Jan 11 2015

I’m Gonna Get You!

Raven chases bald eagle chasing osprey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This photo is tiny but it shows the pecking order in the sky.

The bird on the left is an osprey, the middle one’s a bald eagle, the right one is a raven.  Click here or on the photo to see a full size image with a better view of the birds.

The bald eagle wants the osprey’s fish. The raven’s harassing the bald eagle. It’s unusual that all three lined up in one big chase.

“I’m gonna get you!”


(photo by Ciar via Wikimedia Commons.  Click here to see the original photo with documentation.)

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Jan 10 2015

Take A Look Outdoors

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Trees

Cone of a Japanese larch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Feeling cooped up by winter weather?  Tired of staring at four walls?

Put on your hat and coat and take a walk outside.  Even though it’s cold, nature has beauty on display.

Take a look outdoors. … Then you can reward yourself with hot chocolate.


(photo of a Japanese larch cone at John J. Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania. Click on the image to see this Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.)

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Jan 09 2015

Rocks With Pizzazz

Published by under Musings & News

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite in normal light, Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To a novice like me, this rock is interesting because of its shape and color, but I would never have found its photo if it hadn’t had pizzazz.

It’s a rare and valuable specimen of Willemite, Franklinite and Rhodonite. Mineralogists can tell you that Franklinite pinpoints its origin right down to a single county — Sussex County, New Jersey — the only place on earth where Franklinite is found. This rock came from the Sterling Mine at Ogdensburg.

But that’s not what I mean about pizzazz.

Back in October at the Wissahickon Nature Club we learned about fluorescent minerals from Harlan Clare who showed us many samples under normal and “black” light.  What really impressed me is that a boring rock can display amazing colors if the mineral is fluorescent.

Expose this rock to ultraviolet light and it bursts into glowing green and orange!

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite under ultraviolet light from the Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Most rocks look boring in normal light so how did people figure out that some of them glow?

At a rock mine the ore sits out in the sun for a while after it’s pulled from underground. If you take a fluorescent rock back into the dark mine, it glows because it was exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light.  Sir George Gabriel Stokes named this fluorescence in 1852 when he described why fluorite glows.

So now when you see a basket of boring rocks for sale, think of the possibilities.  When you know what you’re looking at you can find one with a hidden punch.  Harlan Clare carries a small UV flashlight so he can preview the rocks before he buys.

Some rocks are like willets.  They’re boring until they open their wings.


(photos of Willemite, Franklinite, Rhodonite from the Sterling Mine, Sterling Hill, Ogdensburg, New Jersey (George Elling Collection) by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Jan 08 2015

TBT: Coping With Cold

Published by under Bird Behavior

Red-bellied woodpecker at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT) …

Brrrr!  It’s zero degrees F (-18 C) at 8:00am this morning with a wind chill of -16 F (-27 C).  Bundle up!

What about the birds?  How do they cope with cold?

In January 2008 I wrote about their #1 strategy –>   Coping With Cold: Food.

In the old article you’ll notice it wasn’t even as cold on January 4, 2008 as it is this morning.  Last winter’s Polar Vortex changed my definition of “cold.”


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


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Jan 07 2015

Raiding The Pantry

How brave is a hungry owl?

In Bath, England St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church hosts a peregrine nestbox where The Hawk and Owl Trust runs a falconcam.  The peregrines can be seen on the webcam all year long because they use the nest ledge as a cache area in the off season.

Early last month the webcam picked up night-time activity when a tawny owl(*) discovered the peregrines’ cache.  In the video the owl feasts on leftover pigeon, eventually nervous that he might be seen.  Would the peregrines show up or would they sleep through his visit unaware?

The owl ate his fill without incident and remembered where he’d found this easy meal.  On subsequent nights he raided the pantry again and again until the peregrines got wise to him and stopped caching on the ledge.

The owl still visits and makes a thorough search, just in case. Here he stops by on New Year’s Day.

Oh well.  The party’s over.  There are only so many times you can raid the pantry before the owners stop stocking it!


Thanks to Hawk and Owl Trust for tweeting these cool videos.  Visit their website for more information about the Bath and Norwich peregrines.

(videos from Hawk and Owl Trust, UK)

(*) Tawny owls are Eurasian woodland birds whose closest North American relative is the barred owl.

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Jan 06 2015

What Are Clippers?

Published by under Weather & Sky

Clipper Ship at Cape Horn by James E. Butterworth (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A fast moving cold front crossed western Pennsylvania yesterday.  The wind roared and temperatures fell from 61 degrees F Sunday morning to 19 degrees yesterday afternoon.  The weather news called it a clipper.

Technically it’s an “Alberta clipper,described by Wikipedia as a fast moving low pressure area that typically affects the central provinces of Canada and parts of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes.

Clippers start as warm moist wind from the Pacific that crosses the Rockies into Alberta.  When the wind hits cold air on the Canadian prairies it becomes a storm that rides the jet stream on a fast track east.  By the time clippers get to Pennsylvania, Alberta is rarely mentioned.

Though clippers sweep across the continent, they’re regional so if you live outside their zone — say in California, Colorado, or Florida — the word brings to mind the fast-moving sailing ships of the mid 19th century, famous for sailing through dangerous storms at Cape Horn (above).  The weather system is named for the ship.

Yesterday’s clipper left Pennsylvania but now we’re in for real winter — a low of 1 degree F Thursday morning.

Fill your bird feeders!  Birds need food to survive this cold.


(Clipper Ship at Cape Horn, painting by James E. Butterworth, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

p.s.  Here’s what clippers look like on eBay.  😉

Andis hair clippers (for sale on eBay)

(click on the clippers to see the original eBay photo)


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Jan 05 2015

Best of the Birds: 2014

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Each year Steve Gosser compiles his favorite bird photos in a chronological video.  Here are his favorites from 2014.

If you’ve been following my blog you’ll recognize some of these birds as my favorites, too.  (Peregrine fans, check time-codes 1:57 and 2:22.  Bald eagle fans you’ll find even more to love.)

Thanks to Steve for sharing his gorgeous photos.  They’ll make you want to go out birding right now!


(photos and video by Steve Gosser. Click here to visit his photo site.)

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Jan 04 2015

Making Daisies In Outer Space

Published by under Weather & Sky

Precessing Kepler orbit of Earth around the Sun (animation by WillowW on Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the earth’s perihelion, the moment each year when we’re closest to the sun.

Because the earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, we’re always closest in early January and furthest in July (aphelion), a difference of about 3 million miles.  This sounds like a lot but it’s tiny compared to the size of our orbit.  The distance has no practical effect on our temperature.


When the earth gets close to the sun, the gravitational pull makes us speed up as you can see in the animation.  Right now we’re moving about 1 km/second faster (2,237 mph) than we do in July and this does affect our seasons.  The season surrounding early January (our winter) is 5 days shorter than the season surrounding early July.  This is nice for us but too bad for Australia where their summer is short.

This animation shows our fast and slow progress but its real purpose is to illustrate earth’s orbital precession (in an exaggerated way).

Earth’s orbit is not a closed ellipse.  Instead it tracks out a little further each time as if drawing a huge daisy in outer space without lifting its pencil.  In 21,000 years we come back to where we started and trace the same daisy again.


(animation posted by WillowW on Wikimiedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original with documentation)

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Jan 03 2015

Early Singer

Carolina wren (photo by Gregory Diskin)

Speaking of First Bird of the Year, who’s the first bird to sing in your neighborhood?  Have you heard any singing yet?

In Pittsburgh most birds stop singing in mid summer, though a few late-nesting residents keep it up until autumn.  They’ve been silent for months now.

A few hardy souls sing in January.  The First Singer in my backyard is usually a Carolina wren who pipes up just before dawn.  On a good morning his voice echoes off the hills and prompts competing wrens to respond.

… But this is not a good morning.  We have freezing rain today. 🙁

Even on a good day he’s silent within 15 minutes.  I’ll know it’s spring when he sings all day.


(photo by Gregory Diskin)

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Jan 02 2015

First Day Findings

Published by under Hiking,Mammals,Plants

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you find outdoors on January 1 in Pittsburgh?  Nine intrepid naturalists from the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Wissahickon Nature Club hiked at North Park to find out.

Though yesterday was quite sunny the temperature hovered just below freezing and the wind was strong.  We bundled up to look at seeds, trees, dry weeds, and birds.

Above, a wingstem seed pod looks just like a dried version of the flower’s central disk.  Below, in the thicket we found juncoes, titmice and chickadees … and then changed our focus to identify the trees.
Participants on the New Year's Day hike at Irwin Rd (photo by Kate St. John)

Dianne Machesney found this still-red scarlet oak leaf.  I held it to take its picture.
Scarlet oak leaf, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground wasn’t frozen but the creek had glimmering white ice.

Ice on Irwin Run, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

After the hike, some of the party drove up Pearce Mill Road to check on the beaver dams on the North Fork of Pine Creek.

The beavers were snug in their beds while we braved the cold.

Beaver dam on the North Fork of Pine Creek (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


(photo credits: wingstem, hikers and oak leaf photos by Kate St. John.
Creek ice and beaver dam photos by Dianne Machesney

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