Category Archives: Musings & News

For Best Results Copy Birds

Thirty years ago Japanese trains had a problem. They could travel fast but they caused sonic booms.

The answer was the bullet train.  How did Japanese engineers develop it?  They learned from birds.

Watch this 6+ minute video from Vox + 99% Invisible to learn how birds showed the way and follow one woman's quest to teach engineers that Nature has the answers.  Our world can benefit from biomimicry.

For best results, copy birds.


Thank you to Holly Hickling for sharing this.  For more cool videos, follow Vox (news site) or 99% Invisible (city design updates) on Facebook.

(video from Vox on YouTube)

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)

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)

High Tide Is Coming

Only eight years from now, high tide will be this much higher at Wellfleet Bay (photo by Kate St.John)
Only eight years from now, high tide will be this much higher at Wellfleet Bay (photo by Kate St.John)

Last weekend at Cape Cod I went on two outings at Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary led by Joel Wagner, a birder from Gettysburg, PA who now works at Wellfleet and Saco, Maine.

At low tide we visited the salt marsh and bay shore to look for shorebirds.  On our way there, Joel pointed out the Average High Tide markers with dates of future tides.  I was astonished to see that in only eight years the average high tide will move up from that distant 2017 marker to this one.

It's even worse in the decades ahead.  This photo shows the 2075 marker with the earlier years in the distance.  The 2025 marker is so far away that it's out of sight.  The trees in this photo will die when salt water reaches them.

Average high tide in 2075 will be here at Wellleet Bay (photo by Kate St. John)
Average high tide in 2075 will be here at Wellleet Bay (photo by Kate St. John)

The highest tides today, the spring tides, already swamp the 2017 marker.

Sea level is rising.  High tide is coming. Watch out if you live by the sea.


Unfamiliar with sea level rise?  Read more here at Yes, The Sea is Rising.

(photos by Kate St.John)

Which Binoculars Should I Buy?

Kate St. John using binoculars (photo by Dave Hallewell)
Kate St. John using binoculars (photo by Dave Hallewell)

Since I bird watch every day people sometimes ask me, "Which binoculars should I buy?"

Buying binoculars is a very individual decision.  Everyone's needs and eyes are different so I can't answer the question for you but here are some decisions to make and links to resources that will help you answer the question for yourself.

Decisions to make before you buy binoculars:

  1. How much money do you want to spend?
  2. What viewing quality and size/weight do you have in mind?
  3. Find out which binoculars work for you by looking through as many models as you can, ideally outdoors.  This step is really important!
    • Why?  Here's an example: I love the binoculars you see me using above, but many people can't see through them because of the long eye relief.
    • Where?  You can look through many models at the optics vendors at a birding conference or on outings with friends (hawk watches or other bird walks), just ask.
  4. Repeat the steps above if Step #3 stretched your budget or changed your quality/size expectations.


Tips: "You Get What You Pay For" is especially true of binoculars. Better quality means better optics (clearer view), truly waterproof (they don't fog inside), lighter weight, better balance.  Quality costs money.

You will want better binoculars as your eyes get older (i.e. worse).


Links to Binocular Resources:   These websites will get you started. Follow the links they recommend to find out more.  Once you know what you want you can buy in person or online.


My Experience:

In the five decades I've been birding I've owned at least a dozen binoculars.  Every time I buy new ones I buy better quality.

I had a cheap set of binoculars in the early 1990's which were fine until I looked through someone's better binoculars.  My next set cost twice as much but was still inexpensive. I dropped them on a rock and they went hopelessly out of alignment. The fix was more expensive than new binoculars.  Tip:  Wear binoculars on a comfortable strap.

Birding where it's damp?  I had a nice mid-range "water resistant" set but they fogged up internally in humid weather in Maine. Internal fog cannot be removed. I just had to wait until they cleared on their own, leaving dust-drops inside. It was time for truly waterproof binoculars.

A decade ago I admitted my passion for birds and made the investment in really good binoculars: first buying Leica 8-power, then Swarovski 10-power.  I use them both.  Yes they're expensive, but I haven't needed new binoculars since then.


p.s. Eagle Optics, an online retailer where I bought most of my gear, is going out of business on Dec 31, 2017.  They are offering discounts.  All sales are final.

(photo of Kate St. John by Dave Hallewell, 2014)

A Subtle Change To The Blog

Screenshot of the new URL, 9 Sept 2017

You may not have noticed but the blog underwent a subtle change yesterday.  My address now uses https instead of plain http.

The S means that browsers now show my website with a green lock icon and the word "Secure."  What does this mean?

https uses SSL security to encrypt data transmission so the Internet can't intercept site logins and passwords.  SSL doesn't mean the website can't be hacked. It just means that hackers can't read logins and passwords as they pass through the wires.  Your email, Facebook, Twitter, and bank accounts all use SSL because people login there.

This change doesn't make your access to my blog more secure because you never login to see it.  I'm the only person who logs in so I'm the only one who has gained more security out of this. Unfortunately you may notice that SSL is slower so my blog may pause longer before you see it in your browser.

So why did I make the change?

I've wanted to secure my login for many years but I procrastinated.  Google pushed me to get it done when they sent me a message in August saying that, unless I switched to https, Chrome would show security warnings on my website beginning in October 2017.  Besides, Google gives search engine preference to https sites over plain http.

I was afraid I'd break my blog if I tried this alone.  Thankfully, Jay Volk stepped in to assist.  There are a few loose ends to tie up this weekend but most of it's done.  Yay!

Meanwhile, re-bookmark my blog at its new address


(screenshot of web address)

Deadly Gardens

Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today's important message is late for this year's growing season but we can always take action right now.

I'm sure you've heard about the dangers to honeybees from neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used heavily in agriculture since 2008.  What you might not realize is that this pesticide may be in your garden whether you put it there or not.  Here's why.

What are neonicotinoids?

Nicotine kills insects but it breaks down too quickly for modern agricultural use. Neonicotinoids ("neonics") are chemicals similar to nicotine specially formulated to last a long time.

Neonics are nervous system disrupters that, depending on dose and exposure, cause confusion, hyperactive behavior, severe tremors or death in insects.  Low doses kill slowly through chronic exposure because the chemical lasts so long (5 months to years).

Neonics are "systemic" poisons because they are water soluble.  Plants suck up neonic-laden water and distribute it into roots, leaves, pollen, nectar, everywhere.  The entire plant is poisonous to a wide range of insects including "bad" insects that suck juices and eat leaves (aphids, stinkbugs and Japanese beetles) and "good" insects that collect pollen and nectar (bees and butterflies).  Bees and butterflies visit poisoned flowers and die elsewhere.

How do neonicotinoids get into your garden?

Neonicotinoids are primarily delivered via soil treatments and seed coatings.  Garden treatments contain doses 40 times higher than agricultural products.  These pathways may surprise you.

  1. Pesticides you bought to kill bad insects, especially soil treatments. Check the label!
  2. Potting soil:  If treated with neonics, the plants grown in the soil are poisonous. Check the label!
  3. Plants or seedlings you bought at the store:  They're already grown, but how? If their seeds were coated with neonics or the soil was treated, the plants you bought are poisonous.

What can you do?

Read the label. Ask questions. Here are the chemical names to look for.
* Acetamiprid
* Clothianidin
* Dinotefuran
* Imidacloprid (fact sheet)
* Nitenpyram
* Thiocloprid
* Thiamethoxam

Practice reading labels:  Many companies have neonic products. This example is from the "Bayer Advanced" product line containing Imidacloprid.  Scroll down below Quick Facts to see Active ingredients.
12-month Tree & Shrub Insect Control
2-in-1 Systemic Rose & Flower Care
2-in-1 Insect Control and Fertilizer

Labels tell you some of the insects the product kills but never all of the insects affected.

Don't panic.

If you've learned something new, don't worry, don't blame yourself. Time is on your side. Start now to change your garden.  Remember this Chinese proverb ...

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.


(photo of dead bee from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


Additional Resources:
A blog for home gardeners: potting soil and nursery plants Skowhegan, Maine, 2013.
News about pesticide-laced potting soil WRAL, Raleigh, NC, 2003.
Backyard Pesticide Use May Fuel Bee Die-offs. WIRED, 2012.
Risk Assessments Are Missing Harmful Effects of Neonics on Honey Bees Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013.
How neonicotinoids affect honey bee queens. Sub-lethal effects. The Journal Nature, 2016.
Bayer sold Bayer Garden and Bayer Advanced product lines to SBM (based in France). October 2016.

Eaten By A Fish!

Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We've all seen fish jump to catch flying insects above the water but African tigerfish do much more than that.

Back in 2011, scientists conducting a telemetry study of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in South Africa were surprised to find that their subjects were being eaten by fish!

African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) are aggressive animals up to 3.5 feet long with very sharp teeth.  During the study at Schroda Dam, the fish jumped out of the water and ate low-flying birds.  In 15 days they ate 300 barn swallows!

African tigerfish (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014 scientists used high definition video to record the fish in action. Click here to see.


Fortunately, there's someone on hand to eat the tigerfish.

Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Watch out, barn swallows!  Don't fly too low!


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