Monthly Archives: August 2010

Journey of the Broad-Winged Hawk

Every year beginning in late August, broad-winged hawks head south on a 4,500 mile journey from their nesting territories in North America to their winter grounds in Central and South America.  It’s a journey many of us witness at Pennsylvania hawk watches. 

In WQED’s second offering on Things With Wings Sunday (September 26), we will broadcast a beautiful award-winning documentary, Journey of the Broad-winged Hawk.  

The program, produced by New Hampshire Public Television, traces the journey of the hawks and connects with people who watch them along the way. 

It starts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where we learn how the hawks ride thermals, pauses at Hawk Mountain to watch the migration, then travels down to Corpus Christi where huge kettles of broad-wings fly by during the week of September 23-30.  By the time the hawks reach Texas there are more than 540,000 of them on the move. 

Some broad-wings will spend the winter in Ecuador so the program follows them there to highlight two beautiful places —  Maquipucuna Preserve and Condor Park in Otavalo — where we meet the people of Ecuador who protect bird habitat and educate others about birds. 

Along the way we learn that, for broad-winged hawks our mountains and coastlines are highways and both New Hampshire and Ecuador are “home.”   

The hawks and their journey connect us across two continents.

Don’t miss Journey of the Broad-winged Hawk on Things with Wings Sunday, September 26 at 3:00pm.

(photo of Ecuador’s mountains from NHPTV’s Journey of the Broad-winged Hawk)

Brown Rafts

One of the most plentiful ducks in autumn at Acadia National Park is the common eider.

When eiders finish nesting their families form large flocks and move along the coast to find mollusks and crustaceans to eat.  The birds stay so close together on the water that an eider flock is called a raft.

A reliable place to find them at Acadia is just off Otter Point at high tide.  The rafts float above submerged rocks where the mussels and crabs are lurking.  Eiders must be very strong swimmers because they seem to prefer diving through crashing waves to pluck a meal from the rocks 50 feet underwater. 

In the fall the males change out of their beautiful black and white breeding plumage and become brown with white accents.  With the females and juveniles already brown-colored, and the males changing to “definitive basic plumage,” the rafts are composed of mostly brown birds.

Believe me, this can be confusing when you’ve heard there are eiders at Otter Point and you can’t find any that look like this!

(photo by Kaido Kärner from Shutterstock)

Maine’s Dandelion

In late summer the grass doesn’t grow fast and we all get a break from cutting it.  In our yard we have a good crop of weeds because we don’t use weed killer and the grass has gone dormant during this month’s dry spell. 

The dominant weed in our yard is English plantain, raising its bald, knob-like flower heads eight inches above the grass.  It’s the only thing that needs cutting.

My husband debates with me, “Do I really need to run the mower over those knobs?  The grass is short.”  We aren’t gardeners so the plantain stays.

In Maine they have much prettier weeds.  The grass is going dormant here too but instead of ugly English plantain, their hawkweed is in bloom. 

Hawkweed is in the Aster family and there are many varieties.  The flower I see in Maine yards is probably Field Hawkweed or Pale Hawkweed.  Both grow one to three feet tall and produce pretty yellow flowers.  In mowed areas the flowers don’t reach that height so they’re about as tall as my plantain. 

In my opinion Hawkweed of any kind is much prettier than dandelions. 

No debate here.  Don’t cut the hawkweed!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons by D. Gordon E. Robertson. Note that the flower pictured above is Canada Hawkweed. Click on the photo to see the original.)

Hawk Watch Information

Cory DeStein asked me about Hawk Watch information and I realized that many of you may be interested in it too.

Hawk Watches, where people count migrating birds of prey, are active right now across North America.  In Pennsylvania the first big push of broad-winged hawks is in progress.  You can see how many broad-wings pass each day in the statistics posted on the HMANA (Hawk Migration Association of North America) Hawk Count website.  (Choose the hawk watch by name.)

The HMANA website is also a great way to locate a hawk watch near you.  Just click on the map of North America here and select your state.  If you decide to visit one, keep in mind the weather makes all the difference.  Hawks like to migrate in good weather with a tail wind. 

Not sure what a Hawk Watch is?  Click here for a 2016 story that describes what it’s like to watch hawks at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania.

(logos from HMANA at  Click on the images to visit the website.)

Anatomy: Supercilium

Today’s anatomy lesson is about eyebrows.

The supercilium, sometimes called the bird’s eyebrow, literally means “above the eyelid.”  It’s a set of facial feathers which extend above the eye from the bird’s beak to the back of its head. 

Often this feature is light colored and, on some birds, it doesn’t extend all the way to the back of the head.  In any case, it’s an important field mark and quite useful when identifying sparrows. 

Here, a chipping sparrow at Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder poses to model his white supercilium (indicated by blue arrow).

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Things With Wings Sunday – Sept 26

Mark your calendars for Things With Wings Sunday, September 26.

Starting at 2:30pm, WQED will broadcast 4.5 hours of programs about birds and birding.  Here’s the line-up:

  • 2:30pm, On The Wing: The Swifts of Chapman School
  • 3:00pm, Journey of the Broad-winged Hawk
  • 4:00pm, Rare Bird
  • 5:00pm, A Summer of Birds
  • 6:00pm, Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at the World Series of Birding

I’ll tell you more about these shows as the time approaches, but there are so many I have to start right now.

The first program will be a re-broadcast of On The Wing: The Swifts of Chapman School.  It tells the story of the Vaux’s swifts who put on an amazing aerial display every evening during fall migration as they swirl to roost in the chimney of a Portland, Oregon elementary school.  The event has become a cult phenomenon in Portland, attracting hundreds and thousands of observers each year.

I reviewed this show last year just before we first broadcast it, so click here to read more and see the trailer.  There’s a bonus if you click.  I give you tips on where to find swirling chimney swifts in Pittsburgh.

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

How do you know it’s a moth?

24 August 2011:

Most moths are nocturnal but Dianne Machesney found this Chickweed Geometer Moth during the day at Hillman State Park.

How can you tell it’s a moth?

First clue: Is it flying?  Moths fly at night(*), butterflies fly during the day.

Second clue: How does it hold its wings when resting?  Moths open their wings flat (as above) or fold them tightly flat over their backs. Butterflies hold their wings upright, clapped shut above their bodies(**). Click here to see an illustration of these postures.

Third and Best Clue: Look at its antennae.  Moths have fuzzy antennae with many tiny branches.  Butterflies have smooth antennae with little knobs at the end.

Of course there are exceptions.  The Chickweed Geometer moth flies during the day (* erf!).  However, the males have very fuzzy antennae.  You can tell this moth is a boy.

For more information on the differences between moths and butterflies, see a summary at Live Science or this detailed discussion at Wikipedia.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

(**) p.s. Skippers are butterflies but their resting posture is halfway between that of a typical moth or butterfly.


The sounds of nature are dominated by different animals as the growing season progresses.  Here’s a list of who “sounds off” in western Pennsylvania:

  • March and early April: Frogs
  • April, May, early June: Birds
  • mid-June, July, August: Insects

I don’t have to tell you the insects are loud right now, especially cicadas and katydids.

Crickets start and end the “bug noise” season with a chorus in mid June that continues right up to the first frost.  Until it freezes crickets don’t seem to care what temperature it is.  They just chirp faster in the heat, slower in the cold.

Did you know you can use a cricket’s chirp like an audio thermometer?  Count the number of chirps of a lone cricket for 15 seconds, then add 37.  Ta dah!  That’s the approximate temperature in Fahrenheit.

I’ve found this formula works well on a chilly September evening because the cricket chirps are distinct and slow but it failed my test this morning.  It’s not 84 degrees. Did I miscount?

Meanwhile, we aren’t the only ones listening to the chirps.  Female crickets are listening, too.  The males whose chirps are most attractive will be their mates.

Click here to listen to fall field crickets (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) at the Songs of Insects.


(drawing of a female common black cricket, Gryllus assimlis, by R.E.Snodgrass of USDA from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. The cricket in the illustration is female due to her long central “tail,” the ovipositor.