This Wasn’t Lightning

More than 115,000 people viewed this falsely labeled video (screenshot from YouTube)

This summer a 2012 YouTube video of a construction explosion in a Finnish river channel was falsely relabeled as a lightning strike on a river in northern California. It became an immediate sensation on social media because of the California wildfires.

At first I was fooled but I looked for more videos of lightning striking water and there really aren’t any because it’s so boring. Lightning only touches the water’s surface. That’s why fish don’t die. Yet the falsified video shows mud boiling from the bottom. Hmmm, something’s wrong with the label.

What I did find was a fact-checker video from KARE-11 in Minnesota in 2017. As they explained, the video was not lightning. It was a Finnish construction company displaying the work they do to clear river channels.

This falsely labeled video has been around for at least three years and it’s still fooling people. Why do we believe fake social media so easily?

Studies have shown that “fake news actually reaches more people and spreads more quickly than the truth.”

We spread it because “false news is more novel than true news and we are more likely to share novel information.”

We share it quickly because it’s just so easy to click “Share” without thinking.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology is reassuring. We aren’t stupid. We aren’t gullible. We haven’t been hoodwinked into believing something false. We’ve just been lazy. We didn’t think about it before we passed it along.

I’m really glad I looked into the lightning question.

Think about the accuracy. Think!

(screenshot from YouTube video)

Woodpecker With An Attitude

Red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

24 September 2020

There weren’t many warblers at Frick Park yesterday but we saw nearly every woodpecker that occurs in Pennsylvania except for the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), a very rare bird in Frick(*). Soon we were dreaming about red-headeds, reminiscing about the times we’ve seen them, and remarking on their attitude.

Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes exhibit clownish behavior but more often I’ve seen them fighting. They’re rated as the most pugnacious woodpecker in North America and live up to it by challenging every cavity-nesting bird. They go hard after starlings, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers. They will even challenge pileated woodpeckers four times their size.

Last year Lauri Shaffer was lucky to witness a red-headed woodpecker attacking a pileated.

Red-headed woodpecker attacks a pileated woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

It didn’t take long for the much larger woodpecker to leave the tree. Enough is enough!

Pileated woodpecker escapes the attack of a red-headed woodpecker (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Red-headeds will even attack each other, as witnessed by Chris Saladin when an immature attacked an adult. On Throw Back Thursday check out her photos of the battle between two red-headeds, the woodpeckers with attitude: The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer)

(*) p.s. Red-headed woodpeckers are Rare Birds indeed. eBird describes them this way:

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania reports an alarming decline throughout the state with a 46 percent decrease in the number of blocks that recorded the species between the first and second atlas periods. In that short amount of time, the Red-headed Woodpecker withdrew significantly from its former breeding range and was no longer found in 13 of Pennsylvania’s northern counties.

Red-headed woodpecker account at eBird

The Hottest Spots During Autumn Migration

Map of regionally-classified predicted bird stopover use during autumn 2008-2014 within USFWS region 5 (map from page 95, Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Several years ago this map of nocturnal fall migration stopover sites in the Northeastern U.S. caught my attention. My initial reaction was personal, “Dang! The birds don’t stop in Pittsburgh.”

The map itself is from a 2017 study conducted by the University of Delaware for US Fish and Wildlife Service (downloadable here). Researchers analyzed radar data from 2008-2014 paying particular attention to bird density where nocturnal migrants burst into the sky after sunset, showing where they stopped the night before.

A similar map using vertically-integrated reflectivity (bird density) predicts the stopover sites in 2008-2014. I’m happy to see those orange stripes of higher bird density in Pennsylvania’s Appalachians and Laurel Highlands but I’m disappointed that I live so far away from the hottest inland hotspots — the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Maine and Southside Virginia.

Map predicting mean vertically-integrated reflectivity (bird density) for autumn 2008-2014 in USFWS region 5 (map from page 93, Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Sadly, during the study the bird population in the study area dropped 29% in only seven years. The worst declines were in coastal Maine and Virginia with modest increases in Connecticut, New Jersey, the Delmarva peninsula and near State College, PA.

If you were birding in coastal Maine or Virginia in the early 2000’s you probably have a hunch there are fewer birds. There are.

I suppose that’s a bittersweet silver lining for Pittsburgh birders. We never saw those migrants anyway so we haven’t noticed they’re gone. 🙁

(maps from USFWS Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S., Final Report, August 2017)

Which One Is Mildly Poisonous?

Leopard frog and pickerel frog (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

22 September 2020

Pretty soon it’ll be too cold for frogs but right now we still have a chance to see these two in Pennsylvania. Though similar it’s useful to know the difference because one is mildly poisonous.

Northern leopard frogs (Lithobates pipiens), at left above, are harmless and sometimes green. Don’t rely on their green color for identification though because some are plain brown. All four below are northern leopard frogs from the same place in Minnesota. Notice that the spots on their backs are irregular circles and somewhat scattered even on the brown one.

Green morph (left) and brown morph (right) northern leopard frogs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pickerel frogs (Lithobates palustris) are mildly poisonous. When frightened they excrete a poison from their skin that’s toxic to predators and mildly irritating to human skin. To identify them, notice the chocolate brown blob-like rectangles arranged in two rows between the two folds on their backs (dorsolateral folds).

Pickerel frog, Souderton, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Pickerel frogs can also be distinguished by the bright yellow or yellow-orange color on the inside concealed surface of the thigh. Leopard frogs are white in the same area. 

BioKids article at Univ of Michigan

Here’s a live pickerel frog showing off his spots.

He’s the one that’s poisonous.

p.s. A note on Poisonous versus Venomous:

  • Poison is passive, just used as a defense. You have to ingest or touch a poisonous substance to be harmed by it.
  • Venom is active, injected into you by the animal that carries it. It’s used as both offense to capture prey and defense.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the images to see the originals)

Expect Red-breasted Nuthatches And …

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Chuck Tague)

21 September 2020

According to this year’s Winter Finch Forecast we should expect red-breasted nuthatches and two winter finch species in Pennsylvania this winter.

The Winter Finch Forecast is an annual tradition founded by Ron Pittaway and carried on by Tyler Hoar. Combining information on bird movement and food availability in northern Canada, it predicts whether finches and three other species(*) will bother to leave their northern homes this winter. The birds only irrupt into southern Canada and the U.S. if the cone and seed crop is low.     (* red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, bohemian waxwings)

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) began leaving Canada in mid-August and the vanguard is here, as you can see by these eBird sightings in Allegheny County, 1 Aug through 20 Sep. Offer black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet if you want to see them at your feeders.

The forecast says that most purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) will leave Canada this winter and some are already on the move. They’ve been seen at least 10 times in Allegheny County since August 1.

Be careful when you identify a purple finch as it closely resembles the house finches we see every day. Female purple finches have sharp brown stripes compared to blurry gray-brown on female house finches. Male purple finches are rosy-purple as if dipped head first in berry juice. They have rosy flank stripes, not brown.  Check out this guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch, 2009 (photo by Brian Herman)

The forecast also says that evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are now moving south in the highest numbers seen in 25 years. These coniferous woodland finches are expected to come to Pennsylvania but they prefer the forest so don’t expect to see them unless you’re near a woodlot. If you live in suitable habitat, they’ll come to your feeder for black oil sunflower seeds.

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Remember this sound and you’ll hear them coming.

And finally, the forecast for pine siskins (Spinus pinus) is mediocre but Steve Gosser has already seen one in his Allegheny County backyard last Saturday. Listen for their chatter and distinctive zipper sound and you’ll know they’re here. They like nyger seed just like goldfinches.

Pine siskin in Steve Gosser’s yard, 19 Sept 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2020-2021 to learn more and find out what Canada’s blue jays are up to.

p.s. You can learn where a particular species is within a particular timeframe by going here to explore eBird. Choose species, then date range, then location.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Brian Herman and Steve Gosser. screenshot of eBird red-breasted nuthatch sightings)

Signs of Fall

Sun rays on a misty morning in Schenley Park, 8 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 September 2020

Fall is in the air in Pittsburgh as sun rays peek through autumn mist in Schenley Park.

Below, though the large ash trees have died of emerald ash borer the small ones still put out leaves that turn unique colors. These are on their way from yellow to lavender.

White ash leaves turn a variety of colors in fall, Schenley Park, 18 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Teasel flower heads (dipsacus sp.) have dried, leaving the husk that’s a “natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.” It’s hard to imagine holding this prickly husk to do the job. Use gloves, of course.

All summer we noticed curly dock (Rumex crispus) leaves and not the flowers. Now our attention is reversed because the seeds have turned a rich brown. The stalk is ugly, however the seeds are fascinating up close, each one surrounded by the calyx that produced them. The papery wings allow them to float on water and fly a bit in the wind.

Curly dock, gone to seed, Schenley Park, 17 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The most obvious sign of fall is the temperature. 43 degrees F at dawn today. Speaking of gloves, you’ll need them when you go birding in the morning.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Birds Burst Into The Sky After Sunset

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 September 2020

Birding in Pittsburgh has been great this week and will continue today and tomorrow, Saturday & Sunday 19-20 September, as shown on BirdCast’s local migration alert for Pittsburgh below.

screenshot of BirdCast local migration alert for Pittsburgh, PA, 18 Sept 2020

Birding is great on the morning after high migration because the birds travel at night. They start their journey after sunset and land before sunrise, flying over us when it’s too dark to see them.

On good weather nights they’re so anxious to leave that they burst into the sky after sunset, a phenomenon that’s visible on time lapse weather radar. The slideshow below shows this effect on the evening of 15 September 2020 when the birds took off only 20 mins after sunset.

Note that the image is circular because the radar’s reach is circular and it is fainter on the edges because radar fades as it gets far from the source.

Who was flying that night? In addition to warblers, which will be waning soon, we now see thrushes, tanagers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The grosbeaks may resemble females, but don’t be fooled. If they have a touch of orange or red color on their breast they are immature males as shown at top. Here’s another immature male.

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend is a great time to go birding in Pittsburgh. Let’s get outdoors!

p.s. Click here to get BirdCast local migration alerts for your hometown.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, slideshow from KPIT weather radar, Migration alert screenshot from BirdCast; click on the captions to see the originals)

Massive Die Off of Birds in New Mexico … why?

Dead orange-crowned warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons used as an illustration, not taken in New Mexico)

18 September 2020

In late August reports started trickling in that high numbers of migratory birds were being found dead in New Mexico. The first report was at White Sands Missile Range on 20 August but as time passed the reports became more frequent, the locations increased, and so did the death toll. By now experts believe that hundreds of thousands of birds have died — perhaps millions — not only in New Mexico (red on map below) but in Colorado, Arizona and western Texas (orange highlight on map).

General area of U.S. where massive bird die off is occurring (map from Wikimedia Commons). New Mexico is red

Austin Fisher took a video of the carnage last Sunday, 13 September 2020 in Velarde, New Mexico.

Science Alert reports that only migratory birds are affected, not the local residents. Most of the dead birds are warblers, swallows and flycatchers and “the affected travelers seem to act strangely before their deaths, spending more time on the ground than perched in trees, and generally appearing dazed, sleepy, and lethargic.”

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth at Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes the smoke from the western wildfires is a big factor.

While birds migrate south through the Rockies this fall they must fly through the ubiquitous wildfire smoke blowing across the US from California, Oregon and Washington. Here’s what it looked like via satellite on August 20, the first day dead birds were reported in New Mexico. Notice that the smoke had reached New Mexico that day.

Satellite image of wildfire smoke across the U.S. west, 20 August 2020 (image from NASA)

Unfortunately birds’ respiratory systems are so different from ours and so efficient that they succumb quickly to bad air.

We turn oxygen into CO2 in one breath — in/out. Every exhalation releases the CO2/remains of the air we just breathed in.

When birds breathe, the air that enters their bodies stays inside for two breaths — in/out + in/out. During its 4-step journey, the air molecule travels through the lungs, two sets of air sacs and into the birds’ hollow bones where it waits for the next step. Click on the diagram below to watch the airflow inside a bird.

Birds’ respiratory system, screenshot from animation at Oxford Learning Link

Sadly, the western fires are damaging much more than we realize. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wildfire smoke is killing migratory birds a thousand miles away. … Another unexpected outcome of climate change.

Read more about the bird die off at Science Alert and the New York Times.

UPDATE: For another perspective on the bird deaths in New Mexico, see this article by Jenna McCullough in the ABA Blog: The data behind mysterious bird deaths in New Mexico.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NASA and a screenshot from Oxford Learning Link. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Nature’s Moisture Indicators

Norway spruce cone, closed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pines cones open and close in response to moisture. Above, a closed Norway spruce cone. Below, an open one.

Norway spruce cone, open (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If a cone is closed is it wetter than one that’s open?

On Throw Back Thursday find out in this quiz: Which Cone is Wetter?

Or bypass the quiz and watch this video.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

16 September 2020

This week’s spooky sunsets and hazy skies in eastern North America are due to smoke from the massive wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California. The smoke is so intense that it’s dispersing across the continent and across the Atlantic, causing haze in Europe.

Near sunset on Monday 14 September the sun was a strange shade of pink in Pittsburgh, captured above in true color by Jonathan Nadle.

We can’t see the smoke coming but the satellites do, blowing eastward in two paths on Tuesday 15 September: one over the Northern Plains and Great Lakes, the other over Nebraska to Kentucky and Virginia.

It’s also blowing west over the Pacific, shown here on Friday 11 September.

The haze is inconvenient for us but truly hazardous on the West Coast. The dark brown colors on the map below are the worst air quality in the world. The air is so bad that people are leaving the area. I know of at least one person who’s fleeing from San Francisco to Pittsburgh.

By now the fires cover 4.5 million acres, an area so large that it’s hard to imagine. To help you visualize it The Guardian has created an interactive map comparing the fire acreage to well known cities and your own hometown — click here or on the tiny screenshot below. NOTE: The comparison below is for New York City. I compared the fire acreage to Pittsburgh and found it would run from approximately I-80 to the PA-West Virginia line!

Meanwhile the sunsets are still creepy.

Strange sun at sunset in Pittsburgh (filtered), 15 September 2020 (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

None of us are immune to this huge effect of climate change. Smoke gets in our eyes.

UPDATE: Janet Campagna, who lives in California, remarked that the days are much cooler because the sun can’t get through the smoke. This reminded me of the volcanic winter which results from smoke in the atmosphere after giant volcanic eruptions such as Krakatoa in 1883 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

(photos by Jonathan Nadle, screenshot of AirNow map from airnow.gov, screenshot of article from The Guardian)