Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Sep 09 2017

A Subtle Change To The Blog

Published by under Musings & News

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

https://www.birdsoutsidemywindow.org/

 

(screenshot of birdsoutsidemywindow.org web address)

One response so far

Aug 23 2017

Remembering A Shakeup

Published by under Musings & News

Earthquake symbol (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Earthquake symbol (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Throwback Thursday on a Wednesday:

Six years ago today, 23 Aug 2011, I was sitting on a bench outdoors when a minor earthquake rippled through Pittsburgh. The epicenter was in Virginia.

Do you remember that day when … ?

I Felt The Earth Move Under My Feet

 

(earthquake icon from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 09 2017

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.

6 responses so far

Aug 01 2017

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)

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Jul 20 2017

Double Named

Published by under Musings & News

Red-footed booby, Sula sula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-footed booby, Sula sula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Some birds have scientific names that repeat themselves.

Read about this odd bird’s odd name in this vintage article from July 2010: Double Names

 

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

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Jul 04 2017

National Birds

Published by under Musings & News

Bald eagle (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays, PA)

Bald eagle (photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays, PA)

On Independence Day the bald eagle, our national bird, is front and center in many of our celebrations.

What are the national birds of other countries?  Here are just a few.

Canada: Gray Jay also called Canada Jay

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Though it’s awaiting official approval, Canadians voted in 2016 to make the gray jay or Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis) their national bird. Gray jays are found in Minnesota, too, where Jessica Botzan photographed this one.

 

United Kingdom:  Robin, or the European Robin

European Robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

European Robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a small bird that’s especially loved in Britain because he’s relatively unafraid of people. The robin is known to hop next to gardeners as they dig the soil so he can look for newly exposed insects.

 

Finland: Whooper Swan, Laulujoutsen in Finnish

Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), photo from Wikimedia Commons

Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), photo from Wikimedia Commons

Pronounced “hooper,” the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) ranges from Iceland to the Kamchatka peninsula.  Larger than our tundra swan, it’s a majestic bird that breeds in Finland and northern Eurasia.

 

Mexico, Afghanistan, Albania, Germany (unofficial) and Scotland (unofficial):  Golden Eagle

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

Golden eagle at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, 1 Nov 2011 (photo by Michael Lanzone)

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is a powerful bird of prey that can bring down a deer with his talons. His range extends across the northern hemisphere, including North and Central America and Eurasia.  His majestic power makes him a potent symbol for many countries.

 

(photo credits:
bald eagle by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays PA on Facebook
gray jay by Jessica Botzan
European robin and whooper swan from Wikimedia Commons; click in the images to see the originals
golden eagle by
Michael Lanzone)

2 responses so far

May 14 2017

No Birds Here

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Early this month I wrote about the decline of nighthawks, swifts and swallows and the parallel decline of their food supply, flying insects.  Why are insects declining?  In a comment Gene suggested that, in addition to insecticides, herbicides play a role.  Here’s why that makes sense.

I’m a city person so farm practices are somewhat mysterious to me.  Nonetheless, in the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in how the fields look in the spring.  They used to green up with the rest of the landscape but now most of them are brown and as empty as parking lots like the one shown above.  There are no birds here, no swallows wheeling overhead.

The fields look different because herbicides are used to control the weeds. There are different poisons for different crops — for instance one for soybeans, another for corn — and the crops are engineered so they can grow in the presence of specific poisons.

Herbicides are a very labor saving device.  When applied in the fall they keep the fields weed free all winter right up to spring planting.  Consequently, the fields don’t have to be tilled (that’s why they look like parking lots).  The absence of plants means there are no insects, another benefit for the crop.

As the growing season begins you can tell where herbicide has been used because there’s a stark mechanical line between treated fields and the neighboring untreated landscape.

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Here’s a field where there are birds.

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, those plants are weeds.  They will probably be treated with herbicide soon and the field will turn from green to yellow as they die.

Because of herbicides and insecticides, large scale farming takes less work.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are truly empty now.  No plants.  No insects.  No birds here.

 

p.s. As I say, I’m a city person and don’t know much about farming so if I’ve got it wrong please leave a comment to correct me.

(photos by Kate St. John)

8 responses so far

May 03 2017

A Common Thread

Common nighthawk chasing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawk pursuing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawks are my “Spark Bird,” the species that turned me into a birder.

Nighthawks are due back in Pittsburgh soon but their population has declined precipitously in this century.  Fifteen years ago I used to see flocks of 20 to 30 nighthawks swooping over our neighborhood ballpark.  Now I’m lucky to see just one.

This week I learned that chimney swifts and bank swallows are declining, too.  Most of it happened in this century. Trouble everywhere.  And so I wonder:  Do these species share a trait that’s causing their mutual decline?

Is it a problem with their nesting sites?  The answer is mixed.

  • In cities nighthawks nest on gravel roofs but gravel has been replaced by rubber.  City nest sites have declined so the answer for nighthawks is Yes.
  • Chimney swifts nest in chimneys. Some reports say the number of chimneys has gone down. (This has spawned projects to provide artificial chimneys.)  Other reports say the chimney count is OK. I’ve not seen a decline in Pittsburgh chimneys.  Answer for chimney swifts:  Maybe.
  • Bank swallows nest colonially in holes that they dig in the banks of lakes and rivers. These sites seem to be stable. Answer for bank swallows: Probably No.

Is it a problem where they spend the winter? Do they all go to the same place?   Not exactly.

  • Nighthawks spend the winter from eastern Ecuador, eastern Peru and southern Brazil to Argentina.
  • Chimney swifts winter in western Peru and the upper Amazon basin.
  • Bank swallows spend the winter in nearly all of South America.

Do they eat similar food?  Yes!  All of them eat flying insects!

There’s a common thread.  Recent studies have shown that around the world invertebrates including insects have declined 45% in the last 40 years and in Germany insect biomass has declined 81% from 1989 to 2014.  Though insect decline has happened across the spectrum, it’s not something that’s made headline news except for two species not eaten by these birds: monarch butterflies and honeybees.

With such a massive drop in flying insects it’s no wonder that the birds who eat them have declined.  And there’s another interesting side effect.  The fish that eat flying insects are declining as well.  Discovered in the U.K. in 2003, this problem threatens the fly fishing industry.

A massive decline in flying insects and the birds and fish that eat them indicates we have a large and widespread problem.  My hunch is that it’s something in the environment and it’s caused by us.

We humans are ignoring it at our peril.

 

Here are resources for learning more:

 

(drawing of common nighthawk by Bob Hines, US Fish and Wildlife, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 30 2017

The Theories Are Worse Than The Furies

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:55a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:56a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

So far so good.  The three nestlings at the Cathedral of Learning are all well fed and growing. Every day we gain more confidence that they’ll thrive.

Meanwhile we’re still puzzled why their mother, Hope, killed and ate the first-hatching chick as well as two of her four chicks last year.  We don’t know the answer but we have many theories.  It reminds me of a famous quote from Flannery O’Connor in Habit of Being (p. 502):

“The Theories are worse than the Furies.”

So who are the Furies?

According to Wikipedia, the Erinyes [also called the Furies] are ancient Greek goddesses from the underworld. They hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants.  They punish those crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly and hitting them with brass-studded scourges.  Their victims die in torment.

Their most famous gig was to torment Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra who had an affair and killed his father Agamemnon. Orestes avenged his father’s murder but created a really big mess (read more here).  John Singer Sargent’s painting of Orestes Pursued by the Furies shows how awful the Furies can be.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

The Theories can be relentless, too.

We have lots of theories about Hope but no data to confirm or disprove them. (Hope eats the evidence.) The only thing we know is that she has repeated the behavior two years in a row and it’s so abnormal that we can find only a handful of similar incidents in all the history of peregrine nest monitoring.

We don’t have an answer but we can make ourselves crazy.

The Theories are worse than the Furies!

 

(photo of Hope and chicks from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh. Reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

18 responses so far

Mar 19 2017

Gull Point Is Now An Island

Published by under Musings & News

There’s a birding hotspot at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania that attracts some of the rarest birds in the state.  It also attracts intrepid birders willing to make the one and a half mile hike from the parking lot … until now.

Gull Point is the eastern tip of a feather-shaped sand spit that arcs out to create Erie harbor.  The tip is closed from April 1 to November 30 to protect wildlife from human intrusion.  Now it’s even more protected.  On March 10 Gull Point became an island.

Jerry McWilliams reported it on PABIRDS:

Date: Fri Mar 10 2017 9:39 pm

Hello Birders and Gull Point hikers.

With the high winds the last 24 hours or so, it has finally happened. Lake Erie cut a channel through Gull Point Trail to Thompson Bay about half way out to Gull Point on Presque Isle S.P., PA. Gull Point is now an island. The breach is about 30 to 40 feet across, and for now it is only about six inches deep. The lake level is predicted to continue rising into June or July, so the channel is likely to deepen especially following storms. Even after crossing the channel you still can’t access Gull Point Trail since the trail is washed away for the next 100 or so feet before it begins again. Because the honeysuckle and bayberry is so thick it is impossible to try to walk through to reach Gull Point Trail, so you need to walk along the brushline. Hip boots will be required for now to make it to the trail.

The sand always moves at Presque Isle but this breach was hastened by our exceptionally warm winter.  Normally, ice on the lake prevents high waves during winter storms but there’s no ice this month so the waves crashed in.  Who knew!

The trail looked like this a year ago …

Mary and Sarah walk the Gulf Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

Mary and Sarah walk the Gulf Point Trail, April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but knee boots are not enough now!

Park management will assess the situation after the winter storms subside.

It’s humanly possible to reconnect Gull Point to the peninsula if you have enough money. But the sand will keep moving and it will breach again.  Nature wins the battle every time.

 

Read more here at GoErie.com.

(map of Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point embedded from Google Maps, plus a marked up screenshot of the same Google map)

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