Monthly Archives: August 2009

To Acadia

Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park (photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Hello from Maine.  We’re at Acadia National Park as usual at this time of year. 

I’m hoping to see some new birds and new places.  Will it be a good year for a warbler “fallout?”  Will the crossbills be at Acadia this fall?  What new sea birds will I see on the Whale Watch?  Will I finally see a moose?  (Can you believe I’ve never seen one in 26 years of going to Maine?)

We plan to hike some new trails and visit some new-to-us towns.  I’ll still be blogging while I’m here but less frequently.  After all, it’s a vacation!

(photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Last flowers or What to Look for in Early September

Turtleheads (photo by Tim Vechter)

Early September is a quiet spell of lengthening shadows and shorter days.  Birds and animals, insects and plants are packing up and getting ready for winter.  Even we humans are starting to take the hint.  Here’s what to expect outdoors in western Pennsylvania in the coming weeks:

  • The days are getting shorter.  By September 23rd, day will equal night.
  • Flowers will put on one last extravaganza, especially the goldenrods and asters.  Look for late blooming turtleheads.
  • Watch the trees begin to change color.  Even now the hackberries are starting to turn yellow.
  • Woodchucks and squirrels will focus on food … for sure!
  • Monarch butterflies are migrating.  They flutter and set their wings for a long glide.  Marcy Cunkelman tells me they can cover 50 miles a day.
  • Birds are migrating too:  warblers, hummingbirds, thrushes, broad-winged hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels, swallows and swifts!

Chuck Tague’s phenology has an even bigger list of things to look for.  See this and more in September.


(photo of Turtleheads by Tim Vechter)


Don’t Miss The Swifts!

Vaux's Swifts go to roost in Chapman Elementary School chimney in Portland, OR (photo by Dan Viens)
If you’re in WQED’s viewing area at 10:30pm on Thursday September 3 don’t miss On The Wing, a half-hour video about the swifts who roost in Chapman Elementary School’s chimney in Portland, Oregon during fall migration.

Not your typical nature movie, On The Wing is as much about Portland and the people who watch the swifts as it is about the tens of thousands of Vaux’s swifts who come to roost.  The swifts circle and swirl around the chimney, a few hawks and peregrines come in for an easy meal, and hundreds of people show up to watch.  It’s a huge event.

The phenomenon became so famous and well-loved that it changed Chapman School.  The swifts huddle in Chapman’s chimney to stay warm on cold September nights and the kids were huddling in the school by day to avoid killing the swifts by turning on the boiler.  Eventually Chapman replaced its heating system so that the chimney is now used only by the swifts.

As soon as you see this movie you’ll wish you were in Portland, Oregon to watch the birds but you don’t have to travel that far.  Eastern cities have chimney swifts, very similar to Vaux’s swift, and we have chimneys.  We can’t offer the community event that happens at Chapman (you will have to go to Portland for that) but you can watch our swifts go to roost.

In Pittsburgh there are many chimneys to choose from.  Look for tall stand-alone chimneys, usually made of brick, and you may find a roost near home.  Here are some of the roosts I’ve seen:

  • At South St. Clair Street, across the street from 5802 Baum Boulevard, look at the chimney across the parking lot.  Three Rivers Birding Club usually visits this chimney at least one evening during migration… and then we go to The Sharp Edge for beer.
  • In Oakland on Clyde Street near Central Catholic High School, watch the tall chimney on an apartment building on the left.
  • In Dormont, start at the corner of West Liberty Ave and Edgehill Ave.  Walk up the right side of Edgehill Ave to the second telephone pole that has a sign on it saying Weight Limit 9 Tons.  Stop and look across the street & you’ll see the chimney.
  • In Squirrel Hill at the corner of Murray and Forward Avenues there are lots of chimneys.  I’m not sure they’re used by swifts but it’s worth a look. Stand on Pocusset.
  • Check out the closed public schools: the former Schenley High School, former Gladstone Middle School, etc.  I bet you’ll find swifts.

Meanwhile, watch a preview of the movie!

(photo from Dan Viens, creator of On the Wing)

Why do birds take dust baths?

House Sparrow taking a dust bath (photo by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

Someone asked me this question at the bus stop the other day.  I’m not surprised it came up because the ubiquitous city birds – house sparrows – are champions of dust baths.  They’re the ones who prompted the question. 

House sparrows prefer very fine dust and will flap up a storm when they find a patch of it.  They dig a hollow with their feet, push their bellies into the dust and toss it under their wings and over their backs as if it was water.  Their goal is to get the dust into their feathers and all the way down to their skin.  When they’re suitably coated they shake off the dust and preen it away until their feathers are in good condition again. 

Why go to this trouble?  Dust smothers skin and feather parasites and absorbs excess oil that’s removed as the dust is preened away.  Did you know you can clean your hair using powder?  It’s the same idea. 

House sparrows take dust baths even when water is available.  Maybe the first house sparrow came from a desert climate.  After all, their Paleolithic fossils have been found in Ouum-Qatafa Cave in Israel.  If they can clean with dust and save water for drinking, why not? 

This summer we’ve had so much rain the house sparrows must be hard pressed to find any dry dirt.  They might have to use my bird bath after all.

(photo of a house sparrow taking a dust bath by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

Summer Beauty: Jewelweed

Jewelweed (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Jewelweed flowers (Impatiens capensis) offer inviting landing pads for bumblebees.  The “jewel” in the name comes from the way water beads up on the leaves and sparkles like diamonds in the sun. 

This plant is also called Spotted Touch-me-not because the flowers are spotted and the ripe seed pods explode when you touch them as if to say “Touch Me Not.”

The explosions are so cool that I am tempted to touch the plant even more.  I make it a contest and try to beat the seeds at their own game.  Whenever I find Jewelweed I look for the fattest seed pods and give each one a squeeze to see if I can capture the seeds before they leap from my finger tips.  I always lose unless I cup my hand around the pod.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


Red-tailed Hawk on Solomon's deck (photo by Michael Solomon)

When you’re young you’re fearless.  You disregard life’s dangers because you can’t imagine anything will hurt you.  And when you’re busy you’re focused.  Very focused.

That’s what David Solomon’s family is learning from some immature red-tailed hawks in their neighborhood.  The Solomon’s have bird feeders that attract birds and squirrels which in turn attract young red-tails.

The hawks aren’t good hunters yet so they’re looking for an easy meal.  Their parents told them to watch out for humans but this hawk is so focused he doesn’t care that Michael Solomon is standing only a few feet away taking his picture.  In this hawk’s limited experience people don’t bother you so why care.

Immature red-tailed hawks must change this nonchalant attitude if they’re to survive to adulthood.  The birds travel long distances in their early years and, though most of the people they’ll encounter are in awe to see a hawk this close, there are still some people who will harm them even though it’s against the law.  It’s best to keep a wide berth.

In the meantime, hunger trumps danger.  There’s something to be said for single-mindedness but it can be carried too far.


(photo by Michael Solomon)

p.s. Interesting article: Happiness is good for creativity, bad for single-minded focus.

Fine Weather for Vultures

Turkey Vulture at Shavers Creek (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)We’ve had a spate of hot, humid weather that’s finally going to break this weekend.  I shouldn’t complain – after all it’s August – but I’m no lover of heat and humidity and my nose tells me it’s time for a change.

My nose?  Well, I have a pretty good sense of smell.  Too good at times.  I love the scents of honeysuckle blooming, crushed mint leaves, warm pine needles, rain in the distance and damp earth at the end of winter.  (Remember the first day you smell the earth in spring?)

Right now the hot, soupy air is great for holding smells but the hotter it gets the more unpleasant some of those smells become.  I’ve been forced to think of this when, out on a walk, my nose suddenly detects spoiling food in a nearby garbage can or dog poo next to the sidewalk.  I give those spots a wide berth but the worst smells are hard to escape … the whiffs of something dead in the bushes. 

Fortunately turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell and they love this stuff.  On my hikes I see them soaring overhead, sniffing the breeze, looking for the source of the smells I recoil from.

I hope they find that dead something-in-the-bushes.  They shouldn’t have much trouble.  It’s been fine weather for vultures.

(photo of a turkey vulture at Shaver’s Creek by Marcy Cunkelman)

Who’s Eating My Flowers?


Have you noticed more rabbits than usual in your neighborhood?  I have.  It seems they’re really thriving in the city lately.

And they’re thriving in Indiana County, too.  Marcy Cunkelman was wondering why her flowers were missing their heads.  Then she caught this guy in the act.  Click the photo to see.

Very cute, but… !

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Read the Fine Print


Kathy Braman sent me this recent webcam photo from the Times Square building in Rochester, New York.

This is Beauty, born at the University of Pittsburgh in 2007 and now living in Rochester with her mate, Archer.  She hasn’t nested yet because she was too busy this spring taking part in a territorial drama.  She fought with and injured the reigning queen, Mariah, who required treatment at Syracuse.  Mariah was released and returned to her favorite spot in Rochester, the Kodak Building, while Beauty and Archer appeared to nest in the gutter of Midtown, an unused building. 

Eventually Beauty and Archer stopped focusing on Midtown and came over to this fancy nest box on the Times Square building, complete with high definition webcam.  They’ve been seen courting here so if all goes well they’ll probably nest at this site next spring.

In the meantime Beauty visits the nest box to check out her new home.  In this picture it almost looks as if she’s reading the words written on the back wall of the box, “BSA Troop 134, Rush NY.”  Good for her.  It’s important to read the fine print.   😉

(photo from the main camera at the Times Square building, Rochester, NY)

Right Beside The River

Rachel Carson with her brother and sister (photo courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Today I have an excuse to write about the little girl in this picture.  She’s Rachel Carson, one of my heroes, pictured here with her brother and sister beside the Allegheny River, circa 1915.

Rachel Carson was born in Springdale and grew up with the Allegheny River as her playground.  She eventually studied marine biology and zoology and worked for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  She also wrote many books, including The Sea Around Us, but her most famous book was Silent Spring in which she described the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides.  Birds prompted her to write the book, sparked by a letter from a friend who described birds dying on the spot after aerial pesticide spraying. 

When the book was published in 1962 Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and labeled as an emotional person who didn’t know what she was talking about.  Neither was true.  Silent Spring took the country by storm.  Ten years later Congress outlawed DDT making it possible for birds of prey – including the peregrine falcon – to make a comeback.  Thank you, Rachel Carson!

Besides the chance to talk about peregrines, my real excuse for writing about Rachel Carson is that she’s one of the many people featured in Rick Sebak’s new show — Right Beside The River – premiering this Thursday August 20 at 8:00pm on WQED.  It’s a whimsical look at the people, communities and activities that have sprung up along the rivers in our area.  You’ll like it.  Thursday, 8:00pm.

(photo courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)