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).
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.
Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.
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.) )
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.
Don’t worry if you haven’t gone “leaf peeping” yet in western Pennsylvania. You still have time to see fall colors this month.
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!
Last weekend was a busy time for praying mantises, hanging out in Schenley Park.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.