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.)
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. 🙂
(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser; click on the captions to see the originals)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last and newest bird is the yellow-shouldered grosbeak (Parkerthraustes humeralis(*)), native to western Amazonia in South America.
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:
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.
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).
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!)