Category Archives: Musings & News

Rare Birds

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

We’ve all heard of rare birds but what makes a bird rare?

By definition a bird is rare if it is very hard to find due to location, time of year, or low population. If it is far out of its normal range or seen at a time of year when it shouldn’t be there the bird is marked rare by eBird. To make it more challenging, some low population species are very secretive and live in dense habitat, thus are rarely seen(*).

Here are some recent examples.

Rare In Many Ways: Connecticut Warbler at Harrison Hills County Park, Allegheny County, PA on 24-26 Sept 2020

Connecticut warbler, Harrison Hills County Park, 24 Sept 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

The Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) is rare because …

  • It is not abundant anywhere and its population is declining.
  • It is very hard to find and to see — even when you know exactly where it is — because Connecticut warblers are extremely secretive, foraging quietly in dense underbrush and rarely popping into view.
  • In most of North America it is seen only on migration so it’s present for only a day or three. (range map here)

Finding a Connecticut warbler requires luck and patience and more luck. Dave Brooke had all of those + his camera when this bird made an appearance at Harrison Hills County Park near Natrona Heights, PA on 24 September 2020. I went to see the bird myself on 26 September and managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it foraged in a thick stand of mugwort. I wouldn’t have seen it at all if five other birders hadn’t pointed out the twitching plants when I arrived.

Rare by Location: Bay-breasted warbler, Santa Clara County, California, 27 September 2020

Bay-breasted warbler in Santa Clara County, CA, 27 Sept 2020 (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This fall we’ve had a very good run of bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea) in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve seen so many that eBird tells me my report count is too high. However, a bay-breasted warbler in California is rare indeed. Robin Agarwal got a photo of it in Santa Clara County on 27 September 2020.

Rare for Time of Year: Barn Swallow, North Park, Allegheny County, PA, 26 September 2020.

Barn swallow in flight in Milwaukee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica erythrogaster) are common in summer in southwestern Pennsylvania but they leave in August for Central and South America and are definitely gone in late September. However, on 26 September Mark Vass saw one flying over Marshall Lake at North Park, Allegheny County. eBird announced his find but there was no photo. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons.)

VERY VERY RARE INDEED: The rarest of rare birds was found at Powdermill Banding Station on 24 September 2020 — a half-male-half-female bilateral gynandromorph rose-breasted grosbeak. The bird is male on his/her right side and female on the left. This birth defect is so rare that one of the banders said it was like seeing a unicorn. Click here and here for Powdermill photos and here for other half-male-half-female birds. Rare indeed!

p.s. Read more here about how a bird can be both male and female = bilateral gynandromoprh.

(photo credits: Connecticut warbler by Dave Brooke, bay-breasted warbler by Robin Agarwal, barm swallow from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

This Wasn’t Lightning

More than 115,000 people viewed this falsely labeled video (screenshot from YouTube)

This summer a 2012 YouTube video of a construction explosion in a Finnish river channel was falsely relabeled as a lightning strike on a river in northern California. It became an immediate sensation on social media because of the California wildfires.

At first I was fooled but I looked for more videos of lightning striking water and there really aren’t any because it’s so boring. Lightning only touches the water’s surface. That’s why fish don’t die. Yet the falsified video shows mud boiling from the bottom. Hmmm, something’s wrong with the label.

What I did find was a fact-checker video from KARE-11 in Minnesota in 2017. As they explained, the video was not lightning. It was a Finnish construction company displaying the work they do to clear river channels.

This falsely labeled video has been around for at least three years and it’s still fooling people. Why do we believe fake social media so easily?

Studies have shown that “fake news actually reaches more people and spreads more quickly than the truth.”

We spread it because “false news is more novel than true news and we are more likely to share novel information.”

We share it quickly because it’s just so easy to click “Share” without thinking.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology is reassuring. We aren’t stupid. We aren’t gullible. We haven’t been hoodwinked into believing something false. We’ve just been lazy. We didn’t think about it before we passed it along.

I’m really glad I looked into the lightning question.

Think about the accuracy. Think!

(screenshot from YouTube video)

Massive Die Off of Birds in New Mexico … why?

Dead orange-crowned warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons used as an illustration, not taken in New Mexico)

18 September 2020

In late August reports started trickling in that high numbers of migratory birds were being found dead in New Mexico. The first report was at White Sands Missile Range on 20 August but as time passed the reports became more frequent, the locations increased, and so did the death toll. By now experts believe that hundreds of thousands of birds have died — perhaps millions — not only in New Mexico (red on map below) but in Colorado, Arizona and western Texas (orange highlight on map).

General area of U.S. where massive bird die off is occurring (map from Wikimedia Commons). New Mexico is red

Austin Fisher took a video of the carnage last Sunday, 13 September 2020 in Velarde, New Mexico.

Science Alert reports that only migratory birds are affected, not the local residents. Most of the dead birds are warblers, swallows and flycatchers and “the affected travelers seem to act strangely before their deaths, spending more time on the ground than perched in trees, and generally appearing dazed, sleepy, and lethargic.”

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth at Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes the smoke from the western wildfires is a big factor.

While birds migrate south through the Rockies this fall they must fly through the ubiquitous wildfire smoke blowing across the US from California, Oregon and Washington. Here’s what it looked like via satellite on August 20, the first day dead birds were reported in New Mexico. Notice that the smoke had reached New Mexico that day.

Satellite image of wildfire smoke across the U.S. west, 20 August 2020 (image from NASA)

Unfortunately birds’ respiratory systems are so different from ours and so efficient that they succumb quickly to bad air.

We turn oxygen into CO2 in one breath — in/out. Every exhalation releases the CO2/remains of the air we just breathed in.

When birds breathe, the air that enters their bodies stays inside for two breaths — in/out + in/out. During its 4-step journey, the air molecule travels through the lungs, two sets of air sacs and into the birds’ hollow bones where it waits for the next step. Click on the diagram below to watch the airflow inside a bird.

Birds’ respiratory system, screenshot from animation at Oxford Learning Link

Sadly, the western fires are damaging much more than we realize. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wildfire smoke is killing migratory birds a thousand miles away. … Another unexpected outcome of climate change.

Read more about the bird die off at Science Alert and the New York Times.

UPDATE: For another perspective on the bird deaths in New Mexico, see this article by Jenna McCullough in the ABA Blog: The data behind mysterious bird deaths in New Mexico.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NASA and a screenshot from Oxford Learning Link. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

16 September 2020

This week’s spooky sunsets and hazy skies in eastern North America are due to smoke from the massive wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California. The smoke is so intense that it’s dispersing across the continent and across the Atlantic, causing haze in Europe.

Near sunset on Monday 14 September the sun was a strange shade of pink in Pittsburgh, captured above in true color by Jonathan Nadle.

We can’t see the smoke coming but the satellites do, blowing eastward in two paths on Tuesday 15 September: one over the Northern Plains and Great Lakes, the other over Nebraska to Kentucky and Virginia.

It’s also blowing west over the Pacific, shown here on Friday 11 September.

The haze is inconvenient for us but truly hazardous on the West Coast. The dark brown colors on the map below are the worst air quality in the world. The air is so bad that people are leaving the area. I know of at least one person who’s fleeing from San Francisco to Pittsburgh.

By now the fires cover 4.5 million acres, an area so large that it’s hard to imagine. To help you visualize it The Guardian has created an interactive map comparing the fire acreage to well known cities and your own hometown — click here or on the tiny screenshot below. NOTE: The comparison below is for New York City. I compared the fire acreage to Pittsburgh and found it would run from approximately I-80 to the PA-West Virginia line!

Meanwhile the sunsets are still creepy.

Strange sun at sunset in Pittsburgh (filtered), 15 September 2020 (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

None of us are immune to this huge effect of climate change. Smoke gets in our eyes.

UPDATE: Janet Campagna, who lives in California, remarked that the days are much cooler because the sun can’t get through the smoke. This reminded me of the volcanic winter which results from smoke in the atmosphere after giant volcanic eruptions such as Krakatoa in 1883 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

(photos by Jonathan Nadle, screenshot of AirNow map from, screenshot of article from The Guardian)

Similar But Not Related

Greater flamingo in flight, Walvis Bay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Just because birds resemble each other doesn’t mean they’re related.

Flamingos and cranes are both tall birds with long necks and long legs but they come from different branches of the taxonomic tree.

Sandhill cranes in flight, Bosque del Apache (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They resemble each other in flight and on the ground.

Greater flamingos at Kutch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sandhill cranes in Lawrence County PA, July 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

However flamingos are related to grebes and cranes are related to sandpipers as shown in the phylogenomic supertree below. (Note the purple rectangles that highlight the birds.)

As odd as it seems, here are flamingos and cranes with much closer relatives.

Pied-billed grebe (by Chuck Tague) and flamingo (from Wikimedia Commons)
Least sandpiper and sandhill cranes (photos by Steve Gosser)

It’s possible to be similar but not related.

Keep this in mind when you look at a hawk and a falcon. They are not closely related either.

(Sandhill cranes in Lawrence County PA by Steve Gosser; pied-billed grebe by Chuck Tague; phylgenomic supertree from MDPI; remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see their origin)

Geese At Work

Geese at work, protecting the flock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day let’s honor working birds. This year … domestic geese.

A couple of domestic geese are often kept with chickens to guard them from predators. Geese are always alert and will naturally honk and shout when they see danger. The chickens run for cover while the large and aggressive geese may attack the threat. Some geese are so aggressive that they’ve injured people. (By the way, Canada geese will attack if you approach their young.)

A farmer who used geese and guineafowl to guard his chickens says domestic geese are the best. Geese alarm only when they see a threat; the farmer knows there’s a good reason to check on the flock. Guineafowl are noisy but they alarm for almost anything.

When you see geese with chickens you can be sure those geese are at work.

p.s. When seen in Pennsylvania, geese like those pictured above are barnyard escapees. Here are some tips on their background: Chinese geese have long necks and knobs on their heads (top photo) and were domesticated from swan geese (Anser cygnoides). Domestic geese in white or gray with faces like snow geese (the attacking goose above) are descended from greylag geese (Anser anser).

p.p.s. Sometimes the geese are fooled. In Medieval manuscripts, stained glass windows and carvings a fox dressed up as a monk or priest preaches to geese and chickens, then ultimately eats one of them. “When the fox preaches, look to your geese.

Fox preaching to chickens and a goose from Book of Hours, Maastricht, 1st quarter of 14th century (image from Wikimedia Commons

Dolphins Tell Fishermen When To Throw Nets

Bottlenose dolphins on the ocean (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 173 years humans and dolphins have worked together to catch fish on the coast of Laguna, Brazil. Dolphins initiated the cooperation some time before 1847 and taught humans what to do.

The dolphins hunt by herding shoals of mullet in the estuary. The fish would escape into shallow water except that the humans are helping.

Fishermen stand in the water with cast-nets and wait for a dolphin to signal them. When the signal comes, the fishermen throw their nets and catch many fish. The rest of the fish flee to deeper water where the dolphins are waiting to eat them.

Humans and dolphins both catch more fish than they would working alone.

Watch how it’s done in this Animal Planet video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Convergent Behavior

Eurasian wryneck (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Did you know that, when threatened, this Eurasian woodpecker uses the same distraction display as a South American flycatcher? Though the birds aren’t related their similar behavior looks like convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is when similar traits evolve in unrelated species because they’ve had to adapt to similar environments.

A classic example is the body shape of sharks and porpoises. Both have long streamlined bodies, dorsal fins and flippers because both must swim fast to catch underwater prey.

Black-tipped reef shark, Maldives (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But sharks are fish and porpoises are mammals. They aren’t related.

Long-beaked common dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s another example of convergent appearance.

Eastern meadowlark, yellow-throated longclaw (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The eastern meadowlark of North America (a member of the blackbird family Icterid) and the yellow-throated longclaw of Africa (a member of the wagtail/pipit family Motacillidae) live in similar habitats on separate continents. Though strikingly similar they are not related.

So what do you think? Is the neck-turning behavior of the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) …

… like the distraction display of the royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) of Central and South America?

Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) display

(Video courtesy of Cameron Rutt via Flickr; see more about this bird here).

While they’re unable to escape both birds twist their necks. Perhaps the goal is to mesmerize the predator. It looks like convergent behavior to me.

p.s. See more examples of convergent evolution at this Univ of Texas link.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Videos by Anders Nielsen on YouTube and courtesy of Cameron Rutt on Flickr)

Yellow Leaves, Seeds and Goats

Spicebush hints at autumn, Schenley Park, 26 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 August 2020

It’s beginning to look like fall is coming though it hasn’t felt that way. This past week was hot and muggy yet spicebush leaves are starting to turn yellow and many flowers have gone to seed.

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) now has long green bean pods.

Wild senna seed pods, Schenley Park, 27 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

How did these flowers transform into beans?

Meanwhile at Frick Park the goats and their guard donkey are back in the large enclosure at Clayton East, munching away at invasive plants. The black goat at the fence is eating mile-a-minute weed on the fencing. Yay!

The goats are back! Frick Park, 28 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information about the goats see this month’s announcement. If you’d like to see the goats at work here’s a map of Frick Park’s Clayton area and the goats’ approximate location.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; see the captions for photo credits)

Life Imitates Math Imitates Life

Icebergs would love to look like this — a gömböc (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mathematicians spend a lot of time working on problems in their heads, imagining solutions and proposing theorems. Sometimes an engineer is inspired to flesh out a proposal in real life to prove it’s true. Thus was born the gömböc, pictured above.

In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold described a theoretical object that has just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium. When it sits on a flat surface it always rights itself like a roly poly toy except the gömböc is not weighted (the toy is).

The gömböc was harder to flesh out than you’d think. Hungarian engineer Gábor Domokos discussed the theory with Arnold in 1995. In 2006 he presented the real life solution. This 5 minute video shows why a gömböc is unique and describes Domokos’ quest.

During the quest, Domokos looked for gömböcs in nature and found tortoises that are shaped this way.

If an Indian star tortoise ends up on his back, he draws into his shell and automatically rights himself because his shape closely resembles a gömböc. (He has to use his limbs sometimes due to less than flat ground conditions and shell imperfections.)

Indian star tortoise resembles a gömböc (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Life imitates math imitates life.

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