Archive for October, 2012

Oct 21 2012

In The Dust of Halley’s Comet

Published by under Weather & Sky

Tonight the sky will be clear in Pittsburgh, great for viewing the peak of the Orionid meteor shower -- if you can get away from city lights.

Interestingly, the shower is caused by the dust from Halley's comet that enters our atmosphere as Earth passes the site where Halley's passed before.

Read more about this celestial event in the Los Angeles Times where they've provided links to NASA's live streaming video.

(photo of Halley's comet in 1910, in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Oct 20 2012


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Most of the time we ignore Asian lady beetles until now when they become desperate to enter our houses.

Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) specialize in eating aphids and scaled insects so they were considered a beneficial insect.  Over and over they were unsuccessfully introduced in the U.S. before they miraculously -- and perhaps without our assistance -- gained a foothold near New Orleans in 1988.  Successful introductions followed in Europe and the Americas.

Too successful.  Now they're everywhere.

One beetle would be cute but this many are a pest when coupled with these distasteful traits:

  • In October they prepare to hibernate indoors, insinuating themselves by the thousands into every crack in our structures.
  • They emit an unpleasant odor when frightened or smashed (hah! like stink bugs).  This is a real problem when they get mixed up with grapes at wineries or you frighten the thousands inside your house.
  • They out-compete native ladybugs.
  • If they run out of aphids they eat the eggs and larvae of native ladybugs, butterflies and moths.
  • When they're really hungry they bite people to see if we're edible.  Ow!

During last Wednesday's warm weather I ate my lunch on Heinz Chapel's steps where I couldn't help but notice that the pavement and walls were dotted with Asian lady beetles.  The beetles flew around and landed on every surface, including me.

I did nothing to upset them but it didn't matter.  Some of them bit me, even through my clothing!

How annoying!

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

2 responses so far

Oct 19 2012

Taking Shelter

Published by under Birds of Prey,Mammals

As winter approaches our local wildlife looks for safe, dry places to take shelter from the cold.  Eastern screech-owls use hollow trees, dense foliage and holes in upright structures.

Last year Bill Powers of PixController set up an eastern screech-owl roosting study with five owl boxes in a dry wetland in Westmoreland County.  Each box is equipped with a small infrared video camera and small microphone wired back to a server that detects motion and streams video.

You can watch all five owl boxes at PixController's Eastern Screech-Owl webcam page.

When it turned cold last weekend, Bill's cameras detected motion as an owl checked out two of the boxes at dawn on Saturday.

Here's the owl staring up at the infrared camera in Box #1 where he eventually roosted.  There's no color because the light is infrared.

Knowing which box to watch, Bill put up a blind on Saturday and took the owl's picture when he emerged at dusk.  He's the handsome screech-owl in full color above.


Last night I tuned in at 9:00pm. There were no owls but I found a squirrel in Box #4, rearranging his tail and wrapping it around his body to cover his nose.

Won't he be surprised if an owl shows up this morning!


Visit Bill's PixController Screech Owl website to watch the cameras.  Click here for more information on the camera setup and a map of the cam locations.

(photos by Bill Powers and PixController, Inc.)

p.s.  If there are no owls when you take a look, come back when it's colder.  Bill tells me the owls use the boxes more often when it's 30oF.

6 responses so far

Oct 18 2012

Magic of the Snowy Owl

Ten months ago thousands of young snowy owls came here for the winter.  That irruption was unusual, an atypical episode in a life spent in one of the harshest habitats on the planet.

Where did those young owls come from?  What were their lives like in the arctic?  How do they thrive in a place so foreign to our experience?

Next week we'll find out how when PBS NATURE premieres Magic of the Snowy Owl.

The program begins in familiar territory, a farm in Wisconsin where two young snowies hunt the winter fields.  Meanwhile their parents are back home in perpetual darkness.  The show's excellent footage of the arctic night gives a real taste of life in the dark.

In spring the camera crew searches for nesting owls, eventually finding a pair alone.  Their solitude might not be a good sign.  Will there be enough to eat?  Will their young survive to adulthood?

Peregrine nestcam fans will love watching close-ups of Mother Owl with her cute babies.  The saga of Father Owl's hunt for food will sound familiar, but the dangers of polar bears and the plague of mosquitoes will not.


And there isn't enough food.  Eventually the parents have to move their entire family to the coast even though the babies can't fly yet.  The young have to walk and swim(!) to get there.

The family's endurance is amazing.  The snowy owls are almost magical.

Don't miss Magic of the Snowy Owl on Wednesday October 24 at 8:00pm on WQED.  Check local PBS listings if you're outside WQED's viewing area.

(photos of snowy owls in the arctic from PBS NATURE)


p.s. If you like to identify birds by ear, you'll enjoy the soundtrack of the arctic summer.

2 responses so far

Oct 17 2012

Like A Cork

Published by under Weather & Sky

We're in for some interesting weather though it probably won't look as dramatic as the cold front pictured above.

Last night the National Weather Service Pittsburgh forecast discussion said, "Showers becoming likely daytime Thursday with the passage of a mature occluding cold front. NAM model profiles show the cold frontal passage can also be accompanied by wind gusts up to 30 mph."

I had never heard of an occluding front let alone a mature one (obviously, I haven't been paying attention), so I had to look it up.

Occluded means blocked or stopped up.  An occluding cold front is one that overtakes a warm front, jamming it in a wedge between the cold air ahead of the warm front and the new cold air mass overtaking it.  The warm air has nowhere to go but up.  Cold air floods in and the warm air rides atop it like a cork on water.

It looks like this -- before and after -- as the cold front approaches from the left, catches up to the warm front and forces it up.  (Technically this drawing shows a "cold occlusion.")

The practical result is that we had cold air early this week, warm air today (the warm front), and cold air tomorrow.  The weather map shows the actual occlusion will track north of us.

The forecast also said, "As what often occurs with these maturing systems there can be a dry slot passage Thursday night before the ensuing cold upper low passes eastward through the upper Ohio Valley Friday."  So it will be dry on Friday.

The cork will rise tomorrow.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons of a cold front moving rapidly along the Rappahannock River. Occlusion diagram from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

p.s. 10/17, 6:23 pm, Thursday's forecast more includes the possibility of a severe thunderstorm & Friday has a chance of showers. Things change all the time!

One response so far

Oct 16 2012


Published by under Musings & News,Trees

On Saturday while hiking with KTA in the Quehanna Wild Area we encountered an area of low vegetation and waist-high stumps. The only trees were those growing on top of stumps like the one pictured above. These were not live sprouts from the old stumps.  They were all different species.

It was an oddly barren place where tree regeneration was prevented unless the seedlings were nurtured in the core of a stump.  Here's a Wikimedia photo by Ruhrfisch, taken in the same area.


The stumps were white pines, felled a hundred years ago.  State Foresters wondered how old the trees were when cut so they studied stumps with intact rings and discovered that they were all the same age --  200 years old.  Something had caused the area to regrow from scratch around 1700.

And they were all cut down at once at the turn of the last century.  Loggers clear-cut the entire state, each tree felled by two men with a cross-cut saw.  When they were done Pennsylvania looked like this (Tioga County, 1914):


It took a long time to recover from this damage.  The clear-cuts were ravaged by fires and erosion.  During the Great Depression some areas were replanted by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  In other places the land is still challenged.

And so we have a few barren reminders of the time when Pennsylvania exploited trees.


(photo of a tree growing on a stump by Kate St. John, other photos from Wikimedia Commons -- click on those photos to see their originals)

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Oct 15 2012

Free For All

The scientific literature calls ring-billed gulls opportunistic omnivores or as the gulls themselves would say:

"We'll eat anything and we'll snatch it from anybody."

Early this month Shawn Collins photographed this behavior when a gull caught some bread at Pymatuning Spillway.

The chase was on.

He was nearly overrun by the gang when ...  ooops!  he dropped a big chunk!

The bread fell free for all of them.

The result was a free-for-all. 😉

(photo by Shawn Collins)

One response so far

Oct 14 2012

Ash Leaves

This is one of the things I'm going to miss when all the ash trees have died.

In autumn ash leaves turn yellow, orange and lavender.  Often, all of the colors are on the same leaf.  No other tree is quite as beautiful.

Fall won't look the same when the ashes are gone.

(photo of ash leaves in Schenley Park by Kate St. John)

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Oct 13 2012

Best View In The Parking Lot?

Published by under Mammals

October's a good time to take in fall foliage and the autumn activities of Pennsylvania's wildlife.

If your travels take you to Elk County, stop by the Visitor Center on Winslow Hill Road in Benezette to see Pennsylvania's elk.

You might get lucky and find them in the parking lot, as Paul Staniszewski did above.

On the other hand, elk are pretty busy right now and more likely to be in their natural setting.  This is their mating season.

Click here for Elk Country information and here for Paul's guide to photographing elk ... when they're not in the parking lot.

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)


p.s. Today I'm hiking at the Quehanna Wild Area in nearby Clearfield County. The fall foliage is colorful but it is *cold*! The growing season just ended with 23 degrees this morning.

One response so far

Oct 12 2012

Green Rivers

Published by under Weather & Sky

From the ground auroras look like sheets of light.  From high above the Earth they look like shining green rivers.

Click on the image above to watch an aurora over the Indian Ocean as seen from the International Space Station.

Way cool, huh?

(image from NASA)

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