Archive for November, 2011

Nov 10 2011

My Life As A Turkey

Next Wednesday on PBS Nature...

Back in the 1990's biologist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent two years in the Florida Flatwoods as mother to a flock of wild turkeys.

It began when a neighboring farmer dropped off a clutch of 16 orphaned wild turkey eggs and Joe decided to imprint them.

When the eggs hatched Joe made sure the first pair of eyes they saw were his own.  The hatchlings immediately recognized him as their mother and thus began the strange and wonderful journey that became his 1998 book, Illumination in the Flatwoods.

My Life as a Turkey shows what happened, the joys of discovery and the sadness of death, as the peeps became poults and then adult birds.  Day after day, week after week, Joe's bond with his turkeys grew stronger.  The more time he spent with them, the more he learned and the less detached he became.  He was their parent, they were his family.  He learned to live in the present as they did.  He often felt more turkey than human.

My Life As A Turkey is beautiful, moving, sad and fascinating.

“Had I known what was in store—the difficult nature of the study and the time I was about to invest—I would have been hard pressed to justify such an intense involvement. But, fortunately, I naively allowed myself to blunder into a two-year commitment that was at once exhausting, often overwhelming, enlightening, and one of the most inspiring and satisfying experiences of my life.”

–Joe Hutto, Illumination in the Flatwoods

Don't miss My Life As A Turkey next Wednesday, November 16 on PBS Nature.  On WQED it's at 8:00pm.

You will never look at a wild turkey the same way again.

(photo from My Life As A Turkey)

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Nov 09 2011

Bird-thday Blog

Published by under Books & Events


This morning 4 crows brought me 4 cupcakes to celebrate Outside My Window's 4th birthday.

They say it's a thank you gift from the Winter Crow Flock for my enthusiastic love of birds.  I guess their elders have forgiven me for liking peregrines so much.

These four crows are juveniles (the pink around their bills is the hint) so they missed last year's blog statistics and are insisting on an update.  To appease them, here are some numbers:

Numbers aside, I enjoy writing and am grateful to you, my readers, for your comments, suggestions and contributions.  A huge thank you goes to the many photographers who've contributed photos and videos to the site.  Without you I'd just be a pile of words.

So a big thank you and round of applause from me to you for 4 wonderful years together.

Ooops!  The crows are getting impatient.

"Blow out the candles!  We want to eat!"

(party crows by Joan Guerin)

p.s.  Do you have a favorite post?  A suggestion for new topics?  Leave a comment and let me know.

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Nov 08 2011

What Birds At This Time Of Year?

Now that summer's birds are gone, what can we expect to see in southwestern Pennsylvania at this time of year?

November isn't as boring as you might think.

  • On lakes and rivers you'll find ducks, cormorants, loons, Canada geese, and sometimes tundra swans.
  • In the woods:
    • The owls have more time to hunt and hoot during November's longer nights.  Listen for great-horned owls and eastern screech-owls in the woods and suburbs.  I've heard a barred owl on my walk home through Schenley Park.  He's unusual in the city.
    • With the leaves off the trees, the woodpeckers are visible as they hammer the ash trees infested with emerald ash borer.  Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers will pause to drill for sap.
    • The golden-crowned kinglets are back.
  • At the bird feeders our resident cardinals, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches are joined by a wide selection of seed eaters including white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, American tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos.
  • Overhead:
    • At dusk watch for flocks of robins, starlings and crows gathering to roost.
    • Best of all, November's the month to see V's of migrating tundra swans on their way to the Chesapeake and eastern North Carolina.  They call "woo, woo, woo" as they fly.  You'll even hear them at night.

Keep looking up.

(photo of a barred owl by Marge Van Tassel)

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Nov 07 2011

Saved By Its Beauty

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Plants

As the sunlight shines through this leaf, each vein is illuminated.

Alocasia sanderiana is beautiful up close and from afar.

Its leaves are arrow-shaped, dark green, and very shiny with prominent pale green veins.  The leaf edges are so amazingly wavy that in English it's called the kris plant, named for the kalis (or kris) daggers of its homeland.

Here's what the whole leaf looks like:

Alocasia sanderiana is native to the Philippines but is critically endangered in the wild.  It grows in only two locations, both legally protected, but the protection is not enforced.  Its existence is threatened by logging and by being collected as a house plant.

Ironically, if the kris plant disappears from the wild, its beauty will save it from extinction because it's been propagated "in captivity" for many, many years.

(close-up of an Alocasia leaf by Joan Guerin; whole-leaf photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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Nov 06 2011

Great Starling Video

Published by under Bird Behavior

Murmuration from Islands & Rivers on Vimeo.

This video is sweeping the Internet.  If you haven't seen it yet you'll love watching this huge starling flock, called a murmuration, swirling above two girls canoeing in Ireland.

Starlings flock in large numbers in the winter when they're getting ready to roost.  If the flock sees a predator, each bird pulls in closer to his neighbor until the mass of birds looks like a solid swirling ball.

This flock must feel threatened -- they're flying that close!

And I wonder  ... where's the peregrine?


(video by Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.  Read about their encounter in this article at the Huffington Post.)

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Nov 05 2011

My Clocks Are Just Fine

I don't want to change them but I'm supposed to turn my clocks back an hour tonight.

Daylight Saving Time (DST) was invented for people like me whose work is ruled by the clock but who spend their leisure time outdoors.  It's really inconvenient for those who work by the solar day -- farmers, for instance.

Though I like Daylight Saving Time I hate changing the clocks no matter which direction they're going.

The twice yearly jog causes trouble for nationwide schedules, computer programs, and our sleep patterns.  We saw this when DST's start and end dates moved by law in 2007.  Computers that missed the patch stayed on the old schedule.  Most annoying to me was the computer that unlocked the doors for the business day but remained on Standard time in early March.  It was too old to patch so we changed its time by hand.  Three weeks later it "knew" to change to DST and was wrong again.  Aaaaarrrggg!  (We got a new computer.)

Even worse are the clock-change effects on people.  In March the loss of an hour makes everyone groggy.  Studies have shown that there are significantly more workplace accidents on the Monday after we "spring forward."  Not only that, everyone's grumpy for days!  I am, too.

Most of the world doesn't suffer through this.  DST wasn't standardized in the U.S. until 1966 and it's not observed in Asia, Russia, most of Africa and most of South America.  It's not even observed in Arizona and Hawaii.

So why do we have Daylight Saving Time?

In a word:  Lobbyists.

DST had a few early champions (G.V.Hudson, William Willett, and Pittsburgh's Robert Garland) but it didn't really catch on until lobbyists urged its use.  The start and end dates moved in 2007 because the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores began lobbying for it in 2005.  Their sales benefit from outdoor leisure time.

We don't have to live like this.  If I was in charge, we'd turn the clocks forward one night in March and we'd never go back.

I'm telling you, my clocks are just fine!

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

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Nov 04 2011

Ducks From A Distance, Part 2 — Difficult Divers

Published by under Water and Shore

Last Friday I gave tips for identifying swimming dabblers without a scope.  Today I'll give similar descriptions for about half the species of diving ducks we see in western Pennsylvania.  The other half will follow in the days to come.

All of today's birds dive to get their food.  Sometimes they swim underwater for several minutes.  Because they dive, their legs are set back on their bodies so they run on the water to take off.

To save space I’ve abbreviated:    “=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.

Don't be fooled.  I'm no ace birder with these birds.  I'm often stumped by the difficult divers.

  • Canvasbacks and Redheads:  Look alike with rusty red head, black breasts and butts, white/gray backs.  Slightly <M.
    • Canvasbacks:  Long sloping forehead and bill.  Bill is black.  Male's back is white.
    • Redheads:  Round mallard-shaped head and bill.  Pale bill with white ring, black tip. Male's back is gray.
  • Ring-necked duck, Greater scaup, Lesser Scaup:  Males look alike with dark head, black breast and butt, white sides.  Females dark brown.  Female scaup have white feathers on face around bill.  HFAM.  All <M.
    • Ring-necked duck: Bouffant-shaped head. Should be named ring-billed duck for dark bill with bright white ring.  Black back, white notch at shoulder.
    • Greater scaup: Round head peaks at forehead, if at all.  Male's back is palest of the three.
    • Lesser scaup:  Exactly like greater scaup except head has definite peak at top and back.
  • Mergansers: Long, low in water, long thin bill, "no neck" look.  Almost all have crests like blown-back hair. Females quite similar.  You can hope for a male, but the first 2 species tend to hang out in same-sex groups.  In fall, immature males resemble females.
    • Common merganser:  =M.  Male is white with dark head (no crest) and bright orange bill.  Female has rusty crested head, white breast, definite border between rust and white.
    • Red-breasted merganser: <M.  Has crest like wild blown-back hair.  Male has dark head, streaked rust breast.  Female is exactly like female c.merg except front of neck is whitish, no border between rust and white.  Slightly smaller than c.merg.  HFAM.
    • Hooded merganser: much <M.  Male unmistakable with black head and white patch on crest which he raises to show off.  Female is all-dark brown with merganser-female profile but much smaller.  HFAM.
  • Not ducks, but these two divers look similar from a distance:
    • Common loon:  >M.  Study winter and summer plumage beforehand.  Rides low in water with neck "scrunched."  Long pointed bill.  Swims with bill straight out, parallel to water.
    • Double-crested cormorant: >M.  More common in western Pennsylvania than loons.  All dark.  Long pointy bill with down-hook at tip.  Swims with neck up and bill slightly raised.

Now that you know what to look for, who's in this photo?

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 03 2011

Jungle Eagle

Coming next Wednesday on PBS Nature is a raptor story nest-watchers can relate to.

Jungle Eagle follows filmmaker Fergus Beeley as he monitors a harpy eagle nest in Venezuela's Orinoco River valley.  Over a period of nine months he shows us the life of an eaglet and his family, from newly hatched chick to young adulthood.  The story is dramatic.  The lifestyle of these eagles makes it dangerous.

Harpy eagles live in the South American rainforest and are the largest eagle in the western hemisphere.  They dwell at the top of the canopy and eat monkeys and sloths from the trees. They kill by surprise.

The adults are top predators but the young are vulnerable.  When the chick is small his mother must guard him.  Even the monkeys that become his food could eat him.

Fergus Beeley shows this by filming from a tree stand and using a nestcam.  Peregrine nest watchers will see parallels between the harpy eagles and our favorite raptor:

  • The mother bird guards the chick and won't leave him while he's small.
  • She calls her mate to bring food.  "Come NOW!"
  • When he delivers a meal, she snatches it and barely says thank you.
  • Though a powerful raptor, she is very tender with her chick.
  • The baby grows into a fully feathered teenager who begs from his parents.

Inevitably there are nestcam problems, but they're more dangerous to fix than anything we ever encounter.  Peregrines fiercely defend their nests and harpy eagles do, too.  But harpy eagles are huge and they're skilled at killing primates.  And what are humans?  Large primates!

In the end the eaglet reaches adulthood and starts to hunt on his own.  As adults, harpy eagles are powerful, self sufficient birds.  The real danger they face is extinction because people cut down the rainforest these birds require for life.

Watch Jungle Eagle on PBS Nature on Wednesday, November 9 to see beautiful footage of our hemisphere's most powerful bird.  On WQED the show is at 8:00pm EST.

(photo of a harpy eagle from PBS Nature)

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Nov 02 2011

Divers in a Dabblers’ World

Published by under Water and Shore

In the city of Pittsburgh there's a delta where waterfowl gather all year.

Nine Mile Run empties into the Monongahela at Duck Hollow to form a mud bar and shallows that attract a permanent collection of dabbling ducks.  In the summer the flock is mostly mallards.  In the winter gulls join the crowd.  During migration anything can show up.

Last Sunday the river was running high when I stopped by to see who was new. As usual the flock was dominated by dabblers -- all of them mallards -- but there were three birds who didn't fit in.  All of them dive underwater to catch fish and crustaceans:  a pied-billed grebe, a hooded merganser (I thought it was female. I hear it's an immature male), and a common merganser (female).

The common merganser has been there for months.  Birders have noticed she can't fly but she can fish and has found safety in the mallard flock.

When the other two birds arrived the three formed a trio that cues on each other for feeding locations.  They even hang out together when resting.

They know they have something in common.  They're divers in a dabblers' world.

(Thanks to Thomas Moeller for the photo and history of this trio.)

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Nov 01 2011

A Bat on Halloween

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

While walking home in the rain last night I saw a brown lump on an oak tree in Schenley Park.

Only a foot off the ground and smaller than the palm of my hand I thought it was a mushroom -- until I got close.

It was a little brown bat and he was sleeping.

Without any experience in identifying bats my guess is that he was the most common bat in Pennsylvania, quite literally a "little brown bat," Myotis lucifugus, whose scientific name means "mouse-ear light-fleeing."

I didn't want to wake him so I held my umbrella over my cell phone and took his picture from three feet away.

Even in this distant photo you can see his folded wing on the right and his tiny brown ears pointing down.  Remember, he's upside down so his ears are at the bottom.  Click here to see what this species looks like up close.

Since bats eat flying insects their food supply disappears during Pennsylvania winters so they must hibernate or migrate to survive.  This little guy has spent the last few months fattening up and mating in preparation for hibernation.  Soon he will adjourn to a damp cave or abandoned mine shaft to hibernate with his fellows in a place that stays above freezing.

Interestingly, if this one is female she will store the male's sperm in her uterus all winter, fertilize one egg in the spring and give birth to a single baby in late May or early June.

But that's a long way down the road.  Halloween is over.  It's time to find a cave.

I don't expect to see this bat on the oak tree today.  But I will check.

(photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE Nov 1:  Alas! The bat was there this morning.  He's dead, though I didn't touch him to make sure.  Theory: He's perched right next to a busy road.  Perhaps he was hit by a car and still mobile enough to roost but too injured to live.  Alas!

UPDATE Nov 2:  I saw a bat flying in Schenley Park this evening.  Maybe my bat still lives!

UPDATE Nov 4: I saw a bat flying in Greenfield tonight at dusk. I never noticed them this late before.

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