Jun 18 2014

Magical

Upland sandpiper (photo by Dan Arndt)

Strip mining consumes nearly 3,000 acres of Pennsylvania every year but there’s a ray of hope when the mines are reclaimed.  The “strips” become grasslands that could attract this bird.

Though they are “shorebirds” upland sandpipers don’t live at the shore.  They’re the quintessential grassland bird and an indicator of healthy tallgrass prairie.  Eight months of the year they live on the pampas (grasslands) of Argentina but in early spring they fly 6,000 to 8,000 miles, sometimes in as little as a week, to nest in the grasslands of North America.  Present from April to August, they stay here only four months.

In this century it’s a privilege to see one.  In the late 1800’s the upland plover, as it was called at the time, was market-hunted to fill the dining niche vacated by the suddenly scarce passenger pigeon.  Trainloads of dead “plovers” were shipped East while settlers drained the prairie and converted it to farmland.  Nowadays habitat loss and pesticides continue to threaten the bird’s existence.  Bartramia longicauda is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania.

Upland sandpipers are magical birds.  Your first hint of their presence may be a long mellow courtship whistle, given in flight or upon alighting (click here to hear), or their short whistle: “Ba-tui-tui.

They are graceful in almost everything they do.  In flight they use a distinctive rapid fluttering style reserved for the breeding grounds. Scan the fenceposts and you’ll find one perched where he landed with wings held aloft in a V, then slowly lowered.  It’s worth waiting to see one do this.  With its 20 inch wingspan, you can’t help but notice the bird.
Upland sandpiper (photo by Dan Arndt)

Upland sandpipers are very picky about grass.  They require upland, ungrazed grassland with three kinds of habitat: perches for courtship, tall vegetation with overhanging cover for the nest, low vegetation for their young to forage in.  They are also picky about grass species, preferring native grasses to invasives.  This means there are few places to find them in Pennsylvania.

The opportunity to see an upland sandpiper is so tempting, though, that birders will drive long distances to find them.  When I read last week that they were seen in Clarion County I drove an hour and a half last Sunday to meet up with Carole Winslow, Clarion County’s bird compiler.   We found a birder from New Jersey who had driven 5 hours to find “uppies.” He was lured by the magic, too.

Carole and I were very lucky. We saw four upland sandpipers in a large field at Mt. Airy and as we drove away were startled to see one perched on a fencepost close to the road.   Oh my!  We stopped in our tracks.  He took our breath away.

 

(Photos by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license.  Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada. His most recent blog celebrated Rachel Carson’s birthday (a native of the Pittsburgh area) with a photo of a peregrine. Woo hoo!)

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Jun 17 2014

Stotting

Published by under Mammals

Springbok pronking (photo by Yathin_sk, Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I learned a new word that describes what this springbok is doing.

Stotting, also called pronking or pronging, is a stiff-legged trot punctuated every few paces by a high jump.

Here’s a quick look at a stotting gazelle in real time.

And here’s a longer look at springboks in slow motion from the BBC.

Cheetahs make the springbok run.  What makes them stott?  One theory is that they do it to show off.

It’s certainly a “Look at me!” moment when a springbok jumps 13 feet into the air with his back arched and legs dangling.  When a male jumps he opens the pocket of skin that runs from his back to his tail, as you can see in the photo above.  This flashes his patch of white hair and, according to Wikipedia, emits a sweaty odor.

Springbok and Thomson’s gazelles aren’t the only animals that stott.  North American mule deer and pronghorn do it and young sheep stott, too, as a form of play.

Who knew?!

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

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Jun 16 2014

The Importance of Tail Streamers

Barn swallows in flight (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Because the barn swallow is very widespread and nests almost exclusively on man-made structures, it’s been easy to study this bird for a very long time.  One interesting finding is that Hirundo rustica’s long tail streamers (outer edge tail feathers) are an excellent indicator of the birds’ health and a predictor of breeding success.

Birds with the longest and most symmetrical tail streamers are the healthiest and most desirable mates.  According to Cornell’s Birds of North America, “Tail length tends to correlate with reproductive success, annual survival, propensity to engage in extra-pair copulation, parental effort, ability to withstand parasites, immunocompetence, and other measures of fitness.”

In other words, if you’re a barn swallow with a long symmetrical tail you’re really healthy, you get to choose the best mate, and your nest will be very successful.  You’re also likely to be an older bird because tail length increases with age.

The down side is that long-tailed females are fickle.  They always get the best mates but even when they’re paired up they often “mess around” with un-mated long-tailed guys.  “Thus long-tailed male barn swallows are cuckolded more often than their less attractive neighbors,” says Frank B. Gill.

The longer the tail streamers, the better the bird.  I’ll be watching their tails now.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 340 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Jun 15 2014

King Devil

Published by under Plants

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

My neighbors will tell you I am not a gardener.  When the growing season arrives I spend all my time birding.  Around Memorial Day I glance at the garden and think, “Something must be done!”  I go out there with my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and identify what’s growing.  I pull out the noxious weeds and leave everything else in place.

That’s how I got King Devil.

Also called Field Hawkweed (Hieracium pratense), it’s a perennial creeping plant whose yellow flowers cluster at the top of a tall, hairy stem.  The leaves are basal, thin, hairy, untoothed and hardly noticeable compared to the flowers.

I find the flowers interesting in all their phases.

King Devil at Raccoon Creek State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

I left the King Devil where it sprouted.

Wikipedia says, “This species finds its habitat where the soil has been neglected.”  That’s a pretty good description of my gardening efforts.  The birds are luring me away from home.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jun 14 2014

New Bird In Town

Juvenile European starling (photo by Em?ke Dénes from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a new bird in town with a brown body, faint stripes on his brown chest, black beak, black eye, and a little black mask.

What is he?  A juvenile starling.

He’s confusing because he’s not in the bird guide unless you know to look for starlings.  He doesn’t look like his parents but his behavior is the same as theirs.  The big hint to his identify, if he’s still at the begging stage, is that he won’t leave his parents alone.

You can hear him begging, “Churrrr, churrrr, churrrr.”

Click here for a story about him that I wrote in 2010.

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

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Jun 13 2014

Fledge Watch Opportunities This Weekend

Wtaching the eagles at Hays (photo by Kate St. John)

Want to see peregrine falcons or bald eagles?  This weekend four sites in the Pittsburgh area have young raptors ready make their first flight.

Watch Peregrines at …

  • Monaca-East Rochester Bridge:  Four juvenile peregrines are fledging at this site June 11-16.  The nest is over water so your watchful presence may save a young peregrine’s life if it lands in the river (you can alert a nearby boater).  There are no officially organized times to watch at this bridge though I can tell you I plan to stop by on Saturday.  Click here for a map.
  • Neville Island I-79 Bridge:  One female peregrine is due to fledge from this site June 14-19.  Anne Marie Bosnyak and Laura Marshall will be at the adjacent Port Authority Park-n-Ride and Fairfield Inn parking lots for much of the weekend. I plan to visit too at 9:00am Saturday.  Watch this blog or Pittsburgh Falconuts for dates and times.  Click here for a map.

Juvenile bald eagles at the Hays nest, 11 June 2014 (photo from the PixController eaglcam atHays)

Watch bald eagles at…

  • Hays eagle nest:  Three eaglets have been flapping like crazy on camera this week so it’s only a matter of time before one of them makes his first flight.  Dedicated eagle fans will be watching from the Three Rivers Heritage Bike Trail all weekend.  Bob Mulvihill from the National Aviary will be there on SUNDAY at 9:00am.  C’mon down any time.  It’s free!  Click on Bob’s name or here for a map.
  • Harmar eagle nest:  This nest is much harder to watch since the Hulton Bridge construction closed the small parking lot with the best view.  Eagle fans have been known to stand by the side of busy Hulton Road in Oakmont. (Yow!)  Before leaf-out there was a good, safe view from the patio behind Oakmont High School. Bring a birding scope and look for watchers on the Oakmont side of the river. If you find a good place to stand, leave a comment with directions.

The weather will be great for Fledge Watching.  Let’s get outdoors!

 

p.s. Happy news from Westinghouse Bridge:  On June 11 PGC’s Tom Keller found a day-old hatchling at the Westinghouse Bridge peregrine nest (two eggs still unhatched).  PGC will band the chick(s) in 18 to 22 days.  Peregrine monitor John English is looking forward to a Fledge Watch in mid July.

(photo of Hays Eagle Watch site by Kate St. John, photo of Hays eaglets from the PixController Hays eaglecam)

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Jun 12 2014

Why Are Warblers Yellow?

Published by under Songbirds

Kentucky warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Kentucky warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Many warblers have olive-green backs, yellow breasts and black feather accents.  Think of hooded, prairie, Wilson’s and Kentucky warblers like this one.  Why are so many of them this color?

Steve Gosser’s photo shows why.

By the time a warbler nests in North America, the leaves are out and the forest’s light is soft yellow-green.  Seen by a predator from above, the warblers’ olive color matches the dark understory.  From below their yellow breasts match the light filtering through the leaves.  Their black accent feathers break up the colors and look like shadows.

In the winter the warblers live in leafy places in Central and South America where they continue to match the habitat.

Yellow is camouflage.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Jun 11 2014

Protective Mothers

Published by under Mammals

Elk cow and calf, Benezette (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

June is “baby” time in Pennsylvania’s woods with fledgling birds, tiny rabbits, young groundhogs and cute fawns.

As I mentioned last week young animals found alone are not abandoned, they’re just waiting for mom.  You shouldn’t “rescue” fawns and if you’re lucky enough to see an elk calf in Pennsylvania, don’t go near it!

Just like white-tailed deer, elk mothers tell their calves to “Stay!” while they go off to feed.  White-tailed deer are afraid of humans and don’t raise a fuss about their fawns but elk cows are big and powerful.  If you approach an elk calf, its mother may attack.

An elk cow doesn’t have antlers, but she’s not something you want to tangle with.  She weighs about 500 pounds, stands 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder and is 6.5 feet long from nose to rump.  When she charges, you’re the one who’ll need to be rescued!

Paul Staniszewski is quite familiar with the elk herd near Benezette, PA and explains: “Although the elk are used to seeing people, they are still very much wild and will become unpredictable and aggressive when it comes to protecting their young.  If a protective female elk is endangering people in a public area, move away and call the PA Game Commission. They will temporarily close the area until the mother moves on with her calf.”

Just like humans, wildlife mothers do what they can to protect their young.  Hawks and peregrines swoop at humans, mother skunks spray, black bears and elk charge.  Yes, a sudden attack by a wild animal is frightening.  It’s meant to be!  You’re at the hands of an outraged mother and she wants you to leave.

When you’re outdoors be aware of your surroundings and watch for wildlife.  Remember that mothers are protective.  It’s all part of being a mom.

 

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

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Jun 10 2014

Falcons Stick Together

American kestrel fledgling at Engineering Hall, Univ of Pittsburgh (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

This story has a sad ending but the middle is so amazing that it’s worth the telling.

At 10:00am Michelle Kienholz texted me with an odd sighting at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health: “Peregrine on GSPH? One of the Cathedral of Learning peregrines is yelling and dive-bombing it.”

Michelle sent a cellphone photo of the attacked bird perched on the windowsill but neither of us could determine the species.  Michelle didn’t have binoculars and her photo was tiny.

Forty-five minutes later she texted again after she saw it more clearly:  “Red-tailed hawk — taking quite a beating from E2 still.  Can’t tell if windows are affecting how wings held or if injured but I see red-tails on the building all the time.  45 minutes on the same cramped ledge with a crazed falcon seems odd.  … Doesn’t look especially stressed though.”

Almost an hour later at 11:30am:  “Red-tail moved to Sennott Building, so he can fly.”

But this was not the end of it.

At 1:30pm Michelle sent an email about another bird of prey perched at the entrance to the Engineering Building.  Observers had seen him hit a window in the early morning.  Melissa Penkrot at the School of Engineering was concerned because this juvenile male kestrel had been perched there since 7:00am.

Juvenile American kestrel at Engineering Building (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

In between meetings, Michelle ran down to check on the kestrel while Melissa called the Game Commission. The kestrel continued to stand in plain sight so Melissa put up a sign so folks would not try to touch it.  Interestingly, she could see the Sennott Building from the kestrel’s location.

Michelle returned an hour later and saw the kestrel hop up on the rust-colored sculpture and make a slow wobbly flight across the street.  Before she returned to work she told the security guard at the parking garage that the Game Commission was coming for the bird.  He assured her he’d be there into the evening and would keep an eye on it.  That was at 2:45pm.

Alas, when Michelle returned at 7:00pm the security guard told her the red-tail had barely waited for her to leave.  While the kestrel’s back was turned the red-tail swooped in and killed him.  Not a happy ending.

But there is a happy middle.

In the morning E2 spent at least 45 minutes attacking and finally moving that red-tailed hawk away from the area.  E2 was as focused and relentless as he is when his own fledglings are threatened.  Yet he has no babies this year.  Why did he attack the red-tail?

I think E2 recognized the fledgling as a baby falcon — not a peregrine, but certainly a falcon — and his protective instincts kicked in.  He doesn’t have his own “kids” this year but when he saw a dazed juvenile falcon he knew the red-tail was up to no good and did everything in his power to move the danger away.  He did a good job.  The red-tail was deterred.

Vulnerable American kestrels often fall prey to red-tailed hawks.  The kestrel’s own parents could not have protected him, but a peregrine did.

Falcons stick together.

 

p.s.  Kestrels are known to help peregrines: see this blog from 2012.

(photos by Michelle Kienholz)

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Jun 09 2014

Eats Tentworms

Published by under Bird Behavior

Yellow-billed Cuckoo eating a tentworm (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

Who eats tentworms?

Yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos do.  They’re fond of caterpillars, katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets and are happy to rid your trees of tent caterpillars and gypsy moths.

Bobby Greene captured this yellow-billed cuckoo in the act.

Sadly, our use of pesticides has contributed to rapid declines in both species during the last century.  Yellow-billed cuckoos used to be found across the continent.  They are nearly extirpated from the West.

(photo by Bobby Greene)

 

p.s. We saw a yellow-billed cuckoo at the edge of Chatham Village during the Emerald View BioBlitz.  They’re in the City in wooded habitats.

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