What’s That Whining Sound?

Juvenile red-tailed hawk, Washington DC, 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you heard whining that sounds like this?

Sometimes you hear songbirds calling nearby, “Danger! Watch out!”

In July and early August young red-tailed hawks whine for food. Here’s one in July 2018 at New York’s Botanical Garden with an American robin raising the alarm.

And here’s one on a windowsill in Austin, Texas, July 2011.

Red-tailed hawks raise one brood per year. The female lays eggs in March or April. The eggs hatch in 28-35 days and the young fledge 42-46 days later. That’s when the begging begins.

For three weeks juvenile red-tailed hawks depend on their parents and are not shy about asking for food. Whine!

The whining doesn’t end there. Though the youngsters become increasingly self sufficient they still want a handout if they can get one. Whine! Whine! Whine! Their parents ignore them.

Self sufficiency is the first big hurdle on their way to becoming successful adult red-tails. Some youngsters take longer than others to get the hint.

Meanwhile, whine, whine, whine, WHINE!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Audio from Xeno Canto, videos from YouTube)

Mixed Up Ducks

Mixed up ducks in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the challenges of city birding is identifying the mixed up ducks not found in any field guide. These “mutt ducks” are the hybrids of mallards paired with escaped domestic ducks.

It’s easy for domestic ducks to hybridize with mallards because nearly all of them(*) are descended from mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Mallard cross with a domestic duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mallards hybridize with wild ducks, too, as shown in this a mallard X gadwall mix.

Mallard X gadwall hybrid Brewer’s duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some ornithologists worry that mallards will hybridize their closest relatives — American black ducks, Mexican ducks and mottled ducks — out of existence, as in this mallard X Mexican duck mix.

Mallard X Mexican duck hybrid (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But perhaps they’re forgetting how recently those species evolved from mallards. The Mexican duck (Anas diazi) that occurs in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest was thought to be a subspecies of mallard until 1957.

Mallards are just working on creating new species. 😉

Read more about mixed up ducks in this vintage article: Ugly Ducks

(*) Some domestic ducks are descended from Muscovy ducks.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click the captions to see the originals)

Disappearing into Thin Air

  • Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, 1998 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to remember what we worried about before the coronavirus, but long term water crises provoked by climate change are still chugging along in the U.S. West. The most troubling of these is looming at the Colorado River, the water source for over 40 million people.

Many of the seven western states in the Colorado River watershed are suffering under severe to extreme drought. Of course it affects the river.

U.S. Drought Monitor map as of 28 July 2020, droughtmonitor.unl.edu

But drought is not the only factor. A study published last February found that 20% of the river flow has been lost to the albedo effect in a period of 20 years.

Albedo is a reflectivity measure of various surfaces as they reflect sunlight back into space. Snow and ice have high albedo, bare ground and trees have low albedo. Melting snow and ice expose low albedo ground so the temperature rises. As the temperature rises more snow and ice melt. This climate change feedback loop is affecting the Colorado River.

The two photos at top span 22 years on the Colorado River at Lake Mead where Hoover Dam holds back the river. The amount of water in the lake is highly controlled by upstream dams but about 20% of that “bathtub ring” can be attributed to the albedo effect.

The river is disappearing into thin air.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Colorado River watershed map from usgs.gov, drought map from droughtmonitor.unl.edu)

Last Round of Cowbird Babies

Brown-headed cowbird youngster begs from a song sparrow foster parent (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a late July visit to Washington’s Landing (Herr’s Island) I saw two song sparrow families with begging fledglings. Unfortunately the begging youngsters were brown-headed cowbirds, not song sparrows.

Female brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds.  Each cowbird chick is raised, not by its own mother, but by foster parents of another species. To make matters worse, cowbird parents lurk near the foster nest to make sure their own baby survives. They remove the host’s eggs or kill the foster parents’ young to give their own chick a better chance.

Cowbirds parasitize many species but are especially fond of song sparrows and yellow warblers. Yellow warblers are well aware of cowbird eggs and will “abandon” the nest by building a new nest on top of the old one. Experienced song sparrows get upset but don’t have an immediate solution.

However, song sparrows have a secret weapon — their breeding season is longer. Their first of two to four broods may begin before cowbirds are ready to lay eggs while the last nest starts after cowbirds are done.

In Pennsylvania brown-headed cowbirds stop laying in early July while song sparrows are still going strong. What I saw at Washington’s Landing was this year’s last round of cowbird babies.

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

Moving Day

The Last Load: Can’t you take a few things more?
Moving Day cartoon, New York City 1869 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Today my husband and I are officially downsizing from a house in Greenfield to a high-rise in Oakland. We’re not moving far, just 1.7 miles as the crow flies.

Moving itself is a pain but I’ll be in a neighborhood I know well, having worked nearby at WQED for 24 years. I’ll miss Greenfield’s nesting robins, cardinals and song sparrows but I’ll gain closeups of my favorite birds: common nighthawks, roosting chimney swifts, the winter crows and peregrine falcons.

Did I say peregrine falcons? Here’s a view from the high-rise roof. When I took this photo I saw (through binoculars) two peregrines perched on the Cathedral of Learning, one on the north face, one on the east.

View from the roof of my new home (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’ll be really busy moving from one side of Schenley Park to the other.

The movers come at 8:45am. Gotta run!

(photo by Kate St. John. Moving Day cartoon from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Are We In a Drought?

United States Drought Monitor (screenshot from droughtmonitor.unl.edu)

2 August 2020

It’s been so dry in western Pennsylvania this summer that we find ourselves wishing for rain. Yesterday some areas were lucky. It rained 0.61 inches at Pittsburgh’s airport but not throughout the region. Precipitation is still down -2.24 inches since June 1. Are we in a drought?

The US. Drought Monitor map (28 July 2020 above) shows drought conditions and severity across the country. Pale orange in southwestern Pennsylvania indicates areas of Moderate Drought with short-term impacts (“S“). Yellow is Abnormally Dry.

The map above changes quickly if it rains heavily one day. The Drought Severity Index (Long Term Palmer) map, below, charts prolonged abnormal dryness or wetness and matches what gardeners and farmers are dealing with. Southwestern PA has felt like it’s in a drought and, yes, according to the Palmer Index the situation is Severe. (Black on the map is missing data.)

Long Term Palmer Drought Severity Index, 25 July 2020 (map from NOAA)

Our situation in Pennsylvania is mild, though. The real concern is out West where the Drought Monitor is bright red (Extreme Drought) with long term impacts (“L“) and the Palmer Index is dark orange.

West Texas is suffering the double whammy of rampant COVID-19 + extreme drought. Today’s a good day to count our blessings in southwestern Pennsylvania.

(maps from US. Drought Monitor and Drought Severity Index)

Bumblebee and Deer

Last week in Schenley Park I stopped by the Westinghouse Fountain to see swamp milkweed and a photogenic bumblebee.

My cellphone camera was able to capture it in flight!

As I left the fountain a doe crossed W Circuit Road and walked between parked cars to the woods beyond. A fawn soon followed but jumped back in fear before the cars and stopped in the road. Fortunately there was no traffic. It was joined by a second fawn.

The two approached me (I missed that shot) then turned away …

… and were joined by a second doe.

Eventually they all walked between parked cars and caught up with the first doe.

Schenley Park’s numerous deer aren’t afraid of people but they learn to fear cars at a very young age.

p.s. My cellphone can take nice closeups of bumblebees but fails on deer at a distance.

(photos by Kate St. John)


Western grebes with piggyback chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some animals such as western grebes (above) and giant anteaters (below) carry their young piggyback.

Pigs don’t do this so why is it called piggyback?

The term began as two words that morphed into “piggy + back.” Here’s the origin from World Wide Words.

It started out in the sixteenth century as “pick pack,” carrying something on the back or shoulders. Pick is a medieval version of pitch, so it meant a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. … Piggy-back came along later in the century, with piggyback a modern loss of the hyphen

Origin of piggyback from World Wide Words

At first it was “pick pack.”

Women carrying wood “piggyback” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now it’s piggyback.

Happy family — piggyback (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy family.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

This is a Cocoon

30 July 2020

Seven years ago I wrote an article that’s rediscovered every summer when people find unusual “pine cones” hanging from their trees.

Though the structures are coated in plant material they aren’t part of the tree. They’re the cocoons of evergreen bagworm moths (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) whose larvae are disguised by vegetation while they eat the tree. Here’s one that’s sticking its head out.

Evergreen Bagworm – Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis, Woodbridge, VA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pesticides don’t work on these bag-covered bugs. Find out what to do in this vintage article: These Are Not Pine Cones!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Ants Know When To Quarantine

Black garden ants (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic is our poor ability to quarantine to stop the spread. This summer’s COVID-19 surge in Pittsburgh was sparked by travelers who returned from vacation (Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Florida, Raleigh, Nashville) but did not quarantine for 14 days.

Perhaps we could learn from ants. An April article in Treehugger described how social species avoid each other to stop the spread of disease. This includes black garden ants.

Ants are very social creatures, always working together to feed and protect the colony. Nurse ants stay inside the nest and tend the larvae; workers forage outside for food. A study of black garden ants found that when workers contract a fungal infection they know to stay outside the nest and avoid contact with other ants. Meanwhile nurse ants move the larvae deeper inside the nest to avoid infection. Ants basically quarantine themselves.

We could learn a lot from ants.

Read more at “How other species handle social distancing when someone is sick.”

p.s. The article also describes other species that practice social distancing including bees, mice, monkeys and bullfrog tadpoles.

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