Monthly Archives: August 2012

Triumph of Agility

Bald eagles are majestic but opportunistic.  Sometimes they use their power to steal from others.

I once saw an osprey plunge feet first into a bay, grasp a fish in his talons, and flap like crazy to pull up.  As soon as he gained some altitude he shook off the water, just like a dog, and arranged the fish head first for aerodynamic flight.  Then he was on his way…

… or so he thought.  A bald eagle was watching and decided to steal the fish.

Eagles are fast, powerful fliers on the straight-away and this one knew he had the advantage.  He gained on the osprey so quickly I was certain he’d hit him and take the fish.

But the osprey had experience with eagles.  He turned and ducked, backtracked and swerved.  Sometimes he flew up, sometimes down.  The eagle kept up with him but was slower to make the turns.  There were moments when the eagle was breathing down his neck but the osprey always escaped.

The osprey knew something I did not.  The eagle was getting tired.

Suddenly, to my surprise, the eagle turned and rapidly flew away from the osprey.  Through binoculars I could see the eagle’s beak was open.  He was panting!

The osprey’s agility won the day.

(photo of an osprey by Steve Gosser)

If Only They Were All This Easy

At this time of year I swear I’m “shorebird challenged.”   Some days I can barely identify them.

A couple of years ago I learned to look at legs and beaks … leg color, beak color, leg length, beak length, beak shape … but I forget what I’ve learned and get them mixed up and I have to start over.

None of their names come easy.  Except this one.

When a black-bellied plover opens his wings his armpits give him away.  His black belly turns white in the winter but he never loses his black axillaries.

The only trick is to get him to open his wings.

I wish all shorebirds were this easy.

(photo by Chuck Tague)


The Mountain is Wearing a Hat

Clouds like this are my very favorite because they resemble smooth lozenges or flying saucers.  Sometimes they’re in odd compound shapes like this hat on Mt. Hood.

Lenticular clouds are most common near mountains because the wind hits the mountain, creates an updraft and becomes a large standing wave.  When moisture condenses at the top of the wave, a stationary lenticular cloud forms there.  The long lozenge shapes are usually perpendicular to the wind.  They sure don’t look that way!

When the wind hits the mountain the waves look like this.  Notice the stationary clouds at crests A and B.

Pittsburgh rarely has lenticular clouds, though a front stirs one up every once in a while.

For really cool clouds you have to visit the mountains.

(photo of cloud by Yapin Wu via Wikimedia Commons. Diagram of wave lift by Dake on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on each one to see its original.)

Save The Date, Flip A Rock

It’s time to get ready. Sunday, September 9 is International Rock Flipping Day.

Begun in 2007 by Dave Bonta and Bev Wigney, International Rock Flipping Day (IRFD) is a blog carnival celebrated every year by flipping a rock, blogging what you find, and sending your blog link to Wanderin’ Weeta.

How international is it?  In 2010 the best find was a rock monitor (lizard!) in South Africa.

This year IRFD is expanded.  If you don’t have a blog you can still participate by posting your photos in the Rock Flipping Day Flickr group.

Ready to go?  Here are instructions from Wanderin’ Weeta:

  • On or about September 9th, find your rock and flip it over. Note the safety precautions below!
  • Record what you find. Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry.
  • Important: Replace the rock as you found it; it’s someone’s home.
  • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group.
  • Send the link to Wanderin’ Weeta or add a comment to her IRFD post.
  • She’s collecting all the links and will e-mail you the participants list so you can post it on your blog as well. If you’re on Twitter, Tweet it, too; the hashtag is #rockflip.
  • Click here to get the handy logo on Wanderin’ Weeta’s website.

And now, a word about safety from Dave Bonta:

One thing I forgot to do in the initial post is to caution people about flipping rocks in poisonous snake or scorpion habitat. In that case, I’d suggest wearing gloves and/or using a pry bar — or simply finding somewhere else to do your flipping. Please do not disturb any known rattlesnake shelters if you don’t plan on replacing the rocks exactly as you found them. Timber rattlesnakes, like many other adult herps, are very site-loyal, and can die if their homes are destroyed. Also, don’t play with spiders. If you disturb an adjacent hornet nest (hey, it’s possible), run like hell. But be sure to have someone standing by to get it all on film!

And a word about respect and consideration:

The animals we find under rocks are at home; they rest there, sleep there, raise their families there. Then we come along and take off the roof, so please remember to replace it carefully. Try not to squish the residents; move them aside if they’re big enough; they’ll run back as soon as their rock is back in place.

So pick your favorite rock on September 9 and flip away.  I wonder what we’ll find!


(photo of a smooth granite rock in Northeast Harbor, Maine by Kate St. John)

p.s. Stay tuned for my results on Sept 9.  Will I flip that rock in the photo?

Beachy Bird

According to Birds of North America Online this slender, inconspicuous bird begins its southward migration next month.

American pipits breed in some of the harshest habitat of any songbird.  They prefer open tundra and mountaintops above treeline where bad weather is the greatest threat to their nesting success.  In a bad year, their nests suffer 80% mortality when deep springtime snow covers their eggs and young. 

In the fall they avoid the coming snow, flying south to beaches and open mudflats. I’ve seen them at the edge of Shenango Lake and on the treeless mountaintops of Acadia National Park.

I even saw several lone pipits on the beach at Cape Cod in early August. 

I don’t know why those August pipits left the tundra for the beach but it certainly wasn’t because of snow this summer!


(photo by Alan Vernon via Wikimedian Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

Goldenrod Attracts…

Just to give you butterfly folks a jolt… I bet you haven’t seen this butterfly on goldenrod in Pennsylvania.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is native to North America but the butterfly is not.  It’s a Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon) found in Asia and Australia.

It’s nice to know that goldenrod attracts such beautiful butterflies but how did these two get together?

The photo was taken in Japan. The goldenrod was imported.

Unfortunately Canada goldenrod went wild when it got overseas and is now an invasive species in Asia.  It’s such a problem in China that they have eradication programs for it just as we do for Japanese knotweed.

If we could only trade our Japanese knotweed for their goldenrod, we’d all be happy.

(photo by Isaka Yogi on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

Beauty And The Beak

As you can see, the eagle video has gone missing …

… from  The original website about this bird (at the link below) is also missingHowever, I’m keeping this post as a placeholder.  Here’s what it was about:

Libby Strizzi alerted me to a heart-warming video about a severely injured bald eagle who got a chance at a better life.

Beauty lost her upper beak when she was shot in the face by a poacher. This 2008 video shows the first of many steps in restoring her missing beak.

The video has been popular on the Internet this month, but current news of Beauty is hard to find because the original website at Birds of Prey Northwest has been inundated by recent web traffic.

Though we don’t know how Beauty’s doing today, the film is full of hope.

(2008 Emmy award-winning video by Keith Bubach, produced for Evening Magazine, KING-TV, Seattle)


Henry Is Just Peachy

Pitt peregrines Dorothy and E2 would be proud to know their son Henry is doing well in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Though he’s only one year old he’s set up shop at Tower East and can be seen there almost every day.

Last week Chad+Chris Saladin got some nice photos of Henry that show he’s nearly finished molting into adult plumage.  His back is nearly all gray and his chest has become salmon-colored.   In this he takes after his mother.

Henry was quite expressive while Chad+Chris watched.  Here he is “winking” at Tower East while half asleep.

And here he waves “hello” to his fans.


Henry is just peachy!

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin)


Though these look a lot like tornadoes they’re actually waterspouts, a phenomenon that fascinates me because I rarely see it.

Waterspouts don’t occur in Pittsburgh because they require lots of open water and just the right weather conditions.  The best place to see them is in the Florida Keys but you don’t have to go that far at this time of year.  They also form on the Great Lakes in late summer and early fall.

It’s possible to have a tornado over water, and yes it’s called a waterspout, but those are rare and dangerous.  Tornadic waterspouts spin down from above but the really cool and much more common fair weather waterspouts spin up from the water to join the clouds.  These require warm water, light winds, and humid air between the water and clouds.  They go through five stages as described on this NOAA webpage:

  1. Dark spot: A light-colored circle appears on the water’s surface surrounded by a dark area.
  2. Spiral pattern: The dark spot spins and forms a spiral on the water around it.
  3. Spray ring: The spinning makes water spray up around the dark spot.  The spray forms a small “eye” like the eye of a hurricane.
  4. Mature vortex:  The spray ring gets organized and moves up to join the cloud.  Now it looks like a waterspout.  Sometimes you can see through its hollow center.
  5. Decay: The funnel and spray vortex dissipate as warm water stops feeding them.  The waterspout disappears.

The frequency of waterspout sightings on the Great Lakes has increased since NOAA began tracking them in 1957.  There was a big outbreak of them on all five lakes September 27 to October 3 in 2003.

To learn more about waterspouts watch this dramatic video on the NOAA website.


(photo from NOAA by L. Glover.  Click on the image to see the original)