May 03 2015
(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)
Apr 01 2015
Knowing the Earth’s past climate is key to understanding the future but our records of the past are sketchy. Paleoclimatologists turn to fossils for help. In cold and temperate areas they analyze ice cores and ancient tree rings. In the tropics corals tell the climate’s tale.
Obtaining a record of the warm oceans’ history is important because so much of Earth’s weather is controlled by conditions in the Tropics. Think El Niño and La Niña, for starters.
In the tropical Pacific Dr. Kim Cobb examines live and fossil corals to assemble a climate record that now spans 7,000+ years. Thanks to the University Honors College she’s coming to Pittsburgh on April 16. Through video and photos, she’ll take the audience to her field sites to hear the corals tell their climate story.
Dr. Kim Cobb
Corals as Climate Communicators
April 16, 2015, 4:00 PM
Charity Randall Theatre (in the Stephen Foster Memorial Building)
4301 Forbes Ave
Here’s a quick video of Kim Cobb discussing climatology. She describes herself on Twitter as “40% Climate Scientist, 40% Mom and 20% Indian Jones.” Her lecture on corals will not be a dry subject!
This lecture is free and open to the public but space is limited. Click here to read more about this University of Pittsburgh Honors College event and reserve your seat.
(photo of coral reef at Palmyra Atoll (a location where Kim Cobb works on corals) by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons. Video of Dr. Kim Cobb via PopTech.org)
Mar 28 2015
What duck is this?
Photographed by Tom Moeller on March 25 at Duck Hollow in Pittsburgh, this odd duck defies a single label. Apparently one of his parents was a redhead, the other a ring-necked duck.
Here are the two species he resembles: male redhead on the left, male ring-necked duck on the right.
He has the head color, eye color and shoulder of a redhead and the head shape, bill color and body color (except for his non-white shoulder) of a ring-necked duck.
Depending on the light and the distance you might see a feature of either species and call him accordingly. David Poortinga figured him out and told Tom what it was.
Here’s another look him. He’s a redhead with a fancy bill and black back. Or he’s a ring-necked duck with a red head.
Ducks and geese hybridize a lot compared to other birds. Duck hunters see these hybrids up close because they have the bird in hand so Ducks Unlimited explains:
“Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. Scientists have recorded more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species. Mallards crossbreed with nearly 50 other species, and wood ducks hybridize with a surprising 26 other species. Nearly 20 percent of waterfowl hybrid offspring are capable of reproducing.”
Mallards being the least picky, or the perhaps most promiscuous, breed with many species. According to Ducks Unlimited their mates include northern pintails, black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, and gadwalls. Perhaps every dabbling duck is a mallard at heart.
Will the Odd Duck attract a mate this spring ? If so, will she be a redhead or a ring-necked duck? What will his offspring look like?
Yikes! Talk about mixed parentage!
p.s. As of yesterday, March 27, the hybrid was still at Duck Hollow.
Mar 16 2015
How many snow geese are in this picture? Imagine if it was your job to count them!
Snow goose migration got off to a slow start this spring because the lakes remained frozen in Pennsylvania. In warm winters they start to arrive at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon-Lancaster County border in late February. But that was out of the question this year. The narrow north end of Chesapeake Bay was frozen in mid-February and there were 10-12 inches of ice on Middle Creek lake. The geese stayed south.
The situation changed rapidly, though. A week ago there were 100 snow geese at Middle Creek. On Thursday March 12 there were suddenly 20,000. On Friday there were 75,000 with more arriving throughout the day. The count this morning is anyone’s guess.
Actually, the number of snow geese at Middle Creek is Jim Binder’s very educated estimate. Jim has been the manager of Middle Creek WMA since 1997 and has decades of experience counting these birds.
The trick to counting is that snow geese always rest on the lake’s open water at night. Jim comes out before dawn and counts them at first light before they leave for the day. He knows the lake well and the numbers it can hold. He’s so good at counting that he can tell the number by their sound. The record is 180,000!
But Jim has to work fast. The flock wakes up and stretches its wings. Small groups leave in a leisurely fashion to feed in nearby fields but if something scares them — an airplane, a helicopter, or a bald eagle — the entire flock goes airborne at once with a roar.
When I want to see this spectacle I read Jim Binder’s snow goose count and arrive at Willow Point before dawn. Kim Steininger took this photo on a day when there were 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese at Middle Creek.
How many snow geese do I hope for? This many!
Note: Because the ice melted so late this year, snow goose migration is likely to be intense and over quickly. The geese are running out of time to get home.
(photo by Kim Steininger)
Mar 11 2015
Spring is finally here and the early birds are on their way north. Among them are bufflehead ducks whose body shape and courtship behavior would earn them a different name if they needed one today.
Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are small black and white ducks that nest in tree cavities from western Quebec to Alaska. Males are striking black and white, females mostly black, and they’re named buffleheads — “buffalo heads” — because the male’s head looks large and out of scale for his size.
Watch the video above and you’ll see three males “use their heads” to impress the lone female. They are bobbing like crazy! Apparently, the bigger the bob the better.
There’s even more going on. Here’s a list of courtship displays quoted from Cornell’s Birds of North America Online.
So this lady has a mate (he’s Leading) but it doesn’t stop the other two guys from making a pass. When one of them is particularly persistent she chases him away but he’s not convinced until her mate chases, too.
Buffleheads court while on migration so you’ll see this behavior on nearby lakes and rivers this month.
Do they make you think of buffaloes when you see their heads?
Nope. If we had to name them today, we’d call them bobbleheads.
(video by winterwren3 on YouTube)
Mar 10 2015
Out in the Pacific there are more female Laysan albatrosses than males. The males will mate with the extra females but it takes two parents to raise the chick. A single mom can’t raise her chick alone. What’s a girl to do?
A long term study of Laysan albatrosses, published in 2008, shows that the extra females pair up in reciprocity agreements.
Albatrosses are such big birds that it takes a whole year for their solo chicks to mature and fledge. Rearing the chick takes so long and is so labor intensive that female albatrosses lay one egg every other year.
Without a mate to help with nest duty the chick will die. Researchers on Oahu, where the Laysan albatross population is 59% female, discovered that unrelated females on opposite fertility cycles pair up and raise each others’ chicks. At the start, only one of them lays an egg and the pair incubates and raises the chick together. When it’s egg-laying time again, the other female takes her turn.
Though their nesting success is lower than for male-female pairs, it works well enough that these girlfriends stay together for many years.
Ladies make do in a pinch.
Read more here at Science Daily.
p.s. Watch a Laysan albatross nestcam in Kauai, Hawaii on Cornell Lab’s website. The chick is huge!
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click the image to see the original)
Feb 09 2015
On icy winter afternoons, just before sunset, intrepid birders gather at Pittsburgh’s Point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio. Dressed in their warmest clothes they stand around on the ice gazing through their scopes and cameras. On January 31, Tim Vechter was among them and took these pictures.
Whatcha lookin’ at?
While the weather is icy, the gulls stay in Pittsburgh.
Each evening the flock starts small. Birders wait and watch as the gulls gather. Among the thousands of ring-billed and hundreds of herring gulls there’s bound to be a couple of rare birds from the Arctic.
That evening Tim photographed two rarities including this glaucous gull identified by his bulky build, white wing tips (herring and ring-billed gulls have black wingtips) and pink legs.
As night falls the flock grows.
But soon they’re too hard to see.
Time to go home.
(photos by Tim Vechter posted at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)
Feb 04 2015
With very cold weather on its way tomorrow it’s hard to believe that in three to four weeks ice will start to break up in southern Pennsylvania and ducks will begin to migrate north. When they do, they’ll be in an amorous mood.
Last month Cornell Lab eNews featured this video of courtship behavior in mallards, king eiders, common goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers. Watch the video and you’ll learn their moves before their return in early spring.
When the ice breaks up goldeneyes will throw back their heads and “crow.”
(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Feb 01 2015
Unlike their northern cousins, white-cheeked pintails (Anas bahamensis) prefer to feed in salty or brackish water.
They live in the West Indies, South America and the Galapagos and they don’t migrate. The pintails I’ve seen at St. John are year-round residents.
Why leave when you live in a saltwater paradise?
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)
Jan 27 2015
When a brown booby shows up in the northeastern U.S. it’s usually late in the year (August to December) and the bird is usually quite brown. That’s because juvenile birds like this one are more prone to wandering from their tropical ocean homes than are their parents.
Having never seen a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) until this week at St. John, USVI my exposure was limited to a few photos of juvenile birds from Pennsylvania rare bird alerts. For years I assumed that brown boobies were 100% brown. Not!
Adults are crisp brown-and-white and even have white faces that acquire color in the breeding season.
Here’s a typical adult brown booby. Quite a different-looking bird!
Fortunately they’re brown enough that you don’t misidentify them as gannets when you see them on the northern ocean.
Note: Brown boobies are very common tropical ocean birds but their population is declining in the Caribbean because of encroachment and invasive mammals on their nesting islands. They made the State Of The Birds Watch List in 2014 because they’ve declined so much.
(brown booby photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals. Northern gannet photo by Chuck Tague)