Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Bunting Of The West

It may be too early in April to find this bird in southern Nevada but I will try.

The lazuli bunting spends the winter in Mexico and summer in the western U.S.  In late April, the only time I've ever seen one, it's passing through.

Lazuli buntings prefer weedy fields and grassy clearings so I look for them at Corn Creek Field Station at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge about 23 miles north of Las Vegas.  Corn Creek flows through the site and is the only water for many miles around so it's a magnet for wildlife and a must-see location if you're birding in southern Nevada.

Named for the beautiful blue gem, lapis lazuli, the male lazuli bunting's color pattern resembles a male western bluebird but his size, beak, and wing bars set him apart. 

The females, on the other hand, are an identification challenge because they look just like female indigo buntings.  Fortunately indigo and lazuli bunting ranges are nearly mutually exclusive.  Except for some overlap in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, the indigo bunting is the bunting of the east, the lazuli is the bunting of the west.

However, indigo and lazuli buntings can hybridize.  Imagine the identification challenge when confronted by a female hybrid.  Only an expert would know for sure -- and that won't be me!

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

Rare in the East

For almost a decade I attended a convention every April in Las Vegas, but hard times hit in 2008 and I haven't been there for three years.  I don't miss Las Vegas but I do miss the birds so starting this afternoon my husband will mind the house while I fly west. 

I could have picked a thousand other places for my birding vacation but I know Las Vegas, it's easy to get to (non-stop flight), and it has a surprising variety of habitat.  In 2007, I saw 101 species in only 3 days of birding there!

So for the next week I'm going to blog about the birds I'll see in southern Nevada.  Along the way I'll tell you about some birding hotspots in the area.

My first and favorite hotspot is Henderson Bird Preserve, a sewage treatment plant in Henderson, Nevada that's been intentionally landscaped for birds and bird watchers.  It's beautifully laid out with natural vegetation, lots of water and good nesting habitat. 

At Henderson I'm sure to find cinnamon teal, the only common duck that isn't found east of the Mississippi.  They're similar in size, shape and feeding habits to the blue-winged teal with whom they often associate.

Cinnamon teal are completely western birds.  Some live year round in western California and southern Arizona, and some winter in southern Texas, but most of them come to the U.S. only in the summer.  (They live year round in South America.)

In April in Henderson the cinnamon teal are courting and pairing up.  Some will nest at the Bird Preserve.

Right now I'm looking forward to seeing them but by Day Two I'll have seen so many that I'll think they're boring.  Such is birding.

(photo by Dick Daniels from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)


Early Monday afternoon Dori returned to her nest at the Gulf Tower to relieve her mate Louie of incubation duty.

I happened to be watching the webcam at the time.  At first I thought Dori would sit on the eggs immediately but she got distracted and started to putter, so I captured the snapshots for a slideshow.

Click on the photo above to watch.  If you hover your mouse over the slideshow, my captions will appear.

Yes, I put words in her mouth. Terribly unscientific.  But I couldn't resist.

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the Gulf Tower)

p.s. The slidehow repeats.

Ticks Found Here!

Here's a scary thought:  Bush honeysuckle increases the risk of tick-borne disease. 

It's not only scary, it's true!

A team of scientists with tick expert Brian F. Allan from Washington University in St. Louis conducted an extensive study of the relationship between ticks, deer and the invasive plant known as bush honeysuckle

Though the study was done in the suburbs of St. Louis what they learned applies to Pennsylvania as well.  Namely, that in dense stands of bush honeysuckle there are a lot more deer than usual, a lot more ticks than usual, and a higher proportion of the ticks carry disease.

More deer than usual?  The researchers ran deer density counts inside and outside the honeysuckle areas.  In the honeysuckle zone there were 5 times as many deer.

A lot of ticks?  You bet!  One of Brian Allan's tick traps caught 5,000 nymphal stage ticks in a single location.  Ticks don't walk far to get a meal -- less than 10 feet -- so that spot in the honeysuckle was loaded and dangerous.  

Even worse, when they ground up the ticks and tested the mash for bacterial and deer DNA, they discovered that ticks found inside the honeysuckle zone were 10 times more likely to carry bacterial disease than those outside -- and they caught it from deer blood. 

So why do deer like honeysuckle so much? 

People used to think that deer liked honeysuckle for its berries but the researchers proved the deer don't care about the fruit.  Deer hang out in the honeysuckle because it provides great cover.  It's 18% denser than our native vegetation and it's first to leaf out in the spring (it's the only green shrub right now) and it's last to lose leaves in the fall.  Deer love it.  They sleep there.

The result is that you're much more likely to catch a tick-borne disease if there's a lot of bush honeysuckle around.  In Missouri you'll catch Ehrlichiosis, in Pennsylvania, Lyme disease.

Bush honeysuckle is everywhere, especially in parks and gamelands.

But there's one positive take-away.  This news may prompt people to try harder to eradicate bush honeysuckle -- and that would make our native plants very happy.

Read more about the study in this October 12, 2010 article in Science Daily.  Don't miss Brian Allan's description of his tick trap.

(photo of bush honeysuckle leaves in the Spring by Marcy Cunkelman)

Causing a Sensation

For at least a week an immature red-tailed hawk has been causing a sensation on Pitt's campus -- so much so that he made it into the Pitt News on Thursday, misidentified as a falcon. 

The reason he's become famous is that he operates in the human zone.  He perches at eye level, eats on the ground, and flies over sidewalks at chest height.  This may be normal in the wild but he's doing this on the Cathedral lawn and around Clapp Hall while hundreds of people walk by.  When he changes locations he flies through the crowd and startles pedestrians. 

No wonder he was in the Pitt News.  Here's a hawk that's much less afraid of people than your average robin, nearly as unafraid as the campus squirrels.  And that's one clue to his actions.

Red-tailed hawks go where the food is and there's lots of it on campus (squirrels and pigeons).  A normal red-tail would perch at tree height and fly high above, but the peregrines are nesting at the Cathedral of Learning and attack any raptor who dares to come above the trees.  That's why this red-tail stays low.  He's more afraid of peregrines than people.

And he gets a lot to eat.  His prey stays near us because we're a food source and provide protection.  Usually their enemies are afraid of us so the squirrels and pigeons think they are safe.  But this hawk breaks the rules and they're caught by surprise.


Tony Bledsoe saw a squirrel play Cat-and-Mouse with this hawk last Thursday.  The squirrel browsed the grass below the red-tail who was perched on a fence only seven feet high.  People stopped to watch. 

The squirrel knew the hawk was there and as long as the red-tail didn't move the squirrel puttered on the grass.  As soon as the hawk so much as blinked, the squirrel ducked under a parked car.  "Ha ha ha!  Fooled you, Mr. Red-tail."  When the hawk settled back, the squirrel came out and did it again.

This, too, caused a sensation.

(photo of an immature red-tailed hawk at Allegheny Cemetery by Neil Gerjuoy)


p.s. Click here for a cellphone photo by Dan Normolle showing what the Pitt hawk does when he's not on campus. (Yes, he's on the roof of a car!)

Beyond Bounds: Curve-billed Thrasher

I guarantee you'll never see this bird in western Pennsylvania.

This is a curve-billed thrasher, photographed by Pittsburgh native Steve Valasek who recently moved to New Mexico. 

It's no surprise that this is one of the first birds Steve saw in the Southwest.  It's common in desert brushland and is easy to find because it forages in the open, even in parks and suburban yards. 

The curve-billed thrasher also draws attention to himself by tossing leaves and debris with his long bill and singing a loud scratchy song that's almost like a mockingbird's. 

All of this ought to make the curve-billed thrasher quite easy to identify but he can be tricky because he resembles Bendire's thrasher.  The clincher is his call note, a liquid "wit-a-wit" or "whit whit" that reminds me of a worried wood thrush (the "nominate species" call notes here).

From what I've just written you'd think I've seen a curve-billed thrasher, but I've never been to New Mexico so I'm looking forward to more of Steve's pictures.  I'm sure he'll be adding a lot of birds to his Life List.

(photo by Steve Valasek)

Mystery Snail

While on a Three Rivers Birding Club outing at Moraine State Park on March 20, several of us found snail shells like this one at the Old Rt.422 dock at Lake Arthur.

Some of the shells were large (2" long).  All of them were empty.

I'd never seen a snail this big in Pennsylvania and its identity was a mystery but I knew who could solve it.  I emailed a description to Tim Pearce, head of the Section of Mollusks at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Even though I'd sent no photo, Tim told me what it was and suggested that I google Cipangopaludina chinensis to see if the photo matched my snail.  Sure enough, it did.

Cipangopaludina chinensis, commonly known as the Chinese Mystery snail, is native to Southeast Asia, China, Japan and eastern Russia.  Its shell looks like a turban and it can grow to 2.5" long.  If I'd found a live snail I would have been amazed by its operculum, the trap door that completely covers the shell opening when the animal retreats inside.  In the photo above, the snail has closed his operculum.

How did so many of these snails get into Lake Arthur?

Chinese mystery snails came to North America as food and aquarium species.  They're popular in aquariums because they don't eat fish eggs.  Their first introduction to the wilds of North America was probably between 1932 and 1941 through a release from someone's aquarium (i.e. dumping) into the Niagara River.  Since then mystery snails have spread to the Great Lakes, the northeastern U.S. and random watersheds elsewhere (more dumping).

According to the USGS website, Cipangopaludina chinensis prefers slow moving freshwater rivers, streams and lakes with soft muddy or silty bottoms.  That pretty much describes Lake Arthur and, though the USGS range map doesn't show mystery snails in this part of the state, it's easy to guess how they got here.

Fortunately Chinese mystery snails are considered benign because they haven't harmed native species... yet.

So now you know.  If you find a snail like this you can tell your friends it's a mystery.

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

Pigeon Quiz

For April Fools' Day I couldn't resist a little quiz about the amazing talents of pigeons. 

Are any of these statements true? 

  1. During World War II electronic missile guidance systems were not yet reliable so the NDRC funded a project to use trained pigeons to guide missiles.
  2. Pigeons can hear distant thunderstorms and far-away volcanoes that we cannot hear.
  3. Pigeon nests are cemented with pigeon poop.
  4. Google uses "pigeon clusters" to enhance its search technology.
  5. Some pigeons can fly 600 miles a day.
  6. Pigeons can rescue people capsized at sea.

Want to hazard a guess?  Leave a comment with your answer.

(photo by Chuck Tague)