Feb 12 2017

Foggy Morning At The Gulf Tower

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

This morning at dawn I saw a peregrine falcon at the Gulf Tower nest. It was 7:20am.

Then she woke up and…

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine perched at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 12 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

gone

gone …

I think the bird was Dori, the female of the Downtown pair.

 

There’s nothing to watch right now but if you’d like to check on the nest, here’s the link to the Gulf Tower falconcam.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

 

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Feb 11 2017

In The Subduction Zone

Published by under Travel

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on a trip to Costa Rica, Jan 27-Feb 6, 2017:

One of the unusual features of Costa Rica’s landscape is the bumpy-looking surface in the subduction zone.  Pennsylvania has nothing like it.

Near Costa Rica’s Pacific shore the Cocos tectonic plate dives under the Carribean plate.  This slow but relentless movement causes ripples in the landscape with small stand-alone hills and pockets where the surface was dragged under. (Here’s a diagram of tectonic subduction.)

The photo above was taken in the subduction area on Route 34 near Quepos.  Below, I’ve marked light pink circles for each small hill and dark pink for the visible subsidence pockets among the grass.

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

This isn’t a stable place to build anything.  Even the road has dips and ripples.

We don’t have a subduction zone in southwestern Pennsylvania but we know something about subsidence.  In Washington and Greene Counties, longwall mining machines remove the coal seam and then back out of the mine causing the roof and surface to collapse.  You can see its effect in the roller coaster appearance of Interstate 79 in Washington County.  Click here for DEP photos of longwall subsidence problems on Interstate 70 and here for a map of locations where longwall mining has undermined both I-70 and I-79.

Pennsylvania’s man-made subsidence has a cost.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 10 2017

Life Came Back Really Fast

Published by under Musings & News

Artist's rendering of Chicxulub impact (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to disasters it’s hard to beat the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals, including the dinosaurs.

The asteroid hit near the Yucatan and fried everything within 1,500 km (930 miles) — a huge area that includes Cuba, Florida, and a wide arc to Myrtle Beach, Nashville, Dallas and central Mexico.  The impact left behind a huge crater called Chicxulub, half of which is underwater today.

Last year geologists pulled core samples from the crater’s underwater peaks and discovered an amazing thing.  Life came back to the crater’s edge in only hundreds, not millions, of years.

The pioneering organisms were microscopic plankton, members of Thoracosphaera (spheres) and Braarudosphaera (dodecahedrons), whose tiny shells were found just above the devastation line.  Here are examples of these tiny structures, so small that they can only be seen with an electron microscope.

A Thorascosphaere species (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Thorascosphaere (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

 

Even though the ocean was toxic at the time, plankton recolonized it rapidly after Earth’s fifth mass extinction.

Oddly enough, this makes me hopeful.

Based on Earth’s current extinction rate of 1,000 times the normal background rate (predicted to become 10 times worse) scientists believe we’re at the start of the sixth mass extinction.  I’ve already seen population declines in many of my favorite birds and I worry for the future of all plants and animals … and humans, too.

Life came back really fast after the last mass extinction. I hope it will do it again.

 

Read more here in Science News.

(painting of asteroid impact by Donald E. Davis in public domain, Thorascosphaere photo from Wikimedia Commons, Braarudosphaera bigelowii image linked from DodecaBeing blog. Click on the images to see the originals.)

p.s. The February 13&20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker has a great cartoon about the asteroid. Click here to see.

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Feb 09 2017

Peregrine Season Is Warming Up

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower nest, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower nest, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

The weather turned cold and snowy last night but Pittsburgh’s peregrines are warming up for nesting.  Here’s the news from nest sites around our area.

Downtown Pittsburgh:

The Downtown peregrines own the entire city with many potential nest sites from the rivers to the Hill District.  This week they’ve been visiting the Gulf Tower nest.  That doesn’t mean they’ll nest there but it does mean they haven’t rejected the idea so we have our fingers crossed.  Watch for peregrine activity at their three known nest sites to get a clue as to which site they’ll choose next month: Gulf Tower (on camera), Third Avenue between Smithfield and Wood Streets, and Fifth Avenue at Scrip Way.   As far as we know this pair is still Louie and Dori, but things could change.

Cathedral of Learning:

Hope and Terzo courting at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo courting at the Cathedral of Learning, 7 Feb 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo have been courting in flight and on camera at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.  Hope often visits the nest alone and calls to Terzo to join her.  They’re warming up to egg laying next month.

McKees Rocks Bridge:

Peregrine at the McKees Rocks Bridge, 30 Jan 2017 (photo by Leslie Ferree)

Peregrine at the McKees Rocks Bridge, 30 Jan 2017 (photo by Leslie Ferree)

Peregrines are usually hard to see at the McKees Rocks Bridge but Leslie Ferree got lucky.  She saw one perched on the bridge abutment on January 30, above, and on the bridge structure on January 25.  Maybe the pair will be more visible this year.

Neville Island I-79 Bridge:

Anne Marie Bosnyak reports that two peregrines were perched on a tree near the Neville Island Bridge on January 29. The pair at this site are Magnum and Beau, confirmed in May 2015.  However, that could change. Magnum tried to claim the Cathedral of Learning last June.

Tarentum Bridge:

Rob Protz reported two peregrines perched on the up-river navigation lights on the evening of January 29.  Who are these birds?  We don’t know.  The male is definitely a mystery.  The female, however, is sometimes Hope who visits her old home at the Tarentum Bridge.  We’re hoping for photographs of the Tarentum birds so we can read their bands.

Watch for peregrines at these nine sites in western Pennsylvania.  Let me know what you see!

  1. Downtown Pittsburgh
  2. Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh
  3. Westinghouse Bridge, Allegheny County
  4. McKees Rocks Bridge, Allegheny County
  5. Neville Island I-79 Bridge, Allegheny County
  6. Monaca-E.Rochester Bridge, Beaver County
  7. Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny-Westmoreland County
  8. The Graff Bridge, Route 422 Kittanning, Armstrong County
  9. Erie, PA Waterfront, Erie County

 

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at the Gulf Tower and University of Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks photo by Leslie Ferree)

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Feb 08 2017

Silver Kills Bacteria, Even After Death

Published by under Musings & News

Silver ingot and granules (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Silver ingot and granules (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And now for something completely different.  Here’s a fact I found surprising.  Maybe you will, too.

Did you know that silver kills bacteria?

And even weirder:  Did you know silver turns dead bacteria into zombies that kill more bacteria?  Here’s how.

It sounds wonderful but silver isn’t useful in every situation.  Read this Wikipedia article about the medical uses of silver before you use it.

Weird and wonderful.

 

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

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Feb 07 2017

Behind The Scenes at Carnegie Museum, Feb 18

Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St.John)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Section of Birds, held by Collection Manager Steve Rogers, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Let’s go birding indoors!

Come to Carnegie Museum’s Section of Birds on Saturday, February 18 for a behind the scenes tour led by Collection Manager Stephen Rogers and other bird specialists (including myself).

Stephen manages both the Birds and Amphibians & Reptiles collections at the Carnegie, both ranked in the top ten collections in the North America. The Bird collection contains almost 190,000 specimens, most of which are preserved as study skins, but also includes skeletons, eggs, fluid specimens, mounts and other preparations. Steve is also a skilled scientific preparator and taxidermist who has prepared roughly 15,000 birds for the collection.

When:  Saturday February 18.  Walk-ins welcome 10:30am to 12:30pm at the Section of Birds office.

Where:  Carnegie Museum of Natural History
4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
*** Come to the Section of Birds Office, midway along Bird Hallway on the 3rd floor. ***

Who:  Anyone can walk in.  (Please leave a comment below if you plan to attend so we can get a crowd estimate.)

Cost:  There is no extra fee for this tour but there is an admission fee for the museum.
Free to museum members. Non-member rates are: Adults $19.95,  Seniors (65+) $14.95,  Students with ID and children 3-18 $11.95.  Click here for details.

For directions and information about Carnegie Museum, see their website at www.carnegiemnh.org.

Hope to see you there!

 

p.s. The ivory-billed woodpecker pictured above is just one of the many specimens in the Section of Birds.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Feb 06 2017

Magnificent Butterflies

Mariposa morpho, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue morpho butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

While looking for birds in Costa Rica it’s impossible to ignore the magnificent butterflies.  Though February is a slow time for them there are many wonders to see.  Here are just three of Costa Rica’s 1,500 species.

The common blue morpho (Morpho peleides), pictured above, is one of 29 species in the Morpho genus.  Huge and beautiful with a wingspan of 5 to 8 inches, its color comes not from pigment but from the blue light reflected by its dorsal scales.  It hides from predators by closing its wings to show off its spotted brown ventral side (click here to see).  In the rainforest it flashes blue — on and off — as it flaps its wings.

The glasswinged butterfly (Greta oto) has no problem hiding since most of its 2.2 – 2.4 inch wingspan is transparent.  But does it need to hide?  Perhaps not.  Its caterpillar host plant is Cestrum, a member of the toxic nightshade family that probably makes these butterflies poisonous.

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

With an 8 inch wingspan the owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) is the largest in Costa Rica.  It earned its name from the large ventral spot that looks like an owl’s eye, perhaps reinforced by its crepuscular habits.   Its caterpillars feed on Heliconia and bananas, so this butterfly is sometimes considered an agricultural pest.  Alas!

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies are most plentiful in Costa Rica during the rainy season, June to November, so I’ll have to come back later if I want to see more.

Goodbye, butterflies.  I’m flying home today.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Day 10: Fly home

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Feb 05 2017

It Started With Volcanoes

Published by under Travel

Turrialba Volcano erupting, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Turrialba Volcano, erupting in 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

100 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs, North and South America were far apart and Costa Rica didn’t exist.  Instead the oceans were connected by the Central American Seaway that flowed from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

 

The earth’s crust kept moving, as it still does today.  The North American Plate drifted close to South America and two smaller tectonic plates smashed into each other at the site of Costa Rica (center of the diagram below).  The Caribbean Plate still remains on top and the Cocos Plate continues to dive into the subduction zone.

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Subduction zones are geologically active places with earthquakes and volcanoes.  They often create archipelagos like Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  Costa Rica began as a group of volcanic islands but the plates kept approaching and accrued land around them.  Eventually a bridge formed at Panama 3 to 15 million years ago (the timing is disputed).

And then, three million years ago, mammals of all kinds began walking across the bridge from one continent to the other.  Llamas walked out of North America into South America where they live today.  Porcupines and armadillos walked north. The armadillos are still walking.

Today Costa Rica and Panama are narrow mountainous countries with enormous biodiversity for their size, not just because they’re in the tropics (where biodiversity is naturally high) but because they are the bridge, the mixing zone, where north meets south and both cross over.

Panama’s volcanoes are dormant but not so in Costa Rica.  Recent ash eruptions from Turrialba Volcano, pictured above, closed San José’s airport in January.

Costa Rica started with volcanoes.

 

(image credits:  Turrialba volcano and Central American plate tectonics from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.  Map of North and South America approaching each other is linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte, return to San José

 

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Feb 04 2017

Silky Bird

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Long-tailed silky flycatcher, at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

This bird with unusually silky feathers is only found in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

The long-tailed silky-flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus) is one of four birds that used to be in the Waxwings’ family.   Like their former relatives, long-tailed silky-flycatchers eat fruit, flycatch for insects, and flock together in the non-breeding season.  They also have a fondness for mistletoe berries just like North America’s only Silky-flycatcher, the phainopepla.

This blurry photo from Wikimedia Commons gives you an idea of how easy it is to find a long-tailed silky-flycatcher if you’re in the right habitat.

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think I’ll see one today.  We’re birding at Cerro de la Muerte where these photos were taken.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte

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Feb 03 2017

Tomorrow Should Be Resplendent

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’re traveling up-mountain to 7,000 feet above sea level to San Gerardo de Dota, the cloud forest home of the resplendent quetzal.  This legendary trogon is the national bird of Guatemala and a must-see species for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Resplendent quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) live in moist, cool, mountain rainforests from southern Mexico to Panama where they eat fruits in the avocado family.  Both sexes have iridescent green bodies but the male has a deep red breast, a helmet-like green crest, and a magnificent long green tail.

Their genus name, Pharomachrus, means long cloak and refers to the male’s “tail” which is actually four long upper tail covert feathers.  At 30+ inches, they can be three times the length of the male’s body — so long that when he enters the nest hole his tail remains outside.  In the photo above, a male is leaving the nest while his tail is still going in!

Legends of the resplendent quetzal date back to Mayan and Aztec cultures where he was considered the “god of the air” and a symbol of goodness and light.  In Guatemalan legend the quetzal guided Tecún Umán in his fight against the Spanish conquistadors.  When Tecún Umán died, the quetzal’s breast became red from his blood.  The quetzal is also a symbol of freedom because he could not be kept in captivity, dying so quickly in a cage.

And so tomorrow I will have my fingers crossed, hoping to see this resplendent bird.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 8: Traveling to San Gerardo de Dota

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