Sep 17 2017

The Marbled Godwit’s Bill

Published by under Water and Shore

Marbled godwit (screenshot of video by Steve Gosser)

Marbled godwit (from video by Steve Gosser)

Yesterday's blog described an online class from Cornell Lab for identifying shorebirds.  Here's a shorebird you'll really enjoy seeing, especially when you know who he is.

The marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa) breeds in northern prairies and at Hudson Bay, then migrates to the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts to spend the winter.

The bird is 16.5 to 19 inches long but that includes a 3-5 inch dark-tipped pink bill.  The females are larger than males, big for a shorebird but small compared to a roseate spoonbill (click here to see).

The godwit's bill is a great tool for finding food.  Its length allows him to probe deeply for small mollusks, bristle worms, insects, leeches (yes!) and sago pondweed tubers, and it's so sensitive that he can feel his prey without having to see it.

Click on the screenshot above to see Steve Gosser's video of a marbled godwit at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio early this month. Watch as she probes rapidly, then pulls up her beak to swallow a morsel.  She plunges her bill so deeply that her face goes underwater.

She was one hungry bird!


(screenshot from video by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 16 2017

Shorebird ID Class: Online from Cornell

Be A Better Birder - online Shorebird ID class with Kevin McGowan

Do you find shorebirds hard to identify?  Cornell's Bird Academy has the online class for you.


"As summer ends, shorebirds head from their Arctic breeding grounds to their southern wintering areas, passing through most of North America on their way.

What better time to build your shore-birding skills?

To celebrate the season, we have re-issued the recordings of Kevin McGowan's 5-part webinar series on Shorebird Identification, last presented live in 2014.

Over five hours of video instruction help you get to know the markings and behaviors of all the common shorebirds found in North America, 47 species in all.

The entire series is only $29.99 with unlimited access to all the archived video material plus downloadable handouts for each session to help you take notes."

Learn at your own pace with this archived five-part class.  Click here or on the logo above to sign up for the series.


(screenshots from Cornell Bird Academy)

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Sep 15 2017

The Chimney Air Show

This month chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are migrating to South America, leaving before the weather's too cold for the flying insects they eat on the wing.

At dusk the flocks swirl around large chimneys then dive in to roost.  This video from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia shows them streaming into an old schoolhouse chimney.  Wow!

Don't worry when you see smoke coming out of the chimney at the end of the video. An observer explains:  "There are actually two flues in the chimney. The chimney swifts use the larger flue, while the smoke is vented from the smaller flue, so the birds are safe. In fact, they probably benefit from the bit of heat that comes from the smaller flue."

Stake out a chimney in town to enjoy the air show or monitor a wooden chimney swift tower near you.

Chimney swifts are declining and listed as "Near Threatened" so Audubon of Western Pennsylvania has placed chimney swift towers in our area.  ASWP needs your help tracking whether swifts are using the towers during migration.  Click here for information on how you can help.


(video from JimHowDigsDirt on YouTube)

p.s. Thanks to Joe Fedor for sending me ASWP's chimney swift news.

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Sep 14 2017

Where Peregrines Nest in the Wild

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year, for the first time since 1984, my husband and I aren't at Acadia National Park this month but I think of it every day.  If I was there I'd be stopping by the base of this mountain to scan for peregrines.  It's one of the few wild places where I know they nest.

On Throw Back Thursday here's a description of the peregrines' wild nest sites at Acadia with news from 2010:

Where The Peregrines Nest


(photo of the Precipice Trail at Acadia National Park from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 13 2017

In Hot Water

Two men holding an Atlantic sailfish caught off the coast of Port St. Lucie, Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Two men holding an Atlantic sailfish caught off the coast of Port St. Lucie, Florida, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The warming ocean has been in the news lately as the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded -- Harvey's rain and Irma's wind -- slammed into Texas, the Caribbean, and Florida.  The ocean is hotter now than any time since record keeping began in the 1880's and, though hotter water doesn't cause hurricanes we've learned it makes them worse.  Uh oh!

There's another sign the ocean is warming.  Fish are on the move.  A wide variety of species including sole, haddock, herring, and black sea bass have left places too warm for them and migrated to cooler water.

For example an enormous Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans), normally off the coast of Florida above, was caught in the Cape Cod Canal in August 2013.  It was the first Massachusetts record.

It's not just temperature that makes fish move.  Warm water has less oxygen, so it's harder to breathe, and more carbon dioxide so it's more acidic.  Acidic water holds less calcium carbonate, the building block of sea shells including those of tiny copepods.  With fewer tiny organisms there's less food all the way up the food chain.

Fish swim away from these "deserts" but some animals can't move very far. Think of lobsters, now gone from Long Island Sound.

The changes in species affect both fishermen and nesting seabirds.  The old catch limits refer to fish that can't be found because they've moved north, and baby puffins starve because the new species are too big for them to swallow.

From more powerful hurricanes to fish leaving home, we're in hot water!


Read more in this article from Yale e360: Feeling the Heat: How Fish Are Migrating from Warming Waters

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

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Sep 12 2017

Wild Things Outside!

Published by under Mammals

For the past two mornings I've heard wild things screaming in my backyard at 5am.  It's two hours before sunrise. What are those weird sounds?

Raccoons!  And they're fighting!

I didn't go outdoors to record them but I found two videos that include the sounds -- above in Toronto, below on someone's roof.


Why are raccoons fighting in my backyard?  I believe it's the watering hole effect.  It's been very dry in Pittsburgh so my birdbath is one of the few sources of water.  All the animals come for a drink before their bedtime and BAM!

A word to the wise: Don't go outdoors to visit the raccoons.  They may have rabies.


(videos from YouTube; click on the YouTube logo on each one to see its original)

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Sep 11 2017

The Zig Zag Web

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Yellow garden spider female with prey (photo by Kate St.John)

Yellow garden spider female with prey, Virginia Beach, 5 Sept 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Last week in Virginia Beach my mother said, "Come see my spider."  We stepped out the front door and there she was, an impressive yellow garden spider with a zig zag web.

Yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) are very common orb weavers but we rarely notice them until late summer when the females have reached full size, about an inch long.   At this point their webs are also large with conspicuous vertical zig zags(*) giving them this alternate name in Virginia: the sewing machine spider.

My mother's spider hid behind her web which in turn was camouflaged by the light colored brick behind it.  (Click here to see a more obvious zig zag.)  In these photos the spider is packaging prey in gauze or perhaps eating it.

Yellow garden spider with prey (photo by Kate St.John)

Yellow garden spider with prey (photo by Kate St.John)

My mother pointed out a smaller web nearby with a smaller spider in it, only 0.2 to 0.3 inches.  It was the male who will eventually come courting, but he has to be very careful and quick.  His goal is to deliver both sperm packages without being attacked.  After delivering the second one he dies a natural death.  Then the female eats him.

Soon the female will lay 500 to 1,000 eggs in a small brown sac which will overwinter and hatch in early spring.  The tiny spiderlings are cannibals, too, but those who survive will play out the same story next year.

If you find a yellow garden spider you can enjoy it in peace.  Even though the females are large, they won't bite unless you grab them (egads!) and their venom is harmless to humans.

Read more about these and other Pennsylvania native spiders in this fact sheet from Penn State.


(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) The zig zag is called a stabilimentum.

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Sep 10 2017

Watching The Wind

Published by under Weather & Sky

Visualization of Hurricane Irma wind, 10 Sept 2017, 5am (screenshot from the "earth" wind map)

Visualization of Hurricane Irma wind, 10 Sept 2017, 5am (screenshot from the "earth" wind map)

On Friday afternoon I checked in with my brother while he and his wife prepared for Hurricane Irma at their home in Boca Raton.  Located west of I-95, his neighborhood wasn't part of the mandatory evacuation order.  Everyone was getting ready, then they'd throw a "good luck" party Friday night and hide indoors until the storm is over -- probably midday Monday.  They were all hoping that Irma would go west, and that's what she's doing.

Concerned for my friends and relatives in Florida I've been monitoring Hurricane Irma on the National Hurricane Center's website at   My brother suggested watching the wind at and that reminded me of the similar "earth" website.

Watch the wind at these links, centered on Marco Island, Florida along the path of the storm.

Move the map around and you'll see strong wind blowing onshore toward Georgia.  That's why there's a storm surge warning in Savannah.

There's one thing these maps can't show.  Hurricanes spawn many tornadoes but they don't appear on the wind maps.  Right now there's a tornado watch in Boca Raton until noon on Monday.  Yikes!


(screenshot from on 10 Sept 2017, 5am. Click on the image to see the current wind map)

UPDATE:  At 11:30pm on Sept 10, my brother reports that they are OK at home in Boca Raton.  The power went out for eight hours but came on around 11pm. They'll go outside Monday morning to see what happened to the landscape.

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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


(screenshot of web address)

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Sep 08 2017

In The Path of The Storm

8 September 2017, 10am EDT:

Many of us are watching with morbid fascination as Hurricane Irma churns through the Caribbean on its way to Florida.  Even if we aren't in Irma's path, we know people who are and we're worried.

After Irma passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) I searched the Internet for footage of St. John, USVI, where I visited in January 2015.  I found information in this USA Today article with links to the USVI Hurricane Irma Alert Facebook page.  Beyond the obvious human suffering, I am struck by how brown the landscape is now.  All the leaves were blown off the trees.

Where are the birds?  What did they do during the storm?

Fortunately birds have strategies for coping with bad weather including:

Shelter in Place

Like us, birds hide out of the wind and rain and wait for the storm to end.  They use man-made structures, thickets, and deep valleys where the wind is less intense. Their strategies are described here in Shelter From The Storm.

Pigeons sheltering from rain in West Norwood Cemetery, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pigeons sheltering from heavy rain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Birds can sense when a storm is coming and often evacuate before it strikes.  A study of golden-winged warblers found that they left Tennessee a day ahead of a tornado: Warblers Fled Tornado One Day Ahead.  Land birds in Florida can move northwest as Irma approaches but the birds on Caribbean islands had nowhere to go.

F5 Tornado approaching Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007 (photo by Justin Hobson via Wikimedia Commons)


Fly In the Eye of the Storm

Sea birds have a third option.  As they fly in search of a calm spot, they end up in the eye of the hurricane where they travel with the storm until the winds die down.  This NASA image shows that the eye of Irma on Sept 5 was larger than both Anguilla and St. Martin so it was probably a relatively safe place.  However, the hurricane won't lose power until it's over land so the sea birds may be exhausted when they finally stop far inland.

The eye of Hurricane Irma passes over Anguilla and St. Martin, 5 Sept 2017 (image from NASA Sport)

The eye of Hurricane Irma passing over Anguilla and St. Martin, 5 Sept 2017 (image from NASA Sport)


People and birds in the path of Hurricane Irma are all getting ready.  I think of my friends and family in Florida.


For more the latest information on current hurricanes, see NOAA's National Hurricane Center.

(photo credits: Hurricane Irma satellite animation from NOAA, photo of pigeons sheltering from Wikimedia Commons, photo of tornado from Wikimedia Commons, Eye of Hurricane Irma from NASA Sport. Click on the images to see the originals.)

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