Category Archives: Travel

A Face That’s Hard To Love

Marabou stork closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) can’t help it, he’s ugly. His face is hard to love.

When he’s amorous, or hot, or in a bad mood he inflates his fleshy throat sac which intimidates the other storks. It’s ugly, too.

Maribou stork with throat sac inflated (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out more about him in this vintage article …

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

Smaller is Normal

Song sparrow, western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

From their 29% population decline to the continued loss of federal protection the news about birds has not been good in recent months. When a December 2019 study from Chicago’s Field Museum found that North American birds have been shrinking since 1978 you may have wondered, “Is this bad news for birds?” Not exactly.

The study published in Ecology Letters measured 70,000 window-killed birds collected in Chicago since 1978. Analysis showed that the 52 species significantly declined in body size during the 40 year period (1978-2018). This mirrors a 2010 study conducted at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania which used 46 years of banding data (1961-2007) to analyze the body size of nearly 500,000 birds in 102 species. Powdermill also saw a decline in body size.

Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.

We should expect this.

There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.

Song sparrows in Carnegie Museum of Natural History collection, Alaska on top row, Pennsylvania on bottom row (photo by Kate St. John, Dec 2016)

Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):

  • On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
  • On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.

Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!

Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.

It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:

  1. Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
  2. Birds can evolve quickly when they have to.

Read about the Field Museum study at North American birds are shrinking. Read more about the Powdermill study at Birds are getting smaller.

p.s. This article was inspired by Andrew Nikiforuk’s As The Birds Vanish.

(top photo by Steve Gosser, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Seaside Nestcams To Watch This Winter

Here are two seaside bird cams to watch while we wait for Pittsburgh’s eagles and peregrines to lay eggs in the coming months.

Above, a northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) couple nests on camera at Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve in New Zealand. The pair have lots of combined experience — he’s 21 years old, she’s 25 — so they know their egg, laid in Nov 2019, is due to hatch at the end of this month (January 2020).

Since New Zealand is 18 hours ahead of Pittsburgh it’s best to watch from noon to midnight Eastern Time if you want to see the birds in daylight. This is a perfect schedule if want to kickback at the end of the day. See the northern royal albatrosses at their nest on Cornell Lab’s Royal Albatross bird cam.

Just one time zone ahead of Pittsburgh, the female Bermuda cahow (Pterodroma cahow) rejoined her mate at their nest on Nonesuch Island, Bermuda on 10 January 2020. Almost immediately she laid her single egg. Watch their reunion in this short video.

Bermuda cahows come to and fro at night so Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Petrels bird cam is best to watch at the end of the day .

In late February or early March the cahow’s egg is due to hatch. By then the Hays bald eagles will have eggs.

(videos from Cornell Lab bird cams)

Near Threatened Eagles: A Life Story

The amazing photo below of an eagle’s claw and a human hand left me wondering, Who is this bird and why are his claws so big? Today I’ll tell you a bit of his life story.

Juvenile crowned eagle in captivity (image from r/pics on Reddit)

Shaped like a giant goshawk with a feather crest, the crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) lives in the riparian forests of sub-Saharan Africa where it eats monkeys, small forest antelopes (duikers), “mouse-deer” (chevrotains) and “rock rabbits” (rock hyrax). Click on the links to see photos of these unusual animals.

Crowned eagles weigh only 6-10 pounds, smaller than bald eagles, yet they routinely capture mammals twice as heavy as they are. Reports say they can fly with prey that outweighs them, but they normally rip it apart on the ground and cache pieces in the trees. For this lifestyle they need large talons.

Deforestation in Africa is destroying the crowned eagles’ high-canopy habitat and their population is declining. They are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.

African crowned eagle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fortunately they nest in safety at Zimbali Coastal Resort near Durban, South Africa. Watch them at the nest in Zimbali’s 8-minute video.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, embedded Reddit post; click on the captions to see the originals)

Science By The Seat Of Our Pants

screenshot from CalTech video: The Science of Booming Sands – 2015

For thousands of years people have known that certain sand dunes make a low humming sound, the musical note of G, E or F. It occurs when the sand is moving but you can force the sound if you slide downhill. Why does it hum?

A decade ago scientists at CalTech studied two humming sand dunes in California to answer that question. They found that for the sand to sing, the grains have to be all the same size, the dune must have a slope greater than 30 degrees and be over 120 feet tall, and the sand must be dried under the desert’s summer sun. It was very hot work.

The humming sound occurs naturally when the sand moves but that doesn’t happen on a predictable schedule so the CalTech team forced the sound. Dr. Melany Hunt explained,

Usually we would trigger it by having a number of people slide down the dune in unison. We always called it ‘Science by the seat of our pants.’

Learn about their study in this short video from CalTech or hear the sound as it’s being made in this vintage article: Singing Sand.

(screenshot from CalTech video: The Science of Booming Sands – 2015)

Some Cape Cod Birds

Sanderling at Corporation Beach, MA, 19 Oct 2019 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

This month’s trip to Cape Cod provided me with a brief change of scene and a brief change of birds. On October 18 and 19, local photographer Bob Kroeger showed me many of his favorite birding spots. Here are some of the birds we saw, with thanks to Bob for the photos.

Sanderlings (Calidris alba) never come to Pittsburgh but they spend the winter at Cape Cod. It was fun to see them poking the sand with their beaks and bathing at the water’s edge at Corporation Beach.

Sanderlings bathing at Corporation Beach, MA, 19 Oct 2019 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) are an extremely rare bird in Pittsburgh that also winters at Cape Cod. They aren’t ruddy in the fall, but their legs are still orange.

Ruddy turnstone (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) were plentiful in the marshes. They’re huge in flight!

Great blue heron in flight (photo by Bob Kroeger)

We found one or two blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) at nearly every place we stopped. This one at Long Pasture still has hints of black on his face and the telltale yellow feet. They are on their way to Brazil.

Blackpoll warbler (photo by Bob Kroeger)

We found a flock of 25 palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum) at Cape Cod Organic Farm, all of them the duller western birds. In mild winters palm warblers stay on the Cape.

Palm warbler (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Most plentiful by far were the “myrtle” yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) who’ve come to stay for the season. The winter birds look dull but in Bob’s closeup below you can see his feather details.

A close look at a yellow-rumped warbler (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Best only-at-the-sea birds: At Wellfleet Bay on the 21st I saw distant flocks of 200 brant (Branta bernicla) and 60 common eider (Somateria mollissima).

Best mammal : A coyote crossing the road near Monomoy.

Craziest bird: A wild turkey running non-stop around a parked car in Harwich, like this. I’m waiting for the day I see this in Pittsburgh. 😉

(photos by Bob Kroeger. See more photos on his Facebook page)

A Brief Change Of Scene

The view from Fort Hill at Cape Cod, 18 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Travel is a tonic for seeing the world in new ways. This month my husband and I spent a week with his sister at Cape Cod where we had new weather, new scenery and new looks at plants I might have seen at home.

Our timing was pretty good. We missed the October 12 nor’easter but were on hand for the October 17 “bomb cyclone.” We didn’t lose power, but it was still very windy on the 18th when I visited Fort Hill, pictured above.

Birds were hard to find that day so I noticed plants such as this European spindle-tree (Euonymous europaeus) with puffy, pink, four-sided fruits.

European spindle-tree fruits, 18 Oct 2019, Dennis, MA (photo by Kate St. John)

The puffballs are actually a casing that holds orange fruit within. This ornamental has probably been planted in Pittsburgh, though I’ve never noticed it.

Euonymous europaeus fruits burst open (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite discovery was a hole in a leaf.

Someone ate this, Cape Cod, 20 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Who ate it? Perhaps this caterpillar did. I found him elsewhere on the plant.

And finally, the sun touched translucent red berries and made them glow at Bell’s Neck.

The small plants have a single leaf midway up the stem (lefthand photo) and were growing among pine needles. Please leave a comment to tell me what they are.

p.s. Thank you to Kerry Givens who identified the red berries as a Canada mayflower and the caterpillar as a Turbulent Phosphila moth.

(photos by Kate St. John except where noted in the captions; click the captions to see the originals)

Why Arctic Wildfires Are Different

The intense wildfires in Alaska this summer are different than those we’re used to in the Lower 48. These were sparked by unusual weather, they’re harder to put out because the soil is burning, and they’re causing their own feedback loop.

Heat and lightning are unusual in Alaska but they’ve experienced both this summer. Hot weather not only dries out the landscape but it generates thunderstorms which are rare in Alaska. Anchorage normally has two thunderstorms per year but by mid-June 2019 they’d already had four — and the season had only begun. (*)

When lightning starts a fire in the boreal forest or tundra it doesn’t just burn trees and shrubs. It also burns below the surface because the soil is like peat moss. These “underground” fires are extremely hard to put out.

And finally, the fires cause their own feedback loop. They’re generated by unusually hot weather and their byproducts — smoke and CO2 — result in more hot weather. The smoke deposits black soot on polar ice which makes it melt faster (warming the area) and the CO2 contributes to climate change. As the climate gets hotter it spawns more arctic fires.

This 13 August video from NASA tells more about the arctic wildfires and how they’ll affect us — both now and later.

(*) Lightning near the North Pole is extremely rare; it struck 48 times on 10 August 2019.

p.s. I saw some of these fires from the airplane and rode through the smoke during my Alaskan birding trip 13-23 June 2019.

(video from NASA Goddard)

Water Instead Of Lava

Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, 13 July 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Late last month observers discovered a small green pond at the bottom of Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea volcano. Water inside the crater is rather amazing since Kilauea is the active volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i that erupted violently in 2018, destroying parts of Leilani Estates, Highway 132, Vacationland and Kapoho.

Geologists wondered if the green spot was a rock or algae so they flew over the crater several times looking for a telltale reflection to indicate it was water. Yes, it’s wet.

A week’s worth of photos also showed that pond had grown since it’s original “size of a pickup truck.”

Halema’uma’u, as taken by the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on August 1, 2019. Inset shows water pond. USGS photos taken by S. Conway.

Geologists don’t know how the pond got there but it’s worth watching to find out more. Fortunately by August 2 they’d found a safe place to view it from the crater’s edge.

Read more about the pond here or follow the news on Volcano Watch at USGS.

UPDATE, 4 Sep 2019: The pond has grown and it’s boiling.

(photo credits: crater view from Wikimedia Commons, Halema’uma’u pond from USGS; click on the captions to see the originals)