Hard To Find By Voice

Female northern cardinal (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Even though birds don’t sing in the winter they still make warning calls so a “cheeping” bird should be easy to find, right? Not necessarily.

Some species, like chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, make sounds that are easy to pinpoint but the calls of others are thin, faint, high notes that are hard to triangulate. Is the bird up or down? To the left or right? In that thicket or the next one?

Here’s a list of winter birds whose warning or contact calls are hard to find. The calls may be insubstantial, but if you recognize the sound you’ll at least know what species is hiding in the bush. (Turn up your speakers.)

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

First on the list is the northern cardinal, shown above. I often identify the call but can’t find the bird. Here’s the contact call of a female, one of the hardest to find (around 7000 Hz).

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

White-throated sparrow (photo by Steve Gosser)

This winter visitor, the white-throated sparrow, has a higher pitched warning call than the song sparrow we hear year round. Here’s a white-throated sparrow’s call (4800-5800 Hz) …

… and a song sparrow’s (Melospiza melodia) lower pitched “vimp” for comparison (3500-4200 Hz).

Both sparrows use lower, wider frequency ranges than cardinals so they’re easier to find.

Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Steve Gosser)

For a really narrow high-pitched frequency you can’t beat the three-note contact call of the golden-crowned kinglet. He’s hard to pinpoint even if you can hear him. Now that I’ve lost my upper range of hearing I rely on friends to tell me when this bird is present. The calls are at 7500-8300 Hertz. Can you hear them? Not I!

Don’t feel bad if you can’t find a bird by its warning or contact call. Even if your hearing is perfect some birds are hiding by voice.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and Steve Gosser, see captions)

Schenley Park Helps Stop The Flood

These signs announcing the closure of Schenley Park’s Bridle Trail and some tree removals are actually good news. Here’s why.

Pittsburghers are among the 40 million people in the U.S. who use combined sewer systems that carry both rainwater and sewage. Built between the 1860s and 1920s the pipes dumped directly into our rivers until the 1950s when Allegheny County opened a sewage treatment plant. (Fortunately, Pittsburgh has been disinfecting drinking water since 1911.)

By now our sewers are over 100 years old and too small to handle heavy rain. In some places it takes only a 1/4 inch to cause a sewer overflow, sending toilet paper to the rivers. Meanwhile climate change has brought frequent heavy downpours that flood some valleys with sewage, including the neighborhood below Schenley Park.

That neighborhood, called The Run, is located at the base of Four Mile Run’s watershed where all the old sewers converge before reaching the Monongahela River (highlighted in red on the 3D map below).

3D map of Schenley Park and The Run from 4mr.org (notes in red by Kate St. John)

You’ve probably never visited The Run but you’ve seen it’s most famous building from the Parkway East, the onion domes of Andy Warhol’s family church, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church down in The Run (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Run bears the brunt of heavy downpours when the sewers back up into basements and streets. The Greenfield Community Association’s website has video plus photos of a manhole spouting 20 feet under the Parkway bridge.

Sewage floods The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

People are sometimes trapped by the floods in The Run. On 28 August 2016 a father and son had to crawl through the sunroof when their car was swamped on Saline Street. Click here for photos of the flood and rescue.

Father and son waiting for rescue, escaped through the sunroof of their flooded car, The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

The less rainwater that enters the sewer system the better it is for The Run. Toward that end the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PGH2O) is working in Schenley Park for the next several months, building detention swales along Overlook Drive and the Bridle Trail to channel stormwater away from the sewer system.

When the project is done they’ll plant more trees than they removed.

Schenley Park will help stop the flood.

For more information, see Channeling The Energy of Fast Moving Rain

(photos of signs by Kate St. John, photos of flood by Justin Macey, maps from 4mr.org)

What Made These Holes?

Pitted shell found at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach, 28 Nov 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I found this pitted shell at Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach and assumed the holes were made by sand and waves. But that can’t be true. If it was, most shells would look like this. So what happened here?

A Google search of shells with similar holes revealed the likely cause: a boring sponge.

Boring sponges make their homes by boring holes into the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of animals like scallops, oysters and corals. Using chemicals, they etch into the shell and then mechanically wash away the tiny shell chips, slowly spreading holes within the skeleton or shell and sometimes across its surface. Eventually, these holes and tunnels can kill their host, but the sponge will continue to live there until the entire shell has eroded away.

from Smithsonian Magazine article about boring sponges: Drill Baby Drill

Cliona celata is a common boring sponge that lives on oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay and around the world. It’s considered a major pest by Bay oyster harvesters. Here’s what it looks like underwater and in two closeups.

Underwater view of Cliona celata in France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Boring sponge, Choptank River watershed, Eastern Shore of Maryland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of boring sponge, Choptank River watershed, Maryland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, a 2013 study of scallops and boring sponges found that the sponges thrive in the warmer more acidic seawater that results from climate change. This spells bad news for oysters, corals and other shells.

In the future we’ll find more shells like this.

Shells on beach at Cayo Costa Island, FL, including one pitted by boring sponge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Very Thorny Problem

Invasive wineberry, Rubus phoenicolasius (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week this thorny alien showed off its armor in Schenley Park.

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) is an Asian member of the Rose family that was introduced to North America in the 1890s as breeding stock for raspberries. What a mistake! It became invasive in less than 100 years.

Wineberry is easy to distinguish from native raspberries because, in addition to thorns, the stems are coated with sharp red hairs. The stems look red from afar and dangerous up close.

Wineberry canes (Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

During the growing season wineberry resembles other raspberries with leaves that are white underneath and clustered flowers and fruits.

Wineberry leaves (photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)
Wineberry foliage and developing fruit (photo by Richard Gardner, bugwood.org)

However, wineberry fruits are bright red.

Wineberry fruit (photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

I’m sure the fruit is good for birds but it’s practically inaccessible to other wildlife because the plant is so formidable.

Whether you’re trying to pick its fruit, cross the thicket, or remove the plant, wineberry is a very thorny problem.

Read more about wineberry and its invasive properties at New York Invasive Species Information: Wineberry.

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from bugwood.org. See photo credits and links to the originals in the captions.)

Eagles vs Drones? Golden Eagles Win

Golden eagle captures a drone in midair in France (screenshot from AFP video)

In 2015, when drones flew over sensitive urban spaces in France, the government passed new laws to restrict the airspace. However some places are so sensitive that rogue drones must be removed if they attempt a flyover. How can they be downed in mid-air without hurting anyone? The French military came up with an effective solution.

In 2016 France’s Army Air Force began a falconry program with four golden eagle chicks, named for the four Musketeers. Golden eagles are the only bird large enough to safely bring down a 4.5 to 9 pound drone (2-4 kilograms). The eagles were trained to view drones as prey and learned to catch them in mid air.

The eagles did so well that the Air Force made plans to add four more eagles the following year.

Click here or on the screenshots to watch a 2017 video of the eagles in training.

Golden eagle on glove in France (screenshot from AFP video)

Gold eagles versus drones? The eagles win!

(screenshots from AFP News video on YouTube; click here to watch the video)

Wondering About Feathers

Body feather of a male peacock, Pavo cristatus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When we think of birds we take feathers for granted. But what do we really know?

How do feathers grow? What holds them on the bird? How are feathers replaced? Do feathers have nerves in them? How do they become curved?

On Throw Back Thursday, find the answers in this vintage article: Feather Facts.

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

Courtship in December

Terzo and Morela court at the Cathedral of Learning, 2 Dec 2019 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Though female peregrines don’t lay eggs until March, peregrine couples maintain their pair bond throughout the year. In winter they perch together, fly together, and occasionally meet at the nest for a ritual called the ledge display.

Early Monday morning December 2, Terzo and Morela bowed at the Cathedral of Learning nest for a long time — six minutes. Their photo above is in black-and-white because the falconcam was still in “night” mode. The sky was that overcast!

Streaming video is not available yet but the snapshot camera captured color photos every 15 seconds. I’ve made them into a video below, condensing six minutes into only 37 seconds.

The video shows that Terzo and Morela follow the expected ritual. After the first bow Terzo moves to the back of the box. The couple bows and sways and you can see their beaks open as they say “ee-chup.”  (Halfway through, Terzo moves to the back right corner and is temporarily out of view.) Terzo leaves first, then Morela. The male always leaves the nest first so the female can make herself at home … and lay eggs some day.

Each of them returned later: Morela alone at 10am. Terzo alone at 11:08am to dig the nest scrape at its usual place under the roof.

Terzo digging the nest scrape under the roof, 2 Dec 2019, 11:08 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Will Morela choose Terzo’s scrape for her eggs in March? Or will she use the scrape she’s been making at the front of the nestbox?

I suspect she’ll go with Terzo’s suggestion. She’ll appreciate having a roof when it rains.

Additional resources at these links:

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Christmas Bird Counts Coming Soon

Birding at Duck Hollow (photo by Kate St. John)

‘Tis the season to count birds.

Audubon’s 120th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is about to begin. Every year from December 14 through January 5 volunteers count the birds they see in a single 24-hour period within 15-mile diameter “count” circles.

It’s easy to participate. No experience is necessary.  Count at your feeders or in the field. Count on your own or in a group.

Choose a location and date that suits you from the map at audubon.org.  Click on the bird icon inside the circle for a description and contact information, then contact the Count Coordinator to let them know you’re counting. The Coordinator makes sure you don’t double-count someone else’s territory and helps you join a group if you wish.

17 counts are planned in southwestern Pennsylvania, listed in the table at the end.

I’ll be counting in the Pittsburgh circle on Saturday, December 28. It has so many participants that each section has its own compiler.  Click here on the ASWP website for the sections and contacts.

(map from audubon.org)

Visit Audubon’s website for the complete list and map at “Join the Christmas Bird Count.”

I hope to see you in the field!

Table of 2019 Christmas Bird Counts near Pittsburgh

Count NameCounty (general area)DateCoordinatorContact Info
BeaverBeaverSat Dec 21Rick Masonricharddmason@gmail.com 724-847-0909
Buffalo CreekWashingtonSun Dec 15Larry Helgermanbobolink1989@gmail.com 412-508-0321
Buffalo Creek ValleyButler, ArmstrongSat Dec 14George Reeseg.reese@gaiconsultants.com, 724-353-9649
Bushy RunWestmorelandSun Dec 29Dick Byersotusasio@lhtot.com 724-593-3543
ButlerButler, Lawrence, MercerSat Dec 14Glenn Koppel & Mary Alice Koenekemacatilly@gmail.com
ClarionClarionSat Jan 4Debbie McCannadmcc1018@windstream.net 724-526-5693
ClarksvilleGreeneSat Dec 28Terry Daytontdayton@windstream.net 724-627-9665
Grove CityButler, Mercer, Lawrence, VenangoSat Dec 21Brendyn Baptistebrendynbaptiste@yahoo.com 724-496-4856
Sun Jan 5Bob Mulvihillrobert.mulvihill@gmail.com
IndianaIndianaThu Dec 26Roger & Marg Higbee724-354-3493
OhiopyleFayette, SomersetSat Jan 4Matt Juskowich412-999-0394 jusko88@yahoo.com
PittsburghAlleghenySat Dec 28Brian Shema, ASWPbshema@aswp.org ASWP Christmas Bird Count
South Hills
AlleghenySat Dec 14Nancy Page412-221-4795
RectorWestmorelandSun Dec 15Annie LindsayLindsayA@carnegiemnh.org 724-593-7521
RyersonGreeneFri Dec 20Marjorie Howardbirdwatcher108@comcast.net 724-852-3155
South ButlerButlerSat Jan 4Chris Kubiakckubiak@aswp.org 412-963-6100
WashingtonWashingtonSun Dec 15Thomas Contrerastcontreras@washjeff.edu 724-223-6118

(photo by Kate St. John, maps from audubon.org)

Peregrines: A Hopeful Story, Dec 12

Peregrines are a great environmental success story, from their extinction in eastern North America in the 1960s, to their recent removal from the Endangered Species list in Pennsylvania.

Join me on Thursday, 12 December 2019 at the Wissahickon Nature Club where I’ll present the history and habits of peregrine falcons in western Pennsylvania. 

When: Thursday, 12 December 2019, 7:30pm. Doors open at 7:00pm. Come early to chat and eat Christmas cookies at our annual cookie exchange.

Where: Wissahickon Nature Club at the Fern Hollow Nature Center, 1901 Glen Mitchell Road, Sewickley, PA 15143-8856

This meeting is free and open to the public.