Monthly Archives: August 2008

On the way to paradise

Here we are – on our way to Acadia National Park

Back in 1983 my husband and I didn’t imagine we’d love Maine so much that we’d come back to Acadia every year.  Now on our 25th visit it’s like coming home.  We’re “regulars” at the Harbourside Inn where we’re welcomed like family and catch up with the many friends we’ve made over the years.

We’ve seen every kind of weather from sunny and cool to a week of dense fog.  The only awful time was The Year of Four Hurricanes when the remnants of Edouard, Fran, Gustav and Hortense brought one rain storm after the other.  It’s a mighty good record that we had to spend our vacation indoors only once.

For a birder and hiker like me, Acadia is paradise.  There are woodland, seaside and mountain trails, views of the ocean from every angle and groomed carriage paths for bicycling, horseback riding and easy walking.  Canoeing and kayaking are popular on the lakes, sea kayaking on the ocean.

September is migration time for many birds.  When the wind’s from the north I visit the Acadia Hawk Watch on Cadillac Mountain.  When the weather’s rainy I sometimes encounter a warbler fallout – tiny birds feeding just an arm’s length away – because the weather forced them to land. 

Last year I went on a Whale Watch and I saw a “life bird” from Antarctica:  a south polar skua.   And I always find a peregrine falcon somewhere on the island, either at the Hawk Watch or on one of the seaside cliffs.  Several pairs of peregrines nest on the island, though nesting season is long over by the time we arrive.

Sometimes people ask me, “How can you vacation at the same place every year?”  True, it reduces our ability to travel widely but our time at Acadia is so restful that we won’t give it up.  The highest accolade we can give to a day is to say, “It’s just like Maine.”

(I took this photo of Otter Cliff many years ago.)

Hello, my love

I don’t think of August as a time when peregrines do any courting so it was with some surprise that I found this webcam photo yesterday. 

Here are E2 and Dorothy bowing to each other at the University of Pittsburgh nest – in late August!  It sure looks like courtship to me.  E2 appears to be touching Dorothy’s beak and they must have been moving because E2’s image is blurred.

Both birds have been molting since July.  The loss of old feathers and growth of new ones is a long and probably draining process for peregrines whose every feather must be in top condition in order for them to hunt.  When they molt they sit around a lot, sometimes sunbathing, sometimes sleeping in the shade.  My friend Karen and I don’t see them for days at a time because they’re least active at midday when we’re out watching. 

But they haven’t forgotten about their nest, even though they won’t be using it for another seven months, and E2 hasn’t forgotten about Dorothy.   “Hello, my love,” says he.


After a long, long spate of beautiful weather we now have a drought.  The sunny days and clear cool nights I find so appealing have not produced any rain.  It’s another case of too much of a good thing.

Pittsburgh’s precipitation is 0.22″ below normal for August, but 1.62″ above normal for the calendar year.  

The statistics are deceiving.  The rain we’ve had has not fallen gently over the course of several hours.  Instead it arrives in huge, brief, torrential downpours that run off rapidly without soaking into the soil.

Of course this is hard on the crops, but I feel bad for the forest too.  Some of the trees have started to turn yellow already – notably the ash trees.  Others are dying, especially elms that are already under the stress of Dutch elm disease. 

Unlike ourselves, everything outdoors is completely at the mercy of the weather – even beautiful weather.

I hope it rains soon!

Citizen science reveals…

The second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas is drawing to a close and the final data analysis is about to begin.  I think we’ll learn a lot from the results if New York’s Breeding Bird Atlas is any guide.

From 2004 through 2008 Pennsylvania birders roamed the state looking for birds who were claiming territory, building nests, incubating eggs or feeding young.  We did our best to cover every nook and cranny, recording the breeding evidence of species we found in each 9-square-mile block.   With over 4,900 blocks in the state, it was a big job.

The first Pennsylvania BBA was conducted from 1984 through 1988 so one outcome of the second atlas project will be a comparison of breeding ranges and species over the past twenty years.  If we want a hint at the results we can look to New York whose breeding bird atlas was completed three years ahead of ours.

Like Pennsylvania, New York conducted two atlas surveys twenty years apart.  When SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) compared the two data sets they discovered that the ranges of many species have changed significantly in only two decades.  The birds have moved northward.

Southern birds, like the red-bellied woodpecker pictured here, have moved further into New York while northern birds, like the pine siskin, no longer breed in parts of New York because their southern range boundary has shifted into Canada.

Interestingly, the northern birds are receding faster into Canada than the southern ones are proceeding into New York.  This pattern, added to earlier spring migration arrival, points to climate change as a possible cause.

Will we notice this in Pennsylvania too?  Stay tuned.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s Done With Mirrors

Swamp Sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ornithologists have known for a long time that swamp sparrows in western Pennsylvania don’t sing exactly the same way as those in Massachusetts.  They have regional dialects but until recently no one knew how they learned and retained their accents.

Richard Mooney at Duke University studied the electrical impulses in swamp sparrows’ brains as they sing and listen.  He discovered that they do it with mirrors.

In swamp sparrows as in humans, there are mirror neurons that fire when the bird sings and when it hears a song similar to its own.  These neurons allow the sparrow to remember specific songs for up to a year even if he doesn’t hear or sing the song during that period.  In this way, young birds learn songs from their elders and birds in a region learn from each other.

This means the birds maintain their own dialect even when they’re away on migration.   I imagine they recognize other birds from their home region just as one Pittsburgher recognizes another when he hears him say “dahntahn.”

Read more about the study and how Mooney measured electrical impulses in the swamp sparrow’s brain in this interview at WGBH.


(Thanks to Chuck Tague for this photo of a swamp sparrow.)

Cloud Gazing

One of the benefits of watching birds is that I’ve gained an appreciation for clouds.  The beautiful ones are almost as ephemeral as birds, forming and dissipating in a matter of minutes.  I noticed this principle on Sunday at Lake Arthur.

It was a warm sunny day as I walked the trails along the lake shore.  Eventually the sound of the water and wind lulled me into sleepiness.  Hammock time!  But I didn’t have a hammock so I sat down on the grass.  Pretty soon I lay down and looked straight up.

A few birds caught my attention but the big attraction was the cloud layer that looked like a honeycomb, as shown here.

Cirrocumulus are the highest clouds.  Formed of ice crystals above 16,500 feet, they often have an iridescence that I can see with my polarized sunglasses.   Below them were a few altocumulus, mid-level clouds at 6,500 to 16,500 feet and one beautiful lenticular cloud, a lozenge in the sky.

If the altocumulus clouds had been thicker, they might have meant a weather system was approaching.  Instead, they broke up and floated away leaving a clear sky Sunday night with a bright, full moon.

Summer clouds make me happy.  I will try to remember this in November when Pittsburgh’s clouds blanket the sky.

(stock photo from Shutterstock)


House sparrow begs at Schenley Plaza, Aug 2008 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you think you’re seeing a lot of house sparrows lately, you’re right.  The breeding season has doubled or tripled their population and that’s no wonder.  They raise up to four broods per year.

This week I saw a flock of 40 house sparrows grazing the seed heads in the lawn at Schenley Plaza.  The grass seed kept them away from the picnic area where they’ve become quite bold.   Witness the little guy pictured here.

I was eating a snack at one of the outdoor tables when this male house sparrow showed up.  He perched in various locations and looked at my cookie, then at me.

“You own that cookie and you can give it to me.  I only want a little.  Cheep!”  I did nothing, but I got ready to take his picture.

He could tell he had my attention but I was a tough customer.  “Cheep!  How about a crumb?”  He perched on the back of the chair, looked me in the eye and slowly yawned his beak.  “Put it in my mouth,” he said and hopped to the table top.

Still no handout, but this activity attracted his friends and relatives.  Young house sparrows approached to learn the finer points of begging, the importance of eye contact, the emphatic “Cheep,” the art of staying just out of reach but within crumb-toss range.

It was a good show but I know too much to be fooled.  House sparrows are an invasive species here.  Feeding them only makes them more successful, a counter-productive result.

I didn’t give them my cookie, but I do enjoy watching them.

They’re spunky.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Laying eggs

Cicada on a tree branch (photo by JohnTsui via Wikimedia Commons)

Birds aren’t the only ones that lay eggs.

This morning I heard buzzing from the top of the zelkova tree in our front yard.  It took me a while to find the source and then I needed my binoculars to see it.  A female cicada was laying eggs on one of the branches.

The cicada has a sharp ovipostor with which she rips a long slit in the bark of a twig and lays up to 600 eggs.  Weeks later, the eggs hatch and the nymphs fall to the dirt where they burrow underground to live two to 17 years depending on the species.

If Mrs. Cicada had thought about the ground under our zelkova (does she think at all?) she would have realized it is not a good location for her nymphs.  Our tree is mostly surrounded by impermeable surfaces – sidewalk and street.  Only a few of her lucky offspring are likely to fall on our front garden where there’s dirt for them to dig in.

But her presence explains why every spring every I find dead twig-sized branches on the zelkova with open “zippers” in their bark.  I don’t mind.  She’s pruning it for me.   Heaven knows the tree needs it.

(photo of Cicada in Tree by John Tsui published in Wikipedia Commons.  Click the photo to see the original.)

Cardinal Flower

Cardinal flower (photo by Chuck Tague)
Cardinal flower (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yesterday I went to Jennings prairie in Butler County on a quest to see flowers.  In July and August it’s the place to be.

The weather was fine and the prairie was beautiful with dense blazing star (for which Jennings is famous), goldenrod, tall coreopsis, swamp thistle, tall sunflower, Joe Pye weed and ironweed.  There were more flowers than I can name.

Goldfinches and indigo buntings sang across the prairie and paused to feed fledglings.  Common yellowthroats and song sparrows warned their young in the thickets as I walked by.

I extended my walk to the woodland trails and found bee balm and wild bergamot.  When I reached the stream at Oakwoods Trail I had to stop – the cardinal flowers were absolutely stunning.

Lobelia cardinalis grows in North America from Canada to Florida and south-westward to California.  French explorers sent samples to France in the mid-1620’s where it became known as the cardinal flower because its color is like the Roman Catholic cardinals’ miter.  The northern cardinal (bird) is so named for the same reason.

Cardinal flowers are favorites of people and hummingbirds precisely because of their deep red hue.  I looked at their velvety petals long enough that my eyes drank in their color.  Nearby, ruby-throated hummingbirds drank in the nectar.

It’s wonderful that a flower so noticable and appealing to hummingbirds is in bloom while they migrate south.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Acrobatic Goldfinches

American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Mrs. Goldfinch came off her nest last weekend for a visit to my thistle feeder and some unusual acrobatics.

I have an upside-down thistle feeder with a hole positioned below each perch so the birds must hang upside down to get the seeds. Theoretically, goldfinches are the only ones who can do that — or so it said on the box.

Two weeks after hanging it in my backyard, the house sparrows figured out how to fall forward from the perches and grab the tube with one outspread wing, providing enough stability to eat upside down.  They emptied the feeder.

The only birds who were thwarted by the feeder were the house finches who fell off every time they rotated downward to the holes. For several years they ate by hovering like hummingbirds but this summer one of them learned the goldfinch trick and happily eats niger seed now.

Which brings me to Mrs. Goldfinch.

Last Saturday she came to the feeder but instead of hanging upside down she chose a hole above and to the right of her perch. Standing on her left foot she wrapped her body around the feeder and reached up to grab her chosen hole with her beak.  Then she used her tongue to shovel seeds into her mouth. Her right foot had nowhere to stand so it groped for purchase on the slippery tube.

For a moment I thought she was stuck … but she flew away.

I wish I had a picture of her acrobatics.  Your imagination will have to do. 😉


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)