Monthly Archives: December 2012

20,058 Crows!

It was cold and very snowy on Saturday when more than 80 people braved the weather to count birds for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  We learned the preliminary results last night at the annual CBC Dinner.

Like all counts, Pittsburgh’s circle has a diverse landscape within its 15 mile diameter.  Over the years the circle has seen a lot of residential and commercial development but something made this year special.  Even though all the data wasn’t in yet, we tallied 76 species including tundra swans, common goldeneyes, ravens, red-breasted nuthatches, white-winged crossbills, pine siskins and a short-eared owl (an unusual owl for the Pittsburgh circle).

For sheer numbers, though, the crows won hands down.  Sue Solomon, Claire Staples, Joellen Popma and Jana Oster stationed themselves near the Strip District roost before sunset and counted crows until it was too dark to see.  By then they’d counted more than 18,000 and more were still flying in.  Added to those seen in the rest of the city, the total number of crows counted in the City of Pittsburgh on December 29 was 20,058.  And that doesn’t include crows in other parts of the circle!

To get an idea of what the counters saw last Saturday, here’s a video from Sharon Leadbitter taken in the Strip District exactly two years ago today.  Yes, the crows have been coming here for years.


Robins or starlings might outnumber crows in the city right now, but who wants to count them?  We’re busy counting crows!  😉

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter of crows flying when it’s almost too dark to see; video by Sharon Leadbitter)

Silver-throated Tanager

Here’s a beautiful little bird that’s a favorite of mine though I’ve never actually seen him.

Similar in size to a Carolina wren, the silver-throated tanager (Tangara icterocephala) is a true tanager in the Thraupidae family. Our “tanagers” (scarlet, western, summer, etc.) are now considered cardinals (Cardinalidae).

Silver-throated tanagers don’t migrate so you have to go to the mountain forests of Central or South America to see them.  When not breeding they hang out in mixed flocks with other small birds of similar color. Black and yellow is their flock badge.

Since 85% of their diet consists of fruit, I hear it’s easy to attract them to feeders. Wouldn’t it be stunning to see this colorful little bird in your backyard!

Charlie Hickey photographed this one at Dota, San Jose, Costa Rica, last month.


(photo by Charlie Hickey.  Click on the image to see the original.)

Feather Facts

Feathers are to birds as hairs are to mammals .. but not quite.

Here are some feather facts to ponder.

  • Feathers, like hair, are dead structures that have no nerves and cannot change or heal themselves if damaged.
  • Our hair grows continuously.  Feathers grow to completion and then stop, so they must be completely replaced when worn out.
  • Feather follicles have muscles that grip the feathers so they don’t fall out.  Anyone who’s plucked a chicken knows these muscles are strong.
  • In some birds, such as nightjars, the follicle muscles let go when the bird is frightened suddenly.  (I wonder which feathers they lose.)
  • A new feather literally grows under the old one and pushes it out of the follicle.
  • Contour (body) feathers are symmetrical and so are their follicles.  Flight feathers are lopsided: narrow on one side of the rachis compared to the other.  Flight follicles are lopsided too.
  • The same feather follicle can produce very different feathers at different times of year — for example colorful, long feathers for the breeding season and drab ones for basic plumage.  Imagine if our hair could do that! We could automatically change our hair color in the spring.

(Inspiration for this Tenth Page is from page 90 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill. Photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Gorgeous Fluorescence


This gorgeous video of a nighttime coral reef was shot by Steffen Beyer of Five Dive Gear using specially filtered blue lights.

The creatures are spectacular.  The music is soothing.


(video by Steffen Beyer of Five Dive Gear)


p.s. If you don’t have 9 minutes to watch it, click at 5:55 to see the fantastic creatures that appear at minute 6.

For more information on how and why these animals glow click here or here.  To explore more photos and the gear that made the video possible visit

p.p.s. Thanks to Wanderin’ Weeta for pointing out this video.

Go on a Virtual Safari, Help Science

Nature observers and webcam lovers, here’s an opportunity to go on a virtual safari and contribute to science from the comfort of your home.

The University of Minnesota has been studying lions in Africa’s Serengeti for over 45 years.  Several years ago, in an effort to determine the population of other species in lion country, they installed 225 motion-detection cameras to record all the animals, both day and night, that pass by the study sites.

They now have thousands and thousands of photographs that contain an animal of interest … but which animal?   And how many?  And what are they doing?  Are there Wildebeest? Zebras? Serval cats?  Eland?  Guinea fowl? Grant’s gazelles (above)?

The task of identifying and counting the animals in so many photos was too huge for just a few people so they teemed up with Zooniverse to launch the Snapshot Serengeti website. It’s a citizen science project and you can help.

Visit to see the photos.  Try the tutorial. Learn how to identify the animals and how to use the clues for animals you’ve never seen before.  Then checkmark three items: what species, how many, what they’re doing.  Click Finish and you’re onto the next photo.

Of the two Zooniverse projects I’ve tried so far I like this the best.  At first I wasn’t very good at wildebeest vs. eland vs. buffalo but I quickly got better.  I could really tell I’m a “bird person” when I was excited to see two guinea fowl, and then a secretary bird!

Try it yourself.  Sign up at, sign in and you’re off on safari!

(screenshot from Snapshot Serengeti)

Here To Stay

“Gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is a new bird.  He sings a love song as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland.”  — Winter Wonderland

Even though Winter Wonderland doesn’t mention Christmas, we sing it at this time of year with thoughts of snow and love.

The lyrics were inspired by snowfall in Honesdale, PA.  I like to think they have a special meaning for Pennsylvania birders.

Eastern bluebirds leave northern and western Pennsylvania during cold snowy winters so it’s accurate for a snowy song to say, “Gone away is the bluebird.”  (Bluebirds remain further north during mild winters.  Eight days ago it was 58 degrees during the Buffalo Creek Watershed IBA 80 Christmas Bird Count; I counted 35 bluebirds!)

And who is the new bird?  My choice would be the northern cardinal.

In 1800 northern cardinals were southern birds but they expanded their range northward as people changed the landscape and improved food availability.  Cardinals reached northern Ohio in the mid 1800s and were common in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by 1900.

So when the lyrics to Winter Wonderland were written in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1934, the northern cardinal was already here to stay.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Holiday Frog

This Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas) looks like he’s ready for the holidays with bright red eyes, green skin, orange toes and blue sides.

How does a frog this colorful manage to hide?  He would be easy prey except for his camouflage capability.

When young these treefrogs have brown skin that make it easy to hide in the Central American rain forest.

As an adult he tries to match the leaves.  He flattens himself against a green leaf, pulls in his orange toes and positions his legs to hide his blue sides.  Then he closes his red eyes.

Poof!  He’s a leaf.

When awake, he contributes to a vibrant world.

(photo by Charlie Hickey of a Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas) at Vara Blanca, Heredia, Costa Rica, November 27, 2012. Click on the image to see the original)

Two Turtle Doves

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves…”  —  The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Why turtle doves?

Probably because they are symbols of love, as in The Song of Solomon.

Pictured above, European turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) resemble North America’s mourning doves but are more slender and colorful.  They breed in Europe and western Asia, spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa (see map).

Turtle doves used to be very plentiful but are now in serious decline in Europe.  As of 2007, their population had decreased 62% since the early 1980’s.  Scientists attribute this to changes in farm practices that eliminated the weeds and seeds these doves depend on for food, and the over-hunting of turtle doves in Mediterranean countries as the birds pass through on migration.

The decline in Europe is so severe that birders fear they are headed for extinction on the continent that immortalized them in a Christmas song.

Fortunately, turtle doves are not declining in western Asia so they won’t go extinct worldwide.

In the future turtle doves may be as mysterious a gift in Europe as they are to us.

(photo by Yuvalr via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)