The Back Toes

Snow Bunting in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Snow Bunting in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds' feet vary a lot from species to species.  Hawks have talons, ducks have webbed feet, and marsh walkers have very long toes (like this jacana).

Even their rear toes differ based on their life styles.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn about the back toes at:  Anatomy: Musing on Rear Toes.

 

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

Quiz: Identify Them in Flight

Waterbirds in flight, Florida 2013 (photo by Don Weiss)
Waterbirds in flight, Florida 2013 (photo by Don Weiss)

Can you identify these birds in flight?

Hints:

  • Don Weiss took the photo at Merritt Island, Florida.
  • I see 6 species.   Do you see more?
  • The pink ones are my favorite.
  • I see wood storks.  (But I'm wrong!  They are white pelicans.)

 

(photo by Don Weiss)

The Answer ... or at least part of the answer ...

Annotated birds in flight (photo by Don Weiss)
Annotated birds in flight (photo by Don Weiss)

  1. Glossy ibis
  2. White pelican --> white tail & black doesn't extend all the way to the body
  3. Common tern?  (Certainly a tern)
  4. Snowy egret (kc saw yellow feet)
  5. Great egret
  6. Roseate spoonbill
  7. White ibis

Any others?

Pitt Peregrine Highlights, 2017

Let's take a look back at last year's peregrine season with a slideshow of Pitt nesting highlights.  (Click on any photo to open the slideshow in its own lightbox.)

2017 was a lot calmer at the Cathedral of Learning nest than the year before.  Fortunately there was only one dramatic incident: Hope's abnormal behavior on April 25.  Here's a summary:

The 2018 nesting season will be here soon.  Stay tuned at the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

(slideshow photos from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh and by Peter Bell, John English and Kate St. John)

Why Is It Warming So Fast?

  • Friday, 5 Jan 2018

Egads, it was cold last weekend!  Here in Pittsburgh it was -6 to 11 degrees F, but yesterday things turned around.  Sunday (7 Jan.) started at -6oF but warmed to a high of 30.  Today will be above freezing and by Thursday the high will be 64oF.  That's a swing of 70 degrees in only four days!

The slideshow above shows this in color for January 5, 8, 11 and 12.

I'm not complaining that we're out of the deep freeze but ... this weather is really odd.  Why did it get so cold and why is it warming so fast?  Why don't we have a moderate winter like we used to?

Crazy as it sounds, it's because the arctic is warming faster than the rest of us.  When there's not a big temperature difference between the North Pole and the mid-latitudes (us) the jetstream slows down.  When it's sluggish, it wobbles in high amplitude loops that dip as far south as Florida(*).

The video below explains why.  I recommend watching it twice; you see more the second time.  (My end notes have info on millibars, etc.)

So when a cold loop settles over us, we're really cold and when it moves on we're really hot.  It happens quickly in both directions.

Don't put away your winter clothes on Thursday.  The forecast says it'll be 5 degrees on Saturday night.

 

(temperature forecast maps from NOAA; Jet stream explanation by Jennifer Francis on YouTube)

Definitions and notes:

  • A millibar (or mb) is a unit of air pressure.
  • The average air pressure at sea level is 1013.25 millibars = 14.7 pounds.
  • What's the significance of 500 millibars?   The 500 millibar pressure zone is where air pressure is half what it was at sea level, halfway up in the atmosphere. Since air pressure varies as weather systems move above us, the 500mb map is a great diagram of what the weather systems are doing.    Here's the air pressure map for Friday 5 Jan 2018 at 1200z (8am).  Notice that the pressure lines echo Friday's temperature map above.
  • (*) I wrote above that the jetstream dips as far south as Florida.  Well, it dips even further than that.  In June 2016 the northern jetstream crossed the equator and joined the southern one!

Smart and Cocky

Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bald eagles are big and majestic, even the young ones like the immature bird pictured here.

Who's smart and cocky?   That small black bird in the back:  a crow pulling the bald eagle's tail.

Sometimes crows are a little too daring but this one is getting away with it.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons taken at Delta, BC, Canada. Click on the image to see the original)

At Cape Cod: Before and During the Storm

Before the storm: Icy blue ocean at West Dennis Beach, Mass. 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
Before the storm: Icy blue ocean at West Dennis Beach, Mass. 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

On the day before the "bomb cyclone" hit Massachusetts my sister-in-law, Barb Lambdin, sent me two photos of the frozen ocean at West Dennis Beach, Cape Cod.   Intrigued by the coming storm, I asked her to take more photos when it hit.

The photo locations are part of the story:

  1. Before the storm: West Dennis Beach on the ocean side.
  2. During the storm: Corporation Beach in the protected middle of the bay shore.

Map of Massachusetts showing 1: oceanside photos at West Dennis Beach, 2: bayside photos at Corporation Beach (from Wikimedia Commons, annotated)
Map of Massachusetts. 1: oceanside photos at West Dennis Beach, 2: bayside photos at Corporation Beach

 

BEFORE THE STORM:

Above, the ocean was so calm on 3 January 2018 that ice had formed in flat sheets and blue-green water ponded on top.

The waves were small and slushy (below).  Barb calls them Frozen Margarita waves.

Before the storm, slushy waves at W Dennis Beach, MA 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
Before the storm, slushy waves at W Dennis Beach, MA 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

 

DURING THE STORM:

On 4 January it was too windy and dangerous on the ocean side so Barb went to the bay side at Corporation Beach.  The two photos below were taken at high tide.

Keep in mind that this is the calm side of Cape Cod yet the waves are high and about to flood the parking lot.  I have never seen waves break at Corporation Beach!

During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide, Dennis,Mass. 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide. Dennis, MA 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

This high tide set a record at Boston, 60 miles north across the bay.

During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide, Dennis,Mass. 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide. Dennis, MA 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

For more information and cool graphics see The 10 best images of this week's historic bomb cyclone in the Washington Post.

Is this the worst nor'easter we'll see this winter? Who knows.

p.s. Why is it so cold?

Actually it's extremely cold in the eastern U.S. but very warm in the West (click here for Departure From Normal Temperature graphic).

Four years ago we experienced the Polar Vortex of 2014 when the jet stream wobbled southward. It's happening again. And it's a feature of climate change.

Learn more at CBCnews: Why has it been so cold? Here's what science says.

 

(photos by Barb Lambdin. Massachusetts map from Wikimedia Commons. Temperature map from the National Weather Service; click on the images to see the originals)

Getting Ready For Nesting Season

Before peregrine nesting begins a few of us visit the Pitt and Gulf Tower nests to conduct routine maintenance.  Sometimes we have a lot to do -- add gravel, clean the nestbox, fix the cameras -- but this year the only thing needed was a cleanup of the weatherproof covers on the National Aviary's falconcams.

Last week when Bob Mulvihill and I visited the Gulf Tower camera we didn't see any peregrines.  Yesterday at Pitt we saw two!

It was 16 degrees when we ventured out on the ledge.  Phil Hieber took photos, Bob cleaned the cameras, and I brought my hiking stick to hold high as a substitute target for peregrine attacks (instead of attacking our heads).

Bob Mulvihill heads out to clean the nestcam covers. Kate St. John follows with a stick to hold up as an "attack" target.
Bob Mulvihill heads out to clean the nestcam covers. Kate St. John follows with a stick to hold up as an "attack" target (photo by Phil Hieber)

We were surprised to see that Hope, the female peregrine, was waiting for us.  How did she know we were coming?

Peregrine falcon, Hope, waits and watches as we approach the nestcams but she says nothing.
Peregrine falcon, Hope, waits and watches as we approach the nestcams but she says nothing (photo by Phil Hieber)

As Bob got closer, Hope flew off, then silently strafed back and forth as you can see on the video.

Hope flies away as Bob approaches the falconcams.
Hope flies away as Bob approaches the falconcams (photo by Phil Hieber)

Soon Terzo joined her. He was silent, too.

A peregrine flies by (photo by Phil Hieber)
A peregrine flies by (photo by Phil Hieber)

 

In less than 3 minutes Bob was finished and we went back indoors.

Bob returns from the ledge. The job took less than 3 minutes! (photo by Phil Hieber)
Bob returns from the ledge. The job took less than 3 minutes! (photo by Phil Hieber)

 

Hope and Terzo are staying close to home this month.  They're getting ready for nesting season, too.

 

p.s. This morning it's 2 degrees F and windy so the wind chill makes it feel like -16.  Good thing we were out there yesterday.

(photos & video shot by Phil Hieber on Bob Mulvihill's mobile)

An Innovative Way to Save Macaws

Scarlet macaw (photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)
Scarlet macaw (photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)

In an effort to save scarlet macaws (Ara macao) researchers at the Tambopata Macaw Project in southeastern Peru have studied and cared for them since 1989.   In the process they discovered why macaw chick survival is so low.  Scarlet macaws prefer to raise an only child.

Though the female lays two to four eggs, when the eggs hatch the parents shower all their food and attention on the first hatchling and neglect the others. The second chick has a 45% chance of survival but the rest starve.

This low reproductive rate is bad for a species threatened by forest fragmentation and the pet trade, so Tambopata has come up with an innovative way to save the abandoned chicks.  They've developed a project to rescue the neglected chicks and relocate them to foster parents in wild nests with none or only one chick.

Shannyn Courtenay at the Macaw Project writes, "There is already great interest in this new work from macaw managers and conservation projects in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica where scarlet macaws are endangered."

See a video about the project and their crowdfunding request at  Increasing Survival of Macaw Chicks using Foster Macaw Parents in the Wild.

Over the holiday season the project reached its funding goal (yay!) but you can still contribute through January 7, 2018.

 

(photo by Alejandro Morales courtesy PBS NATURE)

First Bird of 2018

Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Blue jay in winter (photo by Cris Hamilton)

If you keep a list of the birds you see each year, yesterday gave you a First Bird of 2018.

Mine was a blue jay.

He received this honor because I decided not to count the birds I heard but did not see.  This ruled out the house sparrows cheeping in my neighbor's evergreen. I didn't even look for them.

Perhaps this was cheating. If I'd heard an owl I would have counted it.  However, I don't have to stretch the rules to pick a First Best Bird of 2018.

Yesterday afternoon I joined the Botanical Society of Western PA's annual New Year's Day Hike.  Twelve of us braved the 10o F weather at Irwin Road in North Park, led by Richard Nugent.  (He's the tall man in the brown coat.  I'm in the photo, too, but which one?)

Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)
Botanical Society New Years Day Hike, 2018 (photo by June Bernard)

We walked to the old homestead to see the Ozark witch hazel that we visit every year.   At the top of the hill was a small flock of birds eating wild grapes, multiflora rose hips and oriental bittersweet.  Among them was my First Best Bird of 2018 -- a hermit thrush.

Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)
Hermit thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

What was your First Bird of 2018?  Do you have a Best one?

 

(photo credits: blue jay by Cris Hamilton, hike photo from June Bernard, hermit thrush by Chuck Tague)