Category Archives: Travel

“Common” Depends On Where You Are

Gambel’s quail in Arizona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 October 2021

After a week in Arizona I’m on my way home and musing about the common birds I will never see in Pittsburgh. Here are just a few.

Gambel’s quail are very common backyard birds in Arizona. Quails of any kind are uncommon in Pennsylvania.

Gila woodpeckers are the desert version of our red-bellied woodpeckers.

Gila woodpecker on a cactus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The verdin is a tiny active desert bird. (Don’t be fooled by the shadow in this photo; his head is all yellow.)

Verdin at Sweetwater Wetlands, Phoenix (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cactus wrens are as common in Arizona as the Carolina wren is at home.

Cactus wren a saguaro cactus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Common here, rare there. Common depends on where you are.

p.s. This disparity is why we ask for a photo’s location before trying to identify the bird in the picture.

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

Watching A Volcano

Watching Cumbre Vieja eruption at La Palma, Canary Islands, 20 Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 October 2021

Is there a safe way to watch this volcano?

After eight days of earthquakes in mid-September the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma (Canary Islands) began erupting on 19 September 2021. At first people watched nearby but the eruption intensified. Lava started flowing to the Atlantic Ocean.

Cumbre Vieja eruption, La Palma, Canary Islands, 21 Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of September the lava flow was building a delta, as seen by satellites.

La Palma lava flows into the sea, 30 Sep 2021 (photo from Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites via Wikimedia Commons)

On 17 October 2021 Reuters reported the volcano is showing no signs of subsiding anytime soon.

Streams of lava have laid waste to more than 742 hectares (1,833 acres) of land and destroyed almost 2,000 buildings on La Palma since the volcano started erupting on Sept. 19.

About 7,000 people have been evacuated from their homes on the island, which has about 83,000 inhabitants and forms part of the Canary Islands archipelago off northwestern Africa.

All of the 38 flights which were scheduled to arrive or take off from La Palma airport on Sunday [17 Oct] were cancelled because of ash from the volcano.

Reuters: No end in sight to volcanic eruption on Spain’s La Palma, 17 Oct 2021

The Reuters video at this link shows how the eruption has affected the islands. Click here for an aerial flyover of the lava flow. It is sobering.

By now the eruption is far too dangerous to watch in the vicinity but we can view it Live on YouTube at: Live La Palma volcano eruption.

For best viewing watch the volcano after dark. Since the Canary Islands are off the coast of Africa, they are 5 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. In the eastern U.S. begin watching in late afternoon to see lava flowing at night.

p.s. The Cumbre Vieja (Old Summit) volcano is located on La Palma, the upper left island below.

Map of Canary Islands (in German) showing location off the coast of Africa (map from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Better Birds Desired

Lewis’s woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2021

In early October it’s easy to find pigeons, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, blue jays and chickadees in Pittsburgh. Ho hum! I wish for better birds.

At Jackson Lake in Los Angeles County, California last Sunday, there were similar but more interesting species. Here’s a sampling from Ted Keyel’s eBird checklist.

Instead of rock pigeons there were band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), North America’s largest wild pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeons in southern California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) there were two other Melanerpes. A flock of 40-60 migrating Lewis’s woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) …

Lewis’s woodpecker from the Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

… and six acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus).

Acorn woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We have northern flickers in Pittsburgh but they are yellow-shafted (click here to see). In California northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are red-shafted. Wow!

Northern flicker, red-shafted (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of blue jays California has Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Steller’s jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And instead of black-capped or Carolina chickadees they have mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli).

Mountain chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These are much better birds!

Note: Ted posted photos on his checklist but I do not yet have permission to use them so these are from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see Ted’s photos.

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

How Fast Do Songbirds Migrate?

Flock of robins, early morning (photo by Carl Berger Sr on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

27 September 2021

During fall migration warblers pass through Pittsburgh, followed by thrushes, then sparrows. We see them during the day after they’ve flown all night. Where were they yesterday? How far will they fly tonight? How fast are they traveling? What is their destination?

The answers are weather dependent, of course, but they also vary by species. Here are three recent songbird examples.

Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)

Wood thrush in September (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) breed across the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, then spend the winter in Central America.

Wood thrush range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2009 a geolocator study of wood thrushes by Bridget Stutchbury found that:

  • Wood thrushes fly more than 311 miles a day on migration. If they fly 8-10 hours per night their air speed is 30-38 miles per hour.
  • They dawdle in the fall by stopping over in the southern U.S. or the Yucatan for one to four weeks before proceeding to their final destination.
  • Wood thrushes return two to six times faster in spring because they barely stop at all.
  • They shorten the trip by flying across the Gulf of Mexico overnight, a distance of 600 miles from the Yucatan to Louisiana.

Where was that wood thrush yesterday? Maybe north of Toronto, Ontario. When he leaves how far will he fly? Perhaps to Lexington, Kentucky.

Blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata)

Blackpoll warbler in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) spend a lot of time fattening up before they leave North America for their wintering grounds in Brazil because they fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean to get there.

Their route averages 1,900 mi (3,000 km) over open water, requiring a potentially nonstop flight of around 72 to 88 hours. They travel at a speed of about 27 mph (43 km/h).

Wikipedia Blackpoll Warbler account
Blackpoll warbler breeding and wintering range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Some blackpolls take off from Cape Cod. Some launch from coastal Virginia. Where was that blackpoll yesterday? If you’re asking this in Pittsburgh he might not have been very far north. Where will he be tomorrow? If you’re asking this on the U.S. coast the answer is “over the Atlantic Ocean.”

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American robins (Turdus migratorius) take their time in the fall. Since they can live year round in much of the U.S. those that leave their breeding grounds (yellow on map) can afford to linger on their way south. Robins leave when the ground freezes or is covered by snow. Some travel as far as Florida, Mexico and Central America but most do not.

American robin range (map from Wikimedia Commons)

When on the move American robins have been clocked at 20-36 mph. They are faster when migrating than when they fly in our backyards.

So where was that robin yesterday? Probably here in Pittsburgh. Where will he be tomorrow? If he decides to fly all night he can reach Lexington, Kentucky with the wood thrush.

(photos and maps from Carl Berger on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Red-Winged Black Bird in South Africa?

Long-tailed widowbird, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 April 2021

There’s a black bird with red wings in South Africa that resembles North America’s red-winged blackbird except for his outrageously long tail.

The long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne) is not related to red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The widowbird is a weaver (Ploceidae), red-wings are New World blackbirds (Icteridae), yet male and female widowbirds have very similar coloring to male and female red-wings. The similarity ends when you see his tail.

Long-tailed widowbird, male and female, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.

Long-tailed widowbird in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the video he briefly lands near a female on the ground.

Female long-tailed widowbirds don’t have long tails but they must exert a lot of selective pressure for the longest tailed males.

That tail doesn’t look like a safe accessory. I’m sure some females are widowed during the breeding season. 😉

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Easter Island has Christmas Birds

Moai on Easter Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 April 2021, Easter Day

When Europeans explored the Pacific they sometimes named islands for the day they found them. Thus Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was named by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who encountered it on Easter Day 5 April 1722 and Christmas Island (Kiritimati) was given its English name by Captain James Cook on Christmas Eve 1777.

Easter Island is best known for its nearly 1,000 stone statues, moai, created by the Rapa Nui people. Kiritimati (pronounced “Ki-rismas” in the local language) is so remote that it was used for nuclear bomb tests 60+ years ago. Today the entire coral atoll is a wildlife sanctuary.

Range map from Birds of the World via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas shearwaters (Puffinus nativitatis) are pelagic birds that nest on remote Pacific islands (map) and were named for their largest breeding colony at Kiritimati, Christmas Island.

Christmas shearwaters roosting on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, Hawaii (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas shearwater on nest with its single egg, Midway Atoll (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They also nest on Easter Island … so Easter Island has Christmas birds.

p.s. Happy Easter 2021.

(photos and map from Wikimedia Commons, sound from Xeno Canto. Click on the captions to see the originasl)

Uncommon Starlings

Spotless starling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 March 2021

Why is this starling all black?

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we love to hate in North America are just one of 123 species in the Starling family (Sturnidae). In Europe their English name is “common starling.” Here are seven of their uncommon looking relatives.

Spotless starling (Sturnis unicolor): The common starling’s nearest relative is a non-migratory resident of Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa, and nearby areas. Shown above, he is indeed spotless.

Rosy starling (Pastor roseus): Looks uncommon to us but is common in India in winter.

Rosy starling, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster): Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the male is beautiful amethyst, the female is boring brown.

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus): Lives in Africa. Definitely superb. Imagine seeing more than one!

Superb starlings, western Serengeti, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.

Greater blue-eared starling, Botswana Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hildebrandt’s starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti): Lives in Kenya and Tanzania. Oh my!

Hildebrandt’s starling, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mysterious starling (Aplonis mavornata): There is no photo of the mysterious starling because cameras had not been invented when he was found in Polynesia in 1825. Ornithologists went looking for him in 1975 but he was already extinct. Due to the mystery of his origin, there are probably two extinct species of mysterious starlings. Read more here.

Mysterious starling non-photo (screenshot from Birds of the World)

Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.

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

Seeds Travel By Sea

Monkey-ladder vine (highlighted in red) and its heart-shaped seeds (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

5 February 2021

Many plants that grow near water disperse their seeds by riding the water wherever it goes. Fabulous among this group are tropical plants whose drift seeds cross the ocean.

The monkey-ladder vine or sea bean (Entada gigas), above, produces hard-covered heart-shaped seeds that contain an air pocket to keep them buoyant. Seeds from the Caribbean and Central America wash into the ocean and float on the Gulf Stream. Some make landfall 15 months later on the shores of Scotland.

Map of the Gulf Stream from NOAA Scijinks

This selection of drift seeds was found at the Outer Hebrides.

Drift seeds collected in Western Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They can also be found at Orkney as seen in this video from BBC Winterwatch.

The drift seeds traveled more than 4,000 miles to reach Orkney’s beaches and so did a lot of other things.

p.s. Click here to see a map of Scotland showing the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from BBC Winterwatch)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

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

Red-tailed Hawks Look Different In the West

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Mateo County, CA (photo by Robin Agarwal, via Flickr Creative Commons license)

4 January 2021

One of the surprises when traveling in North America is that our most common hawk in Pittsburgh, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), looks very different out west.

In western Pennsylvania, red-tailed hawks are best identified by the belly band of stripes below their breasts and dark patagial marks on their underwings. Some have dark markings, some are pale. Adults are redder than immatures.

Red-tailed hawks in western PA: Adult (by Steve Gosser) and immature (by Donna Foyle)
Red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Adult red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-tailed hawk, Lawrence County, PA, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Though most western red-tailed hawks are similar to their eastern cousins they are generally darker, as shown below in Washington state. There’s also a dark morph that’s completely chocolate brown as in the photo at top from San Mateo County, California.

Adult red-tailed hawk in Kirkland WA, Immature red-tail in Stanwood, WA (photos by Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here are more examples.

Arizona: Underwings on this adult are darker and redder than back east.

Adult red-tailed hawk, Maricopa County, AZ (photo by Steve Valasek)

Utah: Dark underneath on an immature red-tail.

California: While many red-tails in California are merely darker, the dark morph is over the top.

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)
Adult dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Some day when we can travel again I’m looking forward to seeing a dark morph red-tailed hawk.

(photos by Robin Agarwal, Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Cris Hamilton, Mick Thompson, Steve Valasek, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; click on the captions to see the originals posted in Flickr with Creative Commons license)