Archive for February, 2011

Feb 20 2011


Published by under Phenology,Trees

I couldn't resist this title even though these are actually sweetgum balls.

Sweetgum trees are a southern species whose natural northern limit barely extends into Pennsylvania.  However, they're a favorite street tree so you'll find them further north.

Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) have star-shaped leaves with 5-7 lobes.  They're easy to identify in winter because their woody seed balls dangle from the branches until spring.  The balls look spiny but they don't hurt. (*)

At this time of year the seed balls start to fall off the tree and litter the ground below.  If you're not looking up, that's how you'll discover you're near a sweetgum tree.

My strangest encounter with these "gumballs" was while participating in the Mt. Davis Christmas Bird Count in Somerset County, Pennsylvania about ten years ago.  At one of our stops during the count we got out of the car on a bottomland near a creek and an old farmstead.  Parked in what used to be the side yard was an abandoned Volvo stationwagon and inside the back of that car were thousands and thousands of sweetgum balls.  It was filled to the windowsills.

Someone went to a lot of trouble to collect those "gumballs" and then they left them there.  I wonder why.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

(*) Sweetgum balls are different here in Pittsburgh than they are in their natural range. See the comments!

5 responses so far

Feb 19 2011

The Pittsburgh Falconcams Are Up!


The National Aviary's peregrine falcon webcams are up!

You can watch live streaming video of Dorothy and E2 at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning here ...and... Louie and Dori at the Gulf Tower in downtown Pittsburgh here.  If you bookmarked the links last year you're already good to go.

This year the Aviary made improvements thanks to generous donations from the peregrine fans.  The video is a lot more reliable with new streaming equipment installed by PixController.  It's incredibly easy to maintain and has none of the problems we experienced with the old Flash-encoding PCs.  For you webcam buffs, you'll appreciate that PixController installed the Axis Q7401. 

Streaming is again hosted at and they, too, have made improvements with all an new streaming and chat setup. 

And, new this year at the Gulf Tower are 4-per-minute snapshots, just like we have at Pitt.  Check out the snapshot links at the bottom right of both webpages.

Our peregrines are courting, Dorothy and Dori will lay their eggs next month, and we're ready for a great nesting season thanks to the National Aviary's FalconCams.

It's peregrine time!

(screenshot of the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning. Splash-screen is Pat Szczepanski's photo of Dorothy at the Cathedral of Learning)

9 responses so far

Feb 18 2011

Anatomy: Right-handed?

Published by under Bird Anatomy

White-winged crossbill (photo by Raymond Barlow)

Scientists who study birds' brains long ago discovered that, just like humans, birds can be right-handed or left-handed.

In humans, dominance on the left side of the brain results in right-handedness and vice versa.  Birds' brains have functional lateralism too and can show behavior that indicates they favor one "hand" over the other.

An easy way to tell this is on birds whose eyes face sideways (instead of straight forward) because they obviously use one eye or the other for important tasks.  What eye do they use to scan for predators?  In 2001, Franklin and Lima found that most dark-eyed juncoes use their right eyes.

Crossbills take "handedness" one step further.  Their bills cross either to the right or the left and they walk the pinecones on which they feed in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction depending on the "handedness" expressed in their bills.

So, what do you think?  Is this crossbill right-handed or left-handed?

(photo of a white-winged crossbill by Raymond Barlow. Inspiration and information from Ornithology by Frank B. Gill)

4 responses so far

Feb 17 2011

Starlings Under Pressure

Published by under Peregrines,Songbirds

One evening in December 2006 a peregrine falcon flew out to find a meal in Torino, Italy.

His attention was draw by a large flock of European starlings approaching their roost at the old Fiat building.

Watch this one-minute video and you'll see how the starlings evaded the peregrine.

I'm amazed the peregrine continued his attack after the starling flock turned into a solid ball!

Very cool.

(video by "greenkert" on YouTube)

6 responses so far

Feb 16 2011

Haircap Moss

Published by under Winter Weeds & Trees

Snow cover is increasingly hard to find in Pittsburgh so this scene is fading fast.

Exposed here by the melting snow is a plant whose name I've just learned:  common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune).  

I've often seen it in the woods where it covers the ground like a dense carpet of green bottlebrushes.  Though it's a moss, it's rather tolerant of dry conditions and does well in a variety of Pennsylvania locations.  I've read that in dry weather the green leaves wrap around the stem to protect the plant from moisture loss.

Its scientific name describes the plant well.  Polytrichum means "many hairs."  Commune probably refers to its ability to form dense colonies.

Where are the hairs?  I know we can't see them in this photo because they're so small.  The hairs are on the caps that initially cover the brown spore capsules.  The spore capsules are those brown heads on the naked brown stems poking out of the snow.  So, yes, those brown stems are not a different plant.  They're the sporophytes of the haircap moss.

At this time of year the haircaps may be missing because they pop off to expose the spores for dispersal.

I've never seen any of this because I haven't looked closely at this moss before.  I didn't even know that the brown stems are part of the moss' life cycle. 

Now that I know what to look for, I'm going to find those hairy caps.  I wonder what time of year they're visible...

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

Feb 16 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Feb 18-21

Published by under Books & Events

I've been so absorbed by peregrine season preparations that I forgot that this weekend, Friday February 18 through Tuesday February 21, is the Great Backyard Bird Count.  Thanks to Anne Curtis for reminding me. 

Here's a descripton of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) that I wrote last year (check out the cute photo), and two links from Anne:  Scott Shalaway's article in the Post-Gazette and the main Great Backyard Bird Count website where you can enter your count.

The weather will be pretty good for the count.  Even if it isn't, you can participate by counting from your kitchen window.

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Feb 15 2011

What do Peregrines do on Valentine’s Day?

Published by under Peregrines

In Pittsburgh, they spend time courting at the nest.  

Nesting season is nearly here so we've been testing the National Aviary falconcams at the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning in the past few days.  The cameras aren't streaming on the Aviary website yet, but they passed the motion detection test yesterday. 

Here's the result of the Gulf Tower test.  The camera "saw" Dori and Louie bowing at the nest just before 8:00am on Valentine's Day.  Notice how low Louie bows (his tail is toward us).  Notice how Dori's crop looks full.  I bet Louie just brought her breakfast.  What a nice guy he is!

And here's the Cathedral of Learning motion detection test.  The camera "saw" Dorothy and E2 bowing at their own nest at the University of Pittsburgh.  They prefer to court in the afternoon.

Spring is coming.  Love is in the air.

The falconcams will be "live" on the National Aviary website soon.  Stay tuned.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcams at the Gulf Tower and the University of Pittsburgh)

7 responses so far

Feb 14 2011

The Crows Know

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Saturday morning there was a mystery on my street.

Ten minutes before dawn a huge flock of crows flew over my neighborhood, then turned and wheeled over the ballfield, cawing loudly.

They were hard to see in the dark but they were easy to hear.  They circled several times outside my window.  It was so unusual that I reported them on PABIRDS.

At mid-morning I heard sirens.  Six police cars, a firetruck and an ambulance roared up my street to the ballfield.  The firemen carried their medical emergency kits to the bleachers, an area not visible from my side of the park.  Soon they returned and drove away.   The ambulance stayed longer but they left too without doing anything.

Meanwhile camera crews from all three TV news stations had set up their equipment across the ballfield and were pointing their cameras at the bleachers.  A plain white car arrived in front of my house and three people emerged, pulling on purple latex gloves.

By now I had guessed that someone was dead.  I couldn’t stand the suspense so I got my 10-power birding binoculars and walked around the ballfield to the vicinity of the TV crews.

With binoculars I could see that there was indeed a body on the cement bleachers.  The police and detectives were taking pictures, checking the scene, examining, talking.  The body was on its back, upside down, crumpled over itself as if it had fallen from the sky.  It was in an unnatural position but its white face was up, easily seen from above in faint light.

So that's why the crows wheeled and cawed.

The crows know.  They saw it first.  Now it’s up to the coroner and detectives to find out what happened.


p.s. Here and here are the news articles.  The death was ruled a suicide.

(photo by Brian Herman)

9 responses so far

Feb 13 2011

Signs of Spring: Yellow Lores

Published by under Phenology

When white-throated sparrows have yellow lores, you know that spring is on its way.

If this sign is not enough, today's high temperature will be quite convincing.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelmam)

One response so far

Feb 12 2011


Published by under Beyond Bounds

I never knew this bird existing until Mary DeVaughn sent me a link last weekend.

This is a red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata), native to South America and introduced in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. 

Although he looks like a northern cardinal wearing a gray cloak, he's actually in the tanager family.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click the photo to see the original)

5 responses so far

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