Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Aug 12 2016

Shorebird Practice

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s shorebird time and many of us are confused. In southwestern Pennsylvania we only see these birds on migration and a lot of them look alike.

I’m not good at shorebirds but I want to be better.  What to do? Practice!  Here are some tips I’m using this month, written down so I don’t forget.  Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Prepare in advance.
  2. Take your time.
  3. For some brown/gray shorebirds, 3 field marks are all you need:
    1. Size compared to other birds,
    2. Beak shape, size and color,
    3. Leg length (relative to body) and color.

Still stumped? You’ll have to read …


Prepare in advance:

  • Choose a birding location with lots of shorebirds so you can compare sizes, shapes and behavior.
  • Before you go, narrow your choices to what’s possible at that location at that time of year. Make a list. Highlight the common ones.  Bookmarks help.
  • Take field guides(*), a scope(+), a sun hat, and maybe a chair.  These birds stay put. So will you.

Methods in the field:

  • Take your time!  Study their behavior.  Quick impressions don’t work.
  • Pick one bird to identify.  Learn it well then move on.
  • Don’t focus on plumage yet unless the bird has really striking colors or patterns.  (Plumage is the least useful field mark on difficult shorebirds.)
  • Size: Compare to other shorebirds.  (ex: smaller than a killdeer?)
  • Silhouette:
    • Beak shape: Long or short? Straight or Curved up or down? Convex (bulged) or thin?  Sharp tip or blunt?
    • Legs: Long or short relative to the body?
    • Neck: Long? Short? “No-neck”?
    • Head: Big or little? Round or long?
    • Body: Chunky? Thin? Stubby? Long?
  • Color of beak and legs.  (Sometimes size, beak and legs are all you need)
  • Behavior:
    • Stands tall or always crouched?
    • In a tight flock or solo?
    • Does it stand in water? Or does it stay at the edge, hating to get its feet wet?
    • Does it peck daintily? Grab and go? Move its bill like a sewing machine needle?
    • Does it chase waves?  (field mark of a sanderling)
  • Now look at plumage (adults + juveniles this month).  Does it match your guess?
  • Can’t make up your mind? Repeat the process.


If all else fails, hope for a peregrine or merlin to stir them up. Some species are impossible until they open their wings (willets, black-bellied plovers).  And it’s always nice to see a falcon.


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

p.s. Did I miss anything?  Do you have a tip for shorebird practice?  Please post it in a comment.

Footnotes:  Here are some great guides to use at home or while sitting in the field. These books are big and heavy.
(*) For plumage and field marks: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.
(*) For detailed behavior of each species (No pictures): Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

(+) Scope: If you have a really good camera it can out-perform a scope. Photos show the details frozen in time.

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Jul 29 2016

Urban Birds Have It All

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning, Feb 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning in February 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)

Twenty-five years ago peregrine falcons moved into the City of Pittsburgh.  Since then lots of cool raptors have come here, too, including red-tailed hawks, Coopers hawks, turkey vultures and, most recently, bald eagles.

City living provides food and protection from predators but birds face new challenges by living near humans.  Jean-Nicolas Audet of McGill University wondered if these challenges put city birds at a disadvantage compared to their country cousins so he designed some tests to answer these questions:  Which group is better at problem solving? Which group is more immune to disease?  And since both traits require lots of energy, is there a trade-off such that smarter birds have lower immunity?

The Caribbean island of Barbados has both city and country habitats and an endemic species that lives in both places, the Barbados bullfinch (Loxigilla barbadensis).  Audet tested the bullfinches and the results were surprising.

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” says Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biology and first author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology in 2016.

As earth’s human population grows and more habitat is converted to cities, more birds may have to choose the urban environment.  If they can adapt, it will be a smart move.  As Audet says, “Urban birds have it all.”


Read more about the 2016 study and find links here to The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization.

(photo of Dorothy in 2011 by Patricia Szczepanski. video from McGill University on YouTube)

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Jul 26 2016

The Largest Crop in America

Published by under Musings & News,Plants

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you think about it, a lot of us are farmers.  We devote our small acreage to a crop that we fertilize, water and harvest.  Then we throw away the harvest or grind it up to re-fertilize the crop.  We never eat it and we don’t feed it to our animals.

Grass.  In Pennsylvania we devote 1.8 million acres to lawns.  Our next largest crop uses 1.6 million acres. (*See table below.)

The amazing dominance of the lawn is true everywhere in the continental the U.S. except in the Central West — Montana to Nevada to Kansas — where hay, corn and soybeans take up more space.  Click here and scroll down for the map.

This isn’t really news.  A 2005 study by Cristina Melisi used satellite data to show that lawns are the largest crop in America and the most irrigated by acreage.  This is no surprise in Florida and the West where lawns have built-in irrigation systems, but do we irrigate in the Northeast?  You bet!  The sprinklers are running this month.

Some homeowners break the mold by making meadows or growing vegetables but they often have to explain it to their neighbors.  The two-year-old Beacon-Bartlett meadow in Schenley Park has educational signs explaining “This is intentional.”

If I was a gardener I’d convert my tiny backyard lawn but I’m not even a participant.  I am, at best, an observer using my Newcomb’s Guide to identify what comes up.  I never water, weed or seed it. When it grows, it gets cut. It’s not growing right now.


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

(*) TEXT UPDATED July 26, 9:30pm:  The original text was wildly incorrect!  Thank you Mary Ann Pike for providing a correction with this link at USDA.  Here’s a table combining lawn and USDA statistics for Pennsylvania:

Cultivation/ Crop Acreage in PA
Lawns 1.8 million
Hay and Haylage 1.6 million
Corn for grain/silage 1.3 million
Soybeans 0.9 million
Wheat 0.1 million

This means that lawns are about 30% of Pennsylvania’s cultivated lands.

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Jun 19 2016

Remembering Chuck Tague

Published by under Musings & News

Chuck Tague, 2008 (photo by Bill Parker)

Chuck Tague (photo by Bill Parker, 2008)

June 19, 2016:

Yesterday morning on The Allegheny Front Chuck Tague taught us about bluets in a rebroadcast of his article Field of Innocence, recorded in September 2001.   Hours later I learned that Chuck had died the night before from complications of a heart attack he suffered on May 11.  He was 71.

Chuck was an avid nature observer, writer, photographer and inspiring teacher. He touched thousands of lives with his love of nature and sense of wonder.  His enthusiasm for the outdoors was infectious.

I first met Chuck Tague more than 20 years ago when I attended his birding classes at the Rachel Carson Institute.  His welcoming spirit changed my life.  I spent more time birding, attended outings, joined the Wissahickon Nature Club and assisted him on the Raccoon Christmas Bird Count.  We became friends and I traveled with Chuck and his wife Joan to Presque Isle and Magee Marsh for spring migration and visited them in Florida where they made their home in 2010.

Chuck’s website and Facebook page are always educational and his outings were pure fun.  He never limited our curiosity as we examined birds, plants, insects, everything!  We always learned something new.

Chuck was an excellent photographer and generous with his time and knowledge.  When I began writing this blog he graciously offered his photos.  He was always available to answer questions and we collaborated on projects like the Phenology series which we mirrored on his website and mine.  This blog would not have been possible without him.

Many of my friends today are people I met on Chuck’s outings.  All of us are grieving.  It’s hard to believe he’s gone, though he lives on in all of us.  His own words in yesterday’s broadcast inspire us as we remember him:

“I picked up the dried bluet stem and examined the tear-shaped seed capsule. There was the life affirming assurance I was seeking. Life will continue. Bluets will return to the field.”

I need to go find some bluets.


Click here to listen to Field of Innocence.  Read Chuck’s biography here.

(photo of Chuck Tague in 2008 by Bill Parker.  Sadly, both Chuck and Bill are gone.)


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May 27 2016

She’s a Healthy Girl!

A closeup of female peregrine chick C1 from the Cathedral of Learning nest (photo by Peter Bell)

A closeup of female peregrine chick C1 from the Cathedral of Learning nest 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

It’s taken me a while to publish this because I couldn’t take any photos at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine banding this morning. Thanks to Peter Bell, Kim Getz and John English for lending theirs.

At today’s banding we learned, first and foremost, that C1 is a healthy female and Hope and Terzo are devoted parents.

Even before the PA Game Commission‘s Dan Brauning retrieved the chick, Hope guarded her baby and didn’t give up until C1 was indoors. Then she stayed at the nest kakking while Terzo provided backup support.

Kim’s (silent) video below shows the perspective from the ground about halfway through: Terzo flying back and forth, Hope leaving the nest to attack the humans when C1 was returned, then perched on the bulwark after they’re gone.


Here’s why I didn’t take any pictures: Dan Brauning asked me to hold C1 while he applied the bands.  (You can see I was concentrating very hard!)

Dan Brauning explains the banding procedure while Kate St. John holds the chick, C1 (photo by John English)

Dan Brauning explains the banding procedure while Kate St. John holds peregrine chick, C1 (photo by John English)

Dan weighed C1 (900 grams), checked for trichomoniasis (none!) and feather pests (almost none).  He dusted under her wings with anti-parasite powder and applied her bands.  Here she is with her new jewelry.

Peregrine chick, C1, with her new color bands, Black/green, 06/BR (photo by Peter Bell)

Peregrine chick, C1, with her new bands, Black/green, 06/BR (photo by Peter Bell)

Then Dan braved Hope’s wrath to return C1 to the nest.

Hope attacks the banders on Banding Day at the Cathedral of Learning, 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

Female peregrine, Hope, attacks the banders on Banding Day 2016, Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

Female peregrine falcon, Hope shouts at the banders! Banding Day 2016, Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

Hope shouts at the banders, Banding Day 2016, Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

What a privilege to hold the chick and see her parents protecting her!


It’s a shame this will be the only peregrine banding in western Pennsylvania this year. Here’s why:


Why weren’t more peregrines banded in Penna. this year?


Peregrines are endangered in Pennsylvania so the PA Game Commission (PGC) normally visits every known nest site and attempts to band the chicks — that’s 9 locations in western Pennsylvania.  But this year severe budget cuts and layoffs forced PGC to band at only one site in the western half of the state — the Cathedral of Learning.

Why does PGC have a budget crisis?  They don’t rely on state tax dollars. They’re self-supporting through hunting license fees, timber sales, mineral extraction, and a federal excise tax on ammunition. But state law forbids them to raise the license fees that comprise 40% of their revenue. There hasn’t been an increase since the 1990’s.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you can help.

The Pennsylvania State House and Senate must pass a law — SB 1166 — to allow the Game Commission to raise the license fees.  Contact your State Senator and State Representative (find them here) and urge them to support “SB 1166.”

Click here for a letter about the budget crisis and information on what you can do.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 26 2016

TBT: A Lesson Learned

Published by under Musings & News

Budgie in the budgie trap before I let her go (photo by Kate St. John)

Budgie in the “budgie trap” before I let her go (photo by Kate St. John)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Seven years ago a budgerigar frequented my backyard bird feeder with a flock of juvenile house sparrows.  I could tell she wouldn’t last long in the wild because she was not wise about predators. One of my blog readers offered to adopt the budgie if I could catch her, so I put a bird cage in the backyard and waited to see if she would go inside.

She did.  And I learned a valuable lesson about freedom which is with me to this day.  Click here for A Lesson Learned.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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May 02 2016

Tired of Tires in the Woods

Tires in the woods, western PA (photos by Kate St. John)

Tires in the woods, western PA (photos by Kate St. John)

There are tires in the woods nearly everywhere in western Pennsylvania.  Singles, pairs and piles of tires.  Tires rolled down the hillsides into the hollows. Tires dumped on top of trash.  Tires too heavy to lift, left by the side of the road.

I’d say this is a uniquely Appalachian problem but it happens across the U.S.  Dumping tires is illegal but people do it because they think it’s expensive to dispose of them properly.  In fact it’s cheap — about $2 per passenger tire in PA — and it’s easy to find a disposal place that’s probably closer than the illegal dump site.  Just type in your zip code at the Earth911 website.

Waste tires are ugly breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  They leach toxins into soil and water and when they start to burn they’re hard to stop.

Now that the woods are greening up the tires will be harder to see, but they’re still there.

You can do something about it.  Join a local cleanup.  See the links on this Pennsylvania map.

In Pittsburgh this Friday May 6, come down to Duck Hollow for the Tireless Cleanup, 5:00-7:30pm. Here’s what NMRWA removed during the 2014 cleanup:

Nine Mile Run Tireless Cleanup at Duck Hollow, August 2014 (photo from Nine Mile Run Watershed)

Nine Mile Run Tireless Cleanup at Duck Hollow, August 2014 (photo from Nine Mile Run Watershed)

Tireless Cleanup at Duck Hollow



(photos at top by Kate St. John, photo of a tile pile at Duck Hollow by Nine Mile Run Watershed Association)

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Apr 27 2016

Don’t Play It Again, Sam

Black and white warbler, singing (photo by Chuck Tague)

Black and white warbler, singing (photo by Chuck Tague)

Spring migration is ramping up. Every day there are new birds to see and hear in western Pennsylvania.

What if you hear a really good bird and can’t see it?  Should you playback its song on your smartphone to lure it in? Please restrain yourself. Here’s why.

Although birders debate the use of playback, the Code of Birding Ethics is clear:

To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.

Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.    —  American Birding Association Code of Ethics

In other words, our first priority should be the birds’ welfare.

Song playback is like this to a bird:  Imagine you’re at home having dinner and someone knocks on your front door.  You drop what you’re doing and go answer it.  There’s no one there, yet you keep hearing them knock over and over again.  Of course this is upsetting.  (People stop “answering the door” much sooner than birds do.)

David Sibley, whose app makes playback very easy, compares the proper use of playback to fishing.  The most successful technique barely plays the song at all.  Read how to do it here.

I once witnessed a clear example of what we should never do.

Prothonotary warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

Prothonotary warbler, singing (photo by Chuck Tague)

In May 2010 I was thrilled to see a beautiful male prothonotary warbler at Magee Marsh boardwalk in Oak Harbor, Ohio.  The bird was there all day, every day.  He was on territory.  He had a nest hole.

One afternoon I stopped for my second view of the warbler and I saw a photographer set his iPod on the boardwalk railing. Then I heard the prothonotary sing four times.  Several birders looked around. It took us a while to realize the song came from the iPod.

The crowd at the boardwalk was huge and there were many iPods and smartphones in that crowd.  How many times that day! that weekend!  that week!  was the prothonotary warbler challenged on his own territory by a recorded song?

I wish I’d been brave enough to speak to that photographer. I regret it to this day.

Don’t play it again, Sam!


(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Mar 15 2016

Evidence of the Anthropocene

Published by under Musings & News

If you’ve never flown over southern West Virginia on a clear day and looked out the airplane window you won’t have seen this stark evidence of the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is the proposed name for our current geologic epoch, the point at which we humans did not just leave traces of our actions but began to alter the whole earth system.  An international working group is studying the evidence to determine whether the new name should be formally accepted.

For evidence of humans’ earth-altering activity, mountaintop removal strip mining can’t be beat.

The video above from Kanawha Forest Coalition starts and ends at airplane height showing just one mountaintop removal mine in late 2015.  It is so large that the bulldozers are dwarfed by the site.

As the video description explains, “the original mining permit proposed stripping 3,113 acres, but was reduced to 2,265 after legal challenges. What you see here is fewer than 500 acres that have been mined so far.  Many of the surrounding mountains and streams will be destroyed if this mine isn’t stopped.”

We humans use bulldozers, explosives, drag lines and dump trucks to level mountains and fill nearby valleys.  To see this in action watch this 2006 excerpt from Bill Moyers Journal.

Recent research by Duke University says that “40 years of mountaintop coal mining have made parts of Central Appalachia 60 percent flatter than they were before excavation.”  Click here for a satellite view and zoom out to see how much of West Virginia has been touched by this activity.

The geologic alteration, habitat destruction, social upheaval and health impacts of mountaintop removal are deep and permanent.  All of it is caused by humans.  We ought to stop.

Do you think there’s enough evidence to call this epoch the Anthropocene?

I do.


p.s. The Spruce #1 Mountaintop Removal Mine is only 202 air miles southwest of Pittsburgh.  It is closer to us than Philadelphia.

(videos by Kanawha Forest Coalition on YouTube)

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Feb 19 2016

Celebrity Vultures In Peru


What does a city do when it’s overwhelmed by illegal garbage dumps?

In Lima, Peru much of the trash generated by its 10 million people is dumped illegally but it’s hard to clean up because the dumps are hidden and people don’t care.  In December 2015 the Peru Ministry of Environment enlisted the help of birds.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are excellent at finding garbage — after all, their lives depend on it — so the program equipped 10 black vultures with GPS trackers and GoPro cameras and Ta dah!  The vultures find the dumps. The humans place the dumps on the map and clean them up.  And the vultures have become celebrities.

See the maps at Gallinazo Avisa.  Meet the vultures — they have names — in their second video here.  (Don’t miss the punchline at the end of the video!)

Read more about Peru’s “Vultures Warn” program at


(video from Gallinazo Avisa at YouTube)

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