All posts by Kate St. John

Is This Bird Right Handed?

Common kestrel holding a dragonfly (photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe via Wikimedia Commons)
Common kestrel holding a dragonfly (photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe via Wikimedia Commons)

We humans have a trait called handedness in which we show a preference for using one hand over the other.  The vast majority of us are right-handed.

Do birds have handedness, too?

Indeed, they do.  Birds show it by the foot they use, the eye they look out of, and the crossing of their bills.

Feet? Eyes? Crossed Bills?  Read how birds express handedness in this vintage article Anatomy: Right Handed?

So what do you think?  Is this common kestrel right-handed?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

The Water Table Is Rising

Today in Pittsburgh it's raining again and it's not going to stop until Sunday.  The rivers are rising and so is something else.  The water table!

Whenever it rains some of the water runs into creeks, streams and storm sewers while the rest soaks into the ground.  With an extra 3.22 inches of rain so far this month the ground is saturated (February 1-21).  The excess will double in the next few days as 3 more inches fall.

If you've ever dug a hole in wet ground you know it fills with water once it's below the water table.

What is a basement but a hole in the ground?

In Pittsburgh we have basements and many of them are damp right now.  The video shows why.

So here's the total precipitation forecast for Thursday Feb 22 through Sunday Feb 25.

U.S. total precipitation forecast, Days 1-3, beginning Thurs 22 Feb 2018, 12Z (image from National Weather Serive)
U.S. total precipitation forecast, Days 1-3, Thurs 22 Feb 12Z through Sun 25 Feb 2018 (image from National Weather Service)

Oh no! The water table is rising.

 

(photo and video credits:
video from YouTube; screenshot from this great educational video about the water table and pollution from Penn State (15:57); map from the National Weather Service; click on the image to see its source
)

Record Heat

Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday we put on our summer clothes and this honeysuckle bush put out new leaves.  It was summer in February.

At 78 degrees F the high temperature broke two Pittsburgh records:  a new high for February 20 (formerly 68 degrees in 1891) and a new high for the entire month of February.  It was 37 degrees above normal.

When you look at yesterday's map you can see how it happened. The jet stream dipped across the Northern Rockies and Plains, then abruptly turned north over the Texas Panhandle.  It was only 3 degrees F in western Nebraska while we were nearly 80.  The narrow temperature gradient -- that yellow line across the Midwest -- continues to produce heavy rain.

U.S. high temperature forecast map for 20 Feb 2018 (from the National Weather Service)
U.S. high temperature forecast for 20 Feb 2018 (map from the National Weather Service)

Meanwhile, like a yo-yo, we're headed back to normal tomorrow and will lose those 37 degrees.  Today's our last chance for record heat.

 

(photo by Kate St.John. Temperature map from the National Weather Service; click on the image to see the latest map)

Splitting Scrub Jays

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)
Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons)

I got a new Life Bird two years ago and didn't even know it.

In 2016 the American Ornithological Union split the western scrub jay into two species:  the California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) whose West Coast range extends from Washington state to Baja California, and Woodhouse's scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) that lives in the interior Southwest from southern Idaho to southern Mexico.

Woodhouse's is pictured above, California scrub jay below.

California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
California scrub jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I finally learned of the split last month but it wasn't in my eBird records.  Duh!  I hadn't entered my "western" scrub jay sightings from Nevada.  When I did I got a new Life Bird at Red Rock Canyon.

Splitting is nothing new to scrub jays.  The Aphelocoma genus is particularly likely to change and already has split many times.

Since 1995 the "western" scrub jay split into four species and the western name disappeared into the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens only in Florida), the Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis only on Santa Cruz Island, California), the California scrub jay and Woodhouse's.

More splits may be on the way.  Woodhouse's has a tenuous hold on its sumichrasti subspecies and the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi) -- shown below -- lives in such isolated populations in the sky islands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico that he may split, too.

Mexican jay in Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)
Mexican jay at Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedia Commons)

Interesting as this is, there's not room in my brain to keep up with it.  eBird will do it for me if I enter all my sightings.   I'll have to backload my birding history to keep up with splitting scrub jays.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

A Snowy Winter

Snowy owl near Boston, MA, Feb 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Snowy owl, Plum Island, Massachusetts, early Feb 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

This winter has been great for seeing snowy owls in the northeastern U.S. as lots of them have come down from the Arctic for a visit.   Lauri Shaffer photographed these two at Plum Island, Massachusetts near Boston early this month.

Snowy owl, Plum Island, MA, early Feb 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Snowy owl female, Plum Island, MA, early Feb 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Snowy owls love wide open landscapes so they're often attracted to airports.  One was seen at Pittsburgh International Airport in January but birders couldn't go see it because it was in a secured area.

When an owl chooses Boston's Logan Airport, Norman Smith (director at Blue Hills Trailside Museum) is called in to capture and relocate the owl for the safety of the bird and the planes.  In this video from Massachusetts Audubon, he releases Snowy Owl #26 at Duxbury Beach on January 29.    See the story of this owl at Massachusetts Audubon's blog post, Releasing Snowy Owl #26.

 

Norman is one of the founders of Project SNOWSTORM, a project that fits snowy owls with transmitters to track their movements.  It's been such a productive winter that the project is now tracking 24 owls!   Watch their movements online at the Project SNOWSTORM website.

Even though our weather may be crazy hot and cold, it's been a "snowy" winter.

 

(photos above by Lauri Shaffer at birdingpictures.com, video from YouTube by Massachusetts Audubon, photo below by Kate St.John)

p.s. Last week I saw a snowy owl in Mercer County, PA, shown in a (lousy!) photo taken through my scope.  The owl was much better in real life.

Snowy owl, Mercer County, PA 13 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Snowy owl, Mercer County, PA 13 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

High Water!

Moderately high water on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 15 Feb 2018, 9:30am (photo by Kate St. John)
Moderately high water on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, Thursday 15 Feb 2018, 9:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

SCROLL DOWN TO SEE UPDATES.
This week in the space of 40 hours -- Feb 14, 4:30pm to Feb 16, 9:50am -- the Pittsburgh region received 2.5+ inches of rain.  At first it flooded creeks and streams. Now it's in the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.

Since I live near the Mon River I went down to Duck Hollow to see what it looked like.  In video below from Friday morning 16 Feb, the island of treetops in Thursday's photo had disappeared.

Today (Saturday) the rivers are even higher and I don't have to visit them to find out.  The PennDOT traffic cams tell the story.

In Downtown Pittsburgh there's a stretch of I-376 westbound called "The Bathtub" that dips into the Mon River flood zone.  Last month it was the site of exciting river rescues when two people drove their vehicles into it as the water was rising.  Click here to see a Live Video of the rescues.

This morning The Bathtub is full, as shown in before-and-after photos from the PennDOT traffic cam:  Yesterday (Feb 16) on the left, today (Feb 17) on the right, both at 7:20am.

PennDOT traffic cam at The Bathtub: Feb 16 2018 (before the flood) and Feb 17 (after)
PennDOT traffic cam at The Bathtub: Feb 16 2018 (before the flood) and Feb 17 (after)

The Allegheny is flooding, too, at the 10th Street Bypass.

PennDOT traffic cam at the 10th Street Bypass, 17 Feb 2018, 7:20am
PennDOT traffic cam at the 10th Street Bypass, 17 Feb 2018, 7:20am

All of this is "Minor" flooding in Pittsburgh per the National Weather Service.  (Flooding on the Youghiogheny River in Sutersville nearly reached the "Major" stage last night.  It's receding now.)

Later this morning I'll go down to Duck Hollow and see what's up.  The water's up for sure!

UPDATES: Saturday Feb 17 & Sunday Feb 18.

The Monongahela River crested around mid morning on Sat. February 17 and started to go down a little by noon.
17 Feb 2018, 9:30am:  I saw small fish swimming in the parking lot! Two Canada geese float by beyond the guardrail.

No parking today!

At the edge of the Mon River at Duck Hollow, 17 Feb 2018, 9:30am
At the edge of the Mon River at Duck Hollow, 17 Feb 2018, 9:30am

17 Feb 2018, 12:11pm: The water has started to recede, though not by much.

18 Feb 2018, 6:00am:  The Bathtub on I-376 and the 10th Street Bypass are still closed due to flooding.  The water is about 1/3 to 1/2 gone.

 

 

(Duck Hollow photos and videos by Kate St. John. Traffic cam snapshots from PennDOT)

Yellow Is A Sign of Spring

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Even before the buds burst and the flowers bloom, birds give us a hint that spring is coming.  Some of them turn yellow.

* White-throated sparrows have boring faces in the winter but their lores turn bright yellow ahead of the breeding season. They'll leave in March or early April for their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

* American goldfinches were brownish all winter but molt into yellow feathers in late winter. Even the females turn a subdued yellow as seen in the female on the left in Marcy's photo.

Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

* At this time of year European starlings become glossy and their beaks turn yellow.  The starling below is male because the base of his beak is blue (near his face).

European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

There are other birds whose yellow facial skin becomes brighter in the spring.  Can you think of who that might be?  ...

Yellow is a sign of spring.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Marcy Cunkelman and Chuck Tague. See credits in the captions)

Happy Valentine’s Day

Pitt peregrines courting, 10 Feb 2018(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Pitt peregrines courting, 10 Feb 2018 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Love is in the air!

Pittsburgh's peregrines are courting in February.  The females will lay eggs in March.

Above, Terzo and Hope are seen regularly at the Cathedral of Learning nest box.  Here they are bowing as part of the peregrines' courtship ritual.

And today the Downtown peregrines visited the Gulf Tower in the rain.

Downtown peregrines visit the Gulf Tower, 14 Feb 2018, 4:24pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Downtown peregrines visit the Gulf Tower, 14 Feb 2018, 4:24pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Happy Valentine's Day!

 

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)