Monthly Archives: June 2010

Out of this World

If you watch birds in Pennsylvania a glance at this one suggests it’s a red-tailed or rough-legged hawk.  

Nope.  It’s an upland buzzard (Buteo hemilasius), native to Central Asia. 

Todd Katzner is on a field expedition in Mongolia and emailed me this picture yesterday, a sample of the stunning raptors he’s seeing there. 

A lot of my scientist friends do field work in the summer, something I’ve never done.  To get a sense of what their trips are like I’ve been reading Tingay & Katzner’s The Eagle Watchers. 

Ghostly New Guinea harpy eagles, wary and comical Steller’s sea eagles.

The birds they see on field expeditions are out of this world.

(photo by Dr. Todd Katzner of the National Aviary)

I feel itchy

“For someone who likes the outdoors it’s surprising how much you hate insects.” 

Well, yes.  That’s the impression people get when they hear me talk about ticks and mosquitoes.

I HATE mosquitoes. 

My skin overreacts to mosquito bites which instantly become red, itchy welts.  I steel myself not to scratch them but my guard is down while I’m asleep and I wake to discover I scratched them overnight.  The bites are bigger and itchier than ever.   Aaaaarrrggg!

Only female mosquitos bite us and they do it to get a blood meal so they can develop their eggs.  While drinking our blood the little vampires inject us with their saliva which contains anticoagulant.  That’s how they transfer disease.  That’s how people catch malaria and how birds catch West Nile virus. 

In the beginning of time mosquitos bit only birds but now they bite mammals as well.  Why did they add mammals to the menu?  Because we smell just as tasty.

Mosquitos use their antennae to smell and they can sense much more than we do.  For starters, they can “smell” carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas birds and mammals exhale. 

But there’s more to it than that.  Last year researchers Walter Leal and Zain Syed of University of California, Davis identified the odor that when coupled with CO2 delivers the double-whammy, the odor that makes us irresistible.

“Nonanal is how they find us,” said Leal. “The antennae of the Culex quinquefasciatus are highly developed to detect even extremely low concentrations of nonanal.” 

When Leal and Syed baited mosquito traps with CO2 and nonanal (pronounced NAWN-uh-nawl) it more than doubled the attraction of CO2 alone.  This had to be painstaking work in more ways than one.

Now that they know what really attracts mosquitos, I hope they figure out how I can stop emitting it.  In the meantime I’ll continue to hike with long pants and long sleeves in hot, humid weather – just to avoid being bitten. 

Did I tell you I HATE mosquitoes?

(photo of a mosquito on a hollyhock from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

From the Top

News of the Pitt and Gulf tower peregrine families has been good since Thursday’s tragedy.

If you’ve kept up with the comments on my Green Boy post, you’ll know that Peter Bell and Anne Marie Bosnyak both observed the Pitt peregrines on Friday after work. (Information on Green Boy, his sister Yellow and the status of the chimney is at the bottom of my Green Boy post.)

Peter had his camera with him and saw the entire family, which now numbers three juveniles and two adults.  I love his photo of a juvenile on top of a miniature spire at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  See more of Peter’s pictures here.

Meanwhile downtown, Sharon Leadbitter has a birds-eye view of the Gulf Tower from her office inside the US Steel Building.  On Thursday she took her camera to work and was able to record video of a juvenile peregrine flying.   Her video below gives you an idea of how very big their world is – even when they’re close to home.

It’s a really nice view from the top.

Thanks to all of you for your news and photos of Pittsburgh’s peregrines.  Keep sending me your observations.  I appreciate your help keeping track of these birds!

(photo by Peter Bell, video by Sharon Leadbitter)

Summer Beauty: Culver’s Root

Culver's Root (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Here’s a stunning flower that blooms in western Pennsylvania from June to September.  I notice it on my travels in late summer.

Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is tall and showy – two to five feet tall with five or six densely packed spikes of small white flowers.  The flowers turn brown quickly so it won’t always look as perfect as this. 

The most curious thing to me about Culver’s Root is that it’s native to both eastern North America and to Asia.  I wonder how that happened…  Did birds carry its seeds?

If you’d like to see it in western Pennsylvania, visit Jennings Prairie in July.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Anatomy: Feathers wear out

After nesting is over, what’s the next big item on a bird’s agenda?  

It molts.

Birds lose their old feathers and grow new ones because their feathers wear out. 

Shown here are four primary feathers (remiges) molted by a black-legged kittiwake.  It’s easy to see that these feathers are no longer in good shape for flight.  Their edges are not smooth.

Notice how eroded the white barbs are compared to the black ones.  That’s because pigment adds strength to the feather.  The darker the pigment, the stronger the feather.  For this reason many sea birds have black tips on their white flight feathers and some birds have completely black primary or secondary feathers.

Check out these images of a lesser black-backed gull, an American white pelican and snow geese, to name a few.

For more on feather wear and how it affects the appearance of shorebirds, see this very helpful blog (written from Malaysia).

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

Green Boy, Rest in Peace

Exhuberant, active and always curious, Green Boy was found dead today in the chimney at Webster Hall.

His body was found because his sister, Yellow, was stuck in the chimney too.  Though dehydrated, she was still alive and screaming for food. 

Dorothy and E2 knew their youngsters were stuck but could do nothing about it except try to entice them out with food.  Just this afternoon I saw Dorothy deliver food to the Webster Hall roof but I didn’t know the real reason she stayed there.  I could not hear her daughter’s voice.

Fortunately Yellow’s noise prompted rooftop workmen to call the Game Commission.  The workmen said they couldn’t get on the roof because they were attacked by an adult peregrine.  

Beth Fife came to the rescue, then called to let me know what happened.  Yellow is getting medical attention and will likely be back to normal soon.

Not so for Green Boy.  Help came too late. 

He didn’t know the Webster Hall chimney was a trap.  The chimney is tall, narrow and made of white metal.  It’s big enough that a young peregrine can misstep on its rim and fall in, but too narrow and slippery to climb or fly out.  One of Pitt’s 2009 juvenile peregrines was found dead inside it last October but no one knew why.  Now Green Boy has died and Yellow is lucky to survive. 

Beth Fife has mandated that Webster Hall cover the chimney immediately.  I’m sure they will gladly do so.  They love these birds too.

Poor Green Boy.  I’ll miss his antics.  He held such promise.

(photo of Green Boy on the Cathedral of Learning 25th Floor roof in a moment of curiosity, by Kimberly Thomas)

p.s. Update on Yellow, June 25, 9:20am: News from Beth Fife is that Yellow hadn’t eaten for two days but after rehydration and a little meat is doing very well.  Yellow will stay a bit at the rehabber to make sure she’s in top condition.  (No other news since this date/time.)

p.s. Update on the chimney, July 1, 9:00am:  Today I was in the Cathderal of Learning where I could see the chimney from above.  It is indeed covered quite well.  It was covered the day after the accident and that’s why it looks so different from the ground.

And the answer is… Here

Most of the Gulf Tower peregrine fledglings are flying now and increasingly hard to find so yesterday I asked “Where are they now?” 

I shouldn’t have tempted The Fates. 

Last night a fledgling answered my question with, “Here!” and caused quite a stir.

Around 6:00pm Tuesday evening, email was abuzz with news from the webcam watchers.  Jennie had heard from a friend that a peregrine was on the ground near the Federal Reserve Bank on Grant Street. 

Jennie wasn’t downtown but she knew to call Game Commission Dispatch (724-238-9523).  The dispatcher knew all about the bird.  Yes, an officer answered that call and reported the bird DOA. 

Dead???  Oh no!

By the time I got into email at 8:00pm everyone was grieving but no one was sure what had happened.  Neither was I, so I left a message for WCO Beth Fife who was out of town.  Beth gathered the information and called me back.  What really happened was…

During rush hour pedestrians on Grant Street noticed a very beautiful young peregrine perched on a railing near the Federal Reserve Bank.  Many stopped to take pictures.  One of them called the Game Commission.  The bird did not move. 

When the Game Commission officer arrived to rescue the bird she wouldn’t let him near her.  Instead she flew away past the Federal Building and landed on top of the bus station — proving she can fly and land six stories up.  Nothing wrong with her!

The officer reported her “GOA” (Gone On Arrival), which sounds a heckuva lot like DOA, and that’s how we all got confused.

Here she is perched on the railing last night in a photo by Jim Altier.  Jim is from Youngstown and just started working in the Gulf Tower on Monday.  He happened to walk by while she was posing for everyone.  (She has blue tape on her right leg band; she’s one of the two female chicks.)

What luck for Jim to see a peregrine so close on his second day in town!  Welcome to Pittsburgh, Jim, and thanks for the photo.

(photo by Jim Altier)


p.s.  Thurs, June 24, 2:30pm:  Check the comments for more news on these fledglings.  The other female (white tape) was on the ground midday today with a wing problem & is on her way to rehab.

p.s.  Fri, June 25, 9:20am:  White-tape (Gulf Tower female) has a head injury.  She will be in rehab for quite a while.

Stellar Steller’s

This western bird is “stellar” but that’s not how he got his name.

In July 1741 the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was given a single day to study North American species.  Fortunately it was a long day with more than 20 hours of available light.

Steller’s opportunity came at Kayak Island, Alaska while on Vitus Bering‘s ill-fated last voyage.  The expedition anchored for one day to take on water so Steller quickly went ashore to catalog new species.  They headed home for Siberia the next day but became marooned on Bering Island where many expedition members perished.  Steller’s specimen of the jay was lost but his description of it was not.  The jay was later named for him.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) ranges west of the Rockies from Alaska to Nicaragua.  It’s similar to the blue jay but its color varies from dark in the north to paler in the south.  Inland birds have white flecks on their crests, coastal birds have blue. 

I hadn’t realized they varied so much until peregrine fan Michelline Halliday sent me this photo of the male jay who claims her Seattle backyard.  He and his mate raised their family nearby and are quite bold when Michelline comes near. 

But that’s partly their nature. 

Steller’s jays are highly social and hang out in groups which are dominated by a mated pair.  The birds in charge are those whose nesting territory the group is visiting at the time.  This means the dominant pair changes within the group as the group moves around.

I like to think of it as a progressive dinner party.  As the diners move from house to house, the birds in charge are those who are hosting that portion of the meal.  When everyone moves to a new location the new hosts take over. 

And they sure are dressed in beautiful “clothes.”  No wonder I get confused about the spelling of their name.  Steller’s.

(photo by Michelline Halliday)

Where are they now?

It’s getting hard to keep track of the Gulf Tower peregrine chicks even though two were still at the nest as of this morning. 

Anne Marie Bosnyak and Sharon Leadbitter have been doing their best to find the fledglings but it’s a challenge. The youngsters are always on the move.

On Monday, Sharon got lucky.  She watches from inside the US Steel Tower so she can see the birds at their own level.  When they fly near Gulf and Koppers they come within her view.

Pictured here is a peregrine fledgling Sharon saw on the roof of the 34-story Koppers Building.  (I added the red arrow.)

Who knew the building had posts atop its copper roof?  I didn’t until a peregrine chose to land there.

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

p.s. June 22, 3:00pm: I was lucky to see three peregrines at Pitt this afternoon.  Dorothy was roosting in her favorite nook on 32East and one of the juveniles was eating on the ledge at 10East.  A second juvie showed up and tried to take the meal from his sister.  No dice!  She mantled over it.

WHAT is he doing?

Chris Colaianni told me a story last week that involved a fish, this man and a bird.  It was the most astonishing thing he saw on his vacation.

In early June Chris went fishing at Lake Minnewanka in Banff, Canada with Captain Ray as the guide.  The group was doing catch-and-release so when they caught a big fish they Oooo’d and Aahhhh’d and let it go.   Then someone caught this small fish and Captain Ray said “Watch this!”

He put the fish’s head in his mouth and blew air into it.  After he’d blown into it a while he tossed the fish into the lake and it floated.  So… what kind of trick is this?

“Watch the fish.”

Until this point no one had been paying attention to birds.  Suddenly a bald eagle came out of nowhere, grabbed the floating fish and took it to its nearby nest.  Captain Ray was very proud of his bird trick.  “See, he gets the fish because it’s floating.”

Chris and his friends were grossed out by the fish-in-mouth technique but they wanted to see the eagle again so when they caught another small fish they killed it and threw it into the lake.

It floated.  The eagle came back again and grabbed the dead fish.

“That’s how Americans do it.”

It was a Canadian-American cross-cultural experience.

It reminds me of the Red Green show.

(photo by Chris Colaianni)