Monthly Archives: December 2007

Christmas Bird Count

Bald eagle (photo by Chuck Tague)Today was Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count, always held on the Saturday after Christmas.  I counted birds from my attic window during dawn “rush hour,” then walked my neighborhood on a route I’ve done for the past few years.  It was interesting to compare this year’s species and weather to the counts I’ve done in prior years.

You might be wondering, what is a Christmas bird count and how can it be accurate?

The Christmas bird count began in 1900 when Frank Chapman of the newly formed Audubon Society decided that counting birds was a far better activity than the Christmas “side hunts” in which people killed as many birds as possible.   Each Christmas Count is held within a 15-mile diameter circle and on a single day between December 14 and January 5.  Volunteers organize their routes so they don’t overlap.  They tally the number of birds seen per species and record the weather conditions, the number of participants, hours spent and miles traveled.

It’s impossible to be absolutely accurate counting large flocks or skulking birds, but over a span of 100+ years the counts are accurate enough to indicate trends in bird populations.  The main thing is that we do the same thing at the same time every year and allow for changes in number of participants, hours spent, etc.

This year was different for me in a few significant ways.  First, the weather was sunny and windy in the morning – it’s usually overcast.  Then, a few of the bird feeder locations were missing or empty, so no birds there.  On the other hand I found more birds than usual and it was an excellent day for raptors.  I saw a pair of red-tailed hawks in courtship flight, counted three Coopers hawks and stopped by University of Pittsburgh to tally the resident peregrine pair.

And my absolute Best Bird was an adult bald eagle flying along the crest of the hill overlooking the Monongahela River.  It can’t get much better than having a bald eagle in my city neighborhood.  Wow.

(Chuck Tague took this picture in Florida but the eagle I saw looked much the same – just a little further away.)

Conowingo Eagles

Conowingo Dam, Susquehanna River, 12/26/07Since I was already near Harrisburg for a family Christmas celebration, I took the opportunity last Wednesday to visit the lower Susquehanna River with Scott Gregg and his daughter Karena, birding friends from Beaver Falls. Our goal was to see bald eagles.

Our main stop was Conowingo, a hydro-electric dam in Maryland and the last dam before Chesapeake Bay. The river was so high that the floodgates were open and sirens were wailing to warn boaters of the flood and turbulence. Spray rose from the dam’s waterfall and hundreds of gulls wheeled through the mist. Black vultures hunched on the dam and in nearby trees. Great-blue herons waited out the flood on a rocky downstream island.

Bald Eagle (photo by Chuck Tague)We saw more than a dozen bald eagles but it was hard to count in the misty air. Some perched on the power towers, some circled above the electric lines. There were more immature eagles than adults. The immatures are mottled brown like a huge hawk without the white head and tail until their fourth or fifth year. Chuck Tague’s picture shows an adult eagle in Florida (that’s why the sky is blue!).

Bald eagles are in the genus of sea eagles. They always live near water and eat mostly fish. During the breeding season they claim a territory and keep other eagles away but in winter they congregate in large numbers where there is open water and lots of fish. The dams along the lower Susquehanna are just such a place.

Apparently the fishing was easy at Conowingo. With the river rushing through the floodgates, the fish were taking a beating. No wonder we saw so many gulls, black vultures … and bald eagles.

Bridge Birds

Peregrine Falcons at the Allegheny River (photo by Dan Yagusic)Last year two new nesting pairs of peregrine falcons were discovered at bridges in the Pittsburgh area, raising the total number of nests to four. This doubled our peregrine sites in just one year.

Pictured here, by Dan Yagusic, is the pair that nests on a bridge on the Allegheny River. Dan found them about a year ago during his regular visits to the river near Etna. He kept seeing two peregrines – and then in March he saw them mate.

They nested last year but the nest failed. There was no substrate on which to cushion the eggs and then the nest flooded in the spring rains. A double whammy. This year the Game Commission is going to install a nest box so the outlook for success is good.

Meanwhile Dan continues to watch and photograph them. In July he was able to read the female’s bands and we learned she was born in 2002 on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge near Hopewell, Virginia. She was hacked (fledged) from a site in the Shenandoah Mountains because high winds at the Benjamin Harrison Bridge usually kill the fledglings at first flight. She was lucky to be chosen.

And now it’s courtship time again. She’s found a place that reminds her of home and she has a mate. Soon she’ll have a proper nest box. We can hardly wait.

They Were Eating Out of My Hand

Lorie close-up at the National Aviary, PittsburghLorie eats out of my hand at the National Aviary, PittsburghThis morning I visited the National Aviary with my friend Karen Lang and brought home some pictures on my cell phone. The birds more than made up for the gray day outdoors.

Ever since I saw the flamingoes dance at the Aviary two winters ago, I have become fond of the place because:

  • It’s a great place to see birds up close and personal – witness the lorikeet eating from my hand!
  • The National Aviary rescues injured birds, studies endangered birds, and works for bird conservation. Two of their conservation projects include tracking golden eagles (see the December 6th blog) and management of the Pittsburgh urban peregrine program which they inherited from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy this year.
  • On a gray winter day, there are more interesting birds per square inch at the National Aviary than anywhere else in Pittsburgh.

Today the lories won me over. Three times a day, visitors can buy a cup of “lorie nectar” and go into the exhibit to offer it to the birds. The lories are familiar with this routine and will perch on your hand to lick the nectar from the cup. They have long tongues with black tips and they lick very fast. People often wonder if bird claws hurt. Well, the lories’ feet are gentle. They don’t hurt at all.

The most noticable thing about the lorie exhibit can be appreciated from a distance. The exhibit has a whole flock of lories in it and they are NOISY. Lories are social birds and love to shriek at each other at the tops of their lungs. Don’t expect to hear yourself think!

I was thrilled to have a lorie eating out of my hand. I definitely got my “bird fix” today.

If you like birds, I highly recommend a trip to the National Aviary. An added bonus is that admission is free from December 26 through 31. Click here for directions.

Winter Solstice

Song sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Here we are at the shortest day of the year – at last.  Much as I like winter, it’s a relief to know the days will be getting longer again.  Winter in Pittsburgh is usually overcast so we welcome all the sun we can get!

Interestingly, daylight is not going to increase evenly at both ends of the day.  Sunrise will make no significant change until January 22.  In fact it will move three minutes later, chopping away at the front of the day.  Meanwhile sunset will gain a few seconds tomorrow.  By January 6 it will add a minute per day. 

If you are outdoors in the morning it will feel like nothing has changed.  If you are out in the evening, the days will seem longer.  Birds are outside all the time so they’re the first to tell us about the change in light.

In early January, especially on sunny days, the song sparrows start to sing.  Marcy Cunkelman photographed this little guy on a sunny day last winter.  The sun looks so nice on the snow I’ll bet he sang a little. 

I’m certainly looking forward to the first song of the new year.  It won’t be long now.

Switching Field Guides

Petersen Field Guide to the Birds, 1963I tried to switch – and couldn’t.

A birder’s field guide is a highly personal, well worn tool that fits the individual’s needs – at least for a while.  Last month I tried again to find a guide for my changing needs but my quest failed.  I still prefer my old favorite.

A hundred years ago there were no pocket-sized books of bird pictures to carry into the field.  Birders had to memorize what they saw and look it up later.  Then in 1934 Roger Tory Peterson published his famous Field Guide to the Birds and everything changed.

My first field guide was Petersen’s 1963 edition, shown at left.  Most of the pictures were in black and white and all of them were grouped on plates.  I marked the plates with tabs made of white bandage tape so I could find them easily.  I rarely read the text.

The order of the pictures was mysterious to me.  Birds were presented in taxonomic order, the order in which they were supposed to have evolved.  This placed loons and ocean birds first in the book, finches and sparrows last.   I still find the order annoying but I’ve memorized it – or rather, I had memorized it – which is part of what went wrong when I tried to switch guides recently.

My current and continuing favorite is Ken Kaufman’s Birds of North America.  The book covers the entire continent north of Mexico, an absolute “must” for my field guide.  Kaufman uses retouched photos instead of drawings to display the birds.  In retouching the photos he removed the distracting background and enhanced the birds’ notable features.  I prefer the pictures to most other guides’ drawings.

The drawbacks of the Kaufman guide are that he groups birds together by similarity, not in taxonomic order, and the edition I use does not have comparison plates of ducks and shorebirds in flight.   I am weak on shorebirds so I looked for a replacement guide.

This proved elusive because I made an impulse buy rather than doing a serious comparison of existing guides.  I didn’t even look at a new edition of Kaufman’s.   I bought a National Geographic guide on sale and began to transcribe my sightings from the old guide to the new.

Yes, I write in my field guide.  Next to the bird’s description I note the location and date of the first time I ever saw it.  I also record notable sightings at other locations and times of year so I can scan the book for places I’m likely to find migrants.  It’s like a Life List but more useful.

Transcribing was fun but it was the beginning of my doubt about changing field guides.  As I transcribed, I saw the pictures I love.  Kaufman’s Lewis’s Woodpecker in flight looks exactly like the bird we saw at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in October 2002.  How could I trade that photo for the drawing?

Then, when transcribing was only halfway done, I decided to try the new book in the field.  At Moraine State Park I used it on distant ducks.  That’s when I realized that the Kaufman guide had made me forget taxonomic order.  And National Geographic’s quick index was in a smaller font (not good for my older eyes) and didn’t include as many species.  And the drawings of familiar ducks looked so different that I studied the guide instead of the ducks in front of me.  Ack!  I was flummoxed.

Enough.  I photocopied Petersen’s pages of ducks and shorebirds in flight and stuck them in my Kaufman guide.  I am back to where I started – and happier.

On Camera

Installing the falconcam, Todd and TonyInstalling the falconcam, Dave & ToddThis morning a group of us installed a new falconcam at the peregrine nest site at University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

The old camera and nest box were removed last summer during the Cathedral of Learning cleaning project.  The Game Commission replaced the nestbox in late August.  The new camera, courtesy of the National Aviary, was installed today.

Based on past experience Tony Bledsoe and I thought the peregrines would buzz the installers on the ledge, but the adult female (Dorothy) was busy eating a mourning dove on the 38th floor east ledge.  The adult male (Erie) only visited briefly.

I stayed indoors and ran the computer to control the viewfinder while Todd, Tom and Linda chose the camera location.  Then Dave drilled the holes, Todd held the camera and Tony waved the peregrine-keep-away tools, two long-poled dusters.  I captured some of the action with my cell phone.

Pitt peregrine nest box (photo from falconcam 12/18/07)And here’s the result.  Isn’t the new camera beautiful!  The nest box looks great too.

In the next few weeks the Aviary will be updating their website to pull live motion video directly from the camera.  They also plan to archive nesting season footage for scientific purposes.  Follow this links for the National Aviary’s peregrine website and webcams.

Many thanks go to many people for making the new nest and camera a reality:  Thanks to Beth Fife of the PA Game Commission, Phil Hieber and Dave Marti of Pitt Facilities Management, Dr. Tony Bledsoe of Pitt Biological Sciences, and Dr. Todd Katzner, Linda Weisenmiller and Tom Anderson of the National Aviary.

And thank you, Dorothy and Erie, for staying away so we could finish the job in peace.

Beethoven and Birds

Beethoven's birthdayHappy birthday, Beethoven!

Besides being an avid birder I’m a fan of classical music, especially Beethoven, so I feel lucky to work at WQED where I listen to classical music on the job.  On Beethoven’s Birthday we have a big all-day celebration and play his works ’til the cows come home.  I never tire of it.  I even manage to mix Beethoven and birds in a couple of ways.

First, there are birds in some of Beethoven’s works.  My favorite springtime symphony is Beethoven’s Sixth, also called the Pastoral Symphony.  At the end of the second movement, there is a cadenza that imitates three bird songs:  nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and European cuckoo (clarinet).  I was lucky to hear a cuckoo in Italy and yes, it sounds like the bird in the Sixth Symphony.

Second, I listen to classical music in the car as I drive out to hike.  This puts me in a good mood and gives me a tune to whistle while I walk.  Amazingly, when I whistle Beethoven the birds often approach me to see what I’m doing.  Perhaps I whistle badly but maybe, just maybe, they like Beethoven too.

Don’t miss the celebration.  You can hear it on WQED-FM at 89.3 in Pittsburgh, or WQEJ-FM 89.7 in Johnstown or on the web.

Bonus Factlet:  Did you know Beethoven was a contemporary of Jane Austen?  They were born on the same day only five years apart.

Hooded Mergansers Sound Like Frogs

I mentioned this phenomenon on PABIRDS and got a huge response so I decided to go into more detail here.

Hooded Merganser, male (photo by Chuck Tague)Hooded Merganser, female (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Sunday at Moraine State Park (Fine Weather For Ducks) I heard a frog-like sound coming from the area where the ducks were swimming.  Using Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website I figured out the sound came from the hooded mergansers.  The male is pictured at left, the female at right.

According to Cornell Lab, hooded mergansers are silent except in courtship when the male gives a deep rolling frog-like sound, recorded here at the end of the clip.

Amy Taracido says their voice sounds like “merg merrrrrrrrg” – a perfect description and one that makes me laugh when I say it.

Besides the sheer amusement of hearing a bird make this noise, it’s curious that this is considered a courtship sound.  We generally assume birds don’t court in the winter, so from our perspective the hooded mergansers cannot possibly be courting on December 9th.  But why not?  Why does courtship have to be confined to spring?

The flock was large and about 50/50 males and females.  On migration southward, the hooded mergs might be in “dating” mode, especially the young ducks who haven’t bred yet.  Flocks would be the perfect place to meet the opposite sex and decide on a mate.  Mergansers might even need some get-acquainted time before they make a choice.

So I guess Lake Arthur is The Bar Scene for ducks.

(photos by Chuck Tague)