Archive for November, 2011

Nov 20 2011


He's related to our wood ducks.  Can you see the resemblance?

Mandarins are originally from Asia but so beautiful that they're often raised in captivity.  Escapees sometimes form a wild population, as they have in Britain, Ireland and a few places in the U.S.

This one is swimming through the reflection of the Jungle Place at the Hanover Zoo, Hanover, Germany.

(photo by Michael Gäbler on Wikimedia Commons, selected as picture of the day for 3 September 2010.  Click on the image to see the original.)

One response so far

Nov 19 2011


Published by under Water and Shore

Believe it or not, ring-billed gulls were scarce in Pennsylvania 100 years ago. 

Along with many other birds, gulls were killed for their feathers to adorn ladies' hats.  Back then their breeding range shrank to the areas uninhabited by humans -- the prairie potholes of the U.S. and Canada. 

After the 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act was passed, it took the gulls a while to recover but by the 1970's they were on a roll.  Between 1976 and 1984 their breeding numbers increased 11% per year in the Great Lakes region.

The reason for their success can be summed up in this picture:  It's safe to be around people now and gulls are opportunistic feeders.  They're more than happy to eat what we eat.

"Get away!  This bread is mine!"

(photo of ring-billed gulls at Pymatuning spillway (where the ducks walk on the fish) by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 18 2011

Today Only!

Published by under Books & Events

I'm very late in posting this but if you have the time today, stop by Hillman Library where they're celebrating Audubon Day with a one-day exhibit of more than 20 original folio prints from Audubon's Birds of America.

  • What:  An Audubon Day display of 20 original Birds of America folio prints
  • When:  Today only (Nov 18), 9:00 a.m.-4:45 p.m.
  • Where:  Room 363, the Special Collections Reading Room, Hillman Library, 3960 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh.
  • Plus a presentation about Pitt's efforts to preserve and digitize the book, 1:00-2:00pm in the Amy Knapp Room by:
      • Charles Aston, curator of rare books, prints, and exhibits
      • Edward Galloway, head of the Archives Service Center and
      • Jeanann Hass, head of special collections and preservation.

Here's more information, edited from Pitt's press release:

John James Audubon's Birds of America revolutionized bird illustration by portraying life-sized birds in their natural habitat.  From 1827 to 1838 he painted 1,065 birds of 497 species.  Since then, six of those species have gone extinct including the Carolina parrots shown above.

Audubon's complete book includes 435 prints in four volumes, each print measuring 27 by 40 inches.  Approximately 175 sets were printed, but over the years many of the volumes were dismantled so the prints could be sold individually to collectors. Only 120 complete sets exist.

Pitt's University Library System acquired the complete Birds of America as part of the William McCullough Darlington Library, given to Pitt by Darlington’s two daughters. Because the rare prints are too fragile to share with the public as bound volumes, Pitt followed the Library of Congress model and unbound the volumes, conserved each print and now stores each in an archival folder.

In 2006 and 2007, Pitt digitized all 435 Birds of America plates and now displays the complete collection online at

p.s. Sorry for the late notice!

(photo of John James Audubon's folio print of Carolina Parrots, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh's Library System)

4 responses so far

Nov 17 2011

Mouse in the House

Published by under Mammals

Monday morning, 5:30am:  I am sitting in the kitchen "mainlining" a cup of coffee when a very small scratchy noise attracts my cat's attention.  I don't hear it but I can tell from her reaction that we have trouble. 

Emmalina is in hunting mode, completely alert, ears pointed forward, stalking the heat vent under the kitchen table.  I put my head under the table and now I hear it too.  Aaarrrggg!  There's a mouse in the ductwork.

I had hoped it wouldn't come to this. 

Emmalina had been giving me hints about this critter for more than a week.  She spent extra time in the basement and came upstairs wreathed in cobwebs with that hunting glow in her eyes.  I suspected she was tracking a mouse so I laid traps (safely out of her reach) where I thought a mouse might be, but I never caught anything.  Neither did Emmalina.  Instead she stared at the ductwork crisscrossing the basement ceiling.  I was too dense to figure out why.

All of this transpired while the weather was warm and the furnace was barely running.  This morning the temperature is near freezing and the heat is on. 

Warm air wafts through the kitchen.  Emmalina pauses to sniff the air.  Scent of mouse?  Fortunately I can't smell it... yet.

So now what?  Should I seal the outside of the house with the mouse indoors?  Is it wise to put peanut butter laiden traps inside the vents?  Can I lure the mouse out of the vents... and how?  Will it die in the ductwork and make the whole house stink?

This is an opportunity for crowdsourcing.  Dear readers, your advice?

(photo by Kate St. John)

26 responses so far

Nov 16 2011

Winter Trees on Wednesdays

On my walks through Schenley Park I've started to notice the trees again.  Not that they've been missing -- far from it! -- but ever since the songbirds arrived last spring the trees were mere bird accessories, places for birds to find food, nest and perch.

Now the migratory songbirds have left and the deciduous trees have gone through a great transformation.  They've dropped their leaves and seeds and stripped down to trunks and twigs.  They're easier to see and they're easier to identify.

Back in the 1990's I took a class on winter tree identification at Chatham University's Rachel Carson Institute where I learned that twigs and bark tell you almost all you need to know to identify a species.  In class we used the booklet pictured above, the Winter Tree Finder by May Thielgard Watts and Tom Watts.   It's easy to carry and contains a step by step key for identifying twigs, much like Newcombs Wildflower Guide does for flowers.

In late October when I noticed the trees again, I got excited and took my Winter Tree Finder to Schenley Park.  Soon I began taking pictures of bark and twigs.  It didn't take long before I'd dreamed up a Wednesday series on Winter Trees.

Today is the first entry but it's just an introduction.  Before I start showing you the trees next week you may want to do two things:

  1. First,  familiarize yourself with the anatomy of a twig (shown below).  I'll be using the terms highlighted on this illustration from Clemson University.  Click on the twig picture to read the definitions and learn more.
  2. Second, you may want to get your hands on the Winter Tree Finder so you can explore for yourself.  (You can buy it on Amazon by clicking on the book cover above.)


Next Wednesday I'll show you the first tree in the series, all of which grow in southwestern Pennsylvania.  I know they do because I found all of them in Schenley Park.

(Cover of Winter Tree Finder from  Image of twig anatomy linked from Clemson University's Familiar Trees of South Carolina)

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Nov 15 2011

Island Girl Is Home

Published by under Migration,Peregrines

Actually, she got home last Saturday.

Island Girl is an arctic peregrine who nests every summer on Baffin Island, Canada.  Then, at the autumn equinox on almost the same day in September every year, she leaves for her winter home at Putu on the Chilean coast.

We know she makes this journey because in 2009 the Falcon Research Group's Southern Cross Peregrine Project outfitted her with a satellite transmitter.  Since then they've followed her travels via satellite and plotted them on the web, a trip of 8,628 miles.

This year Island Girl changed her southbound route from an East Coast trajectory via Florida and the Yucatan to a slightly westward path over Lake Superior to the Gulf Coast at Mississippi.  When she encountered headwinds over the Gulf of Mexico she roosted on offshore oil rigs, then flew west to Texas and continued south.  Some days she rested, especially during bad weather.  On other days she pressed homeward, covering more than 200 miles.  From start to finish Island Girl traveled for 53 days -- and this is considered a leisurely pace!

Now she's back in Putu surveying her domain.  Her favorite sandspit island is still gone, destroyed by the February 2010 tsunami, but she has many other options.  Her satellite GPS unit is so accurate that SCPP is able to tell where she roosts.

Island Girl is the last peregrine in the project with a working transmitter.  In February 2012 the Falcon Research Group will travel to Chile to capture two more arctic peregrines and outfit them with tracking devices.

You can read about their work and Island Girl's journey on the Southern Cross Peregrine Project's blog (click on her picture).  See the map of her journey here.

I wish I'd remembered to check their website earlier so I could have followed her en route!

(photo of Island Girl from the Southern Cross Peregrine Project)

4 responses so far

Nov 14 2011

Late Fall Hummingbirds

Published by under Migration

Any hummingbird in November in Pittsburgh is highly unusual.

These aren't the same birds we see all summer.  Only one species of hummingbird breeds east of the Mississippi -- the ruby-throated hummingbird -- but they've all left for the tropics by late September.

November birds are Selasphorus hummers, so called because two species -- the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) and Allen's hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) -- are so similar they can't be identified except when held in the hand or by high-speed photography showing the tail in exactly the right fanned position.

When Selasphorus birds are found in Pennsylvania, ornithologists band them.  That's when we find out they're almost always rufous.

Rufous hummingbirds breed in the Pacific Northwest as far north as Alaska.  They're used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat.  During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.  Solo birds can show up anywhere in the U.S.

Knowing this, some people leave their hummingbird feeders filled in the fall.

And it works.  This month Scott Kinzey and Peter Keyel both discovered rufous hummingbirds at their feeders in Allegheny County.

Scott's visitor is pictured here sipping from late-blooming salvia.  It had already traveled 2,000 miles from its birthplace and its journey wasn't over yet.  If this species wasn't so prone to wandering we'd say this bird was off course.

Click here for more of Scott's hummer photos, including the banding.

If you like hummingbirds, keep your feeder filled and ready -- even in November.  You never know who might show up.

(photo by Scott Kinzey)

4 responses so far

Nov 13 2011


Published by under Water and Shore

This beautiful bird is a fulvous whistling duck, native to the tropics of India, East Africa, Central and South America, south Florida and coastal Texas.

Fulvous is a color:  dull reddish-yellow, brownish yellow or tawny.

You can see how he got his name.

(photo by Branko Kannenberg on Wikimedia Commons.  This photo was a finalist for Picture of the Year 2009.  Click on the photo to see the original)

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Nov 12 2011

Black Ornaments

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Where do the crows go to roost?

In Pittsburgh they really don't want us to know.  They're loud and obvious at their pre-roost staging areas but that's not where they'll sleep.  After the sky is dark they leave the staging area and fly silently to the roost.  Black birds in a black sky.

Wednesday evening Karen Lang noticed them near the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall around 6:00pm.  Though it was dark she could see their profiles against the city-lit sky and estimated 1,000 crows were on Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall roof and the nearby trees.

Peter Bell saw them, too, so he brought his camera Thursday evening.  From his vantage point on the 12th floor of Chevron Science Center, the roof looked like this while the crows were still arriving.

There were also on the trees.
Crows in a tree on Thackeray (photo by Peter Bell)

And perfectly lined up on the roof, a couple of crows per tile.


Last night I went to see for myself. Their dark profiles were visible from Fifth at Bigelow but when I moved up Bigelow for the same view as Peter's pictures, the streetlights' glare made the crows hard to see.

That's how the crows like it. When things get too hot for them, they move their roost.

Some night we'll discover that Soldiers and Sailors roof is missing its black ornaments.

(photos by Peter Bell)

9 responses so far

Nov 11 2011

Ducks From A Distance, Part 3 — Sea & Small Divers

Published by under Water and Shore

Today I'll finish the list of ducks you're likely to see in western Pennsylvania with tips on how to identify them from a distance.

I've limited this series to ducks seen in the western part of the state, but our area is large and diverse so some birds are common in Erie and Crawford counties during migration, but not in Pittsburgh.

All the birds in this final set are divers.  Some are small, some are unusual, some are so similar they're hard to tell apart.

As before I'll use abbreviations to save space and use mallards as our reference duck:  “=M” is same size as mallard,   “<M” smaller than mallard,  “>M” bigger than mallard.  “HFAM” means Hope For A Male because the females are really hard to identify.

So here goes:

  • Scoters:   These sea ducks spend the winter at the coast but are seen in flocks during migration at Lake Erie.  Lumpy bill.  Males almost completely black.  Females brown.  These species look alike from afar.  Definitely difficult divers.
    • Surf scoter: =M.  Least common of the 3 in western PA. Male all black, white eye ring, white on forehead and back of head, colorful black-white-orange bill. HFAM.
    • Black scoter: slightly <M.  Male all black. Orange-yellow lump on top of bill.  Female brown with paler face, neck.  HFAM.
    • White-winged scoter:  =M. Male all black with white eye shadow below his eye and orange tip on black bill.  White wing may be hard to see when swimming.  HFAM.
  • Long-tailed duck: < M. Small round head, stubby bill, brown cheek.  Male has unmistakably long tail but often drags it on the water when swimming.  Male mostly white in winter, brown cheek and chest.  Female duller with brownish back.  Wears 3 plumages per year so check your field guide.  Unusual in southwestern PA.
  • Common Goldeneye: < M.  Bulbous, almost triangular, dark head.  Golden eye.  In spring, male mostly white, some black on back, head blackish-green with white face spot.  Female and eclipse male: brownish back and white belly topped by chocolate brown, bulbous head.
  • Bufflehead: <<M.  Very small duck with large round head.  Male mostly white, black on back,  big white quarter-of-a-pie on top-back of head.  Female is a same shape in brown with white cheek splash on brown head.
  • Ruddy duck: <<M.  Very small brownish duck with short neck, large head, large broad bill, white cheek patch.  In spring, male is ruddy-colored with black head, bright white cheek, blue bill (!) and cocked tail while swimming.  Learn this duck's profile and you'll know him no matter what plumage he's in.
  • NOT a duck but a small diver -- Pied-billed Grebe:  << M.  Very small brown bird same size as bufflehead but with longer neck, stubby bill.  When diving, appears to jump up and arc into the water rather than slip into it.

Armed with these hints, can you identify the birds above?      ...I didn't label them this time...  😉

(photo by Bobby Greene)

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