Pennsylvania change course?  Only if we work to make that change.

As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

(satellite images from Google Maps of the land near Jefferson and Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania)

p.s. There are many Marcellus shale issues and many groups working on them.  See's Resources page for a list of groups.  Check out Fractracker's main page for information on Marcellus Shale drilling.

p.p.s.  Thanks for listening.

8 responses so far

Dec 15 2010

Winter Weeds: Ironweed

Published by under Winter Weeds & Trees

Lifting its tufted seed heads into the blue, Ironweed is not as easy to identify right now as it was last summer.

In August, Ironweed is truly impressive.  Three to ten feet tall, it's topped by 30 to 50 deep purple flowers in a cluster 3" to 4" wide.  Its leaves are arranged alternately on the stem -- long, lance-shaped and toothed.

Ironweed grows in ditches, moist meadows and along streambanks and is the only flower left standing in cow pastures because the stem is so tough the cows refuse to eat it.  The tough stem gave it its name:  the "iron" weed.

Ironweed is a perennial plant with two native species in Pennsylvania: New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Tall Ironweed (Vernonia altissima).  These are best distinguished in summer by their flower bracts but since they hybridize -- and since I'm an amateur -- I don't bother figuring out the exact species while I'm standing in the snow.

Click here for more photos of ironweed in summer and winter.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

No responses yet

Dec 14 2010

Always Carry Your Camera

You never know when wildlife will do something fun.

Last summer when Luke Gerben Kaspar attended camp at Carnegie-Mellon University he spent time watching two immature red-tailed hawks at Schenley Park.  The hawks probably fledged from the nest on CMU's Fine Arts Building so they were still close to home.  And they were still too young to be serious!

Fortunately Luke had his camera with him and caught the hawks goofing around.  Click on the photo to watch a slideshow of their silly antics.

Good job, Luke!  We're glad you carried your camera.

(photos by Luke Gerben Kaspar who was 11 years old when he took these pictures.  Thanks to his mom, Gigi, for sending them.)

13 responses so far

Dec 13 2010

Like a Bullet

Published by under Quiz

Browsing through my stockpile of photos I found this one by Peter Bell. 

Guess what bird this is.

Hint:  It makes my day!

(photo by Peter Bell)

5 responses so far

Dec 12 2010


Published by under Beyond Bounds

Many birds have benefited by their association with humans.  Some, like chickens, have expanded their range and variability because we cultivate them for food.  Others now live worldwide merely because they are beautiful.  That's what happened to the peacock.

Native to South Asia, the blue peacock or peafowl (Pavo cristatus) is the National Bird of India.  Male peafowl are so beautiful that people have deemed them sacred, used them as symbols of power, and kept them in captivity or semi-captivity for centuries.

Peacocks are especially suited for an ornamental life because they don't stray far.  Like our wild turkeys they nest and feed on the ground and roost in trees at night.  They don't migrate and they have strong local attachments so they're perfect for gracing the palace grounds.

The males are pure ornament.  They don't help raise their young and, in the wild, would barely meet with the ladies at all.  Their chief family-oriented activity is to lure the females to special display grounds where they dazzle them by raising and quivering their long, beautiful upper-tail coverts.  Yes, this beauty is all in their upper-tail coverts.  Their tails are insignificant.

Keeping peacocks does have a few drawbacks.  I've read that they can be ornery and don't mix well with other domestic birds.  And they are loud.  Their name, "Pea" fowl, comes from the sound they make -- "pia-ow" -- a loud plaintive cry that carries through the forest. 

If you have heard the peacock's call it is unforgettable.

(photo by Brian Herman)

3 responses so far

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