Monthly Archives: October 2009

It’s Halloween!

Pumpkin (photo by Chuck Tague)
Today’s the day for spooks and ghosts.  Its colors are black and orange, the black of night and witches’ hats, the orange of glowing embers and the harvest moon.

Why aren’t our black-and-orange birds associated with Halloween?  Probably because Baltimore orioles, American redstarts and Blackburnian warblers are small and harmless and they’ve migrated out of North America by late October.  Instead the smart and crafty crows and ravens are symbols of this spooky holiday.  Black is in and the crows are in town.

For the color orange you can’t beat pumpkins.  Did you know that pumpkins are native to the Americas but they’re now grown around the world?  The major pumpkin-growing countries are the U.S., Mexico, India and China.  Pennsylvania is one of the top five pumpkin producing states so when I buy a pumpkin I’m “buying local.”

This Halloween we get a bonus.  We’ll turn our clocks back tonight and get an extra hour of sleep.  The bad news is that the sun will set at 5:07pm on Sunday and the black of night will descend upon us an hour earlier.

Happy Halloween!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Remote Bird Identification

Black Swan (photo from Wikimedia, in the public domain)
Because I like birds, people often describe a bird they couldn’t identify and ask me if I can tell them what it was.  This week a request from my sister had me stumped for a while. 

My sister’s house overlooks a salt marsh in coastal Virginia.  From her back windows she can see a host of birds I never see at home:  bald eagles, osprey and great egrets, to name a few.  Mary isn’t a bird watcher but sometimes she sees something unusual and asks me what it is.  This week she wrote:  “A large bird – like a goose – I don’t know – has been hanging out at our marsh for the past 4 weeks by himself and he is all black except for under his tail or wing.  Mom and Dad saw it yesterday and didn’t know what it was either.”

Based on that description I sent her some photo links of brants and greater white-fronted geese.  She wrote back, “Nope isn’t that…I looked again with binoculars (wish they were stronger but they are not).  It has a long neck like a swan.  Black except white under its wings.  Beak is reddish.”

There are no black swans native to North America but they do exist in southern Australia.  I wouldn’t even know about them except that they’re sometimes imported to adorn man-made ponds and I’m familiar with a small flock at the water hazards of the Ponderosa Golf Course in Hookstown, PA.  Google and Wikimedia came up with this picture.  I sent it to my sister and she replied, “100% YES!”

What will happen to this bird?  Who can say?  He’s alone, imported from a remote place, and probably escaped from his former life as a pond ornament.  His large size protects him.  A salt marsh in southern Virginia where it rarely snows is probably just fine for the winter. 

And for me?  Another victory in Remote Bird Identification.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.  Click on the image to see the original)

Packing It In

Eastern Chipmunk (photo by Brian Herman)
There’s not much time left to prepare for winter, especially if you’re a chipmunk.

Eastern Chipmunks don’t hibernate and they don’t even fatten up in autumn like groundhogs.  Instead they stash a winter’s worth of food in their underground burrows where they live from late October to early March (in Pennsylvania) in periodic bouts of torpor.

Torpor is a short period of lowered body temperature and metabolism which conserves energy when it’s cold.  For chipmunks the length of torpor is highly variable.  They wake up throughout the winter to eat and even come out to forage if the weather’s nice.

Busy, busy, busy!  The chipmunks haven’t disappeared underground in the Pittsburgh area yet but their deadline is fast approaching.  To expedite their task they can pack up to 32 beech nuts in their cheeks before heading home.  Once there, they store the food in various chambers in their elaborate burrows which extend as much as 33 feet long and three feet below the surface.  Quite a palace.

I can imagine a chipmunk returning home at this time of year and inspecting the cupboard.  Do I have enough food yet?  Is the weather still good enough to go out and get more?  Is it time to stay home and sleep?

In the next week or two a cold front will come through, the weather will turn nasty and the chipmunks will pack it in.  Then we’ll have to wait for a sunny winter day to see them again.

(photo by Brian Herman)

Food for birds, not for people

Downy Woopecker eating poison ivy berries (photo by Chuck Tague)
What was this downy woodpecker doing before she got nervous about having her picture taken?  She was eating those whitish berries.

What are those whitish berries?  Poison ivy!

This fall there’s a good crop of poison ivy berries in western Pennsylvania and the birds are loving it.  I’ve seen large flocks of migrants hopping among the vines and eating the berries.  I’m always amazed they do this.  Touching poison ivy causes a nasty rash for most people.  Eating the berries would be devastating, even life threatening.

I have heard that some people think you can desensitize yourself to poison ivy by eating small amounts and gradually increasing the dose.  Would you want to be the one to try?

Now that the leaves have fallen it’s harder to recognize poison ivy so be careful not to collect these vines and berries for decorations.  Look, but don’t touch!

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Food for Birds

Fruit stems on sassafras tree (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Not only is this arrangement colorful, it’s a signal to birds that says, “Eat me!”  And that’s just what they did.  The fruit is gone.

These are the green leaves and red pedicels of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a medium to large-sized tree that’s unusual in several ways:

  • Its leaves have three distinct shapes:  smooth egg, two-lobed mitten, and three-lobed fingers.  Click here to see the shapes.
  • Its bead-like deep blue fruit stands up on each bright red stalk and is eaten by birds and bears so quickly that I rarely see it.  Click here to see the fruit on the stem.  Pretty amazing, huh?
  • Its twigs are browsed by rabbits and deer.
  • And Sassafras is food for humans too.  We (used to!) make tea from the roots’ outer bark and gumbo filé from powdered leaves.  Scroll down to the third paragraph here for more information on its edible qualities.

Sassafras says “eat me” and birds oblige.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Who are you?

Dunlin in basic (winter) plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
That’s the question I ask of all the shorebirds I see.

This year I’m making a new effort to study shorebirds because I’m so bad at identifying them.  My task is made harder by living in Pittsburgh where we have no breeding habitat and no ocean.  My best bet is to visit the places they stop on migration – at least an hour’s drive away.

Last Sunday at Pymatuning I heard there were dunlin and pectoral sandpipers in the first empty pond at the Fish Hatchery so I went there to see them.  My method is to sit down and watch for a while because they all look the same to me.  Were they really the same species?

I looked for the standard fieldmarks to separate the sheep from the goats:

1)  Did they have fancy or colorful plumage?  No.  They were all the color of sand and very dull in their basic (winter) plumage.  I couldn’t see any distinct bibs on these birds as I expected to find on pectoral sandpipers.  Had the pectorals left or was I just really bad at this?

2)  What color were their legs?  Most had dark legs but a few seemed to have yellowish legs like pectoral sandpipers.  Was the yellow a trick of the light or were the pectorals still there?  Were there other species I hadn’t heard about?  Or was I just incredibly bad at this??

3)  What color and shape were their bills?  Black bills from face to tip!   Their bills were ‘fat’ at their faces and slightly droopy at the tip.  (Dunlin.)  But some of the bills were a little different and some of the birds would not show me their bills – like the bird in this picture.  Sneaky!

So you see, I still have challenges (one being that I don’t own a scope) and am probably missing some key fieldmarks that would have helped.

In the end I figured out that all the birds were dunlin.  The pectorals had left.  Whew!

(photo of a Dunlin by Chuck Tague)

Counting Crows

American crows (photo by Chuck Tague)

1 or 2…  10 or 20…  100 or 200.

That’s what it’s been like to count crows around here this fall.

In August I could always find 1 or 2.  In September it was normal to see 10 or 20.  Now the winter crow flock is gathering in the East End of Pittsburgh and I see 100 or 200 fly over my house at dawn.

Why stop there?

Soon there’ll be 1,000 to 2,000 and by the time we do the Christmas Bird Count in late December we’ll have 10,000, maybe even 20,000 crows.  At that point they’ll change their staging areas frequently, just to keep us on our toes while we’re counting crows.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Mystery Solved

Red fox (photo from the National Park Service)

October 23, 2009:

For more than a week my husband and I have heard a mysterious hoarse barking in our neighborhood at night, sometimes behind our house, sometimes at the ballpark across the street.  It’s usually three to ten short hoarse barks, then it stops for a while and starts up again in another location.  The first time I heard it, it woke me at 4:00am.  I lay frozen in bed, listening.  There’s a wild thing outside!

We live in a city neighborhood where the houses are five feet apart and the backyards are 600-700 square feet so wild things are unusual, even startling, where we live.  I’ve seen birds and raccoons and groundhogs.  But larger animals?  No.  We don’t even have deer on my street.

Every night we hear the barking.  It starts as early as 8:30pm and it’s quite loud.  The neighbors turn on their outdoor lights and peer into the darkness.  We talk about it at the bus stop, “Did you hear it last night?  What is it?”

In the beginning I ruled out red fox because I’d heard one bark in Maine and this sound is not nearly so creepy, but Wednesday night the barking was very close and downright annoying.  I had to know so I searched online again and found this excellent video of a “Vixen Barking.”  Aha!

Thursday morning she called from the wooded gully across the street an hour before dawn.  I watched from my front porch as one housecat, then another, scurried across the road to the safety of houses.  She barked again, half a block away, then crossed the street and I saw her silhouetted by the streetlight.  A fox!  Very cool.

Why is she in my neighborhood and how long will this barking go on?  I found those answers online, too.

  • Foxes like places that have high prey populations, especially rabbits.  We have lots of squirrels and this summer a bumper crop of rabbits.
  • Foxes bark to claim territory.  Unlike distress or fighting sounds of other animals, foxes repeat the call to get the message across.
  • Foxes pair for life but the family stays together only during the breeding season.  At this time of year the families split up and the young foxes are finding new places to live.  Our fox may be new to the area.
  • The barking will certainly end by the next breeding season – probably much sooner.  Just to prove the point she was silent last night.

Mystery solved.


(photo from the National Park Service via Wikimedia, in the public domain)

Special Kestrels

American Kestrel, male (photo by Brian Herman)
Since I missed the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch last weekend I’m itching to go out there today — but I can’t, I have to work.  To compensate for this I spent time last evening looking through the hawk watch records at  The statistics are fascinating and they support a hunch I started to develop last year.

Every fall I attend two hawk watches 775 miles apart.  In early September I visit the Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch in Maine and see mostly American kestrels and sharp-shinned hawks, approximately one kestrel for every two sharpies.  Then in October/November I visit the Allegheny Front where the most common hawks are sharp-shins and red-tails in nearly equal numbers.  The kestrel count there is low, sometimes insignificant. 

I used to think my experience at Cadillac Mountain was normal for September and that I missed seeing kestrels at The Front because I visited it too late in the fall.  (That’s how I miss broad-winged hawk migration.)  But I had a hunch I’d got it backwards.  Perhaps, I thought, kestrels are scarce and my experience at Cadillac is unusual.

The numbers at bear that out.  Compared to the number of sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels are 40-60% as numerous at Cadillac but are only 4-10% as numerous in Pennsylvania.

Kestrels really aren’t a big item at most hawk watches and my experience isn’t “normal.”  I prefer to think of it as special.  Special, like the kestrels themselves who are one of the most beautiful raptors on earth.

(photo of a male American Kestrel by Brian Herman)