Monthly Archives: February 2010

Snowiest on Record

Queen Anne's Lace in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
It’s the last day of the shortest month of the year.  Thank heaven!  

As of this morning the first 27 days of February produced 48.3 inches of snowfall.  This is already the snowiest month ever recorded in Pittsburgh and if any accumulates today the record will go higher.  Today’s forecast calls for snow.  Less than an inch.  Hmmmm.

Until this month I was always happy to see snow.  Perhaps my short respite in Florida lowered my tolerance.  Perhaps more than four feet of it turned me off.

I still think snow is beautiful but I’m weary of it.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Drama at the Inlet

Kate St. John birding at Matanzas Inlet, Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)
You’d think I’d be sorry to be back in Pittsburgh (since last Tuesday night) but I learned that birding is not always a warm weather sport, even in a warm weather location like Florida.

Here I am at Matanzas Inlet on February 19th.  Notice my coat, hat and gloves.

I didn’t notice when Chuck Tague took this picture because I was so absorbed in a drama unfolding on the water.  The tide was going out and the fish were caught in the current.  This spawned a feeding frenzy of gulls and terns who dove to catch the fish while others chased to steal them.

As I watched, a royal tern caught a particularly beautiful long, thin, silver fish almost like an eel.  The laughing gulls chased the tern but he evaded them until a great black-backed gull tackled him and slammed him down on the water.  The gull sat on the tern, grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled his head back until he could see the tern’s beak.  By then the tern had dropped the fish and there was nothing to steal.  Disappointed, the gull let the tern struggle free.

What a bully!  I felt bad for the tern.  The gull didn’t win his dinner but he won my respect.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Anatomy: Crown

White-crowned Sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman, altered to highlight the crown)Here’s a conundrum:  All birds have crowns but not every bird is crowned.

In bird anatomy the crown is the top of the head.  All birds have one and it’s usually unremarkable.  When the crown is pretty or a different color the bird is often named for it.  Thus the white-crowned sparrow pictured here. 

I usually see white-crowned sparrows from the side or below with little opportunity to examine their crowns, so this picture is a rare treat.  Notice how the edges of his crown are jagged.  If they were straight the white patch would probably be called a stripe.  The elaborate crown camouflages this bird in dappled sunlight and he raises it to claim territory.  Pretty cool. 

Surprisingly there are not many “crowned” birds in North America and even fewer in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Here you’re likely to see only these:

  • Black-crowned night-heron
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Golden-crowned kinglet
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • White-crowned sparrow

And of those listed above, you’ll be lucky to see the crowns on the kinglets and warbler.  They only raise it when they’re excited.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Beyond Bounds: Anhinga

Anhinga (photo by Kim Steininger)
Is this a water turkey?  Snake-bird?  American Darter?  Or Anhinga anhinga?

It’s all of the above.

The anhinga has many names because it’s such a strange bird.  It has a large fan tail like a turkey and a long thin neck like a snake.  It darts underwater and impales fish with its bill.  Its Latin name came from its common name which came from a South American (Tupi) word for forest demon.

The anhinga genus are tropical birds that occur worldwide, anywhere there’s warm water, lots of sun, sticks to stand on and plenty of fish.  Those in the Western Hemisphere are called “anhinga.”  The rest are called darters.

Anhingas eat fish and they swim to catch them.  Their hunting technique is to lurk and dart so they’re specially adapted to neither float nor sink.  Often they swim with only their heads and necks visible.  To achieve this neutral buoyancy they have dense bones and wettable feathers.  When their feathers are wet, they get cold and must haul themselves out of the water and spread their wings to dry.  That’s why they need lots of sun and sticks to stand on.

This, of course, means anhingas are practically unheard of in Pennsylvania.  I don’t know of a sighting in southwestern Pennsylvania but anhingas do wander and occasionally appear in spring or fall along eastern Pennsylvania migration routes.  When found, the bird is soaring and on the move.  One or two lucky birders notice it … and then it’s gone.

But they seem to be everywhere in Florida, sunning their wings.  That’s where Kim Steininger photographed this one.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Why don’t they fly?

Ostrich at Ngorongoro, photo by Wikimedia user Nicor
Huge flightless birds occur on many continents.  The ostrich lives in Africa, emus and cassowaries in Australia, rheas in South America and the giant moa, now extinct, in New Zealand.

For a long time scientists thought all these birds had a common flightless ancestor which lived on the mega-continent Gondwana before it separated into today’s smaller continents.  The theory was that the flightless birds were stranded on their separate lands and then diverged.

But now, thanks to DNA sequencing of the giant moa, scientists at Australian National University (ANU) have shown that its nearest ancestor is a small flying bird, the tinamou of South America.  Long after Gondwana broke apart the tinamou flew to New Zealand.  Millions of years later some of its descendants had evolved into the giant moa.

Why did this happen?  The ability to fly is such a huge advantage, how could these birds afford to lose it?  ANU’s molecular dating suggests that the flightless species had been flying birds who fed on the ground and could run well.  When the dinosaurs went extinct there was suddenly a lot of food, fewer predators and less need to fly to escape them.  Over time some ground-dwelling birds became quite big and heavy.  They didn’t need to fly and eventually they couldn’t.

Voila the ostrich!  An unexpected outcome from of the extinction of the dinosaurs.

For more information see this article in Science Daily.

(photo by Nicor from Wikimedia under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license. Click on the image to see the original)

Swan Divorce

Bewick's swan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Bewick’s swan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some species are so completely monogamous that, once mated, the pairs stay together for the rest of their lives.

This level of faithfulness is rare. Humans strive for it but we and many other species tend to practice serial monogamy: pairing with one mate, then breaking up and pairing with another.

For tundra swans (whose subspecies include Bewick’s swans) their pairings are truly “Til death do us part.”  Swans are so wedded to their one mate that a widowed swan may not choose a new mate for a very long time — if ever.

So it was with great surprise that staff at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Slimbridge, UK noticed that a pair of Bewick’s swans had apparently divorced.

Bewick’s swans nest in Siberia.  The western group spends the winter in Denmark, the Netherlands and the British Isles, returning to the same site year after year.  Because each Bewick’s swan has a unique yellow and black bill pattern, naturalists at Slimbridge are able to identify the individual swans who come to their refuge.

That’s how they found out that Sarindi and Saruni had split.

Last fall Sarindi came back to Slimbridge with a new mate so naturalists feared the worst – Saruni was dead.  But Saruni arrived with her new mate and there they were, all four birds on the same lake and the former couple not acknowledging each other.

No one knows why this pair went their separate ways but it’s such a rare occurrence – only the second time in over 40 years – that it rated its own headline in the BBC News.  Swan divorce.


(photo of Bewick’s Swan showing its distinctively marked bill, by Adrian Pingstone, from Wikipedia in the public domain)

King and Queen

Pair of Royal Terns in New Jersey (photo by Kim Steininger)
Speaking of crests, as I did yesterday, here are a couple of crested characters.

These royal terns are common on our southern coasts and found year-round on the coast of Florida.  Wherever they occur they’re hard to miss because they’re very noisy and highly social.  They always have something to say and someone to say it to.

Both of their given names are a puzzle to me.  Why are they called Sterna maxima (largest tern) when Caspian terns are larger?  According to Cornell’s Birds of North America, these are the largest crested terns though to my eye Caspians have crests too, they’re just shorter.  

And why are they called “royal?”  Perhaps because their crests suggest a royal crown.  The royal theme carries through to their collective name.  A group of royal terns is called a “highness of terns.”

So here they are, a royal highness.  I can’t tell which one is king and which the queen, they look too much alike.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

Anatomy: Crest

Juvenile Crested Caracara (photo by Chuck Tague, altered to highlight its crest)The word “crest” describes a lot of things —  the crest of a hill, the crest of a wave, the crest on a helmet, the crest of a roof — but its primary meaning is “a comb or tuft on a bird’s head.”

Blue jays, tufted titmice and northern cardinals have noticeable crests that they raise or lower depending on their mood.  Most of the time their crests appear to be in the “up” position but a really excited cardinal can raise its crest even further, as shown at this link.

Some birds have “crest” in their names.  This is an immature crested caracara, a Central and South American bird that also lives in Texas and Florida.  (I can tell it’s immature because of its brown plumage and pink cere.)

The crest, indicated by an arrow, looks almost like long flowing hair.  When a crested caracara gets excited the “hair” stands up on the back of his head.

After Chuck took his picture, this bird got excited and raised his crest.  He looked so funny I nearly laughed.  Click on his photo to see why.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Beyond Bounds: Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone (photo by Bobby Greene)
If I’m lucky I’ll see this bird in the next few days, but he won’t be this brightly colored. 

This is a ruddy turnstone in breeding plumage.  By his color you can see why he’s called “ruddy.”  “Turnstone” comes from his behavior.  This shorebird eats insects, beetles and crustaceans and literally turns stones to find them.  Of course he prefers stony, not sandy, beaches.

Ruddy turnstones breed in the Arctic and winter along our Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts.  This keeps them beyond the bounds of southwestern Pennsylvania but during migration they sometimes stop on the shores of Lake Erie.  If you drive a couple of hours to the lake in August you may see one there.  Bobby Greene photographed this one at Conneaut, Ohio.

And why do I think I’ll see a ruddy turnstone soon?   I’m on my way to Florida to visit Chuck and Joan Tague and do a lot of birding.  At some point we’ll visit a rocky jetty and perhaps find a ruddy turnstone who’s spending his winter there.

(photo by Bobby Greene)