Ponds On The Ocean

Ponds on the Arctic Ocean (photo by NASA’s Kathryn Hanson via Wikimedia Commons)

Ice and snow are returning this weekend in Pittsburgh but they won’t look like this.

In July 2011 two men walked between the melt ponds on top of the ice on the Arctic Ocean. The patterns and texture resemble flocked fabric. Click here to see a fabric sample.

When the ice breaks the freshwater ponds will fall into the sea. Fortunately the two men will be back on their boat before that happens.

Find out why they’re there in the photo description at this link.

(photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

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)

Not With My Relatives

Two scythebill species: black-billed (left), red-billed (right) (from Wikimedia Commons)

When deforestation and climate change destroy swaths of habitat, some people assume that birds will be OK because, unlike mammals, they can fly to new locations.

However a 2012 study of two closely related scythebills discovered that the displaced birds don’t survive, even in habitat like the ones they left, because they’re out-competed by the locals.

On Throw Back Thursday, find out why these birds can’t survive near their relatives in this vintage blog: Why Don’t They Just Move?

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

Daily Visits to the Nest

Morela bows at the nest, hoping that Terzo will join her, 12 Jan 2020, 10:55a

Morela has made brief visits to the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest every day this week. Snapshots from the National Aviary’s falconcam show her bowing and calling to her mate Terzo. He hasn’t joined her yet but don’t worry, he’s around. I saw him kiting in the wind yesterday.

On Sunday 12 January 2020 Morela spent five minutes bowing and calling.

Morela at the nest, 12 Jan 2020, 1056a
Morela calls to Terzo, 12 Jan 2020, 1058a

When Terzo didn’t join her she stepped forward to look around, “Where is he?”

Morela looking around for Terzo, 12 Jan 2020, 11:00a

On Monday 13 January she had just finished eating when she stopped by for a visit. Notice the bulge in her crop as she bows and calls.

And yesterday, 14 January, she stopped by for only a minute.

The snapshots are tantalizing … and silent. I can hardly wait until the National Aviary starts streaming the falconcam in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for that happy day!

(snapshots from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

p.s. Here’s how I capture these photos. Warning it’s technical!

Instant photos are at this link on my blog’s Resources panel: FALCONCAM – CL Snapshots.

The top photo is a once-a-minute snapshot from the (soon to be) streaming camera. It shows what’s happening there right now. You have to refresh your browser to see if it changes.

When there’s a peregrine on camera I save the photo to my hard drive or cellphone. Then I refresh the browser.

In January the nest is usually empty but I know when a peregrine is there because I follow @pittpefaALERT on Twitter. Every tweet from @pittpefaALERT is a 15-second “change” image showing what’s different at the nest. Changed pixels are shown in red. Here’s what they look like and what they mean.

Tweets that don’t matter: At dawn and dusk and on partly cloudy days the change is just sun and shadow. Here are two sun and shadow changes — red images with straight edges.

Two tweets from @pittpefaALERT showing changes in light at the Pitt nest

When a peregrine shows up: The change image may look like a bird (left image below) and it certainly has curved lines (right). Here are two peregrine tweets.

When I see a tweet that looks like a peregrine I go to the FALCONCAM – CL Snapshots link. The snapshots refresh every 60 seconds. If I’m nimble I can capture the first one.

Good luck!

No Winter Fun

Snow shovel riding, Slovakia 1959 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that climate change has really settled in there are loads of free fun winter activities that we can’t do in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship was postponed last Saturday. Last year it was eventually canceled. As the Beaver County Times wrote last month:

The Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship returns in 2020. That comes with the major assumption that sufficient snow rests on the 165-foot hill at Old Economy Park, just off Route 989 in Economy, on Jan. 11 or the makeup date of Jan. 18.

Beaver County Times, Let it snow, if shovel riding championship is to return

Last Saturday, 11 January 2020, was so hot that it broke a 130-year record. At Pittsburgh International Airport, nine miles from that Beaver County hillside, it was 71 degrees F. Of course there was no snow.

Other winter fun we’re missing includes building snowmen, making snow angels, and cross country skiing. These still might happen for a day or two if we get one big snowfall.

Building a snowman at Lafayette Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Making a snow angel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Cross country skiing, Aroostook NWR, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But some winter fun is just plain dangerous in today’s world. Ice fishermen used to count on our frozen lakes but these days the ice is missing or very thin. Unsafe!

Ice fishing at Price Gallitzin State Park, PA, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To emphasize this dilemma, the Great Lakes were virtually ice free on January 12.

Ice coverage on Great Lakes, 12 Jan 2020 analysis (map from US National Ice Center)

No winter fun.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; map from U.S. National Ice Center; click on the captions to see the originals)

Leaf Buds For Dinner

Brussels sprouts, plucked and on the stalk (photo by Kate St. John)

When I bought this stalk of Brussels sprouts, I wondered about the wild plant it came from. Did you know that cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all the same species? Every one of them is a cultivar of Brassica oleracea, also called wild cabbage.

Wild cabbage is a biennial that grows naturally on limestone sea cliffs in Europe. In its first year it’s a rosette of leaves. In its second year it blooms. As you can see by the flowers, it’s a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae).

Wild cabbage plant and flowers (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Ten thousand years ago humans foraged for wild cabbage leaves. At the dawn of agriculture we began to cultivate them. One thing led to another, as described at Wikipedia:

  • Our preference for leaves led to kale and collard greens as cultivars.
  • We liked the tightly bunched leaves and the terminal leaf bud so we cultivated cabbage from the first-year rosette.
  • The Germans liked fatter cabbage stems so they cultivated kohlrabi. It’s not a root, it’s a bulbous stem.
  • People liked the tasty flower buds of the second-year plant so we cultivated cauliflower in the 1400s (flower is in its name) and then broccoli.
  • In Belgium they preferred the small leaf buds that grow in the leaf axils, so they bred Brussels sprouts in the 1700s.

While they’re growing, Brussels sprouts are nestled in the leaf axils like this.

As the stem gets taller the lower leaves turn yellow and fall off. Farmers and gardeners usually remove fallen leaves or prune them back.

Sometimes the weight of the plant bowls it over.

Brussels sprouts in a field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually the plant is harvested and we buy Brussels sprouts in the store. Mmmmm! Leaf buds for dinner!

p.s. Did you know that Brussels sprouts are sweeter if they’re harvested after frost? Alas, most are harvested before that.

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

In The End, The Sea Will Win

American oystercatcher in flight, New Jersey (photo by Tony Bruno)

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Tomorrow the New Jersey legislature will consider a bill that will either protect or destroy 15 acres of state park land where a neighboring golf course wants to build 3 golf holes. The showdown between those who love public parks and nature versus extremely rich developers is well described in the New York Times: Golf Club for the 1 Percent Wants to Seize a Migratory Bird Habitat.

I don’t know how the fight will play out in human terms but I’m sure of one thing. In the end the sea will win.

Caven Point Natural Area is a sandy peninsula on the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, a migratory bird stopover and nesting site so sensitive that the area is closed April through September to leave the birds in peace. American oystercatchers, shown above, are some of the cool birds you can see there.

Though it’s part of Liberty State Park, Caven Point Natural Area (yellow circle) is not contiguous to it.

Map of Liberty State Park (map from New Jersey State Parks)

Its adjacent neighbor is the very exclusive Liberty National Golf Club whose seawall borders the footpath to the site.

Hudson River Waterfront Walkway to Caven Point. Liberty National Golf Club seawall is on the right (photo by Bill Benson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Liberty National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the US with an initiation fee of nearly half a million dollars. The course has breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline which you may have seen on television last August when Liberty National hosted the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Playoffs from August 6–11, 2019. This photo, uploaded by Redi-Rock International in 2015, gives you an idea of the view.

Scene from Liberty National Golf Club (photo by Redi-Rock International via Flickr Creative Commons license)

To us humans, Nature is the backdrop to the protests, letter writing, legislation and legal battles, but Nature will be the foreground in the years ahead. Climate change and sea level rise will engulf Caven Point and part of the existing golf course. It is already happening.

This map of the Caven Point area from NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer shows red where the highest high tides inundate the land today. This doesn’t include the 5-foot wall of water that washed over the area during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Caven Point sea level at high high tide (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

If the ocean rises 3 feet, as predicted for this century, Caven Point will become an island, ponds on the existing golf course will overflow (green) and the end of Liberty National’s parking lot near the clubhouse will be underwater every day (green).

Inundation from 3-foot sea level rise (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

Even if it doesn’t rise three feet very soon …

“Nobody’s debating that sea-level rise is happening. It’s back to how much, how fast,” Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me. Even the most optimistic scientists have recently increased their low-end estimates, she said.

from The Atlantic, 4 January 2019

In the end, the sea will win. In the meantime, save the land for the birds.

UPDATE on 14 JAN 2020: The New Jersey legislature failed to act on the bill & it was the last day of the legislative session so the bill is dead unless reintroduced in the next session. See Despite gaining senate support, Liberty State Park Protection Act dead for now.

(photo of American oystercatcher by Tony Bruno. Caven Point walkway by Bill Benson on Flickr, Liberty National Golf Course by Redi-Rock International on Flickr, maps from New Jersey State Parks and NOAA Sea Level Viewer; click on the captions to see the originals)

What We’re Missing In Today’s Hot Weather

Macro snowflakes in frozen bubble (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 January 2020

Winter has a beauty all its own but we’re missing it in Pittsburgh this year. Today our high temperature will be 70oF.

Here’s some of what we’ll never see in today’s hot weather.

Hoarfrost on Hibiscus (photo by Reinhold Möller via Wikimedia Commons)
Snow on Queen Anne’s lace, 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tiny snowman at Gilfillan Park, 2 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pittsburgh is not alone in feeling the heat. Here’s today’s temperature forecast for the continental U.S. It looks like a Polar Vortex doesn’t it? High winds are on the way!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John, map from the National Weather Service; click on the captions to see the originals)

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)