Jul 21 2015

Showing Her Age

Published by under Peregrines

Dorothy sleeping at the nest in July (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Dorothy sleeping at the nest in July (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Peregrine falcons sleep standing up. They don’t lie down on the nest unless they are incubating.  Here Dorothy is making an exception.

In April we’d expect to see her sleeping over her eggs at the Cathedral of Learning but she never has eggs in July.  In her first 14 years of life she didn’t slept prone at the nest unless she had eggs.

Now at age 16, Dorothy is an elderly wild peregrine.  A year ago she started sleeping at the nest like this in the summer.

She’s tired.  She’s showing her age.


p.s. If you have not seen the sad news of this year’s Pitt peregrine chick (published Monday afternoon) click here.

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

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Jul 20 2015

Sad News About Pitt Peregrine Chick

Published by under Peregrines

Screenshot of the peregrine nicknamed Silver, 8 July 2015 (courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

Screenshot of the peregrine nicknamed Silver, 8 July 2015 (courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

Peregrine Update from ARL Wildlife Center, 20 July 2015, 4:00 pm:

It is with heavy hearts that we must share the news of the passing of the Peregrine Falcon we accepted from the Cathedral of Learning. After weeks with little change to its status, the bird experienced a sudden drop in weight – despite routine hand feedings & daily weight monitoring.

After discovering signs of a respiratory illness on Saturday morning, a staff member rushed the falcon to an emergency clinic in Cleveland to see avian specialist Dr. Jamie Lindstrom. Dr. Lindstrom is renowned for his knowledge & experience with wild birds, having authored numerous academic articles & speeches, as well as serving in leadership roles in several avian organizations.

While receiving top-notch care at the hospital, the falcon passed away. Dr. Lindstrom felt strongly that the illness was linked to the animal being developmentally delayed, immuno-suppressed & a failure to thrive & diagnosed him with a chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. Unfortunately, there was nothing further that any of the doctors could do.

The staff of the Animal Rescue League thank you for your support & well wishes throughout this process.  May the Peregrine’s spirit fly, free of the burdens that plagued him during his short life.


(screenshot of peregrine falcon hatched at Cathedral of Learning in May 2015)

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Jul 20 2015

Reminder: Let’s walk in Schenley Park, July 26

Published by under Books & Events

American goldfinch on thistle (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday July 26, 8:30am in Schenley Park.

Meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road.
Dress for the weather. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk is canceled for bad weather.

We’re sure to see American goldfinches among the thistles.

See you soon.

(photo of American goldfinch among the thistles by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jul 20 2015

Yellow Shoulders

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Male American goldfinch, two years or older, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Male American goldfinch, two years or older, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s something we learned at the Neighborhood Nestwatch banding at Marcy Cunkelman’s last Saturday that you won’t notice through binoculars.

Did you know that first-year male American goldfinches look different than the older males?

Full adult males, two years and older, have bright yellow shoulders (scapulars) that match their backs as shown above.  First-year males have a mix of black and yellow on their shoulders.

Here’s a first-year male held by the National Aviary’s Bob Mulvihill while he explains the color.

First-yearmale American goldfinch, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

First-yearmale American goldfinch, at banding (photo by Kate St. John)

And here’s a side-by-side comparison of the scapulars: full adult on the left, first-year male on the right.  Notice how the younger male has black under the yellow on his shoulder.

Scapulars on 2-year+ male American goldfinch compared to 1st-year male on the right (photo by Kate St. John)

Pure yellow scapulars on 2-year+ male American goldfinch (left) compared to black+yellow on 1st-year male (right) — photo by Kate St. John

First-year males are old enough to breed but they don’t have any experience yet.  Perhaps the ladies use the colors as a signal when picking mates.

If you look closely for the yellow shoulders, you too can separate the men from the boys.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 19 2015

Unused Nest

Published by under Peregrines,Plants

Weeds at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest, July 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Weeds at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest, July 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

What happens when a long established peregrines’ ledge goes unused for a season?

Weeds grow.

This snapshot from the Gulf Tower nest shows that Nature takes over after 24 years of use, even on a skyscraper.

How did the plants get up so high?  Some may have sprouted from wind-borne seeds, but others arrived as seeds in the digestive tracks of birds the peregrines ate at the nest.  The annuals re-seed in place year after year.

The big plant at back left is pokeweed whose berries are food for many birds including robins and cedar waxwings.

Can you identify the other plants and guess how they got there?


p.s. The Downtown peregrines haven’t forgotten about the Gulf Tower.  One stopped by last Thursday, July 16, in this photo from Ann Hohn at Make-A-Wish.

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower, 15 July 2015 (photo from Ann Hohn)

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower, 15 July 2015 (photo from Ann Hohn)


(weeds photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower; peregrine photo from Ann Hohn at Make-A-Wish)

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Jul 18 2015

Named For LeConte

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

LeConte's Haploa moth (photo by Karyn Delaney)

LeConte’s Haploa moth (photo by Karyn Delaney)

A week ago this moth stood out at Oil Creek State Park with an impressive brown pattern on his white wings.

I sketched the moth in my notebook while Karyn Delaney took its picture (above). When I got home I found a tool to help me identify it: Discover Life’s moth ID Guide for Pennsylvania.

My search of the moth’s basic characteristics produced 62 answers (!) but I clicked through each pop-up until I reached one that was similar but not the same.  The yellow-orange head was a useful clue.

LeConte’s Haploa moth (Haploa lecontei) is known to have a variable pattern.  The photos below compare a plainer version to our own (super-magnified).  BugGuide.net has this closeup of one that looks like ours.

Haplo lecontei, two patterns (photo on leftfrom Wikimedia Commons, photo on right is magnified from one by Karyn Delaney)

Haplo lecontei, two patterns (photo on leftfrom Wikimedia Commons, photo on right is magnified from one by Karyn Delaney)

I’ve heard of LeConte’s sparrow and LeConte’s thrasher (though I’ve never seen them) and wondered if this moth was named for the same LeConte.  Indeed it is.

John Lawrence LeConte was a famous 19th century entomologist from Boston who traveled the U.S. in search of bugs.  Beetles were his specialty but he identified many other species as well.  According to Wikipedia, he “described approximately half of the insect taxa known in the United States during his lifetime.”  He was greatly admired in the scientific community.

When scientists name a new species they sometimes use a person’s name, either the name of someone they admire or someone connected to the discovery. Audubon admired LeConte and so named the sparrow, LeConte himself discovered the thrasher (someone else probably named it for him), and this moth was named for the same LeConte.

Click here to read more about beetles, LeConte and scientific names in Marcia Bonta’s Beetlemania blog.


(photo with the green leaves Virginia creeper by Karyn Delaney. Photo on brown background from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jul 17 2015

Repeat Offender

Published by under Bird Behavior

We’ve seen gulls stealing food outdoors but this bird went to the store.

Back in 2007 a herring gull became famous for repeatedly walking into a shop in Aberdeen, Scotland and stealing bags of Doritos from the lowest shelf by the door.

Eventually he became a celebrity on the nightly news and earned the nickname Sam.

When store management told the staff to close the door to stop Sam’s shoplifting, customers donated money to pay for Sam’s habit.

Sam remained a repeat offender.


(video from YouTube)

p.s. In Scotland the chips are called “crisps.”

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Jul 16 2015

TBT: Lightning

Published by under Weather & Sky

Thunderhead with lightning (photo by jcpjr from Shutterstock)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

If you’ve seen me outdoors when a thunderstorm’s approaching you know that I take lightning safety so seriously that I go inside before everyone else.  I like to think it’s because I know too much.

Some of that knowledge was collected in 2011 when I researched the facts for this article on Lightning.  Once you start looking there are plenty of harrowing stories.

U.S. lightning safety has changed since 2011.  Back then I wrote about the Lightning Crouch but it’s been discredited unless you’re stuck outdoors very far from shelter.  The new motto says run for shelter: When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.

Yet I wonder … is my level of concern about lightning borne out by statistics?  It depends on what’s about to hit you.  Here are some death/injury facts from 2012 when the U.S. population was 314,100,000 (314.1 million puts the numbers in perspective).

Cause, 2012 in U.S. Dead Injured
Lightning 28 212
Pedestrians hit by trains 442 405
Pedestrians hit by motor vehicles 4,743 76,000
Motor vehicle deaths/injuries 33,561 2,360,000

Clearly lightning is much less likely to kill you than a motor vehicle.  On the other hand, there are far more vehicles than there are lightning bolts and far more hours spent in vehicles than outdoors during storms.

So drive safely, don’t drink and drive (alcohol accounts for 1/3 of the deaths), look both ways when you cross the street, and … when thunder roars I’m still going indoors.


(Thunderhead with lightning, photo by jcpjr from Shutterstock)

p.s. I’ve included trains in the list because Westinghouse Bridge peregrine fans are no longer allowed near the railroad tracks.  Trains are the most deadly of all the dangers.

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Jul 15 2015

Fossil at Ferncliff

Rock, path, with fossil at Ferncliff (photo by Kate St. John)

Rock with hashmark pattern across it (left to right) at Ferncliff, Ohiopyle (photo by Kate St. John)

Years ago when I first hiked the Ferncliff Trail at Ohiopyle I was puzzled by this pattern on the rock beneath my feet.

In those days there weren’t interpretive signs nearby so I tried to make sense of it as best I could.  I decided it was a motorcycle track, but I couldn’t figure out how the vehicle had gotten there and why it had run from the cliff into the river.

Duh!  Motorcycles don’t leave tracks in rock.  It’s a fossil.

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

This Lepidodendron is one of six kinds of fossils found along the river’s edge now listed on an interpretive sign as: Cordaites leaves, Lepidodendron scale, giant Calamites, Psaronius, a giant dragonfly and Sigillaria.

Though I’ve seen the other ones this is the fossil I like the best.

Lepidodendron was a tree-like plant with scales on its trunk that grew as high as 100 feet tall.

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikipedia)

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It lived and died in the Carboniferous (coal making) era.  If the tree had fallen in a swamp it would have become peat and then coal, but it happened to fall on sand so the patterns of its scaly trunk were preserved in rock.

Not far away is one of Lepidodendron’s last living relatives: Lycopodium or groundpine. Only 6-12 inches tall, its tiny trunks and branches provide a visual hint of its ancestor’s appearance.

Lycopodium (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tree Groundpine, Lycopodium dendroideum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The past and present are near each other at Ferncliff Peninsula.


(fossil photos by Kate St. John. Drawing of Lepidodendron and photo of Lycopodium from Wikimedia Commons; click the images see the originals)

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Jul 14 2015

Find The Whimbrel

Whimbrel with eggs (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Whimbrel with eggs at Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Can you see the whimbrel and four eggs?

These ground-nesting shorebirds have natural camouflage but I’ll bet you can see the one above because the eggs have shadows and the bird’s mouth is open.  If you were holding the camera you’d hear the whimbrel shouting like this.

Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) nest in the northern tundra around the world.  In North America they lay eggs in the first week of June that hatch in the first week of July.  Mom stays with the family 3-14 days after the chicks hatch.  Then she leaves on migration while dad stays with the kids until they fledge in August.  The kids don’t leave until September.  This means that some sort of whimbrel is on the move in North America from July through September.

Successful mothers and birds whose nests have failed arrive on northern coasts in July on the first stage of their long migration.  Mary Birdsong saw this one yesterday at Presque Isle on Lake Erie’s shore (video below).

Their early stops are only way stations where the whimbrels fatten up for their transoceanic trips.  Some North American whimbrels fly non-stop 2,500 miles to South America.  (Others save time by wintering on the southern U.S. coast.)

Asian whimbrels spend the winter as far south as Australia. Here’s a group in Singapore.

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

But on migration they travel alone.

This month, if you’re lucky, you might see a whimbrel on the shore.  You’ll see it when its long down-curved bill stands out. Woo hoo!


(photo of whimbrel at nest by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS. Video of whimbrel at Presque Isle State Park 13 July 2015 by Mary Birdsong. Photo of whimbrels in Singapore by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons.)


p.s. I often go to Conneaut Harbor, Ohio to find shorebirds but the sandspit is inundated right now because the harbor water level is 20 inches higher than normal.  See this message at OhioBirds.

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