Archive for February, 2012

Feb 14 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day

"For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

In 1382 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem to celebrate the king's engagement.  Years later this one line from the Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Birds) caused Valentine's Day to be associated with romantic love.

Chaucer didn't mean the Saint Valentine of February 14.  He would have known that most birds don't court in February.  But they certainly court on May 2, the date of the king's engagement, the feast day of a lesser known Valentine.

The rest of Europe celebrated a more famous Saint Valentine in February, so by a series of mistakes we celebrate love today and save May 2 for birding.

(American coots, photo by Steve Gosser)

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Feb 13 2012

Walking on Air

This is what love does for a great egret.

In February the great egrets come back to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida and begin a frenzy of spring cleaning.

Like all the males, this bird chose a nest platform and collected some sticks.  Then for a couple of days he stood on the platform and bowed and croaked and displayed his beautiful feathers to attract an unattached female.

Finally she landed but it took another couple of days for them to confirm, "You're the one!  Let's finish the nest."

Now he collects sticks and brings them back with a flourish, "For you, my dear."

He's found his mate and he's walking on air.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 12 2012

Lesser Is More

Published by under Beyond Bounds


Lesser Flamingos, flying at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

Look closely and you'll see they have red armpits (axillaries).  So cool!  More stunning than the average bird.

In this case, unlike the stark architecture, lesser is more.

(photo by Charles J Sharp on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

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Feb 11 2012

The Noisiest Hawk in North America?

Published by under Birds of Prey

Spring has come to Florida and with it a loud, insistent sound.

KEE-aah!  KEE-aah! KEE-aah! KEE-aah! KEE-aah!

The bird shouts 5-12 times, waits about five minutes and shouts again. It's a red-shouldered hawk.

Not for them the silent territorial circling of the peregrine falcon.  Red-shouldered hawks have to tell the world, "I'm here!"  When a pair displays together they lengthen their calls and repeat them 15-25 times before a pause.

The only thing that seems to shut them up is the need to hunt and to hide the nest.  But if something threatens the nest all bets are off.  They circle and dive on the intruder, calling excitedly.  So much for hiding!

My field guide calls red-shouldered hawks "noisy, often heard before seen."  Some say red-shouldered hawks are the noisiest hawks in North America.

This may not be a good claim to fame.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 10 2012

Reminder: Winter Tree Walk, February 18

Published by under Books & Events

In just over a week I'll be leading a Winter Tree Walk in Schenley Park.  Click here for more information.

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Feb 10 2012

Extremely Social

Published by under Water and Shore

Don't these terns look spiffy with their coal-black crests, clean white throats and gray backs!

This is what sandwich terns look like in April as they enter the breeding season.  Handsome and sleek, these two are engaged in a threat display to decide who's more powerful, but this is all for show.  Compared to other terns, sandwich terns aren't aggressive.  They're extremely social.

According to Birds of North America Online sandwich terns are one of the most gregarious and colonial of all terns.  In the U.S. they nest in dense colonies with royal terns and laughing gulls and are highly tolerant of near neighbors.  They benefit from the protection of their colony compatriots who are more aggressive toward predators, while the sandwich terns keep danger at bay by settling as close as possible to each other -- as close as a bill-length away.

Right now, they aren't ready to breed.  In fact they look rather dull because their crests are still white.

They may be thinking about spring, but they aren't showing it yet.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 09 2012

Looking For Birds in Their Winter Habitat

Published by under Songbirds

It's been a mild winter in Pittsburgh but we haven't had any prairie warblers in town.

Since the birds aren't coming here, I'm going on a short trip to see them in their winter habitat in Florida.

Chuck & Joan Tague will help me find them.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 08 2012

Winter Trees: Black Cherry

Today's tree is easy to identify all year simply by looking at its bark.

Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a medium to large tree, 50 to 100 feet tall.  Mature trees have dark colored bark that looks like burnt potato chips.  The shadowy photo above accentuates the chips.

In bright light the trunk looks paler but the chips are still there, as you can see by this photo taken in full sun.


Young trees have smooth shiny bark with pale horizontal lines or lenticels.  Even the twigs have lenticels that appear as spots in the picture below.  The buds are alternate, small and scaled.  This twig looks like it wants to open its buds, proof that it's been a weird warm winter.


Black cherries are a favorite of birds in late summer because the trees produce an abundance of small red to purple cherries, 1/3" in diameter.  Foresters like the tree for it's cherry-colored wood which fetches a good price.

Keep your eyes open for black cherry trees and you'll be surprised how many you find.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 07 2012

Full Moon, Let’s Talk

Do owls hoot more when the moon is full?

Eurasian eagle owls do.  Maybe great horned owls do too.

In 2009 biologists conducted a study in Spain to find out if moonlight influenced Eurasian eagle owl vocalizations. They radio-tagged 26 breeding eagle owls and tracked them continuously during all phases of the moon.

When the scientists analyzed the data they found that the amount of hooting was directly correlated to the amount of moonlight.  On new moon nights the owls hardly hooted, but as the moon got brighter they had more to say and they said it from higher perches where their white throat patches gleamed in the moonlight as they spoke.

The white throat patch is important.

Like our great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), Eurasian eagle owls (Bubo bubo) have white throat feathers that are only visible when they hoot.  (The owl in this picture is hooting even though we can't hear him.)  In bright moonlight the white throat patch is apparently a visual cue that backs up the sound.  Perhaps it helps the mate or rival find the bird that's vocalizing.

Tonight the moon is full.   Will our great horned owls be talking?   Listen...

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

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Feb 06 2012

New Guide to Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-Petrels

For humans the sea is the last frontier, a place so foreign we think it's uninhabited.  But it's not.  The open ocean is home to millions of birds we never see on land:  petrels, albatrosses and storm-petrels.

Acclaimed ornithologist and author, Steve N. G. Howell, has written an excellent reference book about them, newly published by Princeton University Press. Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America describes in detail all the tubenoses (Procellariiformes) found off the coasts of North America.

Tubenoses earned their name because their nostrils are encased in tubes on top of their straight, hook-tipped beaks.  The structures help them smell their food, even in the dark, and excrete salt from the seawater they drink.  Tubenoses are excellent fliers and often make long migrations, sometimes circling an entire ocean in both hemispheres.

The book's introduction helps us understand the sea and the birds who live there.  The oceans are mobile and full of currents, windy on the edges, windless in the middle with hotspots of abundance and places as barren as a desert.  The food supply can change in a day, in a season, and with storms.  The birds live on the wind.

The species descriptions are incredibly detailed with field identification, plumage and molt, distribution, and behavior.  Every account is richly illustrated with photographs of the birds and related or similar species.  The photographs are amazing, sharp and clear, even when there are towering waves in the background.  Quite a feat in a rocking boat!

The best tip in the book is one that has helped me on the few pelagic trips I've made in the Gulf of Maine.  Before you go out to sea, study the birds you're likely to encounter (only 12 to 20 species on a day-trip, of which 4-10 will be tubenoses).  Early study really helps because it's hard to juggle a field guide while observing birds on a windy boat.

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America is a solid reference guide.  At 500 pages it weighs 4 pounds.  You might think this is too heavy to carry in the field -- certainly it's much more detailed than a field guide -- but consider this.  To see these birds you must be on an ocean-going boat that has tables where you can set the book down and study it while you motor out to sea.

If you're planning to see or study tubenoses you'll want to own Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America by Steve N. G. Howell.  Click on the image above to read more about the book and buy it at Princeton University Press.

(book cover from Princeton University Press)

p.s. If you have the book in hand, check out my favorite photograph on page 66.

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