Archive for January, 2012

Jan 21 2012

Injured Peregrine Found in Monessen

Published by under Peregrines

Yesterday I got a call from Wildlife Conservation Officer Beth Fife.  An injured adult peregrine had been found in the mills area of Monessen, Pennsylvania, shown above in a photo linked from

Beth had already called the Game Commission's peregrine falcon coordinator, Art McMorris, to tell him the band numbers but he was not available.  While waiting for Art's return call she wondered about the bird's identity.

I looked up the bands as best I could.  The bird was not from Pittsburgh or the Midwest.  My friend Karen Lang said, "Maybe it's from New York."   And she was right.

Juanita Woods identified her as Callidora, hatched at the Times Square nest, Rochester, NY in 2010.  Her father is Archer, grandson of Mariah and Kaver of Kodak.  Her mother is Beauty, daughter of Dorothy and Erie at the University of Pittsburgh.  Callidora is Dorothy's granddaughter.

The news from Beth was not particularly good.  Callidora is at a rehabber's with a badly injured wing and will be x-rayed to determine the extent of the damage.  I don't know the name or location of the rehabber and have no other news.  [Update: She was at Wildlife Works in Youngwood, PA.  Click here for more information.]

I expect to hear more next week as business gets underway again.  Not only is it the weekend, but it's snowing and sleeting here with a projected 2-inch snow+ice accumulation.  Things have slowed down considerably.

For information on the town where Callidora was found, see City-Data's website on Monessen.

I hope Callidora will be OK.

SAD NEWS, Jan 21, 1:50pm:   Beth Fife reports, "With further inspection and care of the wing, they found it to be totally shattered and non repairable.  The bird was put down.  Sad, but it's not suffering anymore."

Fly free, Callidora.


(photo of Monessen linked from the Monessen, Pennsylvania webpage at

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Jan 20 2012

Winter Tree Walk at Schenley Park, Feb 18, 1:00pm


Here's a chance to practice the winter tree identification skills I've been blogging about on Wednesdays.

On Saturday, February 18, 1:00pm - 3:00pm, I'll lead a Winter Tree Walk in Schenley Park.

Meet me at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center at 1:00pm and we'll walk the trails to see some of the trees I've highlighted.

Bring a field guide or the Winter Tree Finder, binoculars or a hand lens so you can see the details, and quarters for the parking meter (unmetered parking is a bit of a walk).  Prepare for cold weather and dress warmly.  We'll be moving at the speed of botany (slowly!) so expect to be standing out in the cold.

For directions to the Visitor Center, click here and scroll down to the heading: "Directions to Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center, 101 Panther Hollow Road."  The Visitor Center is open from 10am to 4pm with food and hot chocolate.  Come early and eat lunch.  Here's the menu.

I hope February 18 will be as nice as the day in December when I took this photo.  Watch my blog on the morning of February 18 for final details.

Hope to see you then.

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. If you have questions, leave a comment.  I moderate the comments so I'll be able to read and respond privately.

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Jan 19 2012

Surfing The Roof

Three readers alerted me to this video that's sweeping the Internet.

In Russia, a hooded crow repeatedly surfs down a snowy roof, riding something that looks like a Frisbee.  When the video begins, there's already a surf-track on the roof, evidence that he's been doing this for a while.

Crows just want to have fun.  😉

(video from YouTube)

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Jan 18 2012

Today Some Links Are Broken, Wikipedia Has Gone Dark

Published by under Musings & News

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you'll notice that I use Wikipedia extensively for links to further information.  I personally use it every day for research.

Today Wikipedia has gone dark in protest of two bills, SOPA and PIPA, before the U.S. House and Senate.  If passed those bills would create new tools for censorship of international websites inside the U.S. and potentially shut down U.S. websites and their financial services, without a trial, for alleged copyright infringement.  These bills have been urged by the entertainment industry.

Read more about Wikipedia's decision here.  Click on the graphic to see Wikipedia's home page today.  (Note that mobile phones will see the normal page.)

---------------------  Personal opinion about SOPA and PIPA ---------------------

On this blog I make every effort to insure that I have rights to display the media I use, but I cannot know if a website is lying when it tells me media is in the public domain or is free to use.  If these bills become law, the federal government could shut down my blog without warning for copyright infringement if I used media from a place that lied to me.  Very scary stuff.  I'm contacting my legislators.

For today Wikipedia is dark and my links will not work.  I hope for a better tomorrow.


(image from Wikipedia's English language homepage, 18 January 2012)

p.s. Today's Winter Tree blog is below.

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Jan 18 2012

Winter Trees: Red Oak

If you've traveled around the country you may have noticed there's a different mix of trees outside of Pittsburgh.  Compared to other parts of North America, southwestern Pennsylvania has few pines and spruces, no white birches (unless planted) and no mangroves.  But we do have a lot of oaks and hickories.

Pittsburgh's habitat type is the oak-hickory forest, the widest ranging deciduous forest type in eastern North America.  Oak-hickory forests are dominated by oaks and hickories (of course) and are home to birds and animals who eat the acorns and nuts: blue jays, wild turkeys, gray squirrels,  fox squirrels and eastern chipmunks.

The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and eastern black oak (Quercus velutina) are indicator species for the oak-hickory forest.  Both are in the red oak group, are very similar and even hybridize. For purposes of this simple tree guide I'll help you recognize "red oaks."

All oaks produce acorns and have a cluster of buds at the tip of the twig. In eastern North America oaks fall into one of two groups: reds and whites. Here are the differences between them:

  • Red oak group:
    • Leaves have pointed or bristly tips on each lobe
    • Buds have pointed tips and are larger than white oaks' buds
    • Acorn cup scales are brownish and flat; the cup is hairy inside
    • Bark is generally dark, smooth or ridged but not peeling
  • White oak group:
    • Leaves have rounded lobes
    • Buds are blunted, rounded and generally smaller
    • Acorn cup scales are knobby and paler; cup is not hairy inside.
    • Bark is paler, peeling from higher trunk and branches, looks as if it was rubbed off at the base of the tree.

Notice in the photo above how the buds are clustered at the tip and are pointed.

Red oak bark is dark and doesn't peel.  Even though it has ridges, the ridge tops still have a smooth appearance.


Oaks have bumper crops of acorns every few years on a cycle that's determined by species.  Red oaks cycle every 3-4 years; white oaks every 4-10 years.  This abundance and scarcity causes a fluctuation in those who eat the acorns, too.

Sometimes you can recognize oaks from afar because their crowns are massive, wide and spreading.  Here's a red oak seen from a distance in Schenley Park.


Interestingly, the red oak is the dominant oak in Schenley Park and often has a reddish tinge in the bark's furrows or on the surface.  I'm not sure why or even if this tinge is diagnostic.  (See the slight reddish tinge in the bark furrows above.)

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jan 17 2012

Winds Gusting to 50 Miles Per Hour

Published by under Weather & Sky

Today's forecast in Pittsburgh calls for a rainy high of 53o followed by a strong cold front with winds gusting to 35 mph overnight.  North and east of here the wind will be even gustier, up to 50 mph in Dubois and Johnstown.

So I wondered... What causes wind gusts?  And what will cause them tonight?

Wind gusts are quick bursts and lulls of wind (we know this) lasting 20 seconds or less.  The National Weather Service doesn't even call it a gust until it reaches 18 mph and has a 10 mph difference between burst and lull.  If the gust lasts a minute it's called a squall.  If it lasts longer than that it's real wind, a gale or a hurricane.

Weather experts say gusts are caused by three things:  turbulence from friction, wind shear and solar heating.

We can rule out solar heating today but I've seen it in summer when rising hot air is quickly replaced by cold air dropping to fill its place.  In the desert the gusts are amazing.

Wind shear occurs at the unseen three dimensional boundaries where wind speed and direction change within a short distance.  If the wind could hold colored dots wind shear would be an amazing visual effect, an edge where a slow wind moving one way meets a faster wind moving another direction.  Aloft these gusts cause a bumpy airplane ride, but they're dangerous near the ground where there's no vertical distance to recover from the bump.

I don't know if wind shear is a factor in tonight's weather but I suspect not.  It wasn't mentioned at all.

On the other hand I'm sure turbulence from friction is involved.  Today's cold front is moving in very fast with 60 mph winds at 2000 feet.  At higher elevations, such as the Laurel Highlands, the 60 mph wind is a lot closer to the ground. If even a fraction of it scrapes the earth the friction will cause gusts.

Turbulence is even greater near cliffs and buildings where the wind rushes faster through narrow openings, causing whirls and eddies that raise leaves and trash high into the sky.  I experience this all the time at the Cathedral of Learning.

Tonight the peregrines won't find it pleasant to roost up there, but they're used to the wind.  "Ho hum," they say.  "This wind is nothing."


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


p.s. This blog post is about wind gusts but what is causing so much wind today? Read Rob Protz' comment for an explanation.

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Jan 16 2012

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Published by under Bird Behavior

Two heads are better than one.  Are twenty better than two?

Among humans this is certainly the case.  The more people working together on a problem, the more likely it will be solved quickly.  Each person's unique talents contribute to the whole and larger groups are more likely to contain someone with the right skills.  In sociology this is called the pool of competence.

Last September the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences published a study by Oxford University of the pool of competence among birds.  In Europe there are social birds similar to our chickadees, though larger, called the great tit (Parus major) and the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).  Both species are curious and learn from each other.

To test the birds' ability, researchers set up intricate bird feeder problems for the flocks at Oxford's Wytham Woods.  The feeders were equipped with levers and blocking devices that the birds could eventually bypass to get the seeds.

Smaller flocks took a long time to solve the puzzle but the larger the flock, the faster the problem was solved, making the seed accessible to all.  The surprise was that there was no upper limit on flock size after which this advantage tailed off.

Twenty is better than two.  Thirty is better than twenty.  More is better in the pool of competence.

Click here to read more about this study.

And... in this photo these birds look a lot like chickadees but they're much more colorful.  Click here to see the great tit's beautiful yellow belly and black stripe.  Click here for a better view of the blue tit.

(photo of a great tit and blue tit by Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Jan 15 2012

Think Spring

Published by under Songbirds

Just a little reminder that spring will come and with it pale green leaves and chestnut-sided warblers.

(photo by Bob Greene)

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Jan 14 2012

The Cold of Exploding Trees

Well, it's still winter out there.  It was 18o F at dawn in Pittsburgh but by Monday it will be back to 41o.

These yo-yo temperatures can wreak havoc on roads and bridges and our landslide-prone hillsides.  If the temperature drops fast and far enough it even hurts living things.  At super low temperatures the trees explode.

I had never heard of this phenomenon until a conversation in Maine last fall when I asked Ann Sweet, who runs the Harbourside Inn, how cold it gets in winter at Acadia National Park.  Ann said the ocean keeps the island warmer than interior Maine but every once in a while it gets so cold that the trees explode.

Wow! And why?

Tree sap contains water and water expands when it freezes.  The expansion increases pressure under the bark and in extreme cases causes the bark to explode.  This doesn't happen all the time because trees draw down sap into their roots in autumn, leaving room under the bark for expansion.  If they didn't do this they wouldn't live through the winter.

The danger for cold-explosion comes when the trees haven't had time to draw down their sap or when the temperature falls extremely low.  Both occurred in north-central Washington in December 1968 when temperatures fell to -47oF.  The fruit trees in Wally and Shirley Loudon's orchard exploded.

Native Americans were well aware of this phenomenon.  According to Wikipedia, the Sioux and Cree called the first full moon of January "The moon of cold-exploding trees."

When the moon was full on January 9, Pittsburgh's average temperature was 10 degrees above normal.  I don't think we're in any danger of exploding trees.


(photo of tree exploded by lightning in Central Park, New York by David Shankbone.  Click on the image to see the original on Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. It is much more common for trees to explode when hit by lightning.

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Jan 13 2012


Published by under Birds of Prey

Winter's back!  After a week of highs in the 40's and 50's, this morning dawned at 18 degrees F with winds gusting to 32mph and a wind chill of 1 degree.  Brrrr!

But... with winter's return there's a report on PABIRDS of a snowy owl in Somerset County.

This winter "snowies" are coming south in big numbers.  From New Jersey to Oregon, from Ohio to Oklahoma more of them are visiting this year than anyone expected.  In November Jesse Ellis created this collaborative Google map of snowy owl sightings, showing the beginning of the owl invasion.  (It was last updated in December, then moved to eBird where the number of pushpins isn't as limited.)

Wisconsin has seen a lot of snowy owls.  By December 10 birders had already counted 80 in a state that usually sees 10 in an entire winter.  This influx did not go unnoticed by other birds of prey.  On November 21, Luke Kvapil was about to photograph an owl perched at Milwaukee's harbor when a peregrine falcon flew in and took a swipe at the bird.  Click here and scroll down to see the peregrine harassing the snowy.

As of this writing there's no information on the location of the Somerset County snowy owl, but several intrepid birders are looking for it.

Intrepid is the word!  If it's winter in Pittsburgh, Somerset County is the arctic.

Perhaps that's why the snowy owl is there.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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