If you're a fan of bald eagles, here's a site to put on your travel plans for next month.
Every November bald eagles congregate on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam just south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland. Eagles like the area because the fish are easy to catch after they pass through the dam's gateway. We like the area because there are so many bald eagles and it's only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
As you can see from the video above, it's a popular place for photography.
If you don't mind crowds and want to see a wide selection of raptors, visit on Saturday November 14, 2015 for Conowingo's Bald Eagle Day.
Here's a video from last year's event. Yes, there are crowds but you'll see cool birds, too.
Yesterday Barbara Hancey asked if Dorothy and E2 are still at home at the Cathedral of Learning.
Yes, they are.
On campus my friend Karen Lang and I have seen at least one peregrine, sometimes both, several times a week. The birds are much less active than they are in the spring and they have very little interest in visiting the nest.
Like all birds peregrine falcons are sensitive to seasonal light changes. As the days get shorter their reproductive hormones cease and their interest in breeding -- and in the nest -- ceases, too.
The snapshots above (E2) and below (Dorothy) show they currently visit about once a week. This frequency will drop even further and won't ramp up again until February.
(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh)
p.s. This is not an egg. It's a reddish hole-punch that blew into the nest on the windy day, Oct 29.
The other day I was eating a yam and wondered where the name "yam" came from. The Oxford English Dictionary said the word is from West Africa and it's not the name of the plant I was eating.
True yams are in the Dioscoreaceae family. Native to Africa and Asia, there are many cultivated varieties. Our yams were named by African slaves who saw the resemblance to their yams back home. A true yam (African type) looks like this.
North America does have native members of the Dioscoreaceae family but we don't eat them. Have you ever seen these leaves in the woods, often in a whorl? Wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) is common in western Pennsylvania.
The yams we eat are Ipomoea batatas. They're labeled Yams in the grocery store because of USDA rules. White inside = "sweet potato." Orange inside = "yam." They're the same plant.
Should we call them sweet potatoes instead? Well, that's not accurate either. They're not in the same family as potatoes (Solanaceae family).
The Ipomoea batatas flower gives us a clue to its identity. What family does this look like?
Yes, our sweet-potato-yam is a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.
I'll call it a yam so I can find it in the grocery store.
Do you still have red flowers in your garden? Are your hummingbird feeders filled and hanging? If so you might attract a rare bird.
Our ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have left for the tropics but a few hardy northwesterners visit Pennsylvania in the fall. They're the Selasphorus hummingbirds.
The most likely visitors are rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) that breed in the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Alaska. They're used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat. During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.
Selasphorus hummingbirds are so rare in Pennsylvania that ornithologists work hard to band every one that's found. Usually they're identified as rufous hummingbirds but the species is so similar to the even-rarer-in-Pennsylvania Allen's hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) that the bird usually has to be in hand to tell.
If you see a hummingbird in your garden at this point, it's rare! Call the National Aviary's ornithologist Bob Mulvihill right away at 412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell). Or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He'll stop by to capture and band it and you'll get a chance to see it up close. He banded the female rufous pictured above in Carrolton, Pennsylvania on October 19.
To learn more about rare fall hummingbirds in western Pennsylvania, click here at the National Aviary's website.
p.s. While you're waiting for a rarity, watch hummingbirds spending the winter in West Texas on Cornell Lab's West Texas Hummingbird Cam.
Did you know that tiny owls are passing through Pittsburgh right now?
Northern saw-whet owls are 7-8" long, weigh little more than a robin, and have big yellow eyes. They live in wooded habitats where they're fierce predators of white-footed and deer mice. Though small (and cute) they have "attitude."
From mid October to December saw-whet owls migrate at night from their breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. to points south. Each one travels alone but not very fast. Individual owls average 10km (6.2 miles) per night and tend to reuse the same route year after year. Every four years the species irrupts in large numbers.
We know this because of Project Owlnet, a continental network of researchers investigating owl migration, founded by owl researcher David Brinker in 1994. In 2011 Brinker analyzed 10 years of fall banding data (81,584 owls banded!) and published his findings in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Click here to read the fascinating results.
Pittsburgh's not a main migration corridor so there are nights when no owls show up but it's exciting when they do. Thursday October 21 was quite a success as Bob wrote on Facebook,
Our second night of owl banding produced our second owl of the season! And lots of folks on hand to be delighted by it! A few Orionid shooting stars, a continually calling Barred Owl, and a couple of coyotes howling in the distance made for another "Who knew urban ecology could be so wild!?" kind of night.
You're welcome to attend Pittsburgh's Project Owlnet. Dress warmly (bring a blanket!) and show up any time. Be sure to read more here before you go!
Now's the time to see saw-whet owls up close.
p.s. If you can't make it out to the park you can still support the project by "adopting" a saw-whet owl on the National Aviary website. Click here to read more.
(photo of owl in hand by Doug Cunzolo, photo of owl face by Bob Mulvihill, photo of Bob Mulvihill with owl by June Bernard)
Every autumn I miss the moment when the chipmunks disappear.
For weeks they're vocal and active while they gather food to store in their underground burrows for the winter. Then one day they stay underground and go to sleep. Days or weeks later it dawns on me, "I haven't seen a chipmunk in a while."
Chipmunks (Tamias (Tamias) striatus) are not true hibernators. Instead they go into periodic bouts of torpor in which they lower their body temperature and sleep deeply, then wake up to eat and defecate. On warm winter days we see them out foraging.
Ironically an unusually warm winter is fatal to chipmunks. A study by Craig Frank at Fordham University found that chipmunks are less likely to enter torpor when the weather's warm. Those who do enter torpor have an 90% winter survival rate. If they stay awake in warm weather, they die. (90% mortality. Yow! Climate change is bad for chipmunks. Click here to read more.)
Some day soon the chipmunks will go underground, enter torpor, and not resurface until a warm winter day. Will we notice their absence?