Monthly Archives: January 2012

In a Snow Year

January 20 – February 11 is the time for Pennsylvania’s Winter Raptor Survey (WRS) when volunteers drive prescribed routes and tally the number of raptors they see.

Many volunteers post their counts on PABIRDS where we learn that our most numerous winter raptors are red-tailed hawks.  (No surprise there!)

The reports include weather and snow cover conditions because this affects the number of raptors seen.  This year few routes have snow.

In a snowy year rough-legged hawks move south in Pennsylvania.  They breed in Alaska and Canada and winter in the Lower 48.  They’re found hunting in open meadows and brushy areas for mice, voles and rabbits.  But only where there’s snow cover.  If there’s snow, the rough-legs are here.  If not, they stay up north.

Two years ago we had a lot of snow — so much that it was hard to drive the routes.  (Remember the two feet of snow February 5-9, 2010?)   This year it’s easy to drive but the birding isn’t as good.

I’m not asking for a return to the snow of 2010 but snow in moderation would be nice, if only for rough-legged hawks.

Steve Gosser was lucky to see this one at Pymatuning on January 14.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Atmospheric Effects

Yesterday the sky attracted my attention.

In the morning I saw thin lines of rain hanging from the clouds without touching the ground.


Virga means “rod” in Latin and is the name for precipitation that evaporates before reaching the ground.  It’s very common out West where the air is dry and virga’s rapid evaporation causes high winds.

I tried to take a picture but the best of the virga drifted behind the ballpark lights.  In the middle of the photograph you can see “rods” falling and curling from the cloud.  Moments earlier there was more separation between the rain and the ground.  I just wasn’t quick enough.  Click here for a much better picture of virga.

The sky cleared at midday, then high, thin clouds moved in ahead of a cold front.  Way up there, above 20,000 feet, the air was filled with tiny ice crystals that caused an optical effect — a halo around the sun.

Halos are circular pastel rainbows that occur when sunlight passes in one side of the hexagonal ice crystals and out another side.  The light is doing this all over the sky but we typically see halos at 22o from the sun (or moon), though other angles are possible.

I can tell you it’s hard to take a halo’s picture because the sun confuses the camera.  I tried to block the sun with a telephone pole but that wasn’t enough.  I had to use my mitten too, so this photo is odd.

Click here for a better picture of a halo.

Keep looking up.  You may see some atmospheric effects.

(photos by Kate St. John)



p.s. Late on Monday afternoon we had a mackerel sky (shown below).  Can you guess why it’s called that?

Winter Warbler?

It’s been an unusually warm winter with lots of rain and temperatures reaching the 60’s last week.

Because of the weather, the lakes are ice free so the northern birds we’d expect to see aren’t here.

On the other hand, there’s a hotspot of unusual birds in south central Pennsylvania.  The most amazing is this Townsend’s warbler in Cumberland County.

Townsend’s warblers breed in the Pacific Northwest and winter in Mexico.  This one must have had a compass error, so it flew the correct distance to reach Mexico but it went the wrong direction.

It ended up in Carlisle, PA where Meredith Lombard took its picture.

(photo by Meredith Lombard)

Solar Excitement

Last weekend’s solar flare made the news with beautiful images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

On January 23 at 4:00am UTC (11:00pm January 22 in Pittsburgh) a huge “burp” of charged particles and magnetic fields burst off the sun at the height of a solar storm in Active Region 1402.    The wave traveled at 2,200 km/second — 150 times slower than the speed of light — so we saw it before we “felt” it on January 24 around 1400 GMT (Jan 24, 9:00am EST) — plus or minus 7 hours.

Major pulses from the sun can cause outages in the electric grid and interference with radio and TV broadcasts and communication devices.  The episode I best remember was when a pulse killed Telstar 401 and stopped PBS broadcasting until they could find a new satellite and we re-pointed our station dish.

Earth’s magnetic field protects us from these “burps” but it gets distorted while doing so.  In normal times the solar wind squashes our magnetic field on the earth’s sunward (day) side and elongates on the night side.  Here’s a diagram from NASA showing how that works with the sun positioned at top left.

In a solar flare event the magnetic bulge on the night side gets longer, the loops break and they “flap in the breeze.”  When the field snaps back it releases energy that whacks the earth’s upper atmosphere, causing the beautiful northern lights and sometimes electro-magnetic interference.

This week nothing much happened except …

On Tuesday morning around 7:00am an electrical transformer at WQED blew up and burned.  It was quickly extinguished and the damage was minor, but it left us without electricity.  Thanks to our generator we remained on the air and on the web.  All day Tuesday and into the night, the electricians worked hard to hook up a temporary power feed.  Unfortunately, when they switched us back to house power on Wednesday morning at 2:00am an internal surge tripped a breaker on our emergency grid and we went off the air and off the web.

So it’s been an exciting week for us in technology at WQED.  The flare probably didn’t cause our electrical problem but the timing was quite a coincidence.

Watch what happened on the sun in this cool video from NASA SDO:

(All photos from NASA. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Learn a Bird, Teach a Computer

When you play today’s “quiz” you’ll be teaching a computer how to think.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is building a new interactive bird identification tool and they need your help.  In yesterday’s eNewsletter they wrote:

To help you identify birds online, the Cornell Lab’s web team is building a new tool called “Merlin.” Merlin will use artificial intelligence to ask questions and provide suggestions to help you identify what you saw. First, though, Merlin needs to know how people observe and describe birds. Help populate Merlin’s “brain” by trying Mark My Bird, an online activity that asks 18 questions about a species. Play as often as you like to help us build Merlin faster!

Mark My Bird looks like a quiz but it’s actually gathering data for Merlin’s brain.  It will show you a photo of a mystery bird but don’t worry, it’s going to identify that bird for you.  All you have to do is choose the bird’s group (or say Not Sure), then click on the bird’s body parts and checkmark the colors and patterns you see.

I tried it myself and it’s pretty cool. You can use it to quiz your own bird skills or identify the mystery bird.

Click here or on the screenshot to play Mark My Bird.  Teach the computer how to think!

(screenshot from Cornell Lab of Ornithology Mark My Bird interactive tool)

Raven or Crow?

Ravens are rare in Pittsburgh but they’ve been seen this winter.  We’re also seeing thousands and thousands of crows.

How do you tell the difference between a raven and a crow?

Watch this video from The Raven Diaries and you’ll learn how.

The video was created by Rick and Diana Boufford who live in Newport Beach, California where there are both species of birds.  Visit for more information.

(video from The Raven Diaries via YouTube)

Winter Trees: White Oak

Continuing the oak theme, today’s tree is the Eastern White Oak (Quercus alba).

As I said last week, Pittsburgh’s natural habitat is the oak-hickory forest.  In this part of North America oak species fall into two groups: reds and whites.  Red oaks are typically found in oak-dominated forests.  White oaks are so versatile they can grow in many habitats and have one of the widest ranges of any tree on the continent.

White oaks are majestic trees — as much as 150 feet tall, four feet in diameter, and 600 years old.  Like all oaks they produce acorns and have clusters of buds at their twig tips.  You can distinguish them from red oaks because their leaves have rounded lobes, their buds are smaller and blunter, their acorn cup scales are paler, knobby and the cup is not hairy inside, and their bark is paler, scaly and sometimes peeling.

The blunt buds, clustered at the twig tip, are pictured above.  As you can see, a few dried leaves remain on the tree in the winter.

The bark at the base of the tree is a good hint to this tree’s identity because it looks as if part of it was rubbed off.  Here are two examples.  (It’s easier to see the “rubbed off” appearance in real life than in photos.)

Look up the tree trunk and you’ll see paler, slightly peeling bark and a few dried leaves.

White oaks are famous for producing bumper crops of acorns every 4-10 years.  A single tree can produce 2,000 to 7,000 acorns so you can imagine the effect in an area with a lot of white oaks.  One fall in the Laurel Highlands there were so many acorns that I found it hard to hike without slipping on them!

Squirrels eat acorns from both red and white oaks but they treat them differently.  They bury red oak acorns and eat the white oaks’ right away.  Red oak acorns are full of tannin (less palatable) and don’t sprout until their second spring.  White oaks have less tannin and sprout in their first spring.  Burying reds and eating whites makes sense.  Red oak acorns can be placed in underground storage.  White oaks would sprout before the squirrel could get back to them.  Smart squirrels, eh?

(photos by Kate St. John)

Feather Facts to Impress Your Friends

Did you know that… ?

  • For most birds, feathers make up 5-10% of their total weight but are two to three times heavier than their skeletons.
  • Tundra swans have 25,000 feathers, 80% of which are on their heads and necks.
  • Doves and herons have some specialized “powderdown” feathers whose barbule tips disintegrate into a talcum-like powder.  These feathers grow continuously so they can do this.
  • Dark feathers are stronger than white feathers.  The dark pigment melanin provides strength.
  • Feathers are held in place on birds’ bodies by follicle muscles. Some birds, such as nightjars, experience “fright molt” when something scary causes those muscles to relax and the bird loses some feathers.
  • Owls have fringe-like leading edges on their primary feathers and long filament-like barbules on other feathers.  These features reduce air turbulence, allowing owls to fly silently.
  • Archaeological evidence indicates feathers first appeared on meat-eating dinosaurs.    (Peregrines’ ancestors!)
  • Desert sandgrouse in Africa have specialized belly feathers that can absorb and carry water.  The male sandgrouse flies as much as 18 miles from his nest to a watering hole where he soaks his belly in the water.  He then flies back to the nest where his young squeeze his belly feathers in their bills to get a drink.  (Pictured above is a male Namaqua sandgrouse in the Kalahari.)

(photo by Chris Eason, via Creative Commons License on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

Annual Eagle Watch at Kinzua Dam, Feb 4

If you want to see bald eagles in Pennsylvania, winter’s a great time to do it.

Bald eagles eat fish so they always live near open water.  When the lakes freeze they move to the rivers.  When the rivers freeze they congregate near the open tailwaters at dams.

And thus was born the Annual Eagle Watch at Kinzua Dam in Warren County, PA.

This year’s event at the Big Bend Recreation Area will be held on Saturday, February 4 from 8:00am to 2:00pm.   View the eagles through spotting scopes at three observation areas:  Big Bend Visitor Center (warm up indoors with hot chocolate!), Riverside Watchable Wildlife Trail and Viewing Platform, and on the dam.  Those over 18 must show a photo ID to walk out on the dam.

In addition to eagle watching David Donachy of the PA Game Commission will present a program on the success of Pennsylvania’s bald eagle restoration, and Kinzua Cachers will hold a geomeet to find several temporary caches in the area.

The event is free, sponsored by US Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Penn Soil Resource Conservation and Development Council, Kinzua Cachers, and the Allegheny Outdoor Club.

While you’re up at Kinzua Dam you’re just 10 minutes from downtown Warren where WQED-FM’s morning host Jim Cunningham recommends the Plaza Restaurant.  Staying overnight?  You can get a discount at the Warren Hampton Inn if you tell them you’re coming for the Eagle Watch.

Click here for more information, or call Steve Lauser, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at (814)726-0661 or Bill Massa, Allegheny Outdoor Club, at (814)723-2568.

Keep your eyes open for eagles as you drive upstate.  Eagle sightings are more common than ever before.  Here are some recent sightings in Pennsylvania.

(photo by Steve Gosser, near Crooked Creek dam in Armstrong County)