Watch For Amazing Flocks This Fall

Migrating flock of common grackles take over the trees (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the breeding season is over birds have gathered for migration and the winter.

Early this week 50 common grackles leapfrogged over the trees and forest floor as they searched for food and bathed in Panther Hollow Run. (This photo gives you an idea of their abundance.)

Cedar waxwing numbers peaked in Schenley Park in early October when they devoured most of the porcelain berries. They’ll spend the winter further south, for instance in Memphis, Tennessee where this photo was taken.

Cedar waxwing flock feeding on the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pine siskins were everywhere a couple of days ago. Are they still visiting your feeders? Where will they head next?

Pine siskin flock in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starlings numbers are building in Pittsburgh as northern visitors arrive. Soon there will be thousands.

European starlings overhead, Maryland (photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Crow numbers are building too. Last weekend I counted 2,400 but more arrived last night. Eventually the flock will look like this video from 2011. Where will they roost? Stay tuned.

Watch for spectacular flocks this fall. Let me know what you see.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Mr. T in DC, video by Sharon Leadbitter. Click the captions to see the originals)

Up to 55 mph Non-Stop For 11 Days

Bar-tailed godwit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2020

Yesterday the news broke that a bar-tailed godwit fitted with a satellite tracking tag had flown non-stop over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand in 11 days. During his 7,500 mile trip he reached speeds of up to 55 miles an hour. He’s an amazing bird from an amazing subspecies.

Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) breed in Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska and spend the winter at shores from Europe to Africa, from southern Asia to New Zealand. Most travel over or near land (see map) but the Alaskan subspecies, Limosa lapponica baueri, flies down the center of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, this subspecies makes “the longest known non-stop flight of any bird and the longest journey of any animal without feeding.”

Late last year the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand satellite-tagged 20 bar-tailed godwits to find out where and when they go. Tracked by the Global Flyway Network, godwit 4BBRW left Alaska on 16 September and landed in New Zealand on 27 September.

Find out more and see his route at The Guardian link below.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; 4BBRW map embedded from The Guardian article, complete route from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Next spring he’ll fatten up to return to Alaska on one of these red routes.

And he’ll look a lot fancier in breeding plumage.

Bar-tailed godwit in New Zealand in June, breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meet The Ancestors

  • Song sparrow with ancestor (photo by Frank Izaguirre)

We’ve known for a while that birds are descended from dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologist Mikael Siversson says, “Not only are birds descended from dinosaurs, but in fact birds are dinosaurs. They are highly specialized surviving dinosaurs.”

Of course modern birds have never met their long lost relatives so last Sunday Frank Izaguirre tweeted “A gift I recently gave myself was to put some dinos in the yard to facilitate this meeting of the ancestors.” They met below the bird feeder (photos above).

Bird-dinosaurs were lucky to survive the K-T extinction event that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. Mammals survived, too, and in the absence of large dinosaur predators they took over.

Later Frank tweeted

(photos by Frank Izaguirre)

Without Columbus

12 October 2020, Columbus Day in Pennsylvania

This statue in Schenley Park was celebrated when it was erected by the Italian-American Sons of Columbus in 1958 but has been a source of controversy in recent decades. Last week the decision came down to send it to a private location. The only remaining questions are where and when.

Columbus meant nothing in the British colonies until writers began celebrating him (in female form “Columbia”) when we broke with Britain in the 1760s. We needed a non-British origin story so after we won independence the legend expanded, was added to textbooks, and was used to gain Italian immigrant support (especially in NYC) beginning in the late 1800s. The legend started to crumble in the 1970s when we began discussing the real history of the man and his era in the Americas.

His legend was created to fill a gap and now the legend is fading. What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic? Here’s how things might have been different.

The coronavirus pandemic gives us an inkling of what it was like when Columbus and the Spanish explorers brought pandemic to this part of the world. It changed the western hemisphere.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than that of Europe. The landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people living in North, Central and South America.  When European explorers accidentally left behind pigs that carried human disease, native Americans encountered the free-range pigs, had no immunity and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

Illustration of female passenger pigeon (from Wikimedia Commons)

Without Columbus the Americas would have been a very different place but the pressure of human population growth would have prompted someone to come here anyway, just not him.

Find out more about the New World before Columbus in this book –> 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)

p.s. The history of the Christopher Columbus legend is described here in the Washington Post.

Today the Schenley Park Columbus statue is covered in white plastic, probably to protect it from the vandalism that targets it on Columbus Day since 1997.

Christopher Columbus statues is shrouded, October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tracker Eggs May Save Endangered Turtles

Green sea turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas, above) are endangered and olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea, below) are vulnerable even though both have a wide distribution in the tropical oceans. The threats they face are caused by humans including boat strikes, nets, poaching of the adults and collecting their eggs.

Olive ridley sea turtles nesting in Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 2015 conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillén came up with a way to protect turtle eggs by using GPS-equipped decoys. Her award-winning idea was tried recently in Costa Rica with the results published this month in Current Biology.

Green sea turtle laying eggs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A team of scientists led by Helen Pheasey placed a decoy egg in each of 101 clutches of green sea and olive ridley turtles. 25 of the clutches were stolen by poachers. Five of the GPS eggs were taken for a ride. One traveled 85 miles. This diagram from Current Biology shows the decoys and the routes they traveled.

Decoy eggs, data, and estimated routes used by turtle egg traffickers (illustration from Current Biology PDF. Click this caption for the full description)

Revealing the trade routes is a step toward saving the turtles though not the silver bullet. Conservation laws and their enforcement can be ambiguous from country to country. As Science Magazine explains:

Ultimately, though, scientists and nonprofits are going to need to engage communities with local outreach and education programs to save sea turtles, Williams-Guillén says. “The real meat and potatoes of conservation isn’t going to come from deploying eggs.”

Science Magazine — Endangered baby sea turtles may have new savior: GPS eggs

Every little bit helps. Fake eggs will allow more baby turtles to hatch and walk to the sea.

Baby green sea turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more in Current Biology Magazine: Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, diagram from Current Biology Magazine: Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade; click on the captions to see the originals)

Nature’s Bird Food and Other October Delights

Rose hips, Frick Park, 3 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This October there are plentiful fruits and seeds for migrating birds in Pittsburgh. Virginia creeper, porcelain berry, and rose hips (above) provide food for cedar waxwings and robins.

Pine siskins invaded southwestern Pennsylvania this week! Many of you are reporting them at your backyard feeders while natural food sources, such as arborvitae, have created pine siskin hotspots. Siskins force open the cones with their sharp beaks and pick out the seeds.

These arborvitae cones were on the ground at a pine siskin hotspot. Three stages are pictured: Top = Spent cones as much as one year old, Middle = Opened cones that were emptied by pine siskins, Bottom = a mix of closed, opened and spent cones.

Arborvitae cones that fell on N Dithridge Street thanks to pine siskins, 9 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The huge acorn crop in Schenley Park is attracting many blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks. Here’s what the ground looks like below the oaks at Bartlett Shelter.

Many, many acorns, Bartlett Shelter Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In other delights October trees, sky and shadows are spectacular.

Fall colors, Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Long shadows, Schenley Park, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fall color in Frick Park, 6 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Dead hickory points to the moon, 8 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a good time to be outdoors.

(photos by Kate St. John)

More Than a Billion

Male red-billed queleas, Kruger National Park, SA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The most numerous wild bird on earth, estimated at 1.5 billion individuals, is the red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) of sub-Saharan Africa. This very social weaver finch migrates and nests in flocks that number in millions.

Flock of red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the flocks get going they resemble swarms of locusts.

Red-billed queleas eat mostly grain and seeds. As they feed on the ground the flock leapfrogs from back to front like a rolling cloud.

In Africa they are so well known as flocks that it’s hard to think of them as individuals. Two males are pictured above. Here’s a female.

Female red-billed quelea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately their numbers and flocking behavior get them into trouble. When their natural food sources run dry they change their focus to cultivated fields. A flock of two million can eat 20 tons of grain in a day, thus …

This species is a major pest of cereal crops, and huge efforts have been expended by national and international agencies on lethal control and attempts to reduce population numbers by use of explosives, petrol bombs and aerial spraying of [organophosphate] avicides; in South Africa up to 21 million reported killed in a single month, with annual kill estimates of up to 180 million.

Control operations, however, probably do no more than replace naturally occurring mortality, and there is a significant adverse impact on other species, which are poisoned directly or die after eating dead queleas.

Birds of the World, Red-billed quelea

A much more successful control measure than killing them, though very labor intensive, is to actively make noise in the fields and scare the birds away.

After more than 70 years of control measures that kill hundreds of millions of birds per year, the red-billed quelea population has grown.

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

p.s. A video at this link shows all aspects of the red-billed queleas lives but is grisly at the end.

Pine Siskins In My City Neighborhood

Pine siskin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that the pine siskins (Spinus pinus) of eastern Canada would move south this fall. Indeed they have. Friends started seeing them in backyards north of Pittsburgh in late September but I don’t have a backyard anymore. I live in a high-rise and thought I’d have to drive far away to see them. Not!

Yesterday afternoon Aidan Place shared a photo of a flock of 40 pine siskins bathing in the roof gutter outside his window in North Oakland. I rushed over to his street and there they were!

The flock had found a favorite food, the cones of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also called arborvitae, in front of Aidan’s apartment and in a long row near the parking lot across the street. Here are the cones they were eating.

Pine siskins like the cones on this arborvitae, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The natural range of arborvitae (below) overlaps the breeding range of pine siskins so the birds probably felt like they’d found a taste of home.

The flock was easily startled by loud noises (cars, for instance) but tolerant if I stood quietly. I was able to take a very bad photo with my cellphone. The bird is the stripey thing in the middle of the picture with his head down. Yes, they are camouflaged.

Pine siskin feeding on arborvitae, North Oakland, Pittsburgh, 7 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you have a backyard, put out nyjer seed to attract pine siskins and American goldfinches. Watch carefully. Siskins look a bit boring and are smaller than goldfinches as you can see in this 2018 photo by Lauri Shaffer.

Goldfinch and pine siskin (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

If you don’t have a backyard, visit a cemetery and pause near the arborvitae trees. I bet you’ll find pine siskins.

The birds aren’t picky about being in the city as long as they find conifers — ornamental or otherwise.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Kate St. John and Lauri Shaffer)

Ecco, Ecco, Terzo

Since last week’s two installments in the Pitt peregrine soap opera, Morela’s suitors continue to visit the nest. Ecco is present more often than Terzo and bows intensively with Morela for long periods of time. Terzo visits alone. This activity is unusual for October. Something is going on.

Above and below, during their first visit on Monday 5 October at 4:53pm, Ecco scanned the sky to make sure Terzo wasn’t nearby. Then he and Morela locked gazes and nearly touched beaks. I can’t help but think Morela’s pair bond is stronger with Ecco.

Ecco scans the sky while Morela bows, 5 Oct 2020, 16:53
Ecco and Morela about to touch beaks, 5 Oct 2020, 16:56

On the second visit at 6:56pm Morela left before Ecco. He paused at the nest for a while.

Ecco pauses at the nest after Morela left, 5 Oct 2020 18:57

Yesterday (Tuesday 6 October) Terzo visited for 6 minutes. He called to Morela but she did not appear on camera.

Ecco, Ecco, Terzo. I wonder when — or if — they’ll sort out which male owns the nest.

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

Spiders On Caffeine

European garden spider on web (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2020

Since I began blogging 13 years ago my morning life has settled into a predictable pattern: I get up very early (4:00 am), make coffee, settle at my computer and start writing. Coffee is essential.

What’s essential to me doesn’t work well for spiders. On caffeine they make wonky webs.

Effect of caffeine on spider web construction (images from Wikimedia Commons)

Why did a scientist bother to find this out? His friend wanted to sleep late.

Read the details in this vintage article, On Caffeine, written years ago when I got up later myself.

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