Archive for November, 2016

Nov 30 2016

Moving The Crows

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Thousands of crows roosting at the University of Pittsburgh this month have finally worn out their welcome. Their slippery "fallout" on the sidewalks, especially near Heinz Chapel, tipped the scales against them. This week Pitt began using crow scare tactics to make them move.

Scaring crows is a noisy process that takes days or weeks to be effective. Pitt's first step is to play a very loud recording of screeching birds in distress and kakking peregrine falcons (click here to hear). The tape was playing yesterday at 4:30pm near Clapp Hall, so loud you could hardly think!

If the recording doesn't work the next steps are even noisier. The video above shows how Penn State uses pyrotechnics to convince their crows to leave, but it can take a while. Crow expert Margaret Brittingham explains how the crows learned to circumvent the deterrents with amusing results.

So now I'm curious. How long will it take to convince the Pitt crows to leave? And where will they go?

Time will tell.

 

p.s. This is the first year that Pitt's "new" peregrines, Hope and Terzo, have experienced the scare-crow recording. I don't know what Terzo's reaction is but Hope has been visiting her old site at Tarentum a lot lately. She was there yesterday afternoon.

(p.p.s. On the audio track the single crow sounds like a raven to me.)

(video from Penn State University)

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Nov 29 2016

What Good is a Collection?

Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)

Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)

We think of museums as places where the public views samples of the natural world, but in every museum there are far more specimens in storage than on display.  At The Carnegie that ratio for birds is about 200 to 1.  And so we wonder ...

What good is a collection? and Why are there so many specimens?

In the late 1800s to mid 1900s museums collected birds for taxonomic research:  What species exist?  What are their characteristics?  and What species are they related to?  Collections still provide taxonomic answers:

  • Field guide and bird artists use behind-the-scenes specimens to produce accurate work.
  • Historic distribution of species is derived from the specimens' geographic locations and dates.
  • We didn't know about DNA when most of the birds were collected, but we now compare specimens' DNA to each other and current birds.
  • We document regional variation in the same species (for instance, fox sparrows) by studying large collections made throughout its wide range.  That's why it's good to have so many specimens.

Many new questions arose long after the birds were collected.  In 2004 Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor at the University of Alaska Museum, pointed out that museum specimens helped provide these answers:

  • DDT caused eggshell thinning in peregrine falcon eggs, leading to their population crash, 1967.  Derek Ratcliffe measured eggshell thickness in museum egg collections to compare pre- and post-DDT eggs.
  • Mutations were discovered in local fauna after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1997.
  • Mercury levels increased in North Atlantic seabirds in the late 20th century, 1998.

Collections are excellent for monitoring change because they provide a snapshot of life on earth for the dates and places where specimens were collected.

The snapshot of birds is very detailed from the 1880s to the 1930s but what about birds at the turn of the 21st century?

Bird collecting dropped off considerably in the mid 20th century but it continues today in a smaller, non-traditional way at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Each year up to 1 billion birds die by hitting windows in the U.S.  In 2014 the Carnegie joined North America's BirdSafe project to document dangerous windows, rescue injured birds and collect the dead ones.  During spring and fall migration BirdSafe Pittsburgh adds a couple of common birds each week to the Carnegie's collection.

 

(photo of roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall by Kate St. John)

Further reading, an excellent article:  Natural History Museums in a Postbiodiversity Era by Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor, University of Alaska Museum (of the North), Fairbanks, Alaska.

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Nov 28 2016

Fifteen Mile Commute

Published by under Peregrines

Hope at Tarentum Bridge, Tuesday morning, 11/22/16 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope at Tarentum Bridge, 11/22/2016 around 10am, (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Tuesday morning, November 22, a beautiful female peregrine perched close to Tony Bruno and Steve Gosser at the Tarentum Bridge. Her close approach reminded Steve of the peregrine Hope who used to live at the bridge before moving to the Cathedral of Learning.

Steve was able to photograph her bands, black/green, 69/Z, and yes indeed she was Hope.

Hope's color band, morning of 11/22/16 at Tarentum Bridge (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope's color band at Tarentum Bridge, around 10:30am, 11/22/16 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Did she stay at the bridge?  No.

Steve saw her at Tarentum until he left at 11:00am.  Then at 12:12pm the falconcam caught Hope courting with Terzo at the Cathedral of Learning.

Hope and Terzo bow at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:12pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope and Terzo bow at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:12pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

She's recognizable on the falconcam by her distinctive "muddy" gray face and her green right-leg band.  (It's even greener-looking in subsequent photos.)

Hope at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope at the Pitt nest, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Below, her left leg band shows black/green as she leaves the nest.

Hope leaves the nest area showing her black/green color band, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope leaves the nest area showing her black/green color band, 11/22/2016, 12:15pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

 

So ... Hope is using both her old and new territories this fall.

It's only a 15 mile commute ... as the peregrine flies.

 

p.s. If you search the WildEarth archives for this footage, you'll find it on 11/22/2016 at 13:12.  WildEarth's archive clock remains on Eastern Daylight Time so it doesn't have to be reset for the nesting season.

(photos at Tarentum Bridge by Steve Gosser. photos at Cathedral of Learning nest from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

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Nov 27 2016

Cars And Deer

Published by under Mammals,Schenley Park

Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

It's that time of year again when cars and deer come into conflict.

From October through December white-tailed deer hormones surge for the mating season.  Males become aggressive, spar with their rivals, and challenge anything they see as a threat.  Both sexes roam in search of mates and barely pay attention to their surroundings.  Cars are the last thing on their minds.

Last year, Pennsylvania won the "prize" for the most deer-vehicle collisions in the U.S.   According to a September 2015 article by Ad Crable at Lancaster Online, we hit 127,275 deer with our cars -- and those were only the collisions reported to insurance.   When compared to hunting season, which took more than 353,000 deer that year, we're making a sizable dent with our vehicles.

A case in point is in Schenley Park where hunting is prohibited, as in all Pittsburgh City Parks.  Deer used to be rare but they moved in about 10 years ago (perhaps longer) and their population has exploded in the past five years.  I knew we'd reached a milestone when I saw a first ever road-killed deer in the Park along the Boulevard of the Allies, hit on November 5 or 6.

I'm sure the person who hit that 6-point buck was very, very surprised.  So are those whose dogs are challenged by aggressive deer.  Every year since 2015, a buck has killed a dog in the City's east end parks.

So be careful out there, especially at dusk and dawn when deer are most active.  Use your brightest headlights and slow down.  Don't become a statistic.

 

Reminder: Deer (rifle) season begins tomorrow, Monday November 28, in Pennsylvania. Wear blaze orange when you're outside the city.

(photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Nov 26 2016

Tiny Lichens

Published by under Plants

Trumpet lichen, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Cladonia lichen, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Lichens are interesting shapes if you look closely enough.

Two weeks ago I found these tiny green trumpets in the pine woods at Moraine State Park in Butler County, PA.  I don't know much about lichens but a Google search placed them in the Cladonia genus.  The best photo match was the trumpet lichen (Cladonia fimbriata).

Here's a closer view.

Trumpet lichen close up, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Cladonia lichen close up, Moraine State Park, 11 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

What are the cups for?  New Hampshire Garden Solutions explains them for  the Cladonia chlorophaea species:

Mealy Pixie Cup (Cladonia chlorophaea) lichen look like little trumpets from the side but from the top they look like tiny cups. The cups are where the spores form and this lichen relies on raindrops falling in them to disperse its spores. This lichen is called “mealy” because of the grainy reproductive structures (soredia) covering its outside surface.

Do you know the name of this lichen?

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

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Nov 25 2016

Merlins This Month At Schenley Park

More than a decade ago four merlins used to hang out at Schenley Park Golf Course every winter.  They were often seen at dusk in the area near the club house just before they flew to roost.  For a few years they were reliable every winter and then they were gone ... until now.

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small falcons that eat birds for a living, though they choose smaller prey than peregrines do.  You could mistake one for an immature peregrine except for this:  Merlins are smaller and darker, their malar stripes are less pronounced, and they are very fast in level flight, rapidly pumping their wings.

Most merlins nest in Canada and migrate south with their prey.  Some go as far as South America.  Others stay in the southern U.S. and a few, very few, spend the winter in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This month two merlins came back to Schenley Park.  Just like those a decade ago, these birds prefer perches with long views in every direction.  You can find them at dawn or dusk at the highest elevation of the golf course near Darlington Road at Schenley Drive. They perch on treetops or dead snags near hole #2 and the fairways of holes #3 and #4.

If you've never seen a merlin, watch this video of a falconer's merlin on the hunt to get an idea of their size and flight style.

 

p.s.  If you go look for the merlins, keep in mind that this is a golf course.  You must stay out of the way of golfers and not tread on the tees and greens!  Watch from the sidelines.

(video by Primitive Tim on YouTube)

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Nov 24 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Two male turkeys try to impress two ladies (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Two male wild turkeys try to impress two ladies (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Wild turkeys at a family get together.  😉

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Nov 23 2016

Cranberries In Unnatural Form

Published by under Plants

Canned cranberry sauce (photo from Flickr by busybeytheelder)

Canned cranberry sauce (photo from Flickr by busybeytheelder)

An early jump on Throw Back Thursday:

Tomorrow will be a big day for cranberries, but how did they they end up in this form?

Learn more in this 2013 article: Unnatural Shape

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Nov 22 2016

The Golden Age of Collecting

Meb Carriker and his son Mel collecting birds in the Beni River region of Bolivia, South America, 1934-1935 (photo linked from Smithsonian archives blog)

Meb Carriker and his son Mel collecting birds in the Beni River region of Bolivia, South America, 1934-1935 (photo linked from Smithsonian archives blog)

When the Carnegie Museum of Natural History opened in 1895 it was a new institution with a very sparse collection.  Today it houses nearly 200,000 bird specimens, most of which were acquired during a brief window of time. I think of it as the Golden Age of Collecting.

Bird collecting reached its peak from the 1880s to the 1930s for many U.S. museums.  Scientific research was at the heart of the process and taxidermy was its tool.  The driving reason behind collecting was to document and identify every bird species and determine its place in the taxonomic order.  No one knew how many species there were nor where they lived.

Museums could afford to do this because they had money to hire scientists and pay for expeditions and specimens.  W. E. Clyde Todd, whose career at the Carnegie spanned 1898 to 1945, oversaw bird acquisition during its heyday.

W.E. Clyde Todd, Curator of Ornithology 1914-1945, photo ca. 1966 as Honorary Curator of Birds' Eggs (photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

W.E. Clyde Todd, Curator of Ornithology 1914-1945, photo ca. 1966 as Honorary Curator of Birds' Eggs (photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Bird collectors were both scientists and hardy wilderness explorers whose expeditions sometimes spanned several years.  They walked into the wild with all their gear, set up camps, ate what they could find and worked with the local people.  Their collecting was done by shotgun. They skinned the birds, preserved the skins, and stuffed them with cotton while recording the date, location, species and name of the collector.

M. A. "Meb" Carriker, Jr. (1879-1965), pictured above in the field with his son, studied bird lice and collected birds in Central and South America.  He sent more than 25,000 specimens to the Carnegie. For each bird, his finished product was a study skin.  Below, Assistant Curator Ruth Trimble holds the study skin of a magpie (probably not one of Carriker's birds).

Ruth Trimble, Assistant Curator of Ornithology, 1934-1940

Ruth Trimble, Assistant Curator of Ornithology, 1934-1940

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History bird acquisition reached its high point in 1917 with 9,375 specimens.  Collecting dropped off worldwide during World War II and never reached those heights again.  This occurred in part because the taxon-oriented purpose declined and our culture changed.  By the end of the 20th century nearly all the bird species had been found and, since scientists don't collect (kill) rare birds, the new finds weren't collected.  At the same time, technology provided new tools, taxidermy fell out of favor, and money for collecting dried up.

Today 1/3 of the Carnegie's bird collection is more than 100 years old, 3/4 is older than 70.  The Golden Age of Collecting ended before most of us were born.

So you might wonder, "Is a museum bird collection relevant today?"  Stay tuned for next week's topic: What Good Is A Collection?

 

(photo credits:
* Meb and Mel Carriker collecting birds in the Beni River region of Bolivia, South America, 1934-1935, photo linked from Smithsonian archives blog A Tale of Coffee and Collecting

* W. E. Clyde Todd, Curator of Ornithology from 1914-1945, photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History
* Ruth Trimble, Assistant Curator of Birds 1934-1940, displays a magpie study skin, photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History
)

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Nov 21 2016

Bald Eagle Days

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald Eagle at Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

Bald eagle watching the parking lot, Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

This month the Hays bald eagles are at home in Pittsburgh but not nearly as easy to find as they will be during the nesting season. If you need an "eagle fix" make a trip to Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Maryland, just south of the PA border on the Susquehanna River.  The dam's tail waters attract hundreds of bald eagles in November.

To celebrate the eagles locals hold an annual event called Conowingo Eagle Day.  This year it was on Saturday November 12 and was so well attended that sponsors had to run a shuttle bus to the viewing site.

Annette and Gerry Devinney went to Conowingo Eagle Day and, yes, the eagles were spectacular.  Annette brought back these photos.

Bald eagle with fish at Conowingo (photo by Annette Devinney)

Bald eagle carrying a fish at Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

Three bald eagles, chasing at Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

Two immature bald eagles chase an adult, Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

Bald eagle at Conowingo (photo by Annette Devinney)

Bald eagle fishing in flight, Conowingo, Nov 2016 (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

Bald eagle at Conowingo (photo by Annette Devinney)

Another drag of the talons. Did he get it? (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

Caught it! (photo by Annette Devinney)

Caught it! (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

This year's Eagle Day is over and the huge crowds are gone, but the eagles are still at Conowingo for a couple of weeks.  If you have the time, it's worth a November trip to see them on the Susquehanna.  Here's a map.

Thank you, Annette for sharing your photos.

 

p.s. If you don't know Annette Devinney, she's the heart of Pittsburgh's bald eagle community. Annette knows a lot about bald eagles, she takes gorgeous photographs, and she knows everyone. Every August Annette throws a big picnic reunion for Pittsburgh's bald eagle fans.  Annette and her husband Gerry travel far and wide keeping track of the area's eagles.  You'll find them at the Hays Eagle Viewing Site in the months ahead.  See her photos on Facebook.

(photos by Annette Devinney)

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