Monthly Archives: September 2016

Black Moon Today

New moon symbol (image from Wikimedia Commons)

THE BLACK MOON MADE ME FORGET SOMETHING I ALREADY KNEW.  BIG CORRECTION AT 10:45AM!  We never see the dark side of the moon except from outer space. Thank you, Tom Hoffman, for reminding me. (Shaking fist at Black Moon!)

30 September 2016:  Today the media is peppered with the ominous words “Black Moon.”  Here’s what that’s all about.

By the time you read this the moon has already risen in Pittsburgh at 6:46am. It came up half an hour before sunrise, will reach its zenith at 1:00pm, and will set at 7:07pm four minutes after sunset.  It’s in lock step with the sun.

But we won’t see it.

It’s a new moon traveling so close to the sun that the sun’s glare hides it.  And it’s not illuminated.  It is back lit by the sun.

This is the second new moon this month, the so-called “Black Moon.” Like its bright twin, the Blue Moon, two of these in a month are a relatively rare occurrence.  The last Black one was 32 months ago.

What about the dark side of the moon.  Is it always black?

No. Today’s Black Moon is sunlit on the other side.  But if we could see it, it would look unfamiliar.

During the new moon last July, the dark side of the moon was facing the DSCOVER satellite when NASA’s EPIC camera recorded time lapse photos.  Watch as the dark side flies by the southern hemisphere.  Doesn’t it look odd!

NASA's EPIC camera captures the dark side of the moon as it travels between Earth and the DSCOVR satellite (animation from NASA)
NASA’s EPIC camera captures the dark side of the moon as it travels between Earth and the DSCOVR satellite, 5 Jul 2016 (animation from NASA)

For starters, it’s darker than we expect.  Even when fully illuminated the moon is darker than Earth from outer space because it reflects less light.  Our planet is bright blue and white because it has lots of water.  The moon is dry and dark.  It matches the color of Australia.

Here’s the dark side in a still photo from August 2015.

NASA's EPIC camera captures the dark side of the moon as it travels between Earth and the DSCOVR satellite, Aug 2015 (animation from NASA)
NASA’s EPIC camera captures the dark side of the moon as it travels between Earth and the DSCOVR satellite, Aug 2015 (animation from NASA)

Look closely and you’ll see that it’s missing the craters we always see.

Of course we shouldn’t expect the dark side to match the bright side.  But the fact that it looks so different makes this Black Moon unsettling.  😉


(New moon symbol from Wikimedia Commons. Moon and earth animation from NASA.  Click on the images to see the originals.)

Bad Flu is Not Our Fault

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)
Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Right now it’s flu shot season, soon to be followed by flu season itself from December to March.

Wild birds have been blamed as a source of influenza but new evidence indicates they’re not the cause of bad flu.  To understand why here’s a primer on where flu comes from, how it spreads, and why flu season is in the winter.

Where does flu come from?

Other people!  It spreads best — and quickly creates new strains — where people are densely crowded.  Amazingly, the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 spread quickly because of crowded camps and trenches in World War I.  A new study this month from the University of Chicago finds that “surveillance for developing new, seasonal vaccines should be focused on areas of east, south and southeast Asia where population size and community dynamics can increase transmission of endemic strains of the flu.”  Click here to read why flu does so well in that part of the world.

How does flu spreadIn the air.  We breathe it in.  Airborne transmission actually explains …

Why is flu season in the winter?

Not too long ago we were told that it’s in the winter because migratory waterfowl pass avian flu to domestic birds during fall migration.  Wrong!!

Recent studies of avian flu transmission show that it spreads in poultry factory farms (crowded conditions!) and along our poultry trade routes.  It follows our poultry, not wild birds’ migratory paths.

And the timing has nothing to do with migration.  Flu season is in the winter because the pathogen stays airborne longer in dry winter air.  It falls to the ground in summer humidity.

So why are waterfowl off the hook?

Wild birds aren’t spreading the worst strains of avian flu because they don’t have it.

After the H5 avian influenza A virus hit U.S. poultry farms in 2014-15, officials worried that avian flu would return when waterfowl migrated south again … but it didn’t.  The reason was found by researchers from St.Jude Children’s Research Hospital who “analyzed throat swabs and biological samples taken from 22,892 wild ducks and other aquatic birds collected before, during and after a 2014-15 H5 flu outbreak in poultry.”(*)  None of the birds had the highly pathogenic influenza A virus.

“Bad flu is not our fault,” say the ducks.

Read more here at: Evidence suggests migratory birds are not a reservoir for highly pathogenic flu viruses.


p.s.  Remember to get a flu shot!  However, if you’re over 65 immunologist Laura Haynes says you should get it after Halloween if you can.  Click here to read her advice on NPR.

(photo by Brian Herman)

He Eats Needles


Here’s a bird you’ll never see in Pennsylvania.

The spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) is a resident of the northern forest in Canada, Maine, Minnesota and the northern Rockies.  Though he resembles our state bird, the ruffed grouse, his diet keeps him north of us.

In winter our ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) eats buds, twigs, catkins, ferns and fruit — easy food to find in Pennsylvania.

Not so the spruce grouse.  His winter diet is conifer needles.  They’re so hard to digest and he has to eat so many of them to stay alive that his digestive system changes in the fall.  According to Cornell’s All About Birds, his “gizzard grows by about 75 percent, and other sections of the digestive tract increase in length by about 40 percent.”  Before the snow falls he stocks up on grit so his gizzard can grind up the needles.

In September 2012 Sparky Stensaas found this spruce grouse swallowing road grit and feasting on a tamarack in northern Minnesota.  Tamaracks loose their needles in October so the grouse had to eat them right away.

This bird eats spruce needles, too.  That’s why he’s a spruce grouse.


Click here to see the video full screen and read Sparky’s description of what this grouse was up to.

(video by Sparky Stensaas)

* Tamaracks are larches, deciduous conifers whose needles turn yellow and drop in the fall.

Guess Who’s Coming To Visit

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Shawn Collins)
Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Shawn Collins)

Guess who’s coming to visit our bird feeders this winter.

Every year Ron Pittaway analyzes the seed crop in Canada’s forest and predicts where northern finches and irruptive songbirds will spend the winter.  Last week he published his 2016 Winter Finch Forecast and the news is mixed.

Pittaway says the seed crop is poor this fall in southeastern Canada so many seed eaters will go west or north where the crop’s been good.  We won’t see crossbills this winter but three species are certain to move south: red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and purple finches.

Red-breasted nuthatches (above) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania.  I saw one in my City neighborhood last week.

As for blue jays, we’re inundated with them in Pittsburgh especially in Schenley Park.

Blue Jay (photo by Chuck Tague)
Blue Jay (photo by Chuck Tague)


Purple finches have been reported in central Pennsylvania but I’m still waiting for my first one here in the west.

Purple finch (photo by Chuck Tague)
Purple finch (photo by Chuck Tague)

Keep your feeders filled and don’t be disappointed if you attract a lot of blue jays.  They’re visiting from Canada.  🙂


(Red-breasted nuthatch photo by Shawn Collins. Blue jay and purple finch photos by Chuck Tague)

Schenley Park Outing Today, Sept 25

Participants at Schenley Park outing, 25 Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)
Participants at Schenley Park outing, 25 Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

The weather was great this morning — cool and sunny — as 16 of us explored Schenley Park.

We started at the Westinghouse Fountain, checked the Phipps Run valley behind it and walked part of the Steve Falloon Trail but there were almost no birds except for woodpeckers and blue jays.

I extended the walk to the golf course road where we added mourning doves, Carolina chickadees and an eastern phoebe (Best Bird).  Then to the Bartlett Shelter area where we added American goldfinches, common grackles and European starlings.  Here’s the bird checklist.

I was surprised by the abundance of mushrooms, especially Chicken-of-the-woods.

If we’d been out there counting chipmunks we’d have had a fantastic day.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. All the thrushes were at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

The Lump Might Split

Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in spring (photo by Chuck Tague)

If you’ve seen a yellow-rumped warbler in both eastern and western North America you might get a new Life Bird without doing anything.

Two weeks ago Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNewsletter announced that the yellow-rumped warbler, a species that was lumped in 1973, might have to split — possibly even four ways!

If the split happens, the birds would probably use the names they had before the lumping.

Yellow-rumps in eastern North America, shown above, used to be called “myrtle warblers.”

Yellow-rumps in western North America, shown below, were “Audubon’s warbler.”

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)
Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler (photo by Steve Valasek)

These birds have different DNA and, happily for us, they look different.  Notice the yellow throat on the western bird.

Read about the possible four-way split and see their breeding range map at Goodbye Yellow-rump on the All About Birds blog.


(photo of yellow-rumped myrtle warbler by Chuck Tague, yellow-rumped Audubon’s warbler by Steve Valasek)

Its Beauty Is Microscopic

Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)

This week there’s a lot of fluff in the air from flowers gone to seed.  In my neighborhood it’s from a plant called American burnweed or pilewort that grows on burned sites and waste places.  It loves the urban setting.

Though it’s a native plant in the Aster family, pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is far from beautiful. Two to eight feet tall it looks very weedy, even ugly.  Each branch tip ends in a long green capsule that looks like a seed pod.

Pilewort plant (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort plant (photo by Kate St. John)

Are they seeds? No. I learned more when a bee paused to nectar on top of one.

A very close look revealed that the tip is a cluster of tiny flowers.

Individual pilewort flower (photo by Kate St. John)
Individual pilewort flower (photo by Kate St. John)

I opened the capsule and fanned its contents. Under magnification you can see the tiny white, almost translucent flowers with five petals, a protruding split pistil, and lavender centers.

They’re hard to photograph but here are two of my best attempts.

Individual pilewort flower capsule, opened and spread to shw the tiny flowers (photo by Kate St. John)
Individual pilewort flower capsule, spread to show the tiny flowers (photo by Kate St. John)


Individual pilewort flowers, spread out to show their details (photo by Kate St. John)
Individual pilewort flowers, spread out to show their details (photo by Kate St. John)

Most of the capsules have yellow tips.  Probably stamens, but even harder to see.

After the flowers are pollinated the green capsules split open and the long white filaments carry the seeds through the air.

Ugly from afar, pilewort’s beauty is microscopic.


(photos by Kate St.John)

Birds Take Flight Before Earthquake

Flock takes off (photo by Chuck Tague)
Flock takes off (photo by Chuck Tague)

In case you missed it early this month …

Oklahoma is a place that rarely had earthquakes until hydraulic fracking brought deep well injection to the state in 2009. Since then fracking disposal has awakened previously unknown fault lines with frequent and usually mild tremblors.

Then on 3 September at 7:02am a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Pawnee, 72 miles northeast of Oklahoma City as the crow flies.  And, yes, the crow flew.

The birds in the area somehow knew the earthquake was coming and took flight before it happened.  We know this because they appeared on Oklahoma City’s weather radar as an expanding cloud as much as 15 minutes before the quake!

See the radar image here and read more about birds’ extra earthquake sensors in the Washington Post.


p.s.  Residents on the ground at Pawnee weren’t so lucky. See the damage at Newson6.

(photo by Chuck Tague)