World’s Fastest Animal on NOVA, Nov 21

World’s Fastest Animal premieres on NOVA, 21 Nov 2018 on PBS (screenshot from NOVA)

Peregrine Fans, our favorite bird is coming to PBS NOVA on Wednesday evening November 21.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour when diving to capture prey.  PBS NOVA will show us how peregrines are designed to reach these speeds and will follow a falconer that believes his bird can go even faster. We’ll also see the family life of peregrines at a nest in Chicago.

Click here or on the caption above to watch the preview.

Don’t miss the World’s Fastest Animal, premiering on Wednesday November 21 at 9pm ET on PBS.  Check your local listings for re-broadcast times in case you’re busy Wednesday night. In Pittsburgh, watch it on WQED.

(screenshot from the trailer of World’s Fastest Animal on PBS NOVA)

Snow On Leaves

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday it rained. Then it sleeted. Then it snowed in the wee hours of Friday morning, especially north of Pittsburgh.

In the old days most of the trees would be bare by now, but this year many still have leaves.

Ice and snow made the leaves heavy and some of the trees came down, hitting power lines as they fell.  By Friday morning KDKA reported that 65,000 households north and east of the city were without electricity.  No power, no heat, and for those with well water, no water.  It may take until Sunday evening to get all of the power restored..

The City is warmer than surrounding counties so Schenley Park had snow on the leaves, but no ice.

Snow on leaves, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s what my favorite hillside looked like yesterday. 50% of the trees still have leaves.

Only half of the trees are bare, Schenley Park, 16 Nov 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The power failures wouldn’t have been so bad if most of the trees had been bare. 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Autumn Eagle Update

Hays bald eagle, 4 Nov 2018 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA Facebook page)

Hays hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

This fall the Hays bald eagle pair chose a new nest site and went on a building binge that lasted several weeks. They started with huge branches …

Enormous branch on its way to the nest, 28 Oct 2018 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA Facebook page)

… and worked their way down to the smaller stuff.

Carrying a stick to the nest, 4 Nov 2018 (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA Facebook page)

With leaves on the trees in October, it was hard to see the new nest when one of them flew in –> see Gerry Devinney’s video, 6 Oct 2018.

By last Sunday, 11 Nov 2018, a gap in the trees revealed an eagle on the nest. Click the screenshot below (arrow added) or on the caption to see Dana Nesiti’s video from Eagles of Hays PA Facebook page.

Eagle on the Hays nest (screenshot from video at Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook)

Hays isn’t the only site where nest renovations are in progress.  The eagles at Canonsburg Lake in Washington County have been bringing sticks, too.  Rich McPeek caught one in the act on Veterans Day and posted it on the Canonsburg Lake Eagles Facebook page.

Bald eagle making renovations to the Canonsburg Lake nest (photo by Rick McPeek, Canonsburg Lake Eagles Facebook page)

And in Butler County, Steve Gosser found this adult bald eagle cruising at Moraine State Park on Veterans Day.

Bald eagle at Crooked Creek, 11 Nov 2018 (photo by Steve Gosser)

I’m sure there’s bald eagle activity at Dashields Dam and Harmar but I’ve heard no news from those sites.  Meanwhile, check out the eagles at North Park Lake. They may be up to something. 😉

(photo credits: Dana Nesiti at Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook, Rich McPeek at Canonsburg Lake Eagles on Facebook, and Steve Gosser)

Odd Name With A History

Red-billed chough in flight, Cornwall (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.K. and Ireland there’s a bird like a crow with a red bill, red legs, and a very odd name. 

Red-billed choughs are found in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but the smallest race, the Cornish chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), is endemic to the British Isles.

Red-billed choughs in Cornwall (photo by Andrew on Flickr, CC license)

Centuries ago red-billed choughs were common on the south coast of England where they were revered enough to appear in heraldry.  The City of Canterbury’s coat of arms (at left below) includes three choughs from Saint Thomas Becket’s coat of arms.  (Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the Cathedral in 1170 by followers of King Henry II.)
A second example comes from the less famous Peter of Bowhay whose arms contain a single chough (at right).

(left) City of Canterbury coat of arms (photo by Julian Walker via Flickr CC license)
(right) Arms of Petre/Peter of Bowhay, Dunchideock, Devon (via Wikimedia Commons)

The word “chough” looks odd because the gh sound has gone out of use. In most English dialects it’s now silent (light or neighbor) or pronounced “f” (enough or laugh).  Here’s what the <gh> used to sound like:

<gh> voiceless velar fricative (audio from Wikimedia Commons)

The name chough, now pronounced CHUF, originally mimicked the bird’s sound.  Can you hear the old resemblance in these chough calls?

Red-billed chough (audio by Harry Hussey on xeno canto XC408367)

In the 20th century Cornish choughs disappeared from England though they remained in Ireland, Wales, western Scotland and the Isle of Man.  In 2001 choughs returned to nest in Cornwall.

Nowadays you can see and hear them at Cornwall’s cliffs, calling “Chough!” as they fly.

Red-billed choughs take to the air, Cornwall (photo by Paul Gillard via Flickr, CC license)

(photo and audio credits are in the captions. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

(*) <gh> has a throaty sound in Scottish English.  Elsewhere chough is sometimes said “shuf.” 

Evening Grosbeaks!

Evening grosbeak and American goldfinch, Nov 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

When I mentioned Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast a month ago, I didn’t list evening grosbeaks because (silly me) I didn’t believe they’d get this far. I was wrong. Evening grosbeaks have made it to western Pennsylvania.  Woo hoo!

Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are stocky yellow, black and white finches with heavy bills for cracking open seeds.  They live year-round in coniferous forests across Canada, the northern Rockies, and the Cascades but move south when seed cones become scarce. This winter is one of those years.

Evening grosbeaks are a very big deal in Pennsylvania. They used to visit regularly in the 1970s but their population is declining, conditions changed, and they stopped coming our way.   Their visits have been extremely spotty and intermittent for four decades. The one pictured above (left) visited Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder in November 2012.  In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania they returned to Bruce Johnson’s feeders this month after an absence of 42 years!

The eBird map below (12 Nov 2018) shows where they’ve been seen since September. I added seven purple dots for locations mentioned on PABIRDS that weren’t entered in eBird.  Notice the sightings in Crawford and Erie Counties!

PA evening grosbeak reports as of 12 Nov 2018 (eBird map + PABIRDS reports)

Fill your feeders with black sunflower seed and cross your fingers. Check here for the latest evening grosbeak sightings on eBird (Sep-Dec 2018)

I hope we get lucky!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman, screenshot of evening grosbeaks sightings Sep-Dec 2018 from eBird + enhanced from PABIRDS reports)

A Big Day For Tundra Swans

Yesterday, 11 Nov 2018, was a really big day for tundra swans  in western Pennsylvania.  Flyover sightings on PABIRDS included:

All the flocks were flying southeast, heading for their wintering grounds at Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina.

At Moraine State Park, 13 of us searched the sky for tundra swans when we heard them overhead.  The sky was so blue and they were flying so high that it was a real challenge to see them.  Ultimately we counted four flocks totaling 260 birds. Here’s the flight call that cued us to look up.

Tundra swans (audio by Paul Driver via xeno-canto XC72958)

Listen and look for tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) early this week in western Pennsylvania. They usually pass through on or near Veterans’ Day.  Yesterday they were right on time.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Leave The Leaves

Eastern towhee, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever noticed how many birds turn over fallen leaves to find food?  Towhees and sparrows, robins and wrens pick through the leaf litter to find overwintering insects.  This food bank of edible insects is one reason why not to clear your garden in the fall

Fallen leaves also provide shelter for various live stages of butterflies, moths and bees. The Xerces Society’s Leave The Leaves campaign provides a list.

Did you know…?   The red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) lays its eggs on fallen oak leaves.

Woolly bear caterpillars burrow into leaf cover to survive the winter.

Woolly bear: Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

And the moth version of this brown-headed owlet (Cucullia convexipennis) hides in leaf litter during the day to survive November temperatures.  Moths in this family, Noctuidae, are the ones who pollinate witch hazel.

Brown-headed owlet caterpillar (photo by David Cappaert,

So Leave The Leaves alone.  Clear them from the storm drains, sidewalk and driveway, but not off your garden! 

Learn more at the Xerces Society’s Leave The Leaves campaign and at this How to Leave the Leaves blog.

(photo credits: poster from Xerces Society Leave the Leaves, woolly bear caterpillar by Kate St. John, brown-headed owlet caterpillar by David Cappaert,

Watch for Witch Hazel

Witch hazel flowers catch the light after the leaves are gone, November (photo by Kate St. John)

When the leaves are gone these lacy flowers stand out in the forest.

American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from late October into December in eastern North America.  Its delicate yellow flowers smell like lemon.

Witch hazel flower, October in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Since witch hazel blooms when few insects are out how are the flowers pollinated?

In 1987 Bernd Heinrich found that owlet moths come out at night to sip the flowers and thereby pollinate them.

The moths survive cold weather by hiding under leaf litter during the day, then shivering to warm up and fly at night. Click here to learn more.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Eleven Years Outside My Window

child writing with a pen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 November 2018:

Happy Bird-thday, Outside My Window!  Eleven years ago today I published my very first blog post.  I had no idea it would change my life.

For starters, it’s made me a Morning Person.  I write best with a mug of coffee before dawn so I get up at 4am to have enough time to publish the day’s entry by 7am. Unfortunately a good article takes 3 hours to construct and illustrate. That’s if I’m lucky.  It often takes longer, as it did today.

Second, it’s made me keenly aware of interesting topics. In the old days I would flail around on deadline without any ideas.  (If you’re a writer you know what I mean.)  Nowadays I keep an “Ideas” list online and dip into it for inspiration.  Thank you to everyone who suggests new topics. If you don’t see your contribution right away, it’s on the list.

Third, I’ve met you!  Every day about a thousand of you read my blog. Readership drops to 700 in the depths of winter and soars to 4,000 at times of peregrine excitement.  I’ve made a lot of new friends.

I couldn’t have blogged for eleven years without you.  Your enthusiasm keeps me going every day.  Thank you, my readers!  And a big thank you to all the photographers who let me use your photos.  Without photos this blog would be just a pile of words.

Happy Bird-thday to the blog! Here to celebrate is Carmencitav’s opera diva, a double yellow-headed amazon.

p.s. This is my blog’s birthday, my own is in May.

(image of a hand writing from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original. video by carmencitav on YouTube)