Monthly Archives: January 2010

Deep Freeze

Snow in January (photo by Dianne Machesney)
My gosh it’s cold! 

Friday morning it was 6o F.  Yesterday morning it was 12o.  This morning it’s back down to 7o

Not only is it cold but we’re missing the deep snow cover that provides insulation for plant roots and ground-dwellers.  The mid-January thaw and subsequent freeze will be very hard on the plants and animals living at the northern edge of their hardiness zone.  The good news is that it’s also hard on bugs, so maybe we’ll have fewer pests next spring.

When will it get warmer?  The weather forecast says it’ll be 37o on Thursday. 

In and out of the deep freeze again.

(photo by Dianne Machesney, taken before the mid-January thaw)


Emreald Ash Borer galleries in bark (photo by April Claus)
Last weekend I attended an owl prowl at Sewickley Heights Borough Park hosted by Fern Hollow Nature Center.  Even though it was cold and dark and our focus was on owls I learned something new about emerald ash borer (EAB), the insect blight that’s killing our ash trees.

At the edge of the playing field, April Claus showed us two dying ash trees.  Both had crown die-back, D-shaped holes in the bark, sucker branches on the trunk and a lot of woodpecker damage.  The dieback and sucker branches indicated these trees were struggling for their lives and losing the battle.   Extensive woodpecker damage indicated the trees were infested with bugs.

What bugs?  All the signs, especially the D-shaped exit-holes, pointed to EAB.

Before taking the next step park staff carefully inspected both trees and determined they were indeed doomed.  They then cut a sample of bark from one of the trees and sent it to bug experts for analysis.   When they cut off the bark they found extensive galleries (the tunnels inside the bark, pictured here) and larvae imbedded in the cambium.

Yes, it is EAB and there is no cure.

So now what?  Sewickley Heights Borough Park staff and volunteers are examining all the ash trees in the park, looking for similar damage.  They hope to select a few choice ash trees and protect them through preventative treatments.  The treatments are targeted and expensive and cannot save all the trees, only a few.  The hope is that EAB will reach a peak and then recede, as did the gypsy moth, and that these few trees will survive as breeding stock for the future.

Other than trying to save a few trees there is nothing anyone can do.  As April said, “Right now there is no end in sight.”

(photos by April Claus, Director of Environmental Education, Fern Hollow Nature Center)

p.s. See two prior blogs on this topic:  The Month for the Ax… and …Purple Panels in the Trees

Anatomy: Rump and Upper Tail Coverts

Yellow-rumped Warlber, illustrating upper tail coverts (photo by Chuck Tague)Here’s a bird who’s a natural for today’s anatomy lesson.

What’s that splash of bright yellow on this otherwise drab bird?  It’s his rump and it gave him his name:  yellow-rumped warbler.

Not only is this bird showing off his namesake but you can see a V of gray-edged dark feathers below his rump that overlap like shingles on a roof.  These are his upper tail coverts, the feathers on the top side of his body that cover his tail.  The pink arrow is pointing to them.

Upper tail coverts are usually bland feathers shorter than the tail, but peacocks have overturned that rule.  Their fancy “tails” are actually very long upper tail coverts that they raise during courtship display.  When they do this, they reveal a relatively small tail.

While our yellow-rumped warbler is paused, let’s use him to review some earlier anatomy lessons.

Can you see his nape?   It’s plain and gray compared to his mantle which has long dark stripes on a brown background.  If you look closely you can see the scapulars on his right wing, edged in brown.  They’re draped over his primary upper wing coverts whose feathers are edged in white.

This yellow-rumped warbler is in basic (i.e. winter) plumage and is posed in a way that hides the field marks on his sides and head that indicate his sex.  If he’s a male, he will molt his brown feathers and become black and white in the spring – but he’ll always keep his bright yellow rump.

What a cooperative bird!  Chuck Tague photographed him in Florida where yellow-rumped warblers are very common in winter.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Beyond Bounds: Least Tern

Least Tern feeding young (photo by Brian Herman)
If I had to pick a favorite tern this one is it.

The least tern is small, beautiful, animated and endangered.

Only the size of a starling, the least tern breeds on the open beaches of the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, throughout the Caribbean, and on gravel flats along rivers in Texas and the Mississippi watershed including the Missouri, Platte, Arkansas, Brazos, Trinity and Rio Grande.

Their habit of nesting on beaches has made them endangered because their nests fail completely when faced with human development and recreation.  They are especially vulnerable along rivers where channelization and dams either flood the beach or prevent the water from scouring riverbank vegetation and forming the gravel beds these birds require.  They do better in Atlantic coastal states where their beach nesting sites are roped off to keep out people, dogs and vehicles.

And, yes, these birds are cute.

The first time I saw one was mid-May in New Jersey when the terns were courting.  The females would stand on the sand while the males would chatter and fly out to the surf, capture a tiny fish and bring it back to their chosen mate.  If the lady was impressed she would chatter too, eat the fish and ultimately mate with him.  The carrying and presenting of the tiny fish was very cute and it was very like feeding a nestling, pictured here.

I wish I could see least terns more often but they live beyond the bounds of southwestern Pennsylvania.  Brian Herman photographed this parent and juvenile in New Jersey.

(photo by Brian Herman)

Watch Out Below!

Peregrine falcon, SW, stoops at prey in Cleveland (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

January 27, 2010:

Faster than a speeding bullet a female peregrine falcon dove off the Huntington Bank Building, accelerating only feet away from its vertical edge.

It was a daredevil move and it worked.  The pigeons loafing far below were shocked out of their daydreams and bolted off the window ledges.  Her new mate joined the fray in an impressive display of co-operative hunting.  What a team!

Teamwork is part of peregrine courtship because it takes the dedication of both adults to raise a brood of nestlings.  Before they nest, peregrines cement their pair bond and practice teamwork by chasing off threats (hawks, owls and vultures) and by hunting co-operatively.

During the hunt, one member of the pair rouses the prey and the other helps chase for the kill.  Sometimes it looks as if they are herding pigeons.  On rare occasions I’ve witnessed this action at Pitt, but it’s difficult to see with limited sight lines among the buildings.  Chad and Chris Saladin were lucky to be there when SW and her new mate, Ranger, showed off their skills in Downtown Cleveland on New Years Day 2010.

And what did it look like when the pigeons scattered?  Click SW’s photo to see.

Hey, you pigeons!  Watch out below!

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Rodent Roulette

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)
Sometimes I complain about the squirrels at my feeder and sometimes I marvel at them, but I never thought about how many there are until I heard this story last weekend.

Recently the woman who lives three doors down was on her front porch when a man drove up in a pickup truck and parked across from her house.  He then unloaded cage after cage of squirrels and proceeded to let them go at the edge of the city ballpark across our street.  In the midst of this activity he noticed her, quickly gathered his empty cages, jumped into his truck and drove away.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard of rodent relocation.

A co-worker who lives in the city once discovered a large family of groundhogs eating her garden.  She couldn’t bear to kill them so she captured them, one after the other, in a Have-a-Heart trap.  Each time she caught a groundhog her husband put the cage in the back of his truck and drove away.  At first she didn’t want to know where he took them but after the second or third trip she asked him what happened to the groundhog.  Her husband answered, “He’s living in the suburbs now.”

Like balls on the roulette wheel the unwanted rodents go for a spin.
“Round and round the roulette goes
Where it stops, nobody knows.”

Maybe “nobody knows,” but I’m pretty sure I have someone else’s squirrels at my feeder.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Stir Crazy

Anonymously decorated tree in North Park (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Another rainy Sunday afternoon and it’s making me stir crazy.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s not icy but I wanted to hike in the woods today and cold rain isn’t any fun.

Is anyone else anxious for good weather?  It appears so.

Dianne Machesney sent me this picture from North Park near the Lone Pine ball field and wrote, “Some unknown person has been decorating two tree limb stubs for years now. They change with the seasons and often sport Steeler clothes.”

To me this character’s saying, “Rain is a hopeful sign of spring.”

True, I should try to enjoy the rain.  By the end of the week the lows will be 18 degrees.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

How Are The Wrens Doing?

Shelter chosen by Carolina wren (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)That’s the question a lot of PABIRDers asked when the weather broke in mid-January.

True to their name, Carolina wrens are primarily southeastern birds who’ve expanded their range northward over the years. They’re resident now as far north as Ontario but are so sensitive to the cold that their populations plummet in harsh weather.

Pennsylvania birding data shows that Carolina wrens died back in the harsh winters of 1918, 1932-34, 1958, 1977 and 1994.  Earlier this month we had two very cold, snowy weeks with lows in the single digits and at least three inches of continuous snow cover.  Have the Carolina wrens survived?

Marcy Cunkelman’s have.  A pair of Carolina wrens claimed her Clarksburg yard as their own and she tells me they’ve made it through the worst.  I’m sure it’s because she provided them with the two things they need most in cold weather: food and shelter.

The food is her homemade peanut butter suet, a recipe she heard on Scott Shalaway’s radio program.  As Marcy says, the secret is real lard – no substitutes.  The recipe is variously attributed to Martha Sargent in Alabama and to Julie Zickefoose who published it on her blog.  If you’d like to try it, here it is:
No-melt Suet Recipe … (also called Zick Dough)
Melt 1 cup of lard and 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter in microwave or kettle.  Stir, then add:
     2 cups of quick cook oats
     2 cups yellow cornmeal
    1 cup of flour
     1/3 cup of sugar
Pour into square containers and freeze.

And what do Marcy’s wrens do for shelter?   They use this hanging basket. 

The side of her house and the greenery provide a wind break and the wrens have made home improvements by adding leaves, gray moss and the coconut fibers from Marcy’s plant liners.

It’s a delicious, cozy territory.  Quite a kingdom for the wrens.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Anatomy: Nape and Mantle

Peregrine falcon, illustrating nape and mantle (photo from the National Aviary webcam)Dorothy has agreed to pose for another anatomy lesson so today I’ll cover two of the features she’s showing in this picture:  nape and mantle.

Just as in humans, the nape on a bird is the back of its neck, marked here in green.

Mantle among humans means a cloak or covering.  On birds it refers to the feathers on their backs which I’ve outlined here in pink.  When a bird is at rest the mantle is often hard to distinguish from its wings if there’s no color contrast.

Mantle is also used as a verb as in, “She mantled over her prey.”  In this case it means “to cloak” and describes how the bird uses its wings and body to hide something from those who might steal it.  Click here for a good picture of a red-tailed hawk mantling over its prey in Downtown Pittsburgh.

…Now, if you’re new to this blog you may be wondering who Dorothy is. She’s a wild peregrine falcon who nests at the University of Pittsburgh with her mate E2.  She received her name in Wisconsin when she was banded in 1999.  Sometimes I pretend to know what she’s saying (witness the beginning of this blog) but she keeps her own counsel.  I can only guess her meaning.

On the other hand, I see her nearly every day when I walk by the Cathedral of Learning so if you’re anxiously awaiting peregrine nesting season I know you won’t have long to wait.  Dorothy and E2 are courting now and on sunny days they zoom around the Cathedral of Leaning in beautiful courtship flights.  Sometimes E2 brings her food to prove he’s a good provider and cement their pair bond.

In a few weeks the National Aviary’s peregrine webcams will be running at Pitt and the Gulf Tower so we’ll be able to see the birds at their nests.  In the meantime you can watch Dorothy and E2’s occasional visits to the Pitt nest on the Aviary’s snapshot webpage.

Perhaps you’ll see Dorothy pose like this, showing her nape and mantle.

(photo of Dorothy, the adult peregrine falcon at University of Pittsburgh, from the National Aviary webcam in June 2009)

Beyond Bounds: Yellow-crowned Night-heron

Yellow-crowned Night-heron (photo by Steve Gosser)
If you’ve been following my Beyond Bounds series you’ll have noticed that most of the birds I highlight are long-legged wading birds.  Today’s blog is no exception.

Yellow-crowned night-herons are found year-round in Florida and along the Caribbean coast all the way to Brazil.  They breed as far north as coastal Connecticut and in southern Indiana and Illinois but they rarely wander to southwestern Pennsylvania.  That’s because they eat crabs, crayfish and aquatic insects in marshes and wooded swamps.  Again the Pittsburgh area strikes out on habitat. 

This heron is well named.  The crown of his head is yellow and he’s very nocturnal.  His blue-gray plumage earned him the Latin name Nyctanassa violacea and he has red eyes, perhaps an adaptation for nighttime vision.

Despite his predilection for darkness, the first time I saw a yellow-crowned night-heron was in broad daylight at Nummy Island, NJ.  It was mid-May and the herons and egrets were busy nesting.  True to their nocturnal habits, most of the night-herons were roosting in thick woody shrubs but one of them was dragging around with bleary eyes carrying sticks to her nest.  I guess she was running out of time and had to “pull an all-nighter.”

If you want to see yellow-crowned night-herons in Pennsylvania your best bet is during late spring or early summer in the lower Susquehanna and Delaware valleys.  Even then they’re rare.  You usually have to travel beyond our bounds. 

Steve Gosser photographed this one in Florida.

(photo by Steve Gosser)