Monthly Archives: November 2012

Will I Ever See…?

I have never seen an evening grosbeak, but this winter I might get my chance.

For the first time in years, evening grosbeaks are coming south in big numbers because there aren't enough tree seeds in Canada.  Without food at home they're on the move in a variable migration called an irruption.

Winter irruptions are not uncommon, but evening grosbeaks are.  Last winter snowy owls came to western Pennsylvania, pine siskins and white-winged crossbills visited in 2008-2009 and redpolls in 2007-2008.  But evening grosbeak sightings have declined over the years.

Happily, on November 5 the grosbeaks arrived at Marcy Cunkelman's yard in Indiana County (here's a beautiful male at her feeder), but alas, they were gone by this weekend when I could travel to see them.

So now I wait for news of a reliable *weekend* flock of evening grosbeaks near Pittsburgh.

Will I see my first one this winter? I hope so.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Storm-tossed Skimmers In Pittsburgh

As Hurricane Sandy blew through New York and New Jersey it picked up many sea birds and blew them inland.  Some rode the storm's high winds, others were trapped in the eye of the hurricane and flew all night inside its calm center, waiting for daylight so they could see where to land.

By midday Tuesday, October 30 there were near blizzard conditions and 45 mph winds over Pennsylvania's southern mountains as the eye of the storm hovered over Bedford County before turning north.  At this point many water birds dumped out of the storm onto Shawnee Lake where Mike Lanzone reported at least 10 unusual species including a black-legged kittiwake, American oystercatchers, a leach's storm-petrel, and pomarine and parasitic jaegers.

Many storm birds flew home immediately but five days later these two juvenile black skimmers showed up in Pittsburgh.  As soon as Mark Vass reported them on the Ohio River at McKees Rocks, Pittsburgh area birders flocked to see them including Jeff McDonald who took these pictures.

Black skimmers (Rynchops niger) are quite common on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey at this time of year where they eat small fish from the ocean's surface.  They capture them by skimming the water with their long lower mandibles.  You can see this odd beak as a bird casts a pellet below.


And here you can see one skimming.

But there might not be enough food for skimmers in the Ohio River in November.  In North America skimmers are strictly coastal birds because the sea serves up small fish every day, but in Pittsburgh the river fish drop into deep water in winter, unreachable by skimmers.

Now, a week later, there is only one black skimmer at the marina.

(photos by Jeff McDonald)

They Say It’s Your Bird-thday!

Look who showed up this morning!  It's a British Invasion and they're singing their own version of the Beatles Birthday song,

"They say it's your Bird-thday
We're gonna have a good time...
Yes we're going to a party party.
Yes we're going to a party party.

Hello, Rooks! Thanks for coming all the way from Britain to celebrate Outside My Window's 5th birthday.  Do you have any requests?

"Yes, we've been reading your blog and learning a lot of useful stuff about birds, weather, plants, flowers, and interstellar space.  Now we have 5 questions."

1.  What numbers describe Outside My Window?
That's easy.  The blog averages 577 visitors a day and creates 22% of all traffic to   (A big THANK YOU to my readers!)

2.  Which posts had the most readers in the past year?
Dorothy wins the prize. Top readership goes to Peter Bell's amazing pictures of Dorothy attacking a bald eagle over Schenley Plaza.  Last year's Falcon or Hawk? continues to win the top prize from Google search.

3. What spawned the most comments?
When National Audubon posted Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately? on their Facebook page it generated 63 comments, but the stand-alone prize goes to Mouse In The House with 26.  The mouse struck a cord, eh?

4.  What were your favorite photos in the past year?
Wow, that's hard!  Here are three: Peter Bell's Peregrine versus Bald Eagle (of course Dorothy's always a favorite), Steve Gosser's Chick at Tarentum and Chuck Tague's Walking On Air.

5.  Which posts were your personal favorites?
Morning Glory clouds and Move-In Day taught me the most, but I have to say that my favorite was the coming home story of Beauty, the peregrine queen of Rochester, New York in Whose Egg Is This???.

"Oooooooo. Peregrines?!?  We do not like peregrines!"

Sorry, guys.  In compensation I'm letting you eat the entire cake.   (Now that they're standing on it, it's theirs!)

(party rooks by Joan Guerin)

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

Next Week: A DUCKumentary

Fall migration brings waves of ducks through western Pennsylvania, so now's the perfect time to learn more about them.

Next Wednesday, November 14 at 8:00pm PBS NATURE will premiere  An Original DUCKumentary, a delightful program about the birds who've mastered water.

The show opens as baby wood ducks hatch and prepare to leave their nest.  Their mother comes to greet them, then flies to the pond and calls.  Whoa!  She can fly but they must fall 70 feet to reach her!  No wings, just the will to join their mother, and off they go.  The first rule of a baby duck's life:  Mom calls, we follow.

The baby ducklings learn and grow.  We see their tiny feet paddling underwater and slow motion video of their parents leaping from water into air.  And wow!  Their dad is beautiful!

That's not all.  Ruddy ducks make powerful dives using only their feet.  South American torrent ducks master river rapids.  Common eiders literally fly underwater to reach the ocean floor.   And sprinkled throughout we meet the cutest baby birds on the planet -- like this little redhead.

Watch An Original DUCKumentary on WQED, Wednesday November 14 at 8:00pm.  If you're outside WQED's viewing area, check your local PBS listings.

You'll see ducks from a whole new perspective.

(photo from PBS NATUREAn Original Duckmentary)

Mother Of Pearl

Here are clouds we never see at home.

Nacreous clouds are named for their iridescence.  Like nacre, the mother of pearl substance that lines oyster shells and pearls, they reflect all the colors of the rainbow.

They're also called polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) because they form in the lower stratosphere at 49,000 to 82,000 feet in the presence of super low temperatures, -108oF and colder.  These conditions are only found in the polar regions during winter, mostly in Antarctica.

To give you an idea of how rare these clouds are, consider that they form in an extremely dry part of the earth's atmosphere way above most human activity. Commercial jets fly at 23,000 to 41,000 feet; these clouds are much higher.  It's so dry up there it's a wonder that they form at all.

The prettiest nacreous clouds contain only water droplets that glow profusely when the sun lights them from below.  These clouds are benign but others are not.  PSC clouds that form from nitric acid + water cause chemical reactions that deplete stratospheric ozone and make a hole in the ozone layer that protects Earth from the sun's ultraviolet light.

As we head toward winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it's summer in Antarctica so it will be many months before there are nacreous clouds again.  These were photographed in August 2009.

(Nacreous clouds in Antarctica over the NASA Radome, photo by Alan Light on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

Since 1600

When Northern Europe was deforested many centuries ago only one native pine survived:  the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

Beginning in the 1600's when Europeans came to North America, they brought the Scots pine with them.  No matter that eastern North America already had more than a dozen native pine species.  They planted this one anyway.

Since then the Scots pine has had a checkered history on this continent.  In some places it became invasive, in others it was stunted by poor growing conditions.  During my childhood it was a popular Christmas tree.

Nowadays it grows naturally from Maine to Wisconsin to West Virginia.  You'll recognize it by its twisted trunk, rusty red bark near the top of the tree, and two needles per bundle.

The cones are fun to collect because they aren't prickly.  If you live within the Scots pine's range, these are easy to find.

(photo by Didier Descouens, Museum of Toulouse France, from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

The Whole World Is Hotter


The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has reopened the topic of climate change.  Understandably the loudest voices come from those most affected, worried that this unusual storm is just the beginning of weather as usual on a warm planet.  Mayor Bloomberg of New York City was especially forthright.

How did we get such a strong hurricane so late in the season?  Why did it hit New Jersey, a place that's had only one hurricane make landfall in 161 years of hurricane records?  (And that was in 1903.)

I learned the answers on WESA's Allegheny Front on Saturday. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground explained how hot ocean temperatures, prevailing winds, and high pressure centered over Greenland spawned the storm and steered it west.  (Click here to listen to the podcast.)

And though this individual storm can't be pinned on climate change, its causes can.  The bottom line:  The whole world is hotter.

I hadn't realized how much hotter and how rapidly the heat has increased until I watched this NASA animation of global surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2011.  Using the average global temperature in the mid-20th century as baseline, the map is colored blue when colder, orange when hotter.

Play the animation and see for yourself.

The train is rolling down the track.  (Perhaps it's naive of me to say...) we could do something if we worked together politically and individually.  Meanwhile ...

Old Charlie stole the handle
And the train won't stop going
No way to slow down
--- Jethro Tull, Locomotive Breath, 1971


(animation from Goddard Multimedia, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, January 2012. Click here for more information)

The Trees Are Bare?

Lots of the trees are bare now that Hurricane Sandy came through Pennsylvania.  But not everywhere.

Here, the trees look wintry in Schenley Park on November 1.

But just around the corner the view from Panther Hollow Bridge is mixed.  The large sycamore is bare -- see the ghostly white bark? -- but the red oaks still show off their russet tones.  (These pictures are dark because it was raining. It rained every day last week.)


Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, winter comes earlier.

Here's a picture from the Quehanna Wild Area taken on October 13.  Three weeks ago most of the trees were already bare in this part of Clearfield County.

What's it like where you live?

(photos by Kate St. John)