Monthly Archives: November 2008


Starling flock in black and white (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Pittsburgh has not always been the site of three rivers.  We used to be the shore of an inland sea, similar to the Persian Gulf, that lapped at our doorsteps.

But that was long, long ago.  We haven’t been at the beach for 300 million years.

Without an ocean, or even a large lake, sandpipers are a rare sight in Pittsburgh.  We never see huge flocks of shorebirds poking their beaks in the mud and flying in squadrons.

In the winter, though, we have a land-based substitute: European starlings that visit in great numbers.

I know it’s a stretch to compare starlings to shorebirds but consider the similarities.

Starlings fly in synchronous flocks called murmurations that bank and turn in unison like shorebirds.  When threatened by a predator, the flocks form a tight ball even more impressive than the gyrations of shorebirds under siege.

When they’re not trying to stay together starlings, like shorebirds, fly in a big loose bunch.

When feeding in flocks, starlings swarm across a field probing the ground for food.  In the spring, they advance in a front across my backyard like a mass of red knots or dunlin at the beach.

Starlings are about the same size as dunlin and like many shorebirds, have relatively short wings and tails.

But there my ability to draw similarities ends.

Much as I’d like it, Pittsburgh is not at the ocean and starlings are not shorebirds.  The best I can do is to think of them as “Land-pipers.”

(photo by “Mr. T in DC” via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Here’s a BBC video of 5 million starlings in Rome or click here to see a prize-winning photo of a flock evading a peregrine in Italy.

Happy Thanksgiving

Wild turkey, displaying (from the PA Game Commission photo gallery)
Wild turkey, displaying (from the PA Game Commission photo gallery)

This wild turkey is glad to be strutting his stuff while you’re eating domestically raised turkey today.  But even if you’re eating a wild bird he’s grateful that people like to hunt turkeys.

Grateful??  It’s a complicated story.

When Europeans came to America, hunting was unregulated and turkeys were very popular food.  By the late 1800s, hunting and deforestation had taken its toll.  Only a few thousand turkeys remained in all of Pennsylvania.

At that point the newly formed PA Game Commission began studying the turkey population and regulating the hunting season.  There were so few turkeys that hunting was banned for a few years.  The Game Commission even stocked wild turkeys from Mexico.  Then in 1929 they acquired land and began to raise turkeys for release into the wild.

Propagation programs, habitat restoration and hunting regulations turned the tide.  Today Pennsylvania’s wild turkey population is thriving.  They are easy to find just about everywhere, even in Pittsburgh’s big city parks: Frick, Schenley, Riverview and Highland.  My favorite flock of turkeys used to hang out at the “French fry sculpture” on Bigelow Boulevard.

So on Thanksgiving Day, Tom Turkey is grateful to the PA Game Commission for making his comeback possible.  He is also thankful that Americans prefer to eat domestic turkeys.


(PGC photo of a male Wild Turkey in full display, courtesy of the PA Game Commission’s Photo Gallery)

Zulu and Sammy

Zulu and Sammy (photos by Anna Singer)After I read the parrot book I was intrigued by parrots as pets.   What is it like to live with a parrot? 

I asked Anna Singer, WQED-FM‘s mid-day announcer.  She and her husband Don have two parrots:  Zulu, a 19-year-old African Grey (pictured at left) and Sammy a nearly 9-year-old Moluccan Cockatoo (pictured at right).  The birds originally belonged to Anna’s parents and came to her when her parents died. 

“The first thing you need to know about parrots,” said Anna, “is that they’re a lifetime commitment.”  Parrots are intelligent and flock oriented.  They need and expect a lot of interaction and attention and they live a long time – up to 70 years.

Parrots want to be where the action is, not in a quiet room.  Their flocks eat together, groom, communicate, play and warn each other of danger.  When you live with a parrot, you’re their flock so be prepared to do the same. 

In Anna’s household, the hub of activity is the kitchen so that’s where the cages and perches are.  The danger in this arrangement is that parrots have highly sensitive respiratory systems.  Substances we can breathe in tiny amounts, such as oven cleaner, will kill a parrot instantly so Anna is very careful about the products she uses. 

Parrots are loud.  When Anna comes home, Zulu and Sammy shout hello even before they see her.  They warn her of hawks so far away she can’t see them.  They love to whistle with Don and make up tunes.  They’re especially noisy at dusk as they prepare for the night.  This is all part of being in the flock.

And they have distinct personalities.  African Greys tend to bond to only one person so Anna and Don worked closely with Zulu so she would bond to both of them.  Sammy, on the other hand, loves everyone.  If you don’t pay attention to him when you’re near his cage, Sammy will turn on the charm and make sure you don’t ignore him.

African Greys are especially good imitators and learn many words.  Because Zulu lived with Anna’s parents, she learned how to imitate their conversations and their normal verbal responses to certain actions, such as accidentally dropping something.  Anna said it was eerie to hear her parents’ voices in conversation from the other room even though she knew it was Zulu talking.  Sadly Zulu was ill recently and lost many of her words.  I hope she recovers them as she heals.

Parrots are very empathetic.  If you’re happy, they’ll get happy.  If you’re sad they come close to be with you.  Sammy shows his empathy when Anna is on the phone.  If he’s sitting on her shoulder during a phone conversation and Anna hears something funny, even before she laughs Sammy knows what’s coming and he laughs first.

Parrots are a responsibility that comes with a lot of joy.  Anna wouldn’t trade her birds for anything!

(photos of  Zulu and Sammy by Anna Singer)

Winter Hike

Winter at Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

24 November 2008

I like to hike in winter when it’s not too cold. The woods are open after the leaves have fallen and I can see new places to explore. Even better, I can go off trail without worrying I’ll get lost because I can follow my own tracks in the snow back to the car.

Yesterday I explored Porters Cove at Moraine State Park. Most of the time I stayed on marked trails (shown here) but I was tempted to follow someone else’s footprints into the woods. Where were they going?  And why?

The tracks looked to be a day old and they went both ways – out and back – so I knew I wouldn’t encounter the person if I followed them.  There’s no hunting on Sundays but I put on my blaze orange vest and hat just in case and set off.

From the start the tracks wove in and out.  The man was hunting.  Perhaps he too was tracking something but what I could not tell.  His wanderings were tiring me so I made my own straight trail.  That’s when I discovered something the man didn’t see – a coyote’s den in the hollow of a huge old oak.  The animal had left the den at least a day before the man walked by.  Eastern coyotes survive by carefully avoiding human contact.

As I examined the coyote’s tracks I smelled a skunk.  What’s this?!  Just a patch of skunk cabbage I’d inadvertently crushed underfoot.  Skunk cabbage not only survives the winter but is one of the first to sprout in the spring because it can generate inner temperatures 35 degrees warmer than the air.  Each plant in this patch had melted the snow around it.

I resumed the hunter’s trail.  At this point he was walking straight through the woods and had made the trip twice.  I paused at the edge of a copse of trees.  For some reason I didn’t want to proceed.  I looked ahead and saw his tree stand erected for deer season.  Best not to go near it.  Interesting that my intuition said “stop” before I got there.

On the way back I took a detour to walk near the lake.  As I approached I heard a hissing, pinging sound.  The lake had started to freeze and a thin layer of clear ice rolled on top of the waves.  The ice was “singing.”

Way cool.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Compass Errors

Accurate!  Suunto A-10 NH Compass (image from Suunto)

Why do rare birds show up during fall migration?  Why does a young brant end up in Pittsburgh when these small geese usually migrate far to the northeast?  Research published last spring in the Journal of Ornithology gives us a clue.

According to a study conducted by the University of Marburg, the Ornithological Society in Bavaria and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), migratory birds make mistakes in direction but not distance.  Simply put, they fly as far as they’re supposed to go but some of them have a compass error.

Scientists long suspected that birds have compasses, but it wasn’t until this century that they figured out it’s a receptor called cryptochrome located in the birds’ eyes.  In essence birds “see” the earth’s magnetic field.

Simply seeing it isn’t enough.  If you’ve used a compass you know about magnetic deviation.  Not only does the earth’s magnetic field bend around the planet but it deviates near metal, iron ore deposits and electro-magnetic interference so you must adjust the compass periodically.  Birds adjust their compasses too using the band of polarized light that crosses the zenith at sunrise and sunset.  Amazing!

Of course in any navigation system something can go wrong.  Birds with faulty compasses follow the instructions but fly to unusual locations.  Sometimes they’re lucky and end up in a safe place for the winter.  If they’re able to turn 180 degrees and go home in the spring, they will likely produce young with the same faulty compass headings.  Perhaps that’s why a small but increasing number of rufous hummingbirds now pass through Pennsylvania on their way to Georgia instead of flying the normal route due south from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico.

Juvenile birds make these directional mistakes more often than adults because they must rely on the compass exclusively.  They’ve never made the trip before.  Unlike the adults, they have no map.

Sadly for the young brant, its compass error – if that’s what brought it here – may be fatal.  If not we’ll get to see him all winter, just like the sandhill crane who spent last winter at Ethel Springs reservoir.

(photo of a Suunto compass from the Suunto website.  My favorite model has a mirror.)

Brant at Duck Hollow

Brant (photo by Chuck Tague)Remember this bird from my early November “What to Look For” list?   It’s a brant, a very unusual bird for Pittsburgh.

Back on October 28th I mentioned these birds because the first time I ever saw one was at Yellow Creek State Park in early November.  Little did I know that Jack Solomon would find a juvenile brant today at Duck Hollow on the Monongahela River

I can’t take any credit for predicting this.  Chuck Tague reminded me to look for the unexpected. 

p.s. Click here for Geoff Malosh’s photo of the Duck Hollow bird.

(photo of adult Brant by Chuck Tague)

They’re Back!

Winter Flock of American Crows (photo by Tom Merriman)

I knew the crows were back in town for the winter but there was no doubt late yesterday in Oakland.

Around 4:20pm thousands of crows started passing WQED, heading for Schenley Heights.

I wish I’d thought to count them but I missed my chance.  Not a big loss though.  They’ll give me ample opportunity in the days and weeks ahead.

Here’s what they looked like last winter as they passed Carnegie Mellon University.  Click on Tom Merriman’s photo to get a better idea of how they fill the sky.

(photo thanks to Tom Merriman, who knows about my addiction to crows) .      

p.s.  If you read “Hope is the bird…” November 15th but didn’t find out if I saw tundra swans, read the answer at the end of that post.

What To Look For: Mid-Nov Through Mid-December

Snow bunting (photo by Chuck Tague)
Snow bunting (photo by Chuck Tague)

17 November 2008

Nature is slowing down as winter settles in.

In every other season, nature changes so rapidly that two weeks of “what to look for” is a very long list.  But now a month of sightings will do.  Here’s a peek at what we can expect in the weeks ahead.

  • We’ve entered the time of frost, snow, ice and rime.  I remember rime last year (2007) at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
  • Waterfowl are still on the move.  As lakes freeze up north more birds come our way:  tundra swans, loons, scaup, ring-necks, buffleheads, mergansers, goldeneye and ruddy ducks.
  • Gulls will come to the rivers.
  • Northern shrikes will show up at rural thickets.
  • When there’s snow on the ground, check manured fields for horned larks, lapland longspurs and snow buntings (pictured here).  They all look dull in winter to match the dull scenery.
  • Be prepared for irruptive migrants.  In November 2000 a snowy owl showed up at Duquesne University, a life bird for me!
  • Today in Pittsburgh, there will be 9 hours and 45 minutes of daylight.  A month from now – nearly the solstice – we’ll have only 9 hours and 16 minutes.  The half hour we lose will be subtracted from the morning.

(photo of a Snow Bunting by Chuck Tague)

Hope is the bird…

Tundra Swan (photo by Steve Gosser)…that I wait to see.

As I write, the weather is changing in western Pennsylvania.  After an all day southerly rain the wind has shifted and is gusting from the west.  We’ll have snow showers tonight and lake effect snow up north.

I want to see tundra swans.   

I hope they’ve advanced ahead of the storm and are waiting at Lake Arthur.  If they’re there they’ll stay the night during this bad weather. 

Maybe I’ll see them tomorrow.  It’s the only day I can go looking for them. 

I hope I find a flock, not just one or two.  I hope to see them fly.  I hope they land on the lake while gentle snow falls around them.  I hope to see them as beautifully as Steve Gosser did when he took this picture. 

I’ll just have to wait and see.  I’ll tell you tomorrow.


Sunday, November 16:   

I saw them! 

But first I heard them – a flock of 94 tundra swans in a huge V overhead.  Later, another flock passed by but I was too absorbed in the swans on the lake to jump up and look. 

It was nearly everything I hoped.  I sat quietly and watched 11 of them, two families traveling together – one with three youngsters, the other with four.  The adults kept a watchful eye.  Snow fell gently.  I sat until I was too cold to stay any longer. 

Good weather for swans.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Eagles on TV!

Bald Eagles congregate in winter (photo from PBS Nature)Sometimes I have the coolest job!

Last week Jill Lykins in our TV programming department asked if I’d review the upcoming PBS Nature show called American Eagle that will air this Sunday, November 16 at 8:00pm.

Of course I said “Yes.”  Who wouldn’t want to watch a show about bald eagles?

I received the preview disk yesterday and watched it last night.  To me, it was even better than “White Falcon, White Wolf.”

Instead of taking a hands off look at wildlife (White Falcon never had people on screen), this show follows two guys who are hooked on bald eagles.  We get to see what they see – and they see a lot!

Bob Anderson of the Raptor Resource Project and cinematographer Neil Rettig film eagles at their winter staging grounds in the Upper Mississippi Valley and in Alaska.  They talk about their memories of the time when eagles were scarce and how fascinated they are by these birds.  Both of them film eagle families at the nest.

I especially liked the nest scenes – it was like watching the peregrine webcams.  There’s great footage of eagles locking talons during courtship flights, parents incubating eggs and feeding chicks, fledglings learning to fly, eagles catching fish right out of the water, eagles playing tag with prey.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

If you’ve been following bald eagles on my blog, you won’t want to miss this show on Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 8:00pm on PBS.  In Pittsburgh, that’s WQED.

(photo from PBS Nature.  Click on the photo to preview the show.)