Archive for December, 2012

Dec 11 2012

Free Field Guide to Jewel Beetles

Have you ever seen a colorful, shiny beetle and wondered what it was?  I have.

There's a group of beetles called Jewel Beetles that eat trees but are very beautiful.  Among them are the rainbow green Emerald Ash Borer and (perhaps) a solid green iridescent beetle I see in the spring whom I've dubbed The Emerald Green Bug because I don't have a beetle guide.

But that problem is about to be solved.

In early 2013 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the University of Guelph Insect Collection and the Canadian Invasive Species Centre are going to publish a beautiful 411 page, 6x9" Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America.

The guide covers 164 jewel beetles in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. including all of Pennsylvania.

One of the books authors, Morgan Jackson, describes the guide here on his blog and includes a cool slideshow of the emerald ash borer page.  I can tell the book is for bug lovers and entomologists yet it looks easy to use for generalists like me who are curious about the natural world.

And the book is FREE, absolutely FREE!

Click on the book cover or here to read Morgan Jackson's blog and see if this is the book for you.  His blog tells you how to get your free copy.

I've already ordered mine.  Next spring I'll know the real name of that "Emerald Green Bug."

(cover of Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America, linked from Morgan Jackson's blog)

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Dec 10 2012

Duck Versus Goose

Published by under Quiz,Water and Shore

Dear Readers,

A question has been puzzling me for a long time and the answers I've found on the Internet are unsatisfactory, so I'm asking you.

What is the difference between a duck and a goose?

Is a duck smaller than a goose?  Not always.  The Muscovy duck is much larger than a Ross's goose.


Does a goose have a longer neck or legs?  Not always.  Consider these black-bellied whistling ducks.

When we see a duck or a goose, intuitively we are able to say, "That's a duck" or "That's a goose."

But how do we know the difference?

Please let me know by posting a comment.


(Credits:  mallard silhouette by Vlado on, goose silhouette from ShutterstockMuscovy duck by B.Walker on Wikimedia Commons, Ross's goose by Alan Vernon on Wikimedia Commons, Black-bellied whistling ducks by Sultry on Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE:  Chuck Tague wrote in the comments: "The difference is social structure. Ducks are seasonally monogamous and form a bond that lasts only through courtship and the initiation of incubation. The male takes no role in raising the young. Geese and swans form strong bonds that last for many seasons (or life) and maintain family units through migration. Whistling ducks are closer to geese than ducks."

See the other comments, too!  Lots of great information.


7 responses so far

Dec 09 2012

A Great Gift For Pennsylvania Birders

Published by under Books & Events

'Tis the Season for giving!  If you have a Pennsylvania birder or scientist on your list, here's a great gift idea.

The newly published Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania by Andrew Wilson, Daniel Brauning and Robert Mulvihill is now available from Penn State University Press.  It's a comprehensive, scientific look at all the birds who breed in Pennsylvania.

The data was compiled between 2004 and 2009 by over 2,000 volunteers.  I was one of them.  We traveled the state recording the location, habitat and behavior of birds during the breeding season.  Were they courting?  Building a nest?  Carrying food?  Were the adults scolding us for coming too close?  Did we see babies in the nest?  We took notes and uploaded our observations online.  Our data became this book.

It's a beautiful book and fascinating for its discussion of breeding trends.  The second atlas (2004-2009) was done two decades after the first one (1983-1989) and a lot changed in Pennsylvania in those 20 years. Forests were cut down for highways and strip mines, old farms became suburbs and shopping malls, intact forests matured, former strip mines became grasslands, wetlands were lost or restored, and the climate continued to change.  The birds responded in their distribution and density.

The Second Atlas absorbs me every time I open it:  the trends, the species accounts, the maps.  I'm especially fond of the great success of Pennsylvania's peregrine falcons (pages 160-161) who went from 3 breeding pairs in 1989 to 26 in 2009.

Click here or on the book cover to read more about the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania and buy it from Penn State University Press.  You can get a 20% discount online by using discount code SOC-12 during checkout.

(book cover photo from Pennsylvania State University Press)

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Dec 08 2012

Hey! Look At Me!

Here's an Asian pheasant, a Temminck's tragopan, that normally looks vermillion, black, white and brown.

When he's in an amorous mood he shakes his head to begin his courtship display.  Two long blue horns pop up from his head and the small blue patch under his chin drops down to reveal an intricate iridescent blue lappet.

He opens his wings, puffs his body, and continues to shake his head to perfect his display.

And just in case his lady doesn't notice, he clacks his beak.

Look at me!

Click here to see another Temminck's tragopan with an even bigger, better lappet.  In a contest between the two, I bet the ladies will pick the guy with the bigger bib.

(video from YouTube)


p.s. The name "tragopan" has an interesting origin:  Trago is the Greek work for goat, Pan is the Greek god of the wild whose shape is half man, half goat.

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Dec 07 2012

Hiding By Voice

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a bird when it's making an alarm call?  And how easy it is to find when singing?

It's not just that birds hide when alarmed and sing out in the open.  They change their tune to conceal or reveal.  They know that the "physical structure of a sound affects the ease with which a listener --- predator or neighbor -- can locate its source." (*)

Northern cardinals are a great example of this principle.

When they're hiding in a thicket, their call is a thin, faint, high note.  The alarm call's narrow frequency range makes it really hard to pinpoint.  Click here for an example.

By contrast, when they're announcing their presence or guarding their territory the sound is rich and variable in a wide frequency range.  This gives it a lot more "hooks" for our ears to grab onto.  Here's an example of their song and contact calls.

So when birds are warning each other of danger, there's a reason why you can't find their location.  They're hiding by voice.

(photo by Cris Hamilton. Inspiration for this Tenth Page is from page 220(*) of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Dec 06 2012

On Teeth

Published by under Mammals

Adult human adults have 32 teeth -- if none have been extracted.

Opossums have 50 teeth!

Possums (Didelphis virginiana) are small mammals with little mouths but they're loaded with teeth.

What could they possibly be chewing that they need 50 of them?

Imagine their dental bills!   😉


(photo from Shutterstock)

9 responses so far

Dec 05 2012

Birds On Ice: Long-tailed Jaeger

Ice has been in the news lately from its stunning disappearance in the Arctic Ocean this summer to it's dramatic melting around the world chronicled in the new documentary Chasing Ice.

What will we lose when the ice disappears?  What birds depend on the Arctic climate?

I don't know if this bird will suffer but I can tell you it depends on the tundra and tundra depends on ice.

The long-tailed jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus) is a holarctic bird who spends the winter over the open ocean in the southern hemisphere, often at the edge of the continental shelf.  Because they migrate over the ocean, long-tailed jaegers are exceedingly rare in Pennsylvania having been documented only three times.

Long-tailed jaegers nest in the Arctic where their breeding success depends on an abundance of lemmings and voles.  In the High Arctic of North America they depend on a single species: the collared lemming.  If there aren't enough lemmings, long-tailed jaegers don't even bother to breed.

As the ice melts, the tundra will change and eventually be overtaken by woody plants. Will this reduce the population of lemmings?

If it does, long-tailed jaegers will stop breeding and eventually disappear ... with the ice.

(photo by Jerzy Strzelecki on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 04 2012

They’re In The Maples!

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

This was it. If I was going to see an evening grosbeak it had to be this winter while they're irrupting across Pennsylvania.  I missed them at Marcy Cunkelman's (above), but flocks of 40 to 80 are reported every day at Dave Yeany's feeders in Marienville.  Last Sunday I made the 2+ hour trip to see them.

Before I left I studied the sound and appearance of these beautiful birds and learned that their call resembles the chirp of a house sparrow (Click here to hear.  If that link doesn't work, try this one).

When I arrived at 7:30am I heard loud chirps like a house sparrow who'd taken voice lessons.  Close by I saw and heard a real house sparrow.  Aha!  The grosbeaks were here but I couldn't see them.

I crossed the street to view Yeany's feeders but there were no grosbeaks there nor in any of the trees.  Another car pulled up.  Surprise!  Fellow birders Tom and Nancy Moeller from Pittsburgh.

Dave Yeany came out to say hello and assured us the grosbeaks would come in at 8:00am.  They would start in the spruce, then settle in the maples, then come to the feeders.  So we waited.

Sure enough at 8:00am the grosbeaks came to the spruce.  Yay! Life birds at last!  But the light was poor.  Rain was coming.  We wanted to see them closer.  We waited.  By 8:30am the grosbeaks landed in the maples but something spooked them and they flew away.  No!

We had come this far and couldn't bear to leave without seeing the grosbeaks at the feeders.  It began to rain so we retreated to Moellers' car. It was nice to be waiting with friends.

When the rain subsided at 9:00am we found 40+ evening grosbeaks in the maples preening and nibbling the buds.  They fluttered down level by level.  At last they came to the feeders.  Here, Tom Moeller captured them surrounding a starling.


Thanks to Dave Yeany's hospitality and advice we waited for the grosbeaks to come to the maples.  Our surprise was that the grosbeaks like to eat sugar maple buds.

People like maple products, too.  Dave Yeany has acres of sugar maples that he taps to create pure Pennsylvania maple syrup.  If you visit when he isn't home you can buy it from the red cupboard on his front porch.

We had the advantage of chatting with Dave and learning about his additional maple products.  I couldn't resist the maple cream which I'd never tried before.  It looks like honey butter and it tastes great.  Mmmmmmm! Good!

If you visit Dave Yeany's evening grosbeaks you'll find a big flock of beautiful birds and a sweet treat at the end.  In the meantime you can "like" Yeany's Maple Syrup on Facebook.


(Male evening grosbeak by Marcy Cunkelman, Nov 2012.  Flock at the tray feeder by Tom Moeller, 2 Dec 2012.  Photo of Yeany's delicious maple cream by Kate St. John)

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Dec 03 2012

Does This Remind You Of Someone?

Peregrine fans, does this photo remind you of someone?

This scene is from Baringo Cliffs, Kenya where a lanner falcon attacked a Verreaux's eagle and forced it to flip upside down to defend itself.

Lanners are about the size of peregrines and they hate eagles just as much as our peregrines do.

The photographer, Steve Garvie, describes it this way:
"A pair of Lanner Falcons were nesting at one end of the cliffs and this massive female Verreaux's Eagle drifted into their airspace. The female Lanner took to the air and quickly gained height then she flapped twice twisted onto her side then plunged in a deep stoop striking the circling eagle on the back of the head. The female eagle got a sore one and as the Lanner approached again she flipped upside down and clearly indicated there would be no second chance!"

Half a world away on June 6, 2012, Pitt's famous peregrine Dorothy saw a bald eagle approach her "cliff" at the Cathedral of Learning.  She too flapped a couple of times and then attacked.  The bald eagle flipped upside down but it didn't matter.  Dorothy won.

Eagles, whether Verreaux's or Bald, can't fly upside down for long.  Though Garvie doesn't say it, I'm sure the lanner drove the eagle away just as Dorothy did at Pitt.

It's Guess Who Won with an African twist.


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

5 responses so far

Dec 02 2012

Another Winter Visitor

Published by under Migration

Here's another bird that visits western Pennsylvania in winter.

I always see snow buntings near Miller's Pond in Crawford County -- the same place as the rough-legged hawk pictured last weekend -- but they can be anywhere that resembles their tundra home.

In summer snow buntings are black and white.  In winter they're cream and brown to match the vegetation.

Cory DeStein found this one two weeks ago while on a Pitt bird club outing to Imperial grasslands in Allegheny County.

(photos by Cory DeStein)

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