A Face That’s Hard To Love

The Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) can’t help it, he’s ugly. His face is hard to love.

When he’s amorous, or hot, or in a bad mood he inflates his fleshy throat sac which intimidates the other storks. It’s ugly, too.

Maribou stork with throat sac inflated (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out more about him in this vintage article …

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

What’s Beyond Flamingos?

American flamingos and horned grebes (photos from Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser)

A couple of weeks ago we learned the amazing fact that grebes are the flamingo’s closest relatives. The next related bird, beyond flamingos, is amazing too. The sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) looks like a pigeon!

Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, female and male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) are seed-eating birds native to Africa and Asia that are famous for carrying water in their specialized belly feathers. The male sandgrouse flies as much as 18 miles from his nest to a watering hole where he soaks his belly in water.  He then flies back to the nest where his young squeeze his belly feathers to get a drink.

The sandgrouse is nothing like a flamingo or grebe but he’s descended from the same extinct ancestor that spawned flamingos, grebes, sandgrouse, mesites and doves. The pink circle around the number 95 in the phylogenomic supertree shows where the birds diversified. (“95” is that ancestor.)

Phylogenomic supertree of birds from oldest to newest (image by Rebecca T Kimball et al, MDPI, July 2019)

Who’s related to the sandgrouse? An extinct ancestor at “85” in the supertree spawned sandgrouse, mesites and doves (Columbidae).

This is the sandgrouse’s city kin. He’s also related to flamingos. 🙂

Feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Mouse In The Legos Challenge

The new American Lego Masters competition on television reminded me that …

When Matthias Wandel found a mouse in his toolshed he wondered how big a hole the mouse used to get in. Initially he experiments with a wooden maze. Then he used Legos.

Wandel’s five-minute video features a computerized Legos maze equipped with light sensors and a moving gate. Each time the mouse completes a visit, the gate closes a little more, just 1/3 mm. Eventually the mouse discovers he can’t get in. At 10.5 mm (0.413 inches) the gap is just too small.

The mouse takes on the Legos challenge but is limited by the size of his skull.

(video by Matthias Wandel on YouTube)

Peregrines in Pittsburgh, Feb 13-23

Morela and Terzo courting at the Pitt peregrine nest, 20 Feb 2020, 8:58a (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

24 February 2020:

In the next four to six weeks peregrine falcons will continue courting and claiming nest sites near Pittsburgh. This long article describes how active they’ve been in just 10 days. Right now is the best time of year to see peregrines in western Pennsylvania. We need observers. I hope you can help.

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh: Morela and Terzo continue to court every day at the Cathedral of Learning nest. They were especially active on Thursday, 20 February.

Downtown Pittsburgh: Peregrines have been seen several times, February 13 to 23.

  • On 13 February Lori Maggio saw Dori and her new mate perched together on the Oxford parking garage at Smithfield and 3rd Avenue.
  • A peregrine perched outside Ann Hohn’s window at the Gulf Tower on 19 and 20 Feb (photo below, probably Dori). NOTE that roof construction continues at the Gulf Tower so there will be no nestbox at Gulf this year.
  • Yesterday, 23 Feb, John English, of Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook page, and I visited Flag Plaza and saw a peregrine perched on USX Tower (the building with the big UPMC sign). John snapped a photo just as the bird took off!

Observers needed Downtown. Please check the 3rd Avenue nest site to see if the peregrines are hanging out there this spring.

Peregrine perched outside Ann’s window at the Gulf Tower, 20 Feb 2020 (photo by Ann Hohn)
Peregrine perched at corner of USX Tower, 23 Feb 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Like an angel, a peregrine takes off from corner of USX Tower, 23 Feb, 10:25am (photo by John English)

OHIO RIVER, Monaca-Beaver Railroad Bridge -or- Monaca-East Rochester Bridge: No one has reported peregrines in the Monaca-Beaver area since Karena Johnson saw one on 2 February 2020 but the railroad bridge seems to be the favored hangout. Jeff Cieslak’s photo below, taken in November 2019, shows where you’re likely to see them. Visit Bridgewater Crossing Park on the Beaver side of the Ohio River for a good view of the bridge. Observers needed!

In November 2019, two peregrines on Monaca-Beaver railroad bridge (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

OHIO RIVER, Ambridge Bridge: Last Thursday afternoon, 20 Feb, Karen Lang and I stopped at Ohioview Avenue to watch a peregrine perched on the Ambridge Bridge. Through my scope I could see the bird is not banded. (In the bridge photo below, the peregrine is between the towers on the near-side crossbeam.) Karen and I tried to look for potential nest sites under the bridge but viewing areas on both sides of the river are inaccessible.

Peregrine on the Ambridge Bridge, 20 Feb 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ambridge Bridge, 20 Feb 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

OHIO RIVER, Neville Island I-79 Bridge: PennDOT reports that the Neville Island I-79 Bridge will undergo extensive rehabilitation beginning 26 March 2020. Meanwhile, peregrines are active at the bridge and likely to nest there. Two were seen on 16 Feb by Mark Vass, one on 17 Feb by Laura Marshall.

Fortunately, PennDOT is coordinating the bridge project with the PA Game Commission which determined that the work, based on the details provided, will not interfere with the nesting peregrines in 2020. Of course, if you see any activities that are close enough to the nest to cause disturbance — especially if you see something that needs immediate attention for the birds’ safety — contact the PGC Regional office at 724-238-9523.

Neville Island I-79 Bridge in 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

OHIO RIVER, McKees Rocks Bridge: John Flannigan saw a male peregrine at the McKees Rocks Bridge on 13 February at 3:29pm. John’s photo is below.

Peregrine at McKees Rocks Bridge, 13 Feb 2020 (photo by John Flannigan)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Graff Bridge, Rt 422, Kittanning: There are no reports of peregrine activity this month; I think no one’s been birding there. On 30 January Sam Guthrie saw a peregrine from the Armstrong Trail at Manorville. My photo below shows what you’ll see from the trail at that location. Observers needed!

Rt 422 Graff Bridge as seen from the bike trail on the Kittanning side, May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Tarentum Bridge: Peregrines are quite active at the Tarentum Bridge and are seen nearly every day. Dave Brooke photographed one on 13 Feb 2020. Amy Henrici saw one on Saturday 22 Feb 2020. John English and I saw one perched at the nestbox yesterday. Stop by Tarentum Bridge Park for an easy view of peregrine falcons.

Peregrine at the Tarentum Bridge, 13 Feb 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)
Peregrine standing in the nestbox at Tarentum Bridge, 23 Feb 2020 (photo by John English)

ALLEGHENY RIVER, 62nd Street Bridge: John English and I stopped by the 62nd Street Bridge yesterday, 23 Feb, and we saw nothing. This bridge has a nestbox on the downriver side though we could not see it from our location. Observers needed!

Peregrine nestbox at Allegheny River bridge, 2008 (photo by Doug Dunkerley)

MONONGAHELA RIVER WATERSHED, Westinghouse Bridge over Turtle Creek: Peregrines are also quite active at the Westinghouse Bridge and seen nearly every day. Dana Nesiti saw the pair early on 16 February. John English and I saw one yesterday afternoon.

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge, 16 Feb 2020 (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 23 Feb 2020, 1:45p (digiscoped into the sun by Kate St. John)

As I said, right now is the best time of year to see peregrines in western Pennsylvania. Visit any or all of these sights and report what you see on eBird or leave a comment below.

(photos by the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, Ann Hohn, John English, Jeff Cieslak, Wikimedia Commons, John Flannigan, Dave Brooke, Dana Nesiti, Doug Dunkerley and Kate St. John)

My Kind of Nature Watch

Central American woolly opossum, Canopy Tower, Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In March 2018, ten of us went on a week-long birding trip to the Canopy Tower in Panama. We focused on birds but at dinnertime this mammal stole the show.

Every evening just after sunset a Central American (or Derby’s) woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus) shuffled quickly past us as we sat chatting about the day’s events. If you didn’t watch carefully you missed it.

One evening I tried to follow the opossum to take his photo but failed. He seemed awkward but he was surprisingly fast.

This photo, taken at the Canopy Tower by Charles J. Sharp, reminded me of how easy it was to see this wide-eyed nocturnal animal. My husband was impressed that the opossum came so close, “That’s my kind of nature watch!”

See Derby’s woolly opossum in two videos below: At night in Panama’s San Francisco Reserve (look at those ears!) …

… and at Cornell Lab’s Panama fruitcam.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. videos from YouTube)

Like A Painting

Catching a fly (photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This portrait of an African paradise flycatcher looks almost like a painting. Photographer Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith describes how he captured it:

Followed this male around the Tshokwane picnic area in Kruger National Park looking for the right setting. The fly it was about to consume was just luck, but the background took a bit for the bird to get there.

The bird’s pose is a beautiful arc.

(photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Birds Uncover Illegal Fishing

Wandering albatross (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As human population soars and fish populations plummet illegal fishing has ramped up in the world’s oceans. With 50% of the world’s fish population now gone, countries protect fish within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but dishonest fishing vessels sneak in to capture endangered species and overfish what’s left.

Catching the perpetrators, or even knowing they’re out there, has been quite difficult despite the ability to track them by satellite. That’s because dishonest vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite transponders so they can’t be seen. The boats travel safely without AIS; they use radar to avoid collisions and find fish.

In 2017 Henri Weimerskirch and colleagues at Centre of Biological Studies Chizé launched an innovative study to uncover the extent of illegal fishing. They equipped wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) with radar detectors that transmit location data to satellites. The research team then matches albatross radar sightings to AIS satellite sightings. If there’s a radar ping but no AIS, the boat is operating illegally.

Wandering albatross east of Tasman Peninsula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The research team expanded the study in 2019 by fitting 169 albatrosses from Crozet and two other islands with radar detectors (map below). From December 2018 to June 2019 the albatrosses encountered 353 ships, 37% of which had turned off their AIS.

Global Fishing Watch map highlighting Crozet Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (screenshot from globalfishingwatch.org)

After a 6-month study with the large seabirds, the researchers estimate that more than one-third of vessels in the southern Indian Ocean are sailing undercover, confirming concerns about illegal or unreported fishing.

Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels

Armed with this new data, enforcement can now focus on the hotspots of illegal activity. Ideally it will lead to more arrests like the one pictured below in the North Pacific in 2008.

U.S. Coast Guard seizes a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal large-scale high-seas drift net fishing 460 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan. Coast Guard photo taken by USCGC Munro. 11 Sep 2008 (photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr)

Read more about the albatross project in Science Magazine: Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels.

See the full study at PNAS: Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, map screenshot from Global Fishing Watch; click on the captions to see the originals)

In Order, First To Last

Ostriches are oldest, closest to the dinosaurs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Which bird is closest to the dinosaurs? Which one is the newest species? The answer has changed in the last 30 years.

The taxonomic order of birds used to be rather stable. North American field guides, listed in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, had loons at the beginning and sparrows at the end. Then in 1991 everything changed.

Scientists began using DNA sequencing to see who’s related to whom. They learned that ducks and geese are older than loons, loons are related to penguins, falcons are related to parrots (not hawks), and grosbeaks are newer than sparrows.

The phylogenomic supertree below, current to July 2019, shows the new relationships in a clockwise spiral from the center. The first bird, closest to the dinosaurs, is the common ostrich (Struthio camelus), photo at top.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

The last and newest bird is the yellow-shouldered grosbeak (Parkerthraustes humeralis(*)), native to western Amazonia in South America.

Yellow-shouldered grosbeak, the ‘newest’ bird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As of February 2020 there are 10,928 species on the worldwide taxonomic checklist of birds. Regional checklists show a subset of birds, limited by geographical or political boundaries, so the first and last birds vary by checklist:

First and last in Pennsylvania: Black-bellied whistling duck and dickcissel (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Additional DNA sequencing will change the lists over and over again.

I wonder who will be first and last in 2050.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, phylogenomic supertree from MDPI; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. (*) DNA sequencing gave the yellow-shouldered grosbeak a new genus — Parkerthraustis — named for the late Theodore A. “Ted” Parker III, a superb field ornithologist who died in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993, age 40.

p.p.s. Click here to see a more detailed phylogenetic tree (in 2012 by University of New South Wales).

Peregrine Courtship Ramping Up

Terzo and Morela court at the nest, 8 Feb 2020, 8:24am (screenshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Though Pennsylvania’s peregrine falcons don’t lay eggs until March, pairs court at their nests nearly every day in February. The ritual, called a “ledge display,” is hidden at most sites but is easy to see on the National Aviary’s falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

This month Terzo and Morela have increased their ledge displays at the Cathedral of Learning. Their ritual follows the same pattern that all peregrines perform.

  • The male (Terzo) arrives first, swaggering in a high stepping tip-toe gait on his way to the scrape. The “scrape” is the bowl they dig in the gravel where she will lay eggs.
  • He bows and calls to his mate to join him.
  • When the female (Morela) arrives, they bow low over the scrape and say “ee-chup, ee-chup,” bowing repeatedly. The male usually bows lower than the female. Notice that she is much larger than he is.
  • As the female gets closer to egg laying, the ceremony lasts longer and becomes more intimate. They call softly, twist their heads to opposite sides, sometimes touch beaks.
  • The male always leaves the nest first, then the female.
  • As egg laying time approaches the female will linger to prepare the nest and dig the scrape.

You’ll see all these behaviors, though abbreviated, in yesterday’s three-minute visit at 12:55pm (17 February 2020).

We’re looking forward to eggs in March. Stay tuned at the National Aviary falconcam at the Univ. of Pittsburgh.

Here’s a tip on when to see Terzo and Morela on camera: For the past few days, 14-17 Feb 2020, they have visited the nest around 4:30pm or as late as 4:55pm. Will they show up at 4:30pm today for a ledge display? (I hope they cooperate!)

(screenshot and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)