Get Ready for Crows

Crows gathering at dusk, Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I heard them coming last Friday when 50 crows flew over my neighborhood late in the afternoon.  I heard them again Monday morning before dawn, flying over my house in the dark.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is building.  Right now the number is small but by Halloween we’ll see 1,000 of them at dusk near Pitt’s Alumni Hall. Even more of them in November.

Crows gathering on Alumni Hall, Nov 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

By December expect 10,000 crows.  In March they’ll be gone.

Winter’s coming. Get ready for crows.

(photos by Kate St. John, November 2013)

The Finches Are Coming

Common redpoll, January 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Winter birding can be boring in Pittsburgh but not this year. The finches are coming!

According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, we’re going to see a lot of northern finches this winter because the “cone, alder and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast.”  These irruptive birds usually stay in Canada all year but move south, east and west in autumn when there’s not enough to eat.  Here are a few of the “treats” in store for us in western Pennsylvania.

Above, common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a goldfinch-sized birds with rosy chests, rosy caps, and black faces.  When they first arrive it takes them a while to notice bird feeders but when they do they cause a mob scene.  Look carefully in the flock for a very similar white-chested bird, the rare hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni).

Below, pine siskins (Spinus pinus) look like very stripey goldfinches with faint yellow wing and tail markings. Listen for their unique call like a zipper going up.

Pine siskin (photo by Shawn Collins)

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are northern visitors that resemble our familiar house finches but male purple finches are “purple” as if they were dipped head first in berry juice.  Even their flank stripes are rosy, not brown.  Here’s a guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are already here, searching for cones and seeds in local conifers. Listen for their tin horn calls.

Blue jays!   Yes, those crowds of blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are visiting from Canada.  They love acorns. 

Blue jay (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Learn what to expect in the 2018 Winter Finch Forecast. Fill your feeders and keep watch.

Don’t be disappointed if blue jays come to visit. They’re the harbinger of good things to come.

(photo credits: common redpoll and blue jay by Cris Hamilton, pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch by Shawn Collins, purple finch by Brian Herman)

House Sparrows Put On Their Winter Coats

House sparrow in British Columbia, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds that eat insects leave Pennsylvania for the winter but the omnivores, like this house sparrow, stay behind.  Food won’t be a problem but it’s going to get cold so the house sparrows get ready in advance.

A study by Lowther and Cink in 1992 found that house sparrows (Passer domesticus) prepare for winter by molting into heavier plumage. Plumage weight increased 70% between August and September alone.  Summer weight is 0.9 grams; winter weight is 1.5 grams.

In September the house sparrows put on their winter coats.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. 
This article was inspired by page 153 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, 3rd edition.) )

Fall Foliage: When?

Moraine State Park, 15 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Summer ended on Friday morning. Brrrr! Now that it’s cold, it’s time for colorful fall foliage, right?

Some reports say western Pennsylvania won’t have pretty leaves this fall, others say we will.  One thing is certain, though. The leaves stayed green longer than usual.

Twenty years ago our fall foliage reached its peak around October 15 but today — only one day before the 15th — the leaves have only begun to change.  We had the same situation last year as shown in my photo taken at Moraine State Park on 15 October 2017.

Delayed timing makes it hard to know when fall color will reach its peak but the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry (DCNR) is here to help.  Check out their Fall Foliage Guide complete with an interactive map and weekly reports.  The October 11-17, 2018 forecast map is shown below (yellow means “approaching best color”). Click here or on the caption to see the full report.

screenshot of Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, Oct 11-17 2018, by PA DCNR

Don’t worry if you haven’t gone “leaf peeping” yet in western Pennsylvania.  You still have time to see fall colors this month.

(photo by Kate St. John, Screenshot from the Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, October 11-18, 2018, PA DCNR; click on the caption to see the original)

Hanging Out in Schenley Park

Praying mantis in the meadow at Beacon Street (photo by Steve Tirone)

Last Sunday, October 7, it felt like summer when Steve Tirone and I went looking for Armillaria in Schenley Park.  We didn’t find any honey mushrooms but Steve found an amazing insect along the Beacon-Bartlett meadow trail.

This praying mantis (possibly Tenodera sinensis) was not alone. When we paused to take photographs, we saw another mantis perched nearby and a third one flew away from us.  Gigantic flying bug!

Fall is mating time for praying mantises. The adults will die but their egg masses will survive the winter.  Here’s what the egg sac looks like. Don’t take one home until you’ve read these Praying Mantis Egg Sac instructions. They will hatch in your house!

Praying Mantis egg mass (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last weekend was a busy time for praying mantises, hanging out in Schenley Park.

(photo by Steve Tirone)

High Turnover in Virginia

Female peregrine, Hope, in flight at the Cathedral of Learning, 27 May 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

The Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Virginia closely monitors Virginia’s peregrine falcons — so closely, in fact, that they identify individual nesting birds.  CCB may not know the origin of every adult peregrine (some arrive unbanded) but their goal is to know who’s who at every site.

Now that the 2018 nesting season is over, CCB analyzed their identification data and discovered an anomaly in Virginia.  Not only did they see the highest turnover rate of any year to date, but three times as many female peregrines were replaced as males.

As Dr. Bryan Watts reports,

Only 10.5% of males were lost compared to 35.0% of females. … [This] ongoing trend is opposite of the pattern of survival documented within the peregrine population breeding within the Midwest.

Female Peregrines Under Pressure, Center for Conservation Biology newsletter, 2 Oct 2018

The female peregrine pictured above, Hope (black/green 69/Z), hatched at Hopewell, Virginia in 2008. She now nests at the Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, far away from her Virginia birthplace. She chose a territory where female survival is higher than where she was born.

Read more about Virginia’s peregrine turnover rate in this CCB article, Female Peregrines Under Pressure.

(photo of Hope at the Cathedral of Learning, 27 May 2016, by Peter Bell)

Why Not To Clear Your Garden This Fall

Goldenrod gall with a woodpecker hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll bet you have a gardening project planned this weekend or next. Here’s some time saving advice:  Don’t clear your garden in the fall.

Why not?

  • Seeds on the old plants provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • Insects overwinter on plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat those insects. 
  • The brush provides shelter for the birds.
  • You won’t have to mulch.
  • You’ll enjoy watching birds among the old plants.

The photo at top shows that an old goldenrod gall contained food for a woodpecker. He hammered a hole to get the bug.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about this time saving plan in a 2010 article: Why Not to Clear Your Garden

p.s. The only downside I can think of is this: It’s hard to plant bulbs when the old stuff is in the way. 

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

Stinkbug Predator Shows Up On Its Own

Two invasives in one photo: Brown marmorated stinkbug on honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s stinkbug time again.

In the fall brown marmorated stinkbugs (Halyomorpha halys) invade our houses, squeezing into every crack.  They’re annoying to us but devastating to orchards, farms and gardens where they pierce the fruit and cause necrosis.

These Asian invaders were first seen in the U.S. twenty years ago and caused trouble so quickly that USDA started searching for a biological control agent in the stinkbug’s native range.  The most promising predator was the tiny Samurai wasp (Trissolcus japonicus).

The Samurai wasp injects its own eggs into stinkbug eggs; its larvae eat the egg contents.  According to the StopBMSB website “these stingerless warriors search for and destroy 60–90% of BMSB eggs in Asia.”  A video from the Entomological Society of America shows what they do.

Testing began in 2005 but the approval process takes a very long time. Scientists had to identify the right wasp and prove it wouldn’t destroy native species in the U.S. (Cane toads in Australia are a sad example of poor/no testing.)  Testing was still underway in 2014 when a field survey found samurai wasps in Maryland.

The samurai wasp showed up on its own, probably arriving inside stinkbug eggs in plant shipments from Asia.  An alien inside an alien.

By March 2018 the samurai wasp was found in 10 states — and only where stinkbugs are already a problem.  So far so good.

Read more about the samurai-stinkbug connection in this article in Science Magazine.

(photo of stinkbug by Kate St. John; YouTube video of samurai wasps by Chris Hedstrom, published by Entomology Society of America, 2012)

Outside The Hook Echo

EF1 tornado, Greene County, NC (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week the National Weather Service published an analysis of six of the many tornadoes that hit our area on Tuesday, October 2.  There were 14 tornadoes in Pennsylvania that day!

The most damaging tornado hit a nursing home in Conneautville, PA.  The most unusual one touched down in the Valley Green Road area of Westmoreland County.  NWS Pittsburgh describes what made the Valley Green Road EF1 tornado so interesting:

This tornado was unusual not only for its northward movement in an eastward-moving storm, but especially because it formed on the northern side of the parent thunderstorm, removed from the typical hook echo region.

NWS Damage Surveys for 10/2/2018 tornado event, National Weather Service Pittsburgh

So what is the hook echo region?

According to Wikipedia, “A hook echo is a pendant or hook-shaped weather radar signature as part of some supercell thunderstorms.”  

USTornadoes.com describes how it forms: “This “hook-like” feature occurs when the strong counter-clockwise winds circling the mesocyclone (rotating updraft) are strong enough to wrap precipitation around the rain-free updraft area of the storm.”

The annotated radar image below shows the hook at bottom left, curling around the back of the storm with a tornado at the tip. 

Annotated radar image of a violently tornadic classic supercell near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA on 3 May 1999 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Tornadoes usually form in the hook echo and they move with the storm.  Storm chasers use these facts to find and safely chase tornadoes.

But not at Valley Green Road.  That tornado formed on the north edge and traveled north (See region on the annotated example of an Oklahoma tornado below.)

Supercell radar image from NSSL NOAA, annotated in pink to show northern edge of the storm (image from Severe Weather 101, NSSL NOAA)

Sneaky tornado!  Fortunately it was not very powerful (EF1) and there were only trees in its path.

(photo and hook echo images from Wikimedia Commons. The tornado photo was taken in North Carolina (not in PA); click on the captions to see the originals)

Deadly Attraction, Part 2

Bright specks in the beam, migrating birds swirl in Pitt’s Victory Lights as seen from 0.4 mile away, 7 Oct 2018, 11:05pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night at 11pm I looked at Pittsburgh’s weather radar for isolated thunderstorms. Instead I found intense songbird migration in progress. The colors in this radar print show them flying over western Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh weather radar showing intense bird migration at 11:37pm, 7 Oct 2018 (image from the National Weather Service)

Some of these birds would be fatally attracted to Pittsburgh’s city lights — that was nothing new — but last night there was an additional deadly attraction.  Pitt won their football game on Saturday and the new Victory Lights were on.  Would birds be stuck in the beams?

Saturday evening I had emailed PABIRDS asking folks to check the Victory Lights to see if this was happening.  Was I going to ignore my own call to action just because it was 11pm?  Well, no. I packed up my gear and drove to the Cathedral of Learning.

Before I got there I parked near Phipps Conservatory 0.4 miles away and looked at the beams (photo at top).  Indeed there were bright specks circling inside the beams but I was so far away that only the brightest specks were visible.

Birds circling in the Victory Light beams, 7 Oct 2018, 11:17pm (cellphone photo by Kate St. John)

I parked at Schenley Plaza near Forbes and counted about 100 bright specks. No, those aren’t moths in my blurry cellphone photo above (11:17:42pm).  Those are trapped birds. 

In the marked up photo below (11:18:19pm) the bent arrow points to a bird that’s so fatally trapped that it’s flying into the light where it will die.  I saw another bird “ditch” out of the column to the roof.

Circling in the beam. Bent arrow points to a bird that’s totally trapped, approaching the lights. It will die on the roof (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning I predict there will be dead or stunned songbirds on the Cathedral of Learning’s many roofs, especially near the source of the Victory Lights. 

As I wrote on September 21, the 9/11 Tribute of Light had this problem and solved it.  I hope we can solve it at Pitt, too. 

UPDATE, Tues 9 Oct, 11am: I have received hopeful news of collaboration on this issue between Pitt and Audubon Society of Western PA. Stay tuned.

p.s. Click here for my original Deadly Attraction blog post including information on city lights and the 9/11 Tribute’s solution.

(photos by Kate St. John, radar map from the National Weather Service; click on the caption to see the radar)