By now fall colors ought to be at their peak in southwestern Pennsylvania but that isn't the case this year.
Above, an American beech leaf shows hints of green and yellow but is already mostly brown. The view below at Moraine State Park on Tuesday October 17 shows a landscape that's still green or brown and leafless. There are no beautiful reds and yellows.
Emerald ash borer killed the trees that used to contribute yellow, orange and violet. This year September's heat and drought suppressed the maples.
We're still waiting for the oaks to change color but they will turn a muted red.
After a decade of blogging it's time to redecorate Outside My Window. This weekend I'll change my blog's design by switching the WordPress Theme.
Switching the "theme" is like painting the walls a new color, installing new carpet and rearranging the furniture. All the furniture will be the same. It's not a radical change so you might not notice when it's done.
Why am I bothering?
Screen formats have changed since I started writing in 2007. They are many screen sizes now, from wide desktops to tablets to cellphones, but my old design doesn't scale well. The new theme flexibly resizes for all. After I've made the change, compare my blog on your PC and cellphone simultaneously and you'll see subtle differences.
Also I've grown tired of the same old look. The new theme is a different shade of white and there are seven new banner photos to display at random. Two of the photos are my own, the other five are beautiful birds. Thanks to Dan Arndt, Peter Bell, Chad+Chris Saladin, Chuck Tague (thank you, Joan), and Marge Van Tassel for permitting me to use their photos.
The screenshot above is a preview.
By next week the blog will have a new look.
(screenshot of the new design theme with banner photo of Dorothy by Peter Bell)
In 2014, genome sequencing studies led by Robert W. Meredith worked to determine whether several branches of birds' ancestry lost their teeth independently (convergent evolution) or whether all birds have a common ancestor that evolved a toothless beak.
The project did full genome sequencing on 48 birds species representing nearly all modern bird orders. They then focused their study on six genes related to tooth enamel. All six genes became non-functional in a common bird ancestor around 116 million years ago. That's when birds lost their teeth.
(cropped image of Archaeopteryx model on display at Geneva natural history museum via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. **Note that this Archaeopteryx model has accurate teeth but has other inaccurate/disputed features as described on Wikimedia Commons: "Archaeopteryx had a more round shape of its wings, the primary feathers were attached to the second finger unlike here, and these colours are now known to be wrong.")
As ice sheets melt around the world, fresh water that used to be held on land is pouring into the ocean and sea level is rising. But it's not rising uniformly. The transfer of mass (water) from land to sea causes changes in Earth's gravity field. Mirroring the ripples in gravity, the water is high in some places and low in others like the ridges on a fingerprint.
The mysteries of gravity *
Gravity is a force of attraction. It works on everything and in both directions. The Earth's mass pulls you toward it while your mass pulls Earth toward you. The bigger the mass, the stronger the object's gravitational pull. Greenland with an ice sheet on top has more mass than Greenland without one, so as the ice melts Greenland's gravitational pull goes down.
As Greenland's gravity wanes it doesn't hug the ocean to its shore like it used to. The water has to go somewhere so it rises in the tropics. The effect is tiny, measured in millimeters per year. The pattern is called a sea level fingerprint.
The pattern revealed
Many things contribute to sea level at any given point including the Moon's gravitational pull (causing tides) and the wind (causing waves) so it took lots of data and some serious number crunching to reveal Earth's gravitational fingerprint. The data came from the GRACE satellite project.
GRACE satellites have been circling the Earth since 2002, measuring the pull of gravity on the globe below. (Here's how GRACE works.) Each orbit provides a snapshot. Years of data show the change in gravity over time. Most gravitational changes are due to the movement of water, especially groundwater.
Notice that the ocean has receded the most near Greenland at the rate of -2.5 mm/year. That's 32.5 mm or 1.28 inches in the 13 years that GRACE measured it. As NASA explains:
The loss of mass from land ice and from changes in land water storage increased global average sea level by about 0.07 inch (1.8 millimeters) per year, with 43 percent of the increased water mass coming from Greenland, 16 percent from Antarctica and 30 percent from mountain glaciers.
Click here to read more about the study and see an animated map of sea level changes 2002-2014.
Unfortunately some of the hardest hit places will be tiny Pacific islands and Florida.
SAVE THE DATE: Eagles Day 2017 is here! Join us Saturday, November 4th 10:00am to 3pm at the Conowingo Dam Pavilion. This is a great opportunity to learn about breeding, nesting, and foraging of bald eagles around Conowingo Dam as well as the overall environmental impact of the dam. Exciting vendors and presentations throughout the day! If you plan on attending, please call 410-457-2427 or email email@example.com. We hope to see you all there!
If you miss November 4, don't worry. The eagles stay at Conowingo for many weeks.
Make a trip any time next month to see them here on the Susquehanna. Click here for a larger version of the map below.
My wife [Becky Shott] is an Allegheny County Police officer at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Yesterday [Oct 9, 2017], she saw an adult Peregrine Falcon on the public arrivals area sitting on a wall between the Landside Terminal and the parking garage. Using her cell phone, she got a video and several still pictures of the bird. She was not able to get close enough to see if there were any leg bands. She also said she has seen possibly the same bird for the past six months. It has made repeated passes around the area possibly trying to grab one of the numerous pigeons that roost in the steel beams. However, she has not seen any evidence of a nest. -- Ed Shott
When Becky sent her photos and video she wrote:
I was pretty close to this bird & could not see any bands. I have been seeing a peregrine (maybe more than one) around here for at least 6 months. Sometimes I see it chasing pigeons around the Landside terminal. Always a beautiful sight.
Indeed this is a gorgeous bird. Here are more views of it on October 9, 2017. And no, I don't see any bands either, even when I zoomed in.
Wow! This bird doesn't seem to care that people are nearby as long as they don't disturb it.
Many times at the airport I've thought about the large number of pigeons and starlings at the parking lots and garage, especially the huge flocks in winter. But it never occurred to me that a peregrine would show up to eat them.
Thanks to the Shotts for alerting me to this peregrine.
If you're waiting to be picked up at the airport, watch across the driveway for a peregrine falcon. You never know what you'll see.
Even though we're heading for winter the calendar is filling up with lots of bird events, so many that I'll list just four: three of mine and one at the National Aviary.
Sunday October 29, 8:30-10:30a Duck Hollow and Lower Frick Park Bird Walk
Meet me at the Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road. We'll see migrating waterfowl on the river and walk the beginning of the nearby Lower Nine Mile Run Trail. Bring binoculars and scopes (for river watching) if you have them. Check my Events page for updates or cancellations.
We often think there are no birds here in winter but that's far from the case in the city. On November 2 I'll give a short presentation at Phipps' Biophilia about Pittsburgh's winter birds and where to find them. Click here for more information.
Saturday-Sunday November 4-5, 10a - 5p, National Aviary Event Opening Soirée, Friday November 3 Wings and Wildlife Art Show at the National Aviary.
The Wings & Wildlife Art Show is the National Aviary's annual juried show highlighting wildlife artists from across the region. Artists will be exhibiting and selling their art throughout the National Aviary during the first weekend of November. It's a great time to visit the Aviary's birds and buy a treat for yourself or gifts for the holidays. Click here for more information.
Why do peregrine falcons nest at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning? Where did they come from and where do they go? Come to the University of Pittsburgh's annual Audubon Day at Hillman Library where I'll tell the story of Pitt's peregrine falcons. Watch my Events page for more details including a link to Pitt's Audubon Day activities.
(photo credits: staghorn sumac by Kate St. John, northern cardinals in winter by Steve Gosser, peregrine falcon at Pitt by Jack Rowley)
On warm fall days look up and you might see swarms of flying ants. Flying high, they're annoying at hawk watches. What are these ants and what are they doing? The answer is more interesting than you might think.
Flying ant swarms are the mating dance, the nuptial flight, of winged male ants and virgin queens. Each species has its own time of year for mating.
If you've never seen a swarm here's what it looks like, filmed at a tall grass prairie in Nebraska (20 seconds).
The ants are so preoccupied with mating that they don't pay attention to what's nearby and are easy prey for migrating dragonflies, cedar waxwings, and even ring-billed gulls.
Don't worry. The swarms are not termites. Termites make their nuptial flights in the spring and, if you look closely, they're different from ants. Ants have pinched waists and "nodes" at their waistlines. Termites do not. Here's a visual comparison -- not to scale -- of fire ants on the left and eastern subterranean termites on the right.
Citronella ants spend their whole lives underground except when they emerge to mate. They're actually "farmers" who tend their livestock -- aphids -- and harvest the aphids' honeydew. This video describes a citronella ant colony.
After the nuptial flight the male ants die and the fertilized queens shed their wings. They don't just shed them, they yank them off! Watch this citronella ant use two of her six legs to pull off each wing (7 seconds).
And then the queen walks off to find an underground place to nest.
There are so many ant species that it takes an expert to identify them. If you know which ones fly at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in September, please let me know.