Jan 08 2016

Natural Born Hustlers: PBS NATURE

Are humans the only species that fools others to survive, find food, and mate?  Not at all!

This month PBS NATURE premieres a new three-part series, Natural Born Hustlers, airing on PBS on Wednesdays, January 13, 20 and 27 at 8:00pm (ET) (check local listings).

Episode One, Staying Alive, focuses on survival techniques:  camouflage, dominance tricks, audio mimics and playing dead.  Early on I was amazed to learn how zebras’ stripes create an optical illusion.  You have to see them in motion to believe it!

Other fascinating finds are the amazing skin-morphing camouflage of cuttlefish, the lizard that walks like a stinky beetle, and the white-faced capuchin monkeys who calculate whether they’re needed in battle.  “More capuchins are killed by their own kind than by predators,” says the episode.  What an unfortunate trait to have in common with humans.

The video excerpt above gives you a good idea of animals’ ingenuity.  California ground squirrels use their enemy’s scent as protective camouflage.  Their arch enemy is the rattlesnake, so if you hate to look at snakes this video will make you flinch.

And fair warning to those afraid of snakes:  Staying Alive has quite a few snakes in it including a match-up in North Carolina of a harmless species that mimics the coral snake.  The bonus is that you can identify birds by song on the audio track.


(Natural Born Hustlers trailer from PBS NATURE)

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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 06 2016

The Living Bridge

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

A “living bridge” of army ants, species Eciton hamatum. (photo courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

Now that the Greenfield Bridge is gone over the Parkway East, my neighbors are joking that we need a zip line to get to Schenley Park.  If we were army ants, we could build a bridge of our bodies to solve the problem.

Native to the tropical rainforest, army ants are famous for their foraging habits.  The colony has no permanent home and is always on the move like an army, killing and eating other insects and raiding their nests.  The columns of workers are so focused on their task that they overcome obstacles by building living bridges of their bodies across the gaps.

How big a gap will the ants bridge? How do they modify it for different conditions?  To learn more about their behavior, Matthew Lutz of Princeton University and Chris Reid of the University of Sydney studied Eciton hamatum in Panama.  They inserted the apparatus shown below into army ant paths and varied the angle — 12, 20, 40, and 60 degrees — to see what the ants would do.  It turns out that ant bridges are more sophisticated than anyone knew.

Researchers found that the ants start from the narrowest point and work toward the widest point, expanding the bridge as they go. (Courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

For instance, the bridges are typically 10-20 ant-lengths but the ants don’t start building at the widest spot.  Instead, they start from the narrowest point and make the bridge longer to shorten the overall path.  They also give up on a bridge if it ties up too many workers to make one. As Iain Couzin, Lutz’s graduate adviser, explains:

“They don’t know how many other ants are in the bridge, or what the overall traffic situation is. They only know about their local connections to others, and the sense of ants moving over their bodies,” Couzin said. “Yet, they have evolved simple rules that allow them to keep reconfiguring until, collectively, they have made a structure of an appropriate size for the prevailing conditions.

Could we humans bridge the Parkway East with our bodies?  No.  We aren’t long enough and we don’t have enough legs to hold onto each other.  Besides, some of us are afraid of heights.

Army ants aren’t afraid of heights. They’re blind (!) and have no idea how far they’d fall if they failed.


(*)Read more about the study here at Princeton University news.

(photo courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney)

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Jan 05 2016

Ice Is Way Cool

Published by under Weather & Sky

This morning it’s 8o F and we certainly have ice in Pittsburgh!

Did you ever think about how unusual and important it is that ice floats?

Watch the video above to learn how it happens.

Ice is way cool!


(video from Naked Science Scrapbook on YouTube)

p.s. I’ve been waiting since November to write about ice. December was mostly ice-free and often quite warm. What a winter!

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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 Cleveland.com.


(photos by Shawn Collins and Donna Foyle)

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Jan 03 2016

eBird Mobile

Published by under Books & Events

eBird Mobile for Android (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to log more bird sightings in eBird, here’s the tool for you. And it’s FREE.  All you need is a smartphone.

Fair warning:  I’m about to “talk techie” so if you don’t have a smartphone or you don’t use eBird you might want to tune out right now.  😉


Back in 2012, the BirdLog app allowed iPhone and Android users to enter checklists on our smartphones and seamlessly upload them into our eBird accounts.  Cornell Lab was so impressed with BirdLog that in 2014 they made an agreement with its owner, David Bell, to take over development and maintenance, renaming it eBird Mobile.  The iOS version launched in June. The Android version launched in December. The old BirdLog app is now retired.

Download eBird Mobile, tell it your eBird login and password and you’re ready to go.


eBird Mobile is easy to use.  To enter a new checklist, click the big green Start button.

Choose a location:  This is so convenient in the field!  Your phone knows where it is so “Choose From Map” or “Choose a Nearby Hotspot” and it’s right there.  Below, I chose a nearby hotspot: Duck Hollow.

eBird Mobile: Choose a nearby hotspot

Date and time conveniently default to Now or you can change them.

Start entering species: Scroll down the list of likely suspects or do a quick lookup by typing part of the name or the 4-letter species code in the “# species name/code” blank at left.

Start entering species

Enter the number of birds seen or click the “Present” box to make an X.    Below, I didn’t feel like counting mallards and ring-billed gulls on Tuesday at Duck Hollow.  (Yeah, I know I should count them but … )

Species counts

Click Review and Submit (bottom right) to get this screen for entering the last bits of data.

eBird last bits of data before submit

Click Submit at the bottom right and it uploads the checklist into eBird.  If you’re not in cell tower range, it’ll upload later.

You’re done!  And the app is back to the big green start button.

But if you’re like me you forgot something and want to make a change.  Just click on My Checklists (under the Start button) and your eBird lists come up right away.

Fix that checklist you just uploaded

I find eBird Mobile easier to use than browser based eBird at my desk computer.

Try it and see.

Want to know more?  Read here about eBird Mobile.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jan 02 2016

December Rose

Published by under Plants,Weather & Sky

A rose in Pittsburgh, 30 Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Rose blooming in Pittsburgh, 30 Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week I found several roses in bloom in my neighborhood.

Roses blooming at the end of December?  In Pittsburgh?

Last month there were only two nights below freezing at the airport (Dec 18-20, 29 to 30oF), but it probably didn’t drop below freezing in my city neighborhood.  This coming Monday night, January 4, the low is predicted to be 12oF.

That’s what a crazy winter it’s been!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jan 01 2016

Happy 2016!

Published by under Books & Events

Festive lights at Phipps Conservatory (photo by Kate St. John)


On the first of January many birders start a new Year List of the birds they’ve seen.  I’m not that organized but I can tell you that my last bird of 2015 was a rock pigeon (63 of them in my neighborhood) and my first birds this year were American crows leaving the roost before dawn.

May the new year be full of birds and the beauty of nature.   Health and happiness to all.

Happy 2016!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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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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Dec 30 2015

Drunk On Climate Change

Ornamental fruit in December after a couple of frosts (photo by Kate St.John)

Ornamental fruit in December, after a couple of frosts (photo by Kate St.John)

Freeze. Thaw. Freeze. Thaw.  In this non-winter of 2015 we’ve had days and weeks of warmth punctuated by occasional frosts.  Eventually the freeze-thaw cycle produces fermented fruit and that leads to drunken birds.

Fruit ferments outdoors when freezing temperatures break down the hard starches into sugars and then a thaw allows yeast to get into the softened fruit and begin the fermentation process.

The sweet, soft fruit is particularly tempting to birds.  After a good frost the ornamental trees in my neighborhood, like the one above, are swamped with hungry starlings and robins.  When they swallow a fermented berry it has a fizzy zing, but so what?  It tastes good.

But some birds don’t know when to stop.  They eat so much fermented fruit that they walk with a wobble and can’t fly straight.  When they’re falling-down drunk, they end up in “detox” at a wildlife center until they sleep it off.  Bohemian waxwings are famous for this.

Back in 2014 National Geographic reported on an incident in Whitehorse, Yukon when a bumper crop of fermented rowan (mountain ash) berries were the waxwings’ undoing.  The birds were in such bad shape that they ended up in Meghan Larivee’s “drunk tank” at Environment Yukon.

It turns out climate change is increasing the likelihood of these episodes up north.  National Geographic explains:

Larivee’s recent waxwing patients were admitted to her Yukon animal unit following several frosts and thaws due to warmer temperatures. … While fermentation is most pronounced in winter, “we also likely have longer autumns, which gives more time for berries to ferment, but still have early frost that allow sugars to be produced in berries early in the fall,” she said.

The waxwings were drunk on climate change.


Read more here in National Geographic.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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