Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

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)



(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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Feb 15 2016

Four-Letter Bird Codes: What and How

Published by under Musings & News,Quiz

Five 4-letter bird codes. What birds do these represent?

Five 4-letter bird codes. What birds do these represent?

"GWFG and SNGO at Pymatuning, Crawford county"

That's a bird report headline from PABIRDS, February 7, 2016.  If you're not familiar with 4-letter bird codes it's a meaningless message and you wouldn't know these may be Life Birds.  (Fortunately the names are inside the report.)

Few birds have short names so abbreviations come in handy when you're writing down a lot of them ... as we're doing today for the Great Backyard Bird Count.  The U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) ran into this problem early on and made a standardized list of 4-letter codes for birds in North America based on their complete English names.  The coding scheme works roughly like this.

  • 4 words in name: First letter of each word.  Greater white-fronted goose = GWFG
  • 3 words in name:  First letter of first 2 words + 2 letters of the last word. Great horned owl = GHOW, Red-eyed vireo = REVI.
    EXCEPT if the last two words are hyphenated.  I always get this wrong! It's the reverse of the rule above and there aren't many names that fit this pattern.  Rule is: First 2 letters of first word + first letters of last 2 words:

    • Eastern screech-owl = EASO
    • Eastern wood-pewee = EAWP
  • 2 words: First 2 letters of each word.  Snow goose = SNGO, American robin = AMRO
  • 1 word: First 4 letters. Sora = SORA, Brambling = BRAM
  • Collisions: Sometimes two bird names result in the same code as in BTGW for both the Black-throated green warbler and Black-throated gray warbler.  In this case, look up the code using the links below.

Here's the complete alphabetic list developed by The Institute for Bird Populations.  For a better explanation of the coding scheme, see this page on the Carolina Bird Club website.

Now that you know how to decipher the codes, here's a quiz.

What five birds are named in the image above?

Leave a comment with your answer.


(illustration by Kate St. John)

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Feb 12 2016

The Largest Dinosaur Ever Found! PBS, Feb. 17

Perhaps you heard on the news last month that "the largest animal ever to walk the earth invaded New York City’s American Museum of Natural History."

He's the largest dinosaur ever ... but how big is that? Where was he found? And how was he reconstructed?

Find out next Wednesday when PBS NATURE premiers Raising the Dinosaur Giant with host David Attenborough:

A few years ago in the Argentinean desert, a shepherd was searching for one of his lost sheep when he spotted the tip of a gigantic fossil bone sticking out of a rock. When the news reached paleontologists at the MEF Museum in Trelew, Argentina, they set up camp at the discovery site to examine it and look for more bones. By the end of the dig, they had uncovered more than 200 other huge bones from seven dinosaurs, all belonging to a new species of giant plant-eating titanosaur whose name will be announced soon.

The giant was 121 feet long, weighed 77 tons, died 101.6 million years ago, and was still growing when he died!

Visit the dig and follow the forensic research.  See 3D animations and the skeleton's reconstruction. See how these creatures compare to our largest land animals today.  The videos (above and below) show the enormous thigh bone and examine a baby dinosaur inside the egg.


Don't miss Raising the Dinosaur Giant on PBS, Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 8:00pm (ET).


(YouTube videos from PBS NATURE)

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Jan 11 2016

Welcome To The Anthropocene

Published by under Musings & News

Ice at Bassin de la Villette, bottle of Badoit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Plastic bottle, ice, Bassin de la Villette (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Earth's life history is in its rocks, layer upon layer, each one with a name.  Even if we can't name all the geologic periods, we know at least one of them because of a movie -- Jurassic Park.

Geoscientists identify epochs by the fossils and minerals they find in them.  Even the boundaries are interesting.  The Cretaceous period ends in a thin line, called the K-Pg (was K-T) boundary, that contains iridium from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. There, the Cretaceous period (K) ended, the Paleogene (Pg) began. Above the line are seven epochs including the Holocene, the most recent 11,700 years in which human population has expanded and thrived.

Now pretend you're a geoscientist 10 million years in the future and you're identifying epochs in the rocks.  You see the K-Pg line and the seven epochs, and then on top of them, everywhere around the globe in rocks and ice, you find a layer containing substances never before seen on Earth or in outer space:  aluminum, concrete, plastics, fly ash and nuclear fallout.

The substances are so unique that, as a geoscientist, you must define this layer as a new geologic epoch and name it for its distinctive feature. The substances were created by humans; the epoch is called the Anthropocene.

Since atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen first proposed the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch in 2000, the idea has taken hold in the scientific community. An international working group is studying the evidence to determine whether the epoch should be formally accepted into the geologic time scale by the International Union of Geological Sciences.  Their recommendation is due this year.

Meanwhile, the Anthropocene Working Group reported last week that the evidence is overwhelming.  Here's their description of the epoch from an earlier report:

Members of the international working group formally analyzing the Anthropocene suggest that the key turning point happened in the mid-twentieth century. This was when humans did not just leave traces of their actions, but began to alter the whole Earth system. There was a 'Great Acceleration' of population, of carbon emissions, of species invasions and extinctions, of earth moving, of the production of concrete, plastics and metals.

Official or not, we're certainly in it.

Welcome to the Anthropocene.


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

  • "anthropo-" = Greek for human,  "-cene" = "new" and is the ending applied to all the epochs in the current era, the Cenozoic.
  • The geologic terms epoch, period and era seem to be interchangeable but epochs are short time frames, periods are next in size, and eras are the longest.  Click here for definitions.

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Jan 07 2016

TBT: No, they won’t eat corn

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

When a Cooper's hawk eats a bird at your feeder, it makes you think.

Click here for some thoughts on carnivorous birds -- No, they won't eat corn  -- from 2008.


(photo by Chuck Tague)


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Jan 04 2016

The Chase!

Published by under Musings & News

Brambling in Medina County Ohio, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Brambling in Medina County Ohio, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

I usually don't chase rare birds because it often ends in disappointment.  If I don't find the bird, the trip was wasted.  If I do find it, it's a let-down because the bird -- or my view of it -- is less exciting than I anticipated.

However, at dawn on New Years Day 11 of us piled into three cars and drove to Medina County, Ohio to chase the brambling.

If you're new to birding, you may not have heard of this slightly eccentric activity. Chasing involves lots of hurry, planning, travel, high tech communication and patient waiting.  It does not mean we approach our object closely.  If the bird feels threatened it will fly away and no one will see it so those who approach too closely are told to back off.  Humans do freak out when we've spent time, money and anticipation on a spectacle that another human is about to wreck!

The rarer the bird, the more people chase it.  Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) are exceedingly rare in Ohio so this finch has attracted hundreds of people per day.

Common in Eurasia, bramblings nest from Norway to Siberia and spend the winter in a wide swath of Africa, Europe and Asia.  Sometimes one makes a wrong turn in the fall and migrates south through our continent. Solo bramblings usually end up in northern coastal or north central states.  This adult male is the first brambling in Ohio in 28 years.

And so we made the trip.

Our group arrived just after the brambling had visited the feeder and disappeared. The parking lot was emptying. We found good standing room in the viewing area.

Birders line up to see the brambling, 1 Jan 2016, just after he made an appearance (photo by Donna Foyle)

Birders line up to see the brambling just after he made an appearance, 1 Jan 2016. This is half the crowd that was there 10 minutes earlier. (photo by Donna Foyle)

And we waited.  The group swelled to about 60 people.

We'd heard that the bird appeared every 30 minutes.  Not so!  At just below freezing we were not dressed for a long wait but no one wanted to leave.  After two hours the bird appeared for three minutes.

My first view was similar to this photo by Donna Foyle.  That's how I'll remember the brambling.  I didn't see the clear view Shawn Collins obtained above.

A brief glimpse of the brambling, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

A brief glimpse of the brambling, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

Through my scope I did see the bird's back just before the flock scattered, as in Shawn's photo below.  The brambling is very well camouflaged on the ground.

The brambling matches the ground when his back is turned, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The brambling matches the ground when his back is turned, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

And then the flock lifted off and he disappeared.

But I saw him!  Fortunately everyone else in our group did, too. Others who missed the bird stayed behind to wait, perhaps for another two hours.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of birders have seen the brambling in Medina County since he was announced on December 28. Read more about his fame and discovery at


(photos by Shawn Collins and Donna Foyle)

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Dec 31 2015

Open Tonight’s Wine Without A Corkscrew

Published by under Musings & News

A timely science lesson for New Year's Eve.


p.s. Don't try this with champagne!

p.p.s. Do you hear the bird singing at 20 seconds into the video? Sounds like a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).

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