If like me you owned a field guide at the turn of the century you remember that loons were the first bird in the book. Ornithologists placed them there because they thought loons were the oldest evolved bird in North America but DNA sequencing changed all that. In 2020 loons are near the middle of the tree and they have unexpected relatives.
In this July 2019 phylogenetic supertree I’ve circled loons and their relatives in blue. Notice that they aren’t related to ducks at all. Ducks are related to chickens.
Here’s a closer look at the blue section showing that loons (Gaviiformes) stand alone after they split from a common ancestor of penguins, tubenoses, storks, cormorants and pelicans.
Coronavirus is surging in many southern and western U.S. states and has increased in Allegheny County at levels beyond our experience in late April.
The increase in Pittsburgh is ironic. Allegheny County had zero new cases on 17 June. On 27 June we had 90 new cases. At the time it was the highest single-day increase we’d ever seen. In less than two weeks we squandered two months of effort! (see Public Source)
However, the human brain has a hard time grasping danger it hasn’t experienced yet. We humans don’t learn well from the history of others. And so …
“I think that wherever there’s wood to burn [people to infect], this fire’s going to burn – and right now we have a lot of susceptible people,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on NBC.
“I don’t think we’re going to see one, two and three waves. I think we’re going to just see one very, very difficult forest fire of cases.”
Instead of bird and nature news, today is devoted to my sweet cat Emmalina who passed away yesterday at age 14 with a massive tumor in her belly. She was the soul and spirit of our house and we miss her at every turn. If you’ve lost a pet I’m sure you understand.
We adopted Emmy at Animal Rescue League (now Human Animal Rescue) in September 2006 when she was five months old. She had been a stray and was very thin but she was beautiful. I chose her because she purred so loudly while I petted her on my lap.
Emmy captured our hearts and earned a longer name, Emmalina, both of which I use when writing about her (see links below). She was an indoor cat but that didn’t mean her life was boring.
In January Emmalina started losing weight but the vet couldn’t find anything wrong; the cancer was sneaky. This month she declined rapidly. Unable to eat, she slept most of the time and was no longer herself. We began to miss the kitty she once was.
Emmalina never lost her purr until her last days on earth. That’s how I knew her end was near.
Sleep well, sweet Emmalina. See you on the other side. Much love, Kate.
On Saturday 6 June 2020, photographer Steve Gosser found a bird in the Pittsburgh area that doesn’t match any field guide. He looks like a cross between a rose-breasted grosbeak and a scarlet tanager. He sings like a scarlet tanager.
So I found this bird today that has all the expert birders scratching their heads. It appears to be a cross between a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Scarlet Tanager, possibly a hybrid! No one seems to have any records of a hybrid between these birds! I along with two expert ornithologists will try and relocate this bird in the morning and they are interested enough to possibly try and catch this bird and collect a blood sample so it can be DNA tested. It sang exactly like a Tanager, has black wings like a Tanager, a thinner bill like a Tanager, a red throat like a Tanager but the rest looks very much like a RB Grosbeak. I’ll keep everyone posted as to what we find out!
Here’s who the mystery bird resembles: a male scarlet tanager on the left, a male rose-breasted grosbeak on the right.
Yesterday ornithologists Bob Mulvihill and Steve Latta netted the bird and took blood samples for DNA testing. Bob says the bird “bit hard but not as nimbly as a rose-breasted grosbeak.” Rose-breasted grosbeaks have very strong bills.
Unlike a rose-breasted grosbeak, this bird has almost no red color in his axillaries (armpits).
After the blood sample, Steve had the honor of releasing the bird.
Above, a pride of lions takes a nap on the road just outside Orpen Rest Camp on 15 April. Click on the photos in the tweet below to see closeups of the lions.
Kruger visitors that tourists do not normally see. #SALockdown This lion pride are usually resident on Kempiana Contractual Park, an area Kruger tourists do not see. This afternoon they were lying on the tar road just outside of Orpen Rest Camp. ?Section Ranger Richard Sowry pic.twitter.com/jFUBAWvmsA
Since COVID-19 was first reported in the U.S. on 21 January 2020, the message about face masks has changed. Back then everyone asked, “What face mask will keep me safe?” Since then we’ve learned that staying safe is a community effort. If everyone maintains social distancing and wears a mask the disease can’t spread easily.
We don’t know who has COVID-19 so we don’t know who to isolate:
COVID-19 can wait as much as 14 days to make a person feel sick; meanwhile they’re contagious.
There are not enough COVID-19 tests available to find the silent spreaders.
COVID-19 floats in the air when a contagious person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes.
Coughing: See video below.
Singing: When 60 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale met for practice on 10 March someone in the crowd was silently contagious. Three weeks later, two were dead and 45 ill, a more than 75% infection rate. — from CNN, 2 April 2020.
Talking: “One January  lunchtime in a car parts company, a worker turned to a colleague and asked to borrow the salt. As well as the saltshaker, in that instant, they shared the new coronavirus.” — from Pass the Salt, Reuters 9 April 2020
Face masks capture and divert the coughs, sneezes, and breaths away from the rest of us.
Unprotected coughs really travel far — further than 6 feet — and they linger in the air. Click on the graphic to see a 3-D simulation of this in the New York Times.
I’m happy to participate in this community effort as you can see in the photo at top. I made(*) my face mask from a cloth napkin + elastic earpieces + a plastic twist tie sewn into the top edge of the mask.
Your mask protects me. Mine protects you. Please wear one.
As we shelter indoors, wildlife is reclaiming our neighborhoods faster than we thought possible. Limpkins in Florida, deer in Pittsburgh, and wild boars in Italy!
Limpkins in Florida:
Now that human activity has slowed in Boca Raton, my sister-in-law says that limpkins have moved into the neighborhoods and are shouting all night to attract mates and establish territories. If you’ve never heard a limpkin you’d think it’s a human in distress and you might call 911. Ooops! It’s a bird. Limpkins are a thrill to birders but annoying if you’re trying to sleep. Here’s what one looks and sounds like from 2012. You can hear other limpkins in the distance.
Deer in Pittsburgh:
Deer are getting bolder and coming out during the day now that Pittsburghers are not outdoors. Yesterday, 31 March, Donna Foyle found a family group right next to a front porch in Brentwood.