Monthly Archives: February 2017

Tanagers True And False

Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie's tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Feb 2017 at Las Cruces (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie's tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Las Cruces, Feb 2017 (photo by Jon Goodwill)

When I visited Costa Rica this month I saw more tanagers than I'd ever seen before ... but some of them weren't really tanagers.

Tanagers (Thraupidae) are the second largest family of birds on earth but their membership is constantly in flux as DNA tests move birds in and out of the family every year. In the photo above, all three birds used to be Thraupidae but one of them moved out in 2012.

Thanks to photos from fellow travelers Bert Dudley and Jon Goodwill, and from our guide Roger Melendez, here are tanagers we saw in Costa Rica, both true and false.

True Tanagers whose names include the word tanager:

Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • Cherrie's tanagers (Ramphocelus costaricensis) were plentiful at Las Cruces Biological Station.  Here's a male, in velvet black and orange with a blue-gray beak, perching next to a female.

Cherrie's tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Cherrie's tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)
Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)

  • Speckled tanagers (Tangara guttata) are subtly gorgeous birds. These were at Las Cruces.

Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)
Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)

Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)
Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

 

True Tanagers whose names don't say "tanager".  These species are in the Tanager family but you'd never know it by their names.

Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • The scarlet-thighed dacnis (Dacnis venusta) has beautiful scarlet thighs. Too bad the leaves are hiding them.

Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)
Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)

Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)
Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)

Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

False Tanagers that are still called "tanagers."  These birds in the Piranga genus were moved to the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).

Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)
Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)
Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

"False" Tanagers that used to be in the Tanager family, though "tanager" is not in their name.

  • The yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla), pictured at the top with two true tanagers, was in the Tanager family (Thraupidae) until 2012 when he became a Finch (Fringillidae).  This didn't affect the euphonia's life but it scrambled our field guides.

Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)
Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)

 

As you can see, the Tanager family can change in a flash!

 

(photos by Bert Dudley, Jon Goodwill and Roger Melendez)

The Falcon’s Laugh

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)
Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

On my trip to Costa Rica I wanted to see a laughing falcon. And then I wanted to hear it.

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) are very vocal birds that live in Central and South America from Mexico to northern Argentina.  They specialize in eating snakes -- even poisonous ones -- which they kill by biting off the heads.  Ch'ol Maya legend says the birds can cure themselves of snake bites. And yet, the birds sound spooky.

At dusk laughing falcons raise their voices in advertisement calls or duets.  They start with a gwa call, getting louder and louder, that usually morphs into two syllables: gwa co.

One evening before dinner at Las Cruces Biological Station, Bert Dudley filmed this laughing falcon warming up at dusk.  Click here to hear.

The two-syllable call gave the bird its common name, halcón guaco, but those calls don't sound like laughing.

Here is his laugh:

"Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans)" from xeno-canto by Mario Trejo. Genre: Falconidae.

 

The falcon only "laughs" when he's worried or upset.

 

(photo and video by Bert Dudley)

Closer To Nesting

Hope roosts near the nest, 26 Feb 2017 (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Hope roosting near the nest, 5:18am, 26 Feb 2017 (photo from National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

As nesting season approaches female birds often roost close to their future nest sites.  Last night two of Pittsburgh's peregrines did just that.

Above, Hope roosts at the front of the Cathedral of Learning nest box.  Below, Dori sleeps on the perch near the Gulf Tower nest.

Dori near the Gulf Tower nest, 26 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Dori near the Gulf Tower nest, 5:22am, 26 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

"Close" to the nest is literally true. Neither bird is actually in it.

The peregrine's nest is a bowl scraped in dust, gravel or dirt on a high cliff ledge. The bowl's shape prevents the eggs from rolling off the cliff and provides an edge to keep in the heat during incubation.  Both the male and female help make the nest by hunkering down in the scrape and kicking the gravel back and out with their feet.

At the Gulf Tower there are two scrapes to choose from. In the photo below Dori is standing up to her ankles in the left one.

Two deep scrapes at the Gulf Tower nestbox (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Two deep scrapes at the Gulf Tower nestbox (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

The first eggs at these nests are typically laid between March 12 and March 20.  Watch for them online at the National Aviary's Cathedral of Learning falconcam and the Gulf Tower falconcam.

However, keep in mind that Dori is fickle about her Downtown nest site.  Last year she paid a lot of attention to the Gulf Tower but disappeared on March 12 to nest at Third Avenue.  I hope she'll stay at Gulf this year.

The one thing we do know is that peregrines are closer to nesting when they stay close to the nest.

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at the University of Pittsburgh and the Gulf Tower)

A Bad Month For Maple Syrup

Maple trees with sugar pails (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Maple trees with sugar pails (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There's snow in this picture but there hasn't been snow in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands for half of this month.

March is supposed to be the best month for tapping sugar maples to collect sap for maple syrup.  The sap runs best with daytime temperatures above freezing and nights below freezing.  When the nights don't freeze the sap stops running and the season is over.

This year Somerset County's maple season was hampered by bursts of extremely warm weather in January and summer-like temperatures this month.  The thermometer hasn't dipped below freezing since February 17 and some days have been more than 20oF above normal.  Maple sugaring stopped before it should have reached its best.

This trend isn't unique to southwestern Pennsylvania.  The maple syrup industry tracks what's happening to maple farmers from Virginia to Maine. Since 1970 they've noticed that the seasons have become shorter and the sap is less sweet so it takes more sap to make the same amount of syrup.

No matter where you stand on climate change the people whose livelihoods depend on cold winters (maple sugar farmers and ski operators) can tell you this:  Whacky climate ruins their business.

Read more here in a 2014 article from the Allegheny Front.

 

(*) Today the weather is yo-yoing again.  Meyersdale, PA will dip below freezing tonight (25 Feb) for two nights, then run up again to a 48oF low on Tuesday 28 Feb.

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

UPDATE on 7 March 2017: Here's more on this year's maple sugar season from the Allegheny Front, WESA-FM.

Who’s Singing Now?

The birds are singing again and our ears are "rusty" after six months of their silence. How can we identify them?

Here are videos for four species singing in my Pittsburgh neighborhood this morning.  Perhaps they're in your neighborhood, too.

  • Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) get back in tune very early in the year.  They're resident throughout much of North America so they begin practicing in January.  By now they're doing the territorial call-and-response in Pittsburgh.  In the video above, you can hear a song sparrow off camera before the one in view responds.
  • Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are LOUD.  Resident in the eastern U.S., their song is described as "TEAkettle, TEAkettle, TEAkettle" but it doesn't always sound like that.  Often the best clue to identifying this wren is that it's the loudest voice you hear.  Watch him sing below, then look for your local wren on a prominent perch.  You'll be surprised by how far away he is.

 

  • House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were originally from the western U.S. and Mexico but bird sellers illegally captured and sold them as “Hollywood Finches” in New York City.  In 1940, with law enforcement in pursuit, the dealers released their birds in Central Park.  Since then, the eastern population has expanded westward, nearly meeting up with their western relatives. You probably have one singing in your neighborhood.  Listen to him below.

 

  • The mourning dove's (Zenaida macroura) "whoooing" song is sometimes mistaken for an owl but when you look for the source you'll find this bird puffing his throat. Mourning doves are tuning up near you.  They're resident in most of the U.S. and Mexico.

 

(videos from YouTube. Click on the "Watch on YouTube" icon to see each video with explanatory text)

Two Weeks Early!

Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common grackle (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Last year that I reported that common grackles usually return to my city neighborhood on March 5.

Well, this year they're ahead of schedule.  They arrived here in Pittsburgh on Tuesday February 21 and even earlier at Moraine State Park, 45 miles further north, on Sunday, February 19.

The grackles are two weeks early!

I noticed them when I heard them "skrink."

Click on last year's article below to watch the grackles puff and squeak on video.

Grackle Day

 

p.s. Have you seen other "early birds" this week?

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Nothing Like It On Earth

An okapi (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Okapi at Disney Animal Kingdom, Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What animal has a body like a mule, stripes like a zebra, and a face like a giraffe?  This one:  the okapi (Okapia johnstoni).

I'd never heard of an okapi (pronounced "o KAH pee") until I learned that Penn State scientists are leading the effort to sequence the giraffe's genome.  The project is looking at the okapi's genes because it's the giraffe's only living relative.  Who knew!

Okapis are forest dwelling mammals who eat plants and spend most of the time alone except when breeding. They reproduce slowly as the female is pregnant more than a year (440-450 days) before giving birth to a single foal.  Unlike giraffes, only male okapi's have horns.

Male okapi showing off its stripes and horns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male okapi showing off its stripes and horns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There are okapis in zoos around the world but in the wild they live in only one place, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the center of Africa, where they are protected by law but still threatened by deforestation, human encroachment, and poaching.  Lawlessness is a threat to okapi survival.  They are listed as Endangered by the IUCN.

To save the okapi, John Lukas founded the Okapi Conservation Project in 1987 to buy land, set up conservation zones and work with local people to protect the okapi and improve the lives of those who live near it.

The project not only reduces human pressure on okapi habitat but relationships within the community save lives.  In the blog post below John Lukas described how poachers with AK47s planned to kill a delegation of okapi conservationists last July.  Locals passed through the ambush zone unharmed but knew their friends were in danger so they notified their chief who warned the delegation.  Read how the ambush was foiled at the link below.

http://www.okapiconservation.org/community-conservation-saves-life-of-ocp-staff-member/

 

I hope that okapi conservation is successful.

There is nothing like an okapi on earth.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Museum Full Of Wonders

Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows the the Wandering Albatross at Carnegie Museum (photo by Donna Foyle)
Collection Manager Steve Rogers displays wandering albatrosses in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Carnegie Museum is full of wonders.

Last Saturday about 50 of us went behind the scenes in the Section of Birds where we learned that...

  • The albatross cabinet smells fishy because the albatrosses' bodies smell like fish.  Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows us the wandering albatross above.
  • A brown-headed cowbird's egg is really much larger than a red-eyed vireo's.  Here's a clutch of vireo eggs parasitized by a cowbird.

Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)
Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

  • Females in the genus Cotinga, native to Central and South America, look very different from their mates.  Below, female spangled cotingas are dull brown while the males are iridescent turquoise with purple throats.

Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)
Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

  • The spotted sandpiper lays eggs that are larger than her head!  Here I'm looking at her egg through a magnifying glass. Oh my! How does she do it?

Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)
Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Her sex life is even stranger than her large egg shown below. Pat McShea explained that spotted sandpipers are polyandrous.  The female lays a clutch of four eggs but hardly incubates them if other males are available.  Instead her mate handles incubation as she leaves him for another male, mates with him and lays another clutch of four. She can do this up to three times in one season!  Her job is to lay those enormous eggs.

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)
Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Thank you to Steve Rogers, Pat McShea and all the folks at Carnegie Museum who showed us the Collection's wonderful birds.

This is the last article in my Carnegie Museum series but it's not the last of the museum.  You can visit Carnegie Museum of Natural History any time, except on Tuesdays when they're closed.  Make plans for your visit here.

 

(photos by Donna Foyle and Doug Cunzolo)

A Selection of Nests: Downtown Peregrines in 2016

Dori at the left-hand scrape at the Gulf Tower, 6:58am, 20 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Dori at the Gulf Tower, pre-dawn, 20 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

2016 was another successful nesting year for the Downtown Pittsburgh peregrine falcons even though they didn't choose the Gulf Tower nestcam site.

Click here or on the photo above for a slideshow of 2016 highlights.

Which nest site will Dori and Louie pick this year?

Dori was at the Gulf Tower this morning (above).

Stay tuned.

 

(slideshow photos by the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower, Peter Bell, Matt Digiacomo, John English, Ann Hohn, Lori Maggio and Amanda McGuire)

The Walking Palm

Roots of the walking palm, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Roots of the walking palm, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here's a tree whose roots are taller than a man and are said to "walk" 20 meters a year(*).  Really?

The walking palm (Socratea exorrhiza) is native to Central and South America where its narrow trunk grows 50-80 feet tall with stilt roots up to eight feet high. The walking palms at Wilson Botanical Gardens, Costa Rica were so tall that I couldn't get their tops in the viewfinder.

Walking palm trees, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Walking palm trees, Wilson Botanical Garden, Costa Rica, 2 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The tree's claim to fame, repeated by local guides and the BBC, is that it can "walk" more than 65 feet a year by throwing out new roots to one side, leaning toward the new roots and abandoning those on the trailing edge.

But this is not true.

Reality Check:  20 meters per year is 65.6 feet, the height of 6 story building.  At 5.5 feet per month it's a distance that's easy to see and hard to ignore. You would notice that the plant is not where you left it!

Scientists have measured over and over and the walking palm never walks.  But they are puzzled why it has enormous stilt roots.  It occurred to me that an old theory about the roots may have spawned the walking legend.

In 1980, John Bodley and Foley C. Benson proposed that the tree has stilts so it can recover when downed by another tree, as shown in the diagram below.

How the stilt roots of Socratea exhorriza allow it to right itself (Bodley, John; Foley C. Benson (March 1980) via Wikimedia Commons)
1980: How the stilt roots of Socratea exhorriza allow it to right itself (from a paper by John Bodley & Foley C. Benson, March 1980, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tree #4 took root from the crown that hit the ground.  Its distance from the old root system is the height of the old tree. The trees average 65 feet tall.  Hmmmm!

Other fallen trees can sprout roots, too, and later studies disputed Bodley & Benson's theory, yet none have solved the underlying mystery.  Why does Socratea exorrhiza have such long stilts? No one knows for sure.

Meanwhile, at Wilson Botanical Gardens the walking palms stay rooted where the Wilsons planted them.  Otherwise they'd be half a mile away by now.

 

(*) Meters or centimeters? See the comments here!

(photos by Kate St. John. Diagram from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)