All posts by Kate St. John

Beckoning Beaks

Pair of Gouldian finches at their nestbox (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gouldian finches (Erythrura gouldiae) are colorful Australian seed-eating birds that nest in tree holes in the wild or in nest boxes when bred in captivity. Their nests are always dark inside so the nestlings have unusual mouth markings to attract their parents’ attention. Each nestling has:

  • Four opalescent tubercles at the corners of the gape that reflect a bluish light.
  • Patterns inside the mouth that guide toward the gullet.

To further attract attention, the nestlings hold up their mouths and rotate their heads as shown in this video of 3-day-old chicks.

The nestlings’ elaborate show may have evolved because …

Gouldians are among the most difficult finches to breed successfully because they are not wonderful parents and have a tendency to abandon both eggs and babies, or even refuse to nest at all. People who raise Gouldians usually keep society finches as well to serve as foster parents for eggs and babies. Societies are marvelous parents and will be happy to foster other species. 

Gouldian finch description at Lafeber website

The babies that survive are the ones with beckoning beaks.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and embedded from Twitter; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. See more examples of weird baby bird mouths at Audubon Magazine’s What’s Up With the Weird Mouths of These Finch Chicks?

Safely Underground

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the raging bushfires in Australia there’s a bit of happy news. Wombats are unintentionally saving wildlife.

Wombats are nocturnal marsupials that live in burrows which they dig with their teeth and claws. Specially adapted for their underground life, the female’s pouch where she carries her young faces backward so that dirt doesn’t get into it.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are the smallest of the three wombat species. At 30 inches long and weighing 42 to 71 pounds, their extensive tunnels have many entrances, long “hallways,” several large warrens, and smaller chambers. They are known to share their burrows with other wombats and are tolerant of visits by other species. Southern hairy-nosed wombats live in the fire zone.

Wombat burrow in New South Wales, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Rescuers figured out the importance of wombat burrows when they found healthy, unscathed animals wandering in newly burned areas including small wallabies, echidnas, lizards, skinks and rabbits. As the fires approached, the fleeing animals dove into wombat burrows to shelter safely while the firestorm passed overhead.

Two species that may benefit from the wombat burrows are shown below.

The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is common in the bushfire area, measuring 27-30 inches excluding its tail. Rock wallabies are even smaller.

Swamp wallaby feeding on leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are egg-laying mammals like the platypus that measure 12-18 inches long. They eat ants and termites.

Sheltering underground is not a new thing. It turns out that small mammals survived the meteor that killed the dinosaurs by hiding safely underground. Wombats are inadvertently doing their bit to save wildlife today.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

It’s A Wonder

Painted bunting in Allegheny County, 22 Jan 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

On Monday morning, 20 January 2020, a sparrow-sized songbird, colored like an exotic parrot, showed up at a backyard feeder in suburban Pittsburgh. It happened to choose the backyard of Brian Shema, Operations Director at Audubon Society of Western PA. His Rare Bird Alert immediately attracted a steady stream of birders to see this gorgeous visitor. (If you want to see the bird, instructions are at the bottom of this article.)

Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are seed-eaters that breed in the coastal Southeast and south central U.S., and spend the winter in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Though one occasionally shows up in eastern Pennsylvania this individual is quite out of range in the western part of the state. He’s only the third Allegheny County record.

He’s also extra special because he’s male. Female painted buntings are nice to find but their green color is not so photogenic.

To highlight the male and female difference here’s another male, photographed in Florida by Chuck Tague in 2012. (The border emphasizes that this is not the Pittsburgh bird.)

Painted bunting, Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Of course we all wonder where the bunting came from and hope for his continued success. So far, so good. He’s hanging out with juncos and successfully avoiding predators, including the merlin that watched Brian’s backyard on Thursday afternoon.

If you’d like to see him, go to this location pinpointed on eBird’s map. Make sure you stay on the street, don’t walk in anyone’s yard, and park without blocking anything. The house is on a corner lot so you can see the feeders from the street. He was there all day yesterday (Friday 24 Jan). Chances are very good that you’ll find other birders looking at him when you get there.

(photos by Steve Gosser, Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague; click on the captions to see the originals)

On Vortex Street

Clouds on the lee side of Guadalupe Island, Mexico, 24 May 2017 (image from NASA’s Landsat satellite)

What do these photos and video have in common?

Smokestacks at Proserpine Mill, Jan 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

humming sound of wind in the wires (turn up speakers)

Answer: All three indicate the presence of — or potential for — a von Kármán vortex street.

When you’re in the neighborhood, this street is a fluid dynamic place. Learn more in this vintage article as we go Walking Down Vortex Street. (click the link)

(photos NASA and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video by Megan Lewis on YouTube)

Quick Visit

It’s been a quiet week at the Pitt peregrine nest. As far as I can tell, Morela visited just once and for only three minutes. Here’s a quick slideshow from Wednesday 22 January 2020.

This month the peregrines are busy in the airspace above Fifth and Forbes in Oakland. To see them in action, stop by the Cathedral of Learning.

Keep looking up. 🙂

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Oh No! Spotted Lanternfly in Beaver County

Adult spotted lanternfly, wings open and closed (photos by PA Dept of Agriculture via bugwood)

It was only a matter of time before the highly invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) made its way to western Pennsylvania but it’s disturbing to learn that it’s so close to Pittsburgh.

On 20 January 2020 the Columbus Dispatch reported that spotted lanternfly egg masses were found at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, PA. They probably arrived by train and are now less than 20 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh and even closer to Ohio.

At this time of year the adult bugs are not active so an egg mass, pictured below, is the only thing they found. The authorities scraped away the egg masses and killed the eggs.

This is bad news anyway. USDA says that spotted lanternflies are the worst invasive species we’ve seen in the United States for 150 years.

Learn how to identify them and see why they’re so awful in the video below.

Oh no!

(photos from; click the captions to see the originals)

Smaller is Normal

Song sparrow, western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

From their 29% population decline to the continued loss of federal protection the news about birds has not been good in recent months. When a December 2019 study from Chicago’s Field Museum found that North American birds have been shrinking since 1978 you may have wondered, “Is this bad news for birds?” Not exactly.

The study published in Ecology Letters measured 70,000 window-killed birds collected in Chicago since 1978. Analysis showed that the 52 species significantly declined in body size during the 40 year period (1978-2018). This mirrors a 2010 study conducted at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania which used 46 years of banding data (1961-2007) to analyze the body size of nearly 500,000 birds in 102 species. Powdermill also saw a decline in body size.

Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.

We should expect this.

There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.

Song sparrows in Carnegie Museum of Natural History collection, Alaska on top row, Pennsylvania on bottom row (photo by Kate St. John, Dec 2016)

Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):

  • On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
  • On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.

Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!

Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.

It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:

  1. Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
  2. Birds can evolve quickly when they have to.

Read about the Field Museum study at North American birds are shrinking. Read more about the Powdermill study at Birds are getting smaller.

p.s. This article was inspired by Andrew Nikiforuk’s As The Birds Vanish.

(top photo by Steve Gosser, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Quiz: What Are These?

Quiz #1 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today a Quiz. Here are two super sharp photos of plants from very different families. What are they?

Quiz #1: The top photo is a focus stack of 100 images. In real life the image would be 2mm wide so I think it’s been magnified about 80 times. (This one is hard to guess. It helps to squint your eyes to make it look small.)

Quiz #2: The photo below is a focus stack of 70 macro images. What it is?

Quiz #2 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re desperate for clues, click the links on the captions to view the photo descriptions. Here’s a clue for #2: It’s edible.

Have an idea? Leave a comment with your answer.

p.s. In case you’re curious … Focus stacking is a digital processing technique in which the photographer takes multiple images of the same object at different focal points, then digitally merges the photos to produce a completely in-focus image. The object has to hold still and so does the camera. It requires special software to merge the images.

This video shows how it works.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Peregrine Success Story, Feb 4

In case you missed it at Wissahickon Nature Club last month, here’s another opportunity to learn about peregrine falcons in western Pennsylvania.

Join me on Tuesday, 4 February 2020 at the Todd Bird Club in Indiana County, PA where I’ll present Peregrine Falcons: An Environmental Success Story.

From their extinction in eastern North America in the 1960s, to their recent removal from the Endangered Species list in Pennsylvania, the peregrine falcon’s success story is an inspiration to us all.

When: Tuesday, 4 February 2020, 7:00+pm. Arrive by 7:00 to socialize. Refreshments are provided.

Where: Blue Spruce Lodge in Blue Spruce County Park, located just off Route 110 east of the town of Ernest, PA.

This meeting is free and open to the public.

(peregrine photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)