Category Archives: Musings & News

Originally Imported From Wales

Stonehenge, July 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 June 2021

Tomorrow Stonehenge will have its biggest day of the year even though no one can be there to see it. The prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England usually attracts a crowd of 30,000 to watch the sun rise over the Heel Stone on the summer solstice but a new COVID-19 surge canceled the festivities. The sun will rise anyway, shining on stones imported from Wales.

Constructed in phases, Stonehenge began as an earthworks 5,000 years ago with a bluestone (Heel Stone) outside the main entrance oriented toward the summer solstice. Later phases added bluestones in a ring, a horseshoe and other key locations. Then sandstone monoliths were added to surround the bluestones. After maintenance ended about 3,600 years ago the site slowly fell apart.

Rendering of Stonehenge after final phase of construction (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Since the 1600s archaeologists have worked to uncover Stonehenge’s configuration, building phases and purpose. They easily discovered that the sandstone monoliths came from local rock but it took a long time to figure out that the first stones, bluestones of igneous dolerite weighing 2 to 4 tons, came from a prehistoric quarry in the Preseli Hills in Wales, 140 miles (200 km) away.

The stones were well worth moving.

Researchers from the Royal College of Art in London discovered that the monument’s igneous bluestones possess “unusual acoustic properties” – when struck they respond with a “loud clanging noise.” … In certain ancient cultures, rocks that ring out were believed to contain mystic or healing powers.

Wikipedia’s Stonehenge account

But there was a gap. The Presili quarry closed 200-500 years before Stonehenge began. Where were the stones in the intervening centuries?

Researchers led by University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson searched for ritual structures in the Preseli region that might have provided the stones—and the blueprint—for Stonehenge. In 2017 and 2018, they excavated parts of an ancient monument called Waun Mawn, where a handful of toppled bluestones similar to those at Stonehenge form a partial circle.

— Science Magazine: England’s Stonehenge was erected in Wales first

The clincher was that an unusually shaped stone at Stonehenge has a matching hole at Waun Mawn.

You can see how the stones were transported 5,000 years ago at English Heritage, Stonehenge. Read more about the discovery in The Guardian.

Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the sun rises over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge tomorrow, it will touch many rocks imported from Wales.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. The illustration linked here from by Terence W. Picton, makes it easier to understand the bluestones (blue) and sandstones (orange). Picton explains that his diagram is based on two illustrations from other sources: Johnson, 2008, p. 166 and the English Heritage Webpage. It does not include the Avenue and Heel Stone.

Peregrine Falcons as Yard Birds

19 June 2021

Addicted birders keep lists of the birds they see. At first it’s a Life List of each new species. Eventually it morphs into listing by state or county or a yard list of birds seen at home.

When I lived in Greenfield warblers were on my yard list during spring migration. Without a backyard in Oakland there are no warblers outside my window but peregrine falcons are Yard Birds.

On Thursday 17 June I was reading a book on the roof deck of my building (with view at top) when I heard a young peregrine whining. Where was it? Was it in trouble? No.

I found Ecco on St. Paul’s steeple with a juvie female nearby (she was at the pink circle in photo below). When he moved out of her sight-line she fell silent (Ecco moved to red circle on left of steeple). When he sneaked over to peek around the corner she saw him and whined again.

I tweeted at 11:05am: Two Pitt peregrines on steeple at St. Paul’s Cathedral: Ecco + whining female youngster, probably fledgling #4. She is not stuck, is perched just fine and whining in the most annoying way.

Moments later her brother showed up and perched above her (white circle) hoping to share lunch if her whining was successful. At 11:12am: Now 3 peregrines on St. Paul’s Cathedral steeple. Male juvie joined the group. Whiny juvie female still whining.

Ecco left to go hunting.

That evening an adult peregrine flew in from the northeast, heading for the Cathedral of Learning. I saw one again last evening outside this window.

Looking east, 19 June 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though I don’t have a backyard I do have peregrines as Yard Birds.

By the way, if I’d been watching from the roof deck on Tuesday afternoon (15 June) I could have seen what Pushkar Mutha captured in these videos. Thanks for sharing them, Pushkar!

Playing in the sky #1, video by Pushkar Mutha

Playing in the sky #2, video by Pushkar Mutha. Coincidentally, the background music seems to fit their activity.

Young peregrine lands on the Cathedral of Learning lightning rod, video by Pushkar Mutha.

UPDATE on 19 June: At 10am both adult peregrines were perched on Heinz Chapel steeple. At noon two juvenile peregrines whined from the roof of Webster Hall.

(photos by Kate St. John, videos by Pushar Mutha)

Heading For A Low Point In The Birder’s Year

Momentarily disappointed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 June 2021

Very soon Pennsylvania birders will reach our annual psychic low point. If you watch peregrine or bald eagle nestcams you’re already there. Spring migration is over and the nestcams are quiet. Soon the birds will stop singing. We are bound to feel let down after so much excitement.

I was reminded of our emotional roller coaster when I rediscovered “The Birder’s Year” graph posted in 2014 on the The Birders Conundrum blog. Back then bloggers Sam Jolly @JollyBirding and Lucas Bobay @BirderBobay were avid birders in high school in North Carolina. They have since moved on, still birding not blogging, but their website is alive at The Birders Conundrum so you can see their original graph here.

The moment I saw their graph I realized that mine is a slightly different. I get excited in February and March when peregrines court and lay eggs. Incubation is boring in April but migration heats up in May and the nestlings are on the falconcam. Even so, I reach the same trough in July as the rest of Pennsylvania’s birders. You can see this on my altered version of Sam and Lucas’s graph which I’ve labeled The Peregrine Birder’s Year.

The Peregrine Birder’s Year of ups and downs (from a graph by Sam & Lucas at The Birders Conundrum)

Perhaps you’ve noticed too that we’re heading for a low point in The Birder’s Year.

p.s. In the graph above CMWA = the last Cape May Warbler, CBC = Christmas Bird Count

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, graph altered from one by Sam & Lucas at The Birders Conundrum)

House Sparrows Are In Trouble

House sparrows at the Walmart, 29 Jan 2021 (photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

1 April 2021

Yes, today is April Fool’s Day but it’s no joke that house sparrows are in trouble. Though still considered pests in North America their population has declined dramatically, even in their native range. Seven years ago their disappearance was a mystery. Has anything changed?

Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, humans introduced house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to continents and islands worldwide in the 1800s, making them the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. (Green is native range, yellow is introduced in the map below.)

House sparrow range map: green=native, yellow=introduced (map from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows were successful worldwide — too successful — but as recently as 30 years ago they began a steady decline. They are down 84% now in North America and 60% in Europe. In the UK they are red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.

There have been many studies but no one cause for decline. The reasons include:

The one thing we do know since 2014 is that there is no lack of nest sites.

In North America house sparrows are not just in trouble, they are trouble because of their aggression toward native species while nesting.

We’ll be happy to see them go but their mysterious decline should make us think. If a bird as hardy and human-oriented as the house sparrow is declining, it bodes ill for us too.

For more information read :

(photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

To Change Or Not To Change

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 March 2021

We’re about to lose an hour’s sleep, annoy our pets, and be crabby for a couple of days. Tonight we turn the clocks forward to Daylight Saving Time. It turns out this change is optional.

AnalogClockAnimation1 2hands 12h in 1min

In 2019 the European Parliament voted to allow each EU nation to decide on its own if it wants to adhere to Daylight Saving Time (DST) starting in 2021. If a nation decides to keep Standard Time, it would change its clocks in October/November and never change again. If it decides to stay with DST it could change this month and stay in permanent DST. Interestingly if the UK (no longer in EU) and the Republic of Ireland (EU member) have different ideas about DST they could create two time zones where there has been only one.

In the U.S., each state is allowed not to participate in Daylight Saving Time (DST) but it requires the state legislature and Congressional approval to use DST year-round. Arizona, Hawaii and six U.S. island territories do not use DST while 13 U.S. states have begun the slow legislative process of making Daylight Saving Time permanent.

So changing our clocks tonight is optional. A country can decide not to do it. A state can decide not to do it. We as individuals have the freedom not to change our clocks, even if we live in a U.S. state that uses Daylight Saving Time.

You don’t want to change your clocks? Don’t change them.

Tell me how it goes.

(*) p.s. I’m pretty much a rule follower so I will change my clocks. Also, I like DST.

If you chose not to change your clocks you will have to fuss with your Internet-connected devices that change automatically. You can force your cellphone to use the time you want by changing Settings > System (or General) > Date & Time > then un-checkmark “Use network-provided time” and “Use network-provided time zone.” Set whatever time you want. Good luck.

(photo and clock GIF from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds Decline, Small Mammals Thrive in a Hotter World

Cactus mouse (photo by J.N. Stuart, Creative Commons license via iNaturalist)

8 March 2021

What is the future of life on Earth as the climate warms? Which species will thrive and which decline? A study published last month in Science indicates that “in a warming world, it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.”

In the early 1900’s Joseph Grinnell made extremely detailed records of flora and fauna in California’s Mojave Desert for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. A century later the average temperature in the Mojave is now 2oC (3.6oF) higher. Using Grinnell’s records a team led by Eric Riddell resurveyed Grinnell’s locations to find out how birds and mammals fare in hotter, drier conditions.

If you like birds, you won’t like the news.

[In the Mojave Desert] Over the past century, occupancy of small mammals remained stable while birds severely declined.

On average, every spot surveyed had lost more than 40% of its desert bird species, such as American kestrels or mountain quail. At most sites, even the remaining species were scarcer.

Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.
American kestrel, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Small mammals get around the heat problem by staying underground during the day. Birds don’t have this choice and they have an additional disadvantage — their bodies use more energy to stay cool.

It looks like there will be fewer birds in a hotter world. Read more in Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.

p.s. There is a bird who stays underground during the day and eats small mammals in the Mojave Desert: the burrowing owl.

(cactus mouse photo by J. N. Stuart via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND), American kestrel photo by Cris Hamilton)

Clean Your Bird Feeders!

American goldfinch and pine siskin at bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 March 2021

This winter’s influx of northern finches has brought new enjoyment to backyard birders and death to some of the feeder birds. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus) especially are succumbing to salmonellosis, a bacterial illness spread at bird feeders.

“The first indication of the disease for bird watchers to look for is often a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. The birds become very lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach. This kind of behavior is generally uncommon to birds,” Mansfield said. “Unfortunately, at this point there is very little people can do to treat them. The best course it to leave the birds alone.”

WDFW: Help protect wild birds from deadly salmonellosis

Reports of dead and dying feeder-birds in Washington state have prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to urge people not to feed the birds until at least April 1.

It’s happening here too though not enough for an advisory, but that’s beside the point. Protect your backyard birds. Clean your feeders! What you can’t see is hurting them.

Is this clean? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Spruce published these handy cleaning tips, summarized below:

  • Clean your bird equipment every 2 weeks, more often when a lot of birds are visiting. Crowding spreads disease.
  • Empty the feeder; throw away dirty seed! (I’ve learned this lesson, too. I once had mold in the nyger feeder.)
  • Mix the cleaning solution: 1 part bleach to 9 parts hot water
  • Take feeder apart and soak it to loosen dirt.
  • Then clean thoroughly
  • Dry thoroughly
  • Reassemble and refill. Ta dah!

The Spruce suggests that when you’re in the market for new bird feeders, think about how you will clean them. Sometimes wood can be hard to clean.

Northern cardinal at wooden bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more at All About Birds and The Spruce.

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

A Chunk of Comet Killed the Dinosaurs

Incoming! The event that killed the dinosaurs (screenshot from Harvard University video)

24 February 2021

Ever since the early 1980s when Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered that the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan and the extinction of the dinosaurs were caused by the same event, we’ve talked about the “asteroid” that killed the dinosaurs. Recently two Harvard researchers took a new look at the composition of Chicxulub rocks and the physics of comet behavior and revised that conclusion. It wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. It was a chunk of comet!

Asteroids live in the main belt of the inner solar system located between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are from the Oort cloud of interstellar space.

Logarithmic scale distance of the Oort Cloud from the rest of the Solar System. Voyager 1 location in 2013 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The video below explains how a piece of comet could break off and cause the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction … and how soon one could hit us again. By the way, Jupiter is involved.

Yow! Oh no!

Illustration of an unusual association of hadrosaur and therizinosaur from tracks found in Denali National Park, Alaska (illustration by Karen Carr via Wikimedia Commons)

A chunk of comet killed the big dinosaurs. Fortunately we still have the little ones with us … Birds!

(screenshot at top from Harvard University video, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Who Is Most Numerous?

Girl holding 2-month-old chicken (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 February 2021

Which bird species is the most numerous on earth? It depends on what you’re counting. All birds? Or just wild birds?

For all birds, the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) wins the prize with 25.9 billion as of 2019.

Hen and chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chickens live on every continent except Antarctica as shown on the map below. (Gray indicates absence. Yellow to brown shows increasing density.)

Worldwide distribution of domestic chickens, gray=absent (gray added to map from “Mapping the Global Distribution of Livestock”, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Compare the chicken map to human population density and you’ll see a correlation. There are 7.8 billion humans on earth as of March 2020.

Human population density, 2005 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

As for wild birds, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is the most numerous with a population of 1.5 billion as of 2018.

Queleas live only in Africa and thrive best where human grain crops provide abundant food. Queleas correlate to humans too, but not nearly as much as chickens.

Distribution map of red-billed quelea (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn how chickens became the Most Numerous Bird On Earth in this 2014 vintage article (at the link).

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons and PLOS ONE; click on the captions to see the originals)

Introduced, But Not By Shakespeare

Starling (photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

3 February 2021

It’s time to set the record straight. European starlings were indeed introduced to North America in 1890 and 1891 by the American Acclimatization Society and the man responsible for it was indeed Eugene Scheiffelin, but his plan had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

The apocryphal story is everywhere, including my own blog post in Feb 2008, Nothing But Mortimer, below, which is INCORRECT in two respects.

European starlings didn’t live in North America until 1890-1891 when a Shakespeare fan, Eugene Scheiffelin of the American Acclimatization Society, released 100 of them in New York’s Central Park because he wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the United States. Starlings make only one appearance in Shakespeare’s works — in Henry IV, Part 1 — and that was because they are mimics.

Outside My Window, Nothing But Mortimer, Feb 2008

The Shakespeare story is quite intriguing but if you look into it, as did John MacNeill Miller, Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College, and his student Lauren Fugate, some of the details don’t hold up. Here are two of them:

INCORRECT: “Starlings didn’t live in North American until 1890-1891.”

Actually starlings were released in the U.S. multiple times in the 1870s and 1880s. Wild flocks were reported during that time.

INCORRECT: “Starlings are here because Eugene Scheiffelin wanted every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to live in the U.S.”

As I said, the Shakespeare connection makes it a nice story but the historical record doesn’t bear up. John Miller explains why.

As far as Lauren and I could tell, the Shakespeare connection is first mentioned by the popular mid-century science & nature writer Edwin Way Teale in his collection of essays, Days Without Time (1948). Schieffelin and the (NYC-based) American Acclimatization Society definitely released the birds in 1890 & 1891, although those were probably among the last releases, rather than the first. (The American Acclimatization Society had themselves released starlings at least once before, back in the 1870s.) So we’re talking about a space of nearly 60 years after the last AAS release that the Shakespeare link is first asserted…and more than 40 years after Schieffelin’s death in 1906.

— email from John Miller, 8 Jan 2021

Learn more about starlings in John Miller’s lecture at Phipps’ Virtual Biophilia in January 2021: Pittsburgh Meeting | A Story That Shaped the Sky:

Sorry, Starlings, to burst your literary bubble.

(photo of a European starling (mislabeled as a crow) by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons license)

p.s. Phipps Conservatory’s Biophilia offers monthly lectures at this link.