Monthly Archives: December 2008

Visual Cues for Crossbills

Two hemlock cones: one with seeds, one without (photo by Kate St. John)When I visited Cook Forest on Tuesday I found very few crossbills.  I was amazed by this because the flocks of white-winged crossbills numbered in the hundreds only two weeks ago.

Crossbills eat the seeds of pine, spruce and hemlock cones.  White-winged crossbills prefer to eat from hemlocks because these cones are easier for them to open with their smaller bills.  Cook Forest is loaded with hemlocks but many of them did not produce cones this year.  Had the crossbills run out of their preferred food and left the area?

I wondered all this while I was standing near cone-laden hemlocks at the Ridge Campground.  “There are lots of cones on these trees,” I thought, “Why aren’t the birds here?”

Then I looked more closely.  More than half the cones were gray and puffed open (above right).  The other cones were rusty brown and closed more tightly (above left).  I plucked one of each to examine more closely.  The brown cones had seeds, the gray cones did not.  A seed fell out of the brown cone (shown here between the two).

Now that I knew what to look for I could see that most of the cones on the tree were gray.  It was so easy to see the color difference that I imagined the crossbills flying over and thinking, “Nope.  That one’s not worth visiting!”  This was true of all five hemlocks near me.  No wonder the crossbills weren’t in this grove.

Just as soon as I answered one question I had two more:  Do seed-laden cones reflect ultraviolet light differently than empty ones?  If so, the birds could recognize a food-laden tree even more quickly.  And do the cones on pines and spruces show similar color differences?

I have more to learn in 2009.

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Readers have helped with the answers!  See the comments at the link below.

Bluebirds of Happiness

Male and female Eastern Bluebirds (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Sunday dawned warm and cloudy but I could see from the satellite image – and the weather report – that a narrow band of strong wind and rain was on its way. 

This news sent a shiver through my household.  My dad, my brother and his three kids were visiting from Florida to see the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Cleveland Browns.  Would the game be too cold and wet?   Possibly.  They left for the game early, just as the wind and rain hit.  It would be quite a challenge to cook their tailgate food at the stadium parking lot!

The rain ended quickly, the sun came out and the wind increased.  I drove to Hillman State Park in Washington County for a short hike designed to get me back home before the gang returned from the game.  I’d been to a section north of Old Steubenville Pike last week so this time I chose a trail south of the road.

Hillman State Park is officially a state park but you won’t find it on any recreation maps.  That’s because it’s a wrecked landscape.  It was mined for coal since 1914 and extensively strip mined between World War II and 1966.  All of this occurred before the days of mine reclamation laws and it shows.  The topography was never returned to its original contour.  It still has tailings piles, unusual ridges, deep slot valleys and scrub grassland.  A study of acid mine drainage in 1972 said it was in bad shape for its intended use as a state park and needed $1.1 million of watershed reclamation ($1.1 million in 1972 dollars!).  It’s called “Hillman” because it was donated by James F. Hillman, president of the Harmon Creek Coal Company which owned the land.

Because of its landscape Hillman State Park is not a very birdy place, especially when the wind is gusting to 45 miles per hour.  I began my hike on the dirt road but climbed into a little patch of deciduous trees to look for a windbreak and maybe a few birds.  Nothing. 

I came back to the dirt road and saw a flash of wings.  Four eastern bluebirds were feeding on poison ivy berries.  Around the bend I came to two pretty places:  a small pond with a beaver lodge, and a large pond with no signs of life except mysterious tracks (probably beaver) on the dam.   The little pond hosted some chickadees, cardinals and goldfinches.  Otherwise it was empty.

On the home stretch through scrublands I expected to find no birds at all because of the wind.  Again I saw a flash of wings.  Six bluebirds were flitting from shrub to shrub and looking for bugs in the grass as I see them do in summer.   Back at the parking lot I saw another flash of wings: seven bluebirds flew back and forth across the dirt road. 

Happy at last!  I did see birds after all – the bluebirds of happiness.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Only a Kingfisher

Male Belted Kingfisher (photo by Chuck Tague)Saturday I stopped at Duck Hollow in hopes of seeing some interesting birds.  What I hadn’t counted on was the flooding of the Mongahela River. 

It rained a lot earlier in the week (and even more yesterday evening) so the river was high and fast and muddy with debris floating on water – garbage and worse.  

All I found at Duck Hollow were a lot of mallards and about five fishermen.  The mallards were loafing, the fishermen were catching fish.   The men didn’t need to see the fish in the muddy water, just feel them on the line, so they were having a successful day.  But there were no shorebirds, no gulls, no fish-eating birds because their preferred habitat was temporarily gone.

I was disappointed by the lack of diversity until I heard a belted kingfisher chatter along Nine Mile Run.  The creek used to roar down to the river during heavy rain but the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association restored it with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Thanks to a series of rocky waterfalls the creek takes a little longer to make the journey and erodes the valley a little less. 

One of the fishermen pointed out that the water was clear in the creek just above the first waterfall.  That’s where the kingfisher was hunting.  

I found the bird among the trees and examined him for a while through my binoculars.  Have you ever noticed that kingfishers have a white dot in front of each eye?  I wonder why.

There was only a kingfisher worth watching at Duck Hollow but I noticed something new.  Discovering those white dots made the trip worthwhile.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Surprise! We hunt at sea

Snowy Owl at Amherst Island, Ontario (photo by Kim Steininger)

The headline was Snowy Owl — A Marine Species?


Snowy owls are famous for eating lemmings but scientists are discovering that their food choices in winter are much more diverse than that.

As part of the International Polar Year, a vast study of the arctic ecosystems that are facing global warming, Canadian scientists radio-tagged snowy owls on Bylot Island and followed their winter dispersal via satellite.

Everyone expected to see the owls move south when the lemming population dropped in the fall.  Snowy owls nest with great success and produce many young in summers with high lemming populations.  In very low lemming years, they don’t nest at all and any time there’s a short food supply, the owls leave.

The satellite maps told an interesting tale.  Not only did the snowies fly south, they also moved north, east and west, and they flew long distances:  500 miles north to Ellesmere Island, 2,000 miles southwest to North Dakota and 2,000 miles southeast to Newfoundland.  But the most surprising of all were six adult females who dispersed far out over the frozen sea.  They spent the winter on the ice in the dark(*).

Are snowy owls a marine species?  What did they eat?

Back in the 1950s a report in The Auk described a snowy owl who perched nearly a mile off shore and captured injured eiders at openings in the ice when lemmings were few on the ground.  For now the working theory is that those six owls ate eiders.  But scientists need more information to prove it.  Were the owls stationed near leads in the ice?  Do Inuit hunters see snowy owls out at sea when they go hunting in winter?  It’ll be another winter or two before IPY knows for sure.

Meanwhile, this summer was a banner year for lemmings, a great year for raising baby snowy owls, and the best winter in a long time for observing snowies in the U.S. and southern Canada.

Kim Steininger visited Amherst Island, Ontario a couple of weeks ago and brought back some spectacular photos, including this one.  Click here to see her photo blog about the snowy owls on Amherst Island.


(photo by Kim Steininger)

(*) By the way, “on ice in the dark” is a fairly good description of Dante’s 9th circle of hell.

Moby Beak

White-winged Crossbill (photo by Raymond J Barlow)Crossbills are my quest bird.  They rarely visit Pennsylvania, only moving south in irruptive years when their food supply of seed cones fails at home.  When they come, they arrive in hordes to pry open spruce, pine, fir and hemlock cones with their uniquely crossed bills.  My quest is to actually see their beaks.

Crossbills come in two species: white-winged and red.  In my experience, which is quite limited, the white-winged variety is more common.  Red crossbills are more prevalent in the West.

The first time I ever saw crossbills was in the irruptive winter of 1997-98 when I traveled to Cook Forest with a group of Pittsburgh birders.  The second time was in September 2000 at Acadia National Park.  That year the birds came early to the Maine coast.  As is usual with crossbills, the flock moved around a lot so birders compared notes every day on where they were last seen.

I was possessed by crossbills that fall.  My husband is too near-sighted to watch birds – or even drive – so he was at my mercy.  As we drove to and from hiking spots, on sightseeing trips or on errands I stopped the car at the least hint of birds in cone-bearing trees.  There’s a heck of a lot of cone-bearing trees in Maine so we stopped a lot.

One afternoon, after the fifth time we stopped in half a mile, he compared my quest to searching the whole ocean for Moby Dick.  “They aren’t the Great White Whale, they’re the Great White-winged Crossbills.” That’s when he named them Moby Beak.

This winter after an eleven year absence the crossbills are back.  Since early December they’re reliably found at Cook Forest State Park.  Last Thursday a flock was sighted much further south at Washington Cemetery in Washington, PA.  This is so far south – and so close to home – that Tony Bledsoe suggested we go find them on Saturday.  He hadn’t seen them for 29 years.  I wanted to see their beaks.  The quest was on.

As I left the house before dawn yesterday morning my husband called to me, “Good luck, Ahab!”   We certainly needed it.  Tony and I walked around the cemetery peering at hundreds of cone-bearing trees, but we couldn’t find any crossbills.  We couldn’t hear any either.

It was cold and windy.  After an hour and a half we were shivering and my fingers were so cold they hurt.  We were about to give up in defeat when we heard them coming.  Just two white-winged crossbills – a male and a female – landed in a hemlock near us.  Soon they were joined by two pine siskins.

We temporarily forgot the cold and watched our little group of northern finches.  The male crossbill was a beautiful rosy color, his mate a greenish yellow.  They grabbed the cones with their feet and looked almost cross-eyed as they examined and pried them open.  The birds were close enough that I could see their beaks.

Good job, Ahab!

I’m not done with crossbills.  I will certainly visit Cook Forest in the coming weeks!

(Thanks to Raymond J. Barlow of Grimsby, Ontario, Canada for his photo that clearly shows the beak on a white-winged crossbill.  Click here to visit his photography website.)

A Quick Hello

Dorothy and E2 say hello at the nest, Univ of Pittsburgh, Dec 18, 2008On Thursday the peregrines at the University of Pittsburgh visited the nest for the first time in weeks. 

From these two photos it looks to me like Dorothy told E2 to come see her. 

They were both there for a split second… and then gone.

December is the low ebb of their year.




(photos are from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh peregrine nest)




On the Hunt

Two days of gray, drizzly weather and there’s nothing to report.  Bird activity is at a minimum and when I see the Pitt peregrines, if I see them at all, they’re usually asleep.

Days like this need something to liven them up and I have just the solution: some action-packed photos sent to me by Cris Hamilton.

Cris lives south of Pittsburgh and spends her free time photographing birds.  Back in the fall of 2007 she took her camera to Green Cove Wetland in Washington County, part of Important Bird Area #80, a place with excellent birds.

While Cris stood by the wetland a raptor flew by at top speed, caught a bird and was gone.  Cris was lucky enough to capture a few quick shots.

Her camera revealed that in those few seconds an adult peregrine falcon had grabbed a killdeer and carried it away.  It happened so fast that mud splattered off the killdeer as the peregrine flew.

Cris sent me three photos which I’ve put into a brief slideshow.  Click on any picture to see the slideshow in a lightbox.

Nature can be pretty exciting.


(Three photos by Cris Hamilton.  The slideshow loops, the action repeats.)

Found Them… Almost

American Crow (photo by Chuck Tague)I’ve been frustrated by the lack of crows lately.  Every winter for the past four years thousands of crows used to fly over my house at dusk and dawn.  This winter after one spectacular showing on November 18th they’ve been absent from the area. 

This doesn’t mean there are no crows in Pittsburgh.  Far from it.  They’ve just moved the roost.  But where? 

Yesterday I decided to find out.  I’d heard about a large flock of crows on South Side and my friend Karen saw hundreds in the Strip District a week ago.  Armed with two clues, my first move was to check out the South Side so I went up to Billy Buck Hill for a wide view of the Mon Valley, Downtown and Oakland.  There wasn’t much crow movement but every flock was headed for the far side of the Hill District.  By 4:15pm it was obvious I was in the wrong place.  I should be on Polish Hill. 

As I drove out Bigelow Boulevard I found a huge flock gathering in the trees above the road.  What smart crows!  This site is inaccessible, there are no buildings, and foot traffic is impossible because the Boulevard has high speed traffic without sidewalks.  After a lot of maneuvering I managed to turn around and pull into Frank Curto Park.  From there I could see thousands of crows flying in from the North Side.  Behind me thousands more piled in from the East End.  The numbers kept building.  There was no end in sight.

Frank Curto Park is a creepy place, only accessible by car on a narrow one-way lane.  I didn’t want to be there at dusk so after another time-consuming maneuver I parked on Polish Hill near the West Penn Rec. Center.

By then the distant hillside from Bigelow to the railroad tracks was covered in crows.  More were still arriving and they began to do The Wave, rising up in dense shouting circles that reminded me of snow geese at Middle Creek.  Night was falling fast but I could see the waves were not returning to the hillside.  Each flock landed closer to the valley. 

I crossed the 28th Street Bridge and I found them again, this time on the roof of Liberty Commons.  As I pulled into the parking lot I wasn’t alone.  Another car followed me trying to take pictures of flying crows.  I jumped when the other car honked but the crows did not.  Birds continued to collect on the roof. 

By now the sky was so dark I couldn’t see more than a hundred yards.  If the crows made a move I wouldn’t be able to follow.  Besides, I felt confident I’d found the roost.  Then silently, in the dark, the crows streamed off the roof until all of them were gone. 

But where?

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Winter White

Schenley Park in snow (photo by Kate St. John)Just now we’re having two days of winter.

On Thursday it drizzled, rained and poured heavy snow-filled drops.  Miserable weather but excellent for ducks as Dan Yagusic discovered when he found, among other things, two long-tailed ducks on the Allegheny River.

It was a lot of rain – so much that it flooded the Monongahela parking wharf – but the rain changed to snow overnight and coated everything white.

I was stir crazy from staying indoors so I walked to work on Friday and took this picture in Schenley Park.  Not an inspiring photo, but you get the idea.   As if we needed to be convinced it’s winter again, it was 17 degrees last night.

Today it’s clear, sunny and bright.  The snow may stay through this afternoon but it’ll certainly melt tomorrow when the temperature climbs into the 50s again.

I shouldn’t complain.  I’ll be doing the Buffalo Creek Christmas Bird Count tomorrow and will appreciate the warmth.  But I really do prefer winter white.