Monthly Archives: February 2012

Massive Canada Goose Migration, 27 Feb 2012

From PABIRDS, Wed Feb 29, 2012

Hi All,
With all the reports of waterfowl migration I thought some of you might be interested in the report below from a York Co friend.
Ann Bodling,  Accokeek, MD

“At about Ithaca (Cornell) the major river flyways converge – Delaware River groups have already merged with Susquehanna River groups, who have already merged with the Potomac groups and they merge further with the Mohawk and Hudson groups. They take this enormous sweep to the northwest and so folks in NY state and Ontario have seen the most amazing show. They arc across Canada once clear of the the Great Lakes.

I heard from my cousin Steve in Ottawa that city streets came to a halt Monday and yesterday as these enormous flocks actually dimmed the sun! People got off buses and out of their cars to watch. Ornithologists are remarking that this may be the largest single mass migration in the last 150 years. The storm front has certainly helped – these birds are making incredible time riding the currents north so may have left all at once to catch the front rather than fly in staggered waves over weeks.”

Winter Trees: Ailanthus

Today’s tree is a noxious weed that goes by many names:  Ailanthus, Tree-of-heaven, Chinese Sumac, Stink Tree and The Tree From Hell.  Some people call it simply “Sumac” but that’s one thing it is not.  Though its leaves are similar, it’s not related to sumac.

Ailanthus altissima is native to China and Taiwan, first brought to North America as seed in 1784.  In the 1800’s it was planted as a street tree but quickly became invasive.  Nowadays no one will buy this tree.  People spend money trying to get rid of it.

It earned its name Stink Tree because the male flowers smell bad, something between cat pee and rotting cashews.  When ailanthus was planted as an ornamental, the nurseries sold only female trees.

Though ailanthus typically lives only 50 years, it grows anywhere humans have abused air, land or water.  It doesn’t flinch in the face of sulfur dioxide, mercury and ozone.  (It actually absorbs sulfur dioxide in its leaves.)  It can grow with water polluted by acid mine drainage, in soil low in phosphorous and high in salinity.  The only thing it doesn’t tolerate is dense shade.  This adds up to a very successful roadside weed that thrives in the face of air pollution and road salt.

Ailanthus is prolific and hardy, able to grow from its huge seed production or from root stock.  The roots sprout so well that it’s almost impossible to eradicate the tree.  And it grows really fast!  3.3 to 6.6 feet per year in its first four years.  Not only that, it produces a chemical that kills other species.  Experiments with ailanthus extract demonstrated that it’s an effective herbicide against almost every other seedling.

With all these disadvantages, it pays to know what ailanthus looks like.  It’s easy to identify in winter by the stout twig, pictured above, that ends abruptly without tapering.  Its orange-brown twig is as big around as your finger with large, heart-shaped, alternate leaf scars and a small bud in the notch of each heart.

Ailanthus bark is very smooth with small pits on younger trees (shown at left) and interlacing ridges on older trees (shown at right).  Learn the twig first, then you’ll remember the bark.

So, what good can be said about this tree?

It will be the last tree standing when the world comes to an end  …  and its hardiness gave it a brief literary and stage career as “The Tree” in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Here’s what its leaves and seeds look like in autumn.

Ailanthus leaves and seeds (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Where Are They Now?

We had another dose of winter last weekend but spring is on its way and with it will come the hummingbirds.

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the winter in Central America but in early spring an internal clock makes them restless to move north.

Dedicated observers have recorded hummingbird sightings on the Journey North hummingbird website since 1997.  Because of this data we know that a few hummingbirds are present in the U.S. all winter and that migrants begin to arrive in early March.

In Florida and along the Gulf Coast, birders and hummingbird banders are prepared for those first intrepid hummers who make an early journey to the States.  Behind the pioneer birds will come a wave of hummingbirds that will wash over Pittsburgh in late April.

The first birds will be here in seven or eight weeks.  Check Journey North’s animated Spring 2012 ruby-throated hummingbird map to find out where they are now.  Check again each week and you’ll be ready when the ruby-throats get here.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

p.s. Don’t miss Marcy’s story about how she took this picture.  See the first comment below!

White Birds Heading North

Looking for some bird excitement?  If you haven’t been to Middle Creek yet, now’s the time to go.

At the peak of migration, late February through early March, more than 100,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans stop at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area near Kleinfeltersville, PA.

Every year the spectacle is different and the numbers fluctuate.  The birds wait for good weather and move north when the lakes thaw.  This winter many Pennsylvania lakes never fully froze so low numbers of geese and swans have been scattered around the state.

Nonetheless, Dave Kerr found plenty to photograph when he visited Middle Creek a couple of weeks ago.  Pictured here are my favorites —  the tundra swans!

Swans are subdued.  Snow geese are not.  When the geese are scared by a bald eagle all of them leap into the air shouting their fear.  The noise is like the roar of a filled football stadium.  The spectacle is amazing.

Dave recorded a short video of it, posted here on his Flickr site.

Barbara Galatti filmed it in February 2009.  Her YouTube video begins before dawn and shows several huge rushes of snow geese.  Turn up your speakers to get the full effect — including the wind!


How many white birds are heading north now?  See bird-count updates here from Middle Creek’s manager, Jim Binder, or this link for directions and tour information.

Visit Middle Creek soon for lots of bird excitement.  Maybe I’ll see you there.


p.s.  This huge snow goose population is beautiful to watch, but it is overwhelming the habitat in their arctic breeding grounds.  To address this, there is now a springtime snow goose hunt as well as one in the fall.  Hunting occurs at Middle Creek Monday through Saturday.  There is no hunting on Sunday.


(photo of tundra swans this month by Dave Kerr.  Video from Middle Creek in 2009 by Barbara Galatti)

Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?

When volunteers compared notes after the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count on 1 January 2012, someone remarked that they hadn’t seen many blue jays this winter.  Everyone at the Pittsburgh CBC Dinner nodded.

This morning I remembered that remark and looked through my bird observations to see how often I’ve recorded blue jays this winter.

Amazingly I’ve seen them only four times since November 1:  on November 6 and 13 and December 4 and 11.  Three of those observations were at the same spot at Moraine State Park and were perhaps the same individual bird.  Meanwhile, I have not seen a blue jay in Pittsburgh for at least four months.

If the blue jays aren’t here, where are they?

Have you seen any blue jays lately?



  • Click here for an eBird map of blue jay abundance 2009-2014 in Pennsylvania.  On an annual basis blue jay abundance peaks in Pennsylvania in September and falls to its lowest point in late February.  Click on the [Change Location] button to choose your own state or province.
  • March 2012:  I mapped readers’ sightings on The Blue Jay Report here.
  • June 2013:  New comments have come in from folks who are seeing far fewer blue jays than they expect.  I asked 1,200 observers in Pennsylvania (via PABIRDS) if they were seeing fewer blue jays.  Everyone said they were seeing plenty of blue jays but one person commented that 17-year cicadas seemed to depress blue jay abundance in advance of the cicada emergence.  If you have fewer blue jays, are you also in a cicada area?
  • September 2014:  Lots of blue jays moving south through Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine when I was there in early September.  Lots of blue jays in the Pittsburgh area.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

All Their Eggs In One Basket

Ostriches have a unique nesting strategy that serves them well as flightless birds in the African savannahs and sub-Sahara.  Several females put their eggs in a single nest.

At six to nine feet tall and 140 to 300 pounds ostriches cannot fly, so for safety during the breeding season they live in flocks of five to fifty birds.  When danger threatens they run or hide or kick the enemy with their feet.

Running is good but how do they protect their ground-based nests?  Eggs can’t run.

Rather than protecting many scattered nests they organize into harems and all the females lay their eggs in the same scrape.  The dominant male mates with all the females and the dominant female incubates the eggs.  Sometimes there are too many eggs for her to sit on so she rejects the extras — laid by the minor females — and sits on only 20-25 eggs.

During incubation the birds hide the ground-based nest.  The female’s brown feathers match the daytime landscape, the male’s black feathers are hard to see at night, so the female incubates during the day and the male at night.  To further hide the nest they lay their heads and necks on the ground so they look like a lump.  Daytime heat shimmers hide the female in a mirage!

Here you can see their how colors provide camouflage in their open habitat.

The moral of the story for an ostrich is:   If you keep your head down you can put all your eggs in one basket.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Nest photo by Fischen; African pair at Ngorongoro by Sachi Gahan. Click on each photo to see its original.)

NOTE:  The nest photo was taken at a German zoo in a setting much greener than an ostrich usually inhabits.

On The Beach

Every afternoon the wintering gulls in Volusia County, Florida stand on the beach at Daytona Beach Shores.  Just before sunset thousands of them stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the wind, unconcerned as people walk by.

The beach is a hotspot for birders because the gulls are so approachable.  It’s easy to see their plumage only 20 feet away though it takes patience to find a rarity among the mass of individuals.

On February 9 during my Florida vacation, Chuck Tague took me to see this spectacle and I met Michael Brothers of the Marine Science Center who monitors and photographs the gulls every day.  We also saw my favorite raptor, a peregrine falcon looking for a meal.

The peregrine is still there.  This week Michael witnessed a rare event which he reported on the BRDBRAIN listserve:

Today, 2/21/12, I stopped by to see the gulls at Daytona Beach Shores and witnessed an amazing sight. I saw a large group of gulls take off from along the beach and assumed that some people had chased the birds off.

When I got closer I found an adult Peregrine had killed a Laughing Gull and it was calmly eating it right on the beach. The bird was amazingly tame and allowed me to sit only 20 feet away and photograph it for 15 minutes or more. It did not seem bothered by beach walkers going by only a few feet away from it.

A few other birders came up and were also able to sit and watch the spectacle. Meanwhile, folks were driving by just behind us, either staring at the bird or oblivious to the rare event right beside them.

Michael Brothers
Marine Science Center
Ponce Inlet, FL.

Watch the slideshow of Michael Brothers’ beautiful peregrine photos. Click on any image to see the slideshow in its own lightbox.

At the end a passerby pauses to watch the bird.  She obviously doesn’t know that this is …(OMG!!)… a peregrine falcon!


(all photos by Michael Brothers)

In The Age of Rising Seas

It’s another Not-Winter day with a high in the 50’s, no ice on the lakes, no snow on the ground.

Perhaps this lack of ice resembles the end of the last Ice Age, a time when climate change gave to our planet and took things away.

When the last Ice Age was at glacial maximum 18,000 years ago, so much water was sequestered in ice that sea level was 390 feet lower than it is today.  When the climate warmed the ice pulled back enough for people and animals to migrate to previously inaccessible lands.  Some crossed the Bering land bridge to inhabit North America 13,000 years ago.  Climate change provided them with a new place to live.

Back then England was connected to Europe on dry land that stretched from the Netherlands to East Anglia.  The melting glaciers deposited a moraine between them that became the highest ground, Dogger Bank, outlined in red above.  In its heyday Dogger Bank (sometimes called Doggerland) was probably 100 feet above sea level, home to mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, deer and the Stone Age people who hunted them.

The end of the Ice Age took all that away.  The glaciers kept melting, sea level rose, Dogger Bank became an island and was finally swallowed by the sea 8,200 years ago.  The sea kept rising until Dogger Bank is now 49 to 118 feet underwater.  Modern humans didn’t know it was inhabited until fisherman trawled it and found Stone Age tools.

In our own time climate change is giving and taking away as well.  Glacier melt gives us newly accessible land but the ocean will eventually engulf today’s low-lying islands, a frightening prospect to those who live there.  The Maldive islands, with a population the size of the City of Pittsburgh, are going through political unrest as they face the prospect of homelessness in this age of rising seas.

(NASA image of the North Sea with Dogger Bank outlined in red. Click on the image to see the original on Wikipedia.)

Winter Trees: Hophornbeam or Ironwood

No matter how you look at it, this tree has confusing names.  My Winter Tree Finder calls it ironwood (it doesn’t even list the hophornbeam name!), but as I learned last weekend ironwood is an alternate name for at least two other trees.

Ironwood’s official name is eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana).  It’s a common tree in the birch family, most easily recognized by its bark which has long, square-edged strips that peel upward.

Hophornbeam wood is very heavy, hard and strong, so durable that when metal was scarce this wood was used to make wheel rims and sleigh runners.  “Horn beam” means hard wood.  “Hop” refers to the tree’s fruit which resembles hops (think beer).  Here’s what the fruit looks like:


A closely related tree, the blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana), also carries the hornbeam and ironwood names.  Blue beech’s official name is American hornbeam without the “hop.”  Its bark looks very different:  smooth, blue-gray and muscular.  This earned it the nickname “musclewood.”   Click here to see blue beech bark.

Since hophornbeam is in the birch family, its twigs look very “birch-y” and often carry catkins.  From experience with the Winter Tree Finder, I can tell you it takes a long time to key out this twig.  I recommend identifying the tree by its bark.


Ironwood and ironwood, hophornbeam and hornbeam.  I’ll keep them straight by calling this one hophornbeam (or ironwood) and the other one “blue beech” instead of its confusingly similar hornbeam name.

(Bark and twig photos by Kate St. John.  Hop-like fruit photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the hops photo to see its original.)