Monthly Archives: October 2012

My Name Is Halloween

In honor of the day here’s a critter whose name is Halloween.

Red land crabs, also called harlequin or Halloween crabs (Gecarcinus quadratus), are nocturnal burrowing crabs that live on the Pacific coast from Mexico to Peru. They spend their lives in sand dunes, moist forest or mangroves but they need the ocean to reproduce so they don’t stray far from shore.

From above these crabs look black and orange.  They’re even more colorful from the side.

Trick or Treat!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


p.s.  As Hurricane Sandy approached Pittsburgh on Monday many municipalities rescheduled Trick-or-Treat to Saturday Nov 3, so there will be no costumed kids at our door tonight. Kind of odd considering everything in Pittsburgh is just fine.  Not so in New York City where our nephew reports he was not flooded but has no electricity.

Shelter From The Storm

Last night as Hurricane Sandy approached Pittsburgh I thought about the birds. Where will they hide from the storm?  I knew the answer but I wanted assurance.

Birds already know how to cope with bad weather.  Each species uses its own strategy to survive.

Birds that live on cliffs or buildings, like the pigeons above, shelter out of the wind and find the driest possible place to wait out the storm.  This doesn’t always keep them dry but it keeps them safe.

Birds that roost in cavities, such as woodpeckers, owls, house sparrows and starlings go indoors during bad weather.  Sometimes more than 10 bluebirds will huddle together inside a bluebird box, using their communal body heat to stay warm.


Robins, sparrows and cardinals roost in thickets and hunker down close to the ground when it’s windy.  If you have a brush pile, as Marcy Cunkelman does, the birds will hide there from bad weather and predators.  The Coopers hawk happens to know this, too.


Shorebirds and ocean birds fly inland, ducks find sheltered lakes or rivers.  Shannon Thompson found huge numbers of waterfowl at Greenlick Run Reservoir in Fayette Country yesterday afternoon as thousands of birds stopped there to wait out the storm.

Every species has a strategy.   I’m sure most of them made it through last night’s wind in Pittsburgh.  So did we.  The electricity is still on!

For more information (including stories of birds flying in the eye of the storm) see this excellent article from the National Wildlife Federation, written in response to Hurricane Irene, that explains what happens to wildlife under these circumstances.

(pigeon photo from Wikimedia Commons, click on it to see the original.  Bluebird and Coopers hawk photos by Marcy Cunkelman)



Before the rain began on Saturday I took a walk in Schenley Park to check on the birds.

In addition to a flock of thousands of robins and starlings near Anderson Playground, I found American goldfinches foraging high in a stand of red oak trees.  They seemed to be picking things off the backs of the leaves.  At ground level I heard the sound of raindrops ticking on the dry leaf litter — but it wasn’t raining.  The goldfinches were dropping the shells.

I collected a leaf and took its picture.  Here you see the brown bumps the goldfinches were cracking open.  They look like tiny acorns.

In fact, they’re galls.  When I searched the web to identify them, I learned from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology that there are more than 700 species of gall-forming insects in the US and Canada and 80% of them use oaks (read about it here).

Galls form when tiny insects lay their eggs on live leaves (not these dried brown leaves).  The eggs emit chemicals that stimulate the leaves to grow covers around the eggs.  This protects the larvae until they’re ready to emerge — unless a goldfinch finds them.

Were these galls made by cynipid wasps that are very common on oaks?

No.  On 12 Dec 2012 Charley Eiseman at BugTracks corrected my original theory.  He wrote:  “I believe these are actually among the few oak galls that are not caused by cynipid wasps – they look to me like the work of Polystepha globosa, a midge (Cecidomyiidae).”     This link has more information about the midge.

Thanks to the goldfinches I learned something new.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Here’s some information about cynipid wasp galls.

Cynipids are very tiny wasps, harmless to humans, that lay their eggs on oak leaves.  Each species of cynipid wasp uses a different site on the oak (root, twig, leaf) and specializes in particular species of oaks.

The most amazing cynipid wasp is the one that becomes the jumping oak leaf gall.  The female lays eggs on white oak leaf buds in the spring.  When the larvae reach an active stage in early summer they jostle inside the galls and the galls fall off the leaves.  The larvae are so active that the galls jump on the sidewalk like Mexican jumping beans.   This summer they created a stir in Illinois.

Too bad these aren’t jumping oak leaf galls.

Racket Tips

The blue-crowned motmot is a colorful Central and South American bird with a striking face and red eyes.  The male also has two unusual tail feathers with bare shafts and racket tips.  Racket… as in tennis racket.

The  feathers don’t start out this way.  When the male molts the feathers grow in normally but the middle radii are weakly attached to the shaft so they easily fall off during normal abrasion and preening.  The result is a fancy tail during the breeding season.

In the wild, the racket tips are very noticeable because the males swings his tail like a pendulum when disturbed.

Want to see a blue-crowned motmot in Pittsburgh? Visit the National Aviary.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

The Birds-of-Paradise Project

Just out last week, this short video is a gorgeous introduction to the Birds-of-Paradise Project.

For the past eight years Cornell Lab’s Ed Scholes and National Geographic’s Tim Laman collaborated to film all 39 species of the birds-of-paradise.  Their goal was to probe the mystery of the birds’ evolution and to bring attention to their conservation needs.

How did the birds and their dances become so exotic?  It’s as if they were selectively bred for the most elaborate dances and fancy plumes.

And they were.

Just like our experience of selectively breeding dogs into specialized traits and sizes (think Irish wolfhound and dachshund), the female birds-of-paradise have always selected the fanciest males with the best dances.  And then they breed.

Watch the video of these amazing birds and check Cornell Lab’s resource link for the upcoming book and broadcast.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Geographic via YouTube)

Who’s The Smartest Of Them All?

Somehow I missed Raccoon Nation! when it premiered on PBS NATURE last February but Oh, my! I watched it online last week and I can hardly wait to see it on the big screen when PBS re-broadcasts it on Halloween.

I’ve already learned that raccoons are the smartest animal in the urban jungle.  They’re relatively small (so it’s easy to hide), nocturnal, omnivorous and adaptable.  They learn from their mothers and they can get into anything because they have thumbs.

I’ve seen this in my city neighborhood:  a mother raccoon guiding her kits to shelter, the sound of racoons arguing over my neighbor’s bird feeders at night, the shadows of ‘coons raiding my bird bath.

There’s not a garbage can they can’t open.  They’re ready for any challenge.  And our attempts to outsmart them make them smarter!

So of course I’m going to pull up a seat on Wednesday October 31 at 8:00pm and watch Raccoon Nation! in living color on WQED. 

I can hardly wait. On Halloween the animals will wear masks.

(photo from PBS NATURE)

Radiation Fog

“Radiation fog” sounds scary but it’s actually the kind of fog we get in Pennsylvania at this time of year.  We often see it in the early morning below our hawk watch sites.  (Do you see the bird in this picture?)

It forms when winds are calm overnight while the land cools.  The land’s thermal radiation lowers the air temperature and condenses moisture into fog that usually evaporates in the morning.

In hilly country it’s called “valley fog” and is more pronounced because the topography traps cold air in the valleys with warm air overlaying it in a temperature inversion.

Like fog, inversions are also common in southwestern Pennsylvania in fall and winter.  They can be deadly when air pollution is involved.  The famous Donora Smog occurred during a five day inversion in 1948, October 27 to 31.  It killed 20 people and 800 animals immediately, sickened 7,000, raised the mortality rate in Donora for at least a decade, and lowered property values (who would want to live there after that!).

Inversions still occur but our air is cleaner. 

Nowadays we take for granted that our laws will protect us from air pollution. Unfortunately the laws could be weakened because companies complain it costs money to avoid killing or sickening us.

Without protection from air pollution, the fog would be scary after all.

(photo from Shutterstock)

Four Sparrows

The warblers are gone.  The sparrows are here.

These little brown birds can pose an identification problem because they look so similar.  When they tried to fool me last Sunday I decided to write about them.  Here are four species you’re likely to find in western Pennsylvania in October with some tips on telling them apart.

Shown above is a song sparrow, a common bird that stays here all year.  His color varies regionally across the U.S. but in Pennsylvania he’s brown.  His field marks are his long tail, a striped face with pronounced malar stripes, and brown streaks on his white breast that form a blotch in the middle.

Get to know the song sparrow really well and you’ll have a basis for comparing other sparrows.

And here’s the first sparrow to compare…

Swamp sparrows are the same size and shape as song sparrows but their tails are shorter.  Though their chestnut colored wings are a good field mark, don’t look hard for color clues on swamp sparrows.  The very best tip is this:  Swamp sparrows look dark.  If you’re in the right habitat and are telling yourself, “This sparrow looks dark. It must be a trick of the light,” think again!  Swamp sparrow.

Swamp sparrows are very picky about habitat and are normally found near water, especially in wetlands.  And they don’t stay here all year.  They breed in western Pennsylvania but are leaving now for points south.


The third sparrow looks different than a song sparrow… from the front.

The chipping sparrow is slightly smaller than a song sparrow and much whiter overall because he has a clear white chest.  Like the swamp sparrow he breeds here in summer and leaves for the winter.  Summer adults have sharp rusty caps and black eyestripes set off by their white faces.  In the fall their rusty caps and black eyestripes fade and their formerly white faces develop tan ear patches.  The tan face resembles the clay-colored sparrow’s except that chipping sparrows don’t have an outline around the patch.  Another clue:  Chipping sparrows are common in western Pennsylvania, clay-colored sparrows are not.


And finally, this white-throated sparrow has just arrived from Canada to spend the winter here.  He looks very crisp with white head stripes, yellow lores and a white throat with a sharp dark border to set it off.   But beware, there are two color morphs of white-throated sparrows:  white and tan.  The tan morph is tan on the head and back where this one is white.  White-throats keep these two colors in the gene pool by preferring to breed with a bird of another color.

Good luck practicing with sparrows.  These “Little Brown Jobs” make it even more challenging by hiding in the weeds.

(photos by Steve Gosser)

Monarchs With Marcy

This week the weather will be so warm it’ll feel like early September when the monarch butterflies migrate.  But most of them are in Texas now, safe from killing frosts.  (You can watch their migration progress here.)

In August 2009, several of us from WQED visited Marcy Cunkelman to see her wonderful garden and learn about raising and tagging monarchs for the migration study.

Christa Majoras, who was an intern back then, recorded a video of our time there.  The unedited footage sat dormant while Christa was away at school but now she’s back as an employee (yay!) and she edited Marcy’s monarch video.

I’m so happy to show you what we learned from Marcy!  Enjoy this look back to the month of August when the flowers were blooming in her garden.

Many thanks to Marcy Cunkelman for hosting us and sharing her knowledge and to Christa Majoras for filming and editing the video.

(garden host and teacher, Marcy Cunkelman. video by Christa Majoras)


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