Monthly Archives: October 2017

Birds With Masks

Masked boobies, Howland Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Masked boobies, Howland Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Halloween, birds with masks are here to celebrate.

Masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) breed on tropical islands around the world except in the eastern Atlantic (near Africa).  In September Hurricane Jose blew an exhausted masked booby all the way to Cape Cod.  It was rescued but died.

Masked ducks (Nomonyx dominicus) are found at ponds and small lakes from Mexico to South America and in the Caribbean.  These elusive birds are sometimes in south Texas where I missed my chance to see one.

Masked duck, Nomonyx dominicus (phot from Wikimedia Commons)
Masked duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) wear a broken mask.  I heard them laugh in Costa Rica.

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)
Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

 

Male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) are easy to identify by their masks but the females and juveniles don’t wear one.  The unmasked birds are so confusing.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

In late October cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are still here in Pittsburgh though in smaller numbers.  Their faces are ready for the masquerade ball.

Cedar waxwing (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Cedar waxwing (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Can you think of other masked birds?

Happy Halloween!

 

(photo credits: Masked boobies and masked duck from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Laughing falcon by Bert Dudley. Common yellowthroat by Steve Gosser. Cedar waxwing by Cris Hamilton.)

Walked On Land, Then Became A Fish

Humpback whale breaching (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Humpback whale breaching (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a surprising thing:  The ancestors of whales were land-based walking animals that fell in love with water.  In the ensuing 50 million years successive species spent more and more time at sea, eventually lost their legs, and now resemble fish.  (No, they aren’t fish. They just resemble them.)

How did they change from land to sea?  To solve the mystery, paleontologists closely examined the fossil record looking for the one trait that only whales have:  the unique bony structure of the whale’s inner ear.  A fossil found in 1981 provided the missing link.

Shown below are two of the whale’s ancestral relatives. Not direct ancestors, the diagram shows where those two fit on the family tree.  Whales are labelled #1.  Animal #2 looks like a dog. #3 looks like a whale.

Whales' family tree (diagram from Wikimedia Commons enhanced by Kate St. John)
Whales’ family tree (diagram from Wikimedia Commons enhanced by Kate St. John)

The change from species to species was incredibly slow.

If we could go back in time 50 million years to the Early Eocene we’d meet Pakicetus inachus (#2), below.  First discovered in Pakistan in 1981, he looks like a long-headed dog but he has the whale’s special inner ear.  Scientists hypothesize that he lived on land but spent time up to his eyes in water hiding from predators.

Pakicetus inachus, a whale ancestor from the Early Eocene of Pakistan, after Nummelai et al., (2006), pencil drawing, digital coloring
Pakicetus inachus, ancestral whale from the Early Eocene

 

Fast forward 10 million years to the Late Eocene to see Dorudon atrax (#3), an ancestral whale that spent his entire life in water.  His body was fish-shaped, his tail had flukes, and since he never walked his hind legs were small, almost an afterthought.

Dorudon atrox, an ancestral whale from the Late Eocene of Egypt
Dorudon atrox, an ancestral whale from the Late Eocene

 

From “the fish walked” to the walker that became fish-like, whales turn our misconceptions about evolution on their head.  Evolution doesn’t “make progress” from simple water-based organisms to us land-based humans at the pinnacle of development.   It’s just any change over time.

For more information about whales, see their family tree at U.C. Berkeley’s The evolution of whales and an article in Smithsonian Magazine: How Did Whales Evolve?

 

(all images from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

The Sky Last Week

Sunset as seen from the Roberto Clemente Bridge,Pittsburgh, 21 October 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Sunset at the Roberto Clemente Bridge, Pittsburgh, 21 October 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Last week the sky put on a show in Pittsburgh.  Here are just a few of its moods, October 21 to 24, 2017.

A clear blue sky with one colorful tree, Youghiogeny Bike Trail, 22 October 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
A clear blue sky with one colorful tree, Youghiogeny Bike Trail, 22 October 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
A double rainbow over Pittsburgh, 23 October 2017, 7:40am (photo by Kate St. John)
A double rainbow over Pittsburgh, 23 October 2017, 7:40am (photo by Kate St. John)
Beautiful clouds over Schenley Park, 24 October 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Beautiful clouds over Schenley Park, 24 October 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

A Guide to the New Layout

Puzzled by the new blog design? Here’s a guide to finding familiar tools.

Search is a magnifying glass that’s always at top right beneath the banner photo.
The sidebar has Archives, Resources (useful links!) and Categories.

On desktop screens, the sidebar is on the right.  On cellphones the sidebar is at the bottom.

The Menu navigates to major sections, including Peregrine FAQs.  Just below the banner photo, it looks like this on a big screen.

On a cellphone you have to click on “Menu” to open it (open/closed shown below).

 

If you’ve read this far you get a Quiz! Find “Peregrines” under Categories and see how many times I’ve written about them.

 

(screenshots of Outside My Window layout as of 28 Oct 2017)

Don’t Miss! H is for Hawk: A New Chapter

Helen Macdonald with goshawk (photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)
Helen Macdonald with young goshawk (photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)

If you love raptors don’t miss H is for Hawk: A New Chapter premiering Wednesday November 1 on PBS NATURE.

The program follows Helen Macdonald, author of the award-winning book H is for Hawk, as she decides that now’s the time to train a new goshawk. But this will be different.

Ten years earlier while mourning her father’s death she acquired and trained a goshawk named Mabel. Goshawks are so difficult to work with that most falconers do not take them on.  The book tells of Macdonald’s journey through grief and healing as she bonds with her fierce, inspiring hawk.

Mabel died before the book was finished and Macdonald thought she’d never have a goshawk again, but now things have changed. “After a big bereavement you fall apart and have to remake yourself,” she says. “The person in the book isn’t really me anymore.”  Indeed this chapter is a journey of joy.

Beautiful and evocative, we thrill with Macdonald as she watches goshawks nesting in the wild and cheer as she and her new goshawk, Lupin, grow and bond.

Don’t miss H is for Hawk: A New Chapter  on Wednesday November 1 at 8pm ET on PBS. Check your local listing. In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

Click here for the video preview.

 

(photo ©Mike Birkhead Associates)

They’re Back!

American crows (photo by CheepShot via Wikimedia Commons)
American crows (photo by CheepShot via Wikimedia Commons)

The crows are back in town!

Tuesday evening (October 23) Michelle Kienholz sent me the photo below of a huge flock of crows flying over Schenley Park toward CMU at 6pm.  See those specks above the horizon?  Hundreds of them!

Flock of crows flying toward CMU at dusk, 23 Oct 2017, 6:07pm (photo by Michelle Kienholz)
Flock of crows flying toward CMU at dusk, 23 Oct 2017, 6:07pm (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Yes, it’s late October and the crows are back in Pittsburgh for the winter.  This is just the beginning of the flock.  More will follow.

In the next few weeks the crows will move their roost several times until they settle on a favorite safe place.  Meanwhile, you’ll see them at dawn and dusk flying down the Allegheny River valley and through Oakland.

Last year crows made the news by plaguing Pitt’s campus:  Annual crow stopover makes work for Facilities.

Will they roost at Pitt this year?  Stay tuned.

 

(photo credits: three crows by CheepShot on Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Crows darken the sky near CMU by Michelle Kienholz)

Coyotes In Town

Coyote in the City of Pittsburgh, October 2017 (photo by Luanne Lavelle)
Coyote in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood, 10 October 2017 (photo by Luanne Lavelle)

Last week coyotes made a splash in my Pittsburgh neighborhood when one appeared in early October.  Frank Gottlieb mentioned his sighting on Nextdoor, Luanne Lavelle photographed one behind her house (above) and Crystal Barry zoomed in on this one at the edge of the road (below).  It may be the same animal moving around.

Coyote in Greenfield, October 2017 (photo by Crystal Barry)
Coyote in Greenfield, October 2017 (photo by Crystal Barry)

Have coyotes suddenly arrived in the city?  Are they something we should worry about?  No and no.  Here’s their fascinating story.

Eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) look like gray to reddish-brown husky dogs though they are smaller, have a different head shape, and never curl up their tails.  About a third larger than western coyotes, the eastern species weighs 35 to 55 pounds from the smallest female to the largest male.

The eastern coyotes’ appearance, size, and presence in Pennsylvania are all human-induced traits caused by our actions toward wild canines and the landscape.

Humans eradicated wolves, mountain lions and deer from Pennsylvania by the late 1800’s.  Coyotes don’t do well where wolves are in charge but during the low ebb of both populations coyotes and wolves hybridized in Ontario resulting in a larger animal with a wider range of prey.

Meanwhile Pennsylvania reintroduced deer whose population soared by the 1930s, expanding to suburbs and cities 60 years later.  Wolves and mountain lions did not come back to Pennsylvania but eastern coyotes moved into the deer-eating niche. Coyotes came to Pennsylvania in the 1930s and covered the state by the 1990s.

When did coyotes enter Pittsburgh city limits?  I heard of one in 2003; probably not the first.

Though coyotes are too small to bring down an adult deer, they eat fawns and dead deer (roadkill).  A study of the stomach contents of 300 Pennsylvania coyotes showed their preferences in this order:

  • Deer (present in 57% of stomachs), fawns and roadkill.  Deer are everywhere in Pittsburgh now.
  • Mouse-sized mammals:  mice, voles, moles, chipmunks
  • Plants (present in 50% of stomachs)
  • Rabbits and groundhogs
  • Insects (present in 18% of stomachs)
  • Birds are only 10% of the coyote’s diet

Why do we see coyotes in October?  Fall is the time of year when coyote families disperse. The young, full size at 9 months old, move away and hunt alone in fall and winter then pair up at two years old to raise a family.  Smart coyotes hide from humans but some young ones haven’t learned that lesson yet.

Are coyotes dangerous?  Not to us humans but myths abound, apparently borrowed from our myths about wolves.  No, coyotes won’t eat your kids. No, coyotes won’t lure your big dog away to eat him. (Coyotes play with big dogs (video). Their DNA is 10% domestic dog.)  No, coyotes will not stay away from your neighborhood if you remove the one you’ve seen. (New coyotes will arrive to take its place.)

However, coyotes will take a small pet if it looks easy to do.  If you’re really worried about coyotes, here’s how to discourage them from visiting your yard:

  • Don’t leave any food outdoors.  Enclose your garbage. Don’t leave pet food out.  Don’t feed any wildlife. If you attract mice or rats (bird seed), rodents will attract coyotes.
  • Watch your small dog when you let it out in the backyard.  Keep your cat indoors.
  • If you see a coyote, shout and wave your arms. Shoo it away.  Don’t try to befriend a coyote. Keep them wild.

Coyotes are smart and our pressure against them makes them smarter.  Appreciate them from afar.

Learn more at these websites:

Thank you to my Nextdoor neighbors Frank Gottlieb, Luanne Lavelle, Crystal Barry, Daniel Brown and Steffi Bruninghaus for their helpful comments about coyotes.

 

(photos by Luanne Lavelle and Crystal Barry)