Bimonthly Membership Meeting
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
7:30 PM -- 9:00 PM
Virtual Zoom Platform from Pittsburgh, PA

At least 62 computers were logged on to 3RBC's February 2021 meeting, with several of those shared by more than one person. In total, no less than 75 individuals viewed the club's sixth virtual Zoom meeting, which featured a program by Mark Bonta, who presented "Fire Hawks: Arsonists or Land Managers?" Bonta explored the controversial hypotheses that raptors - in Australia and perhaps other places as well - have learned to use torches of fire to light grassfires to obtain food.

3RBC President Sheree Daugherty called the meeting to order at 7:30pm. She and other club officers made the following announcements and reports:

    •   Sheree began by noting that the club's membership continues to grow, and that she had the distinct pleasure of welcoming 3RBC's newest and youngest member, Maya Zenaida Izaguirre, the newborn daughter of club stalwarts, Adrienne and Frank Izaguirre! On behalf of the club, she wished baby Maya and her proud parents well. Welcome, Maya!

    •   President Daugherty was pleased to announce that the Allegheny Land Trust was ultimately successful in raising the necessary $3 million required for the purchase of the Churchill Valley Greenway property, located just off the Parkway East. She reminded members that the club had made cash contributions to this effort, and that a number of members had made individual contributions as well. This almost-150-acre tract will result in the preservation of much-needed bird and other flora and fauna habitat in a densely populated area and will serve as a passive recreation area for all of the Pittsburgh region. More than 90,000 individuals live in close proximity to the new greenway.

    •   Though we are (hopefully) beginning to see the end of the Covid Pandemic, the club will continue to exercise caution. To this end, the remainder of 3RBC's 2021 meetings will all be held on the Zoom digital platform. Sheree said that the club hopes to resume face-to-face meetings in 2022. Because of ongoing construction and renovation plans at the Phipps Garden Center, the club's meetings in 2022 will be held at Phipps Conservatory's Botany Hall in Oakland. Details will be posted on the club's website and social media when appropriate.

    •   Finally, Sheree reminded everyone to observe Zoom-meeting etiquette: once the meeting has gotten underway, the meeting hosts (Tom, Suzanne and Steve) mute everyone's microphones except the speaker's. Please do not unmute yourself unless you wish to address the whole group! Also, she asked that members please not interrupt the speakers' presentations; questions should be typed into Zoom's Chat feature, and will be addressed at the meeting's end.

    •   Peregrine Editor Paul Hess highlighted the content of the upcoming July-August issue of The Peregrine.

    Sheree's "President's Message" is a wonderful book review of The Glitter in the Green by British author Jon Dunn (who is not the same Jon L. Dunn who spoke at one of the club's past meetings). This Jon Dunn is an acclaimed natural history writer, photographer and tour leader. His book recounts his look at the remarkable hummingbirds that range from the frozen Arctic north to the wild stretches of the tip of South America.

    Tom Moeller's "Observations" column relays his experiences with a robin who learned to know Tom personally! As many have noted, particular birds often grow familiar with humans with whom they have constant contact. Be sure to read Tom's enchanting tale.

    Paul also noted that he was extremely pleased with the responses to the new Peregrine column, "Notes From Birders," which contains information submitted by club members and others recounting their personal experiences, interesting sightings, and other bird-related observations. He told everyone that he has already received several offerings. Paul encouraged everyone to submit their observations, thoughts, and experiences for future inclusion.

    Finally, Editor Hess announced that new father, Frank Izaguirre, will be taking over the "How To Know The Birds" column on the ABA's website. Congratulations again, Frank!

    •   Next, Tom Moeller gave his treasurer's report. He announced that the club's membership numbers since April are down very slightly, with memberships now total 331, resulting in nearly 475 individual members who enjoy birding. As always, he expressed the club's gratitude to our loyal and generous members who keep us in the black!

    •   Webmaster Tom Moeller again reminded everyone that he has set up a page on the club's website which contains recordings of all of our previous Zoom meetings (except for the second meeting, whose recording was flawed by technical problems). So if anyone missed a program, or wants to see one again, click on the appropriate link.

    Tom announced that the Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Blitz for Conservation is coming up on June 18-21. Groups of two or more are eligible to participate. Interested birders can find more information on the club's main page, complete with links to follow to register for the competition.

    Finally, Tom noted that the club's Facebook page features a new bird photo. He urged members to visit both locations to keep up with club happenings.

    •   Outings Coordinator Steve Thomas reported that, after consulting CDC guidelines and considering other factors, conditions look quite favorable for the resumption of outings in the fall! Steve said that he would begin contacting potential individual leaders in July, with tentative plans to resume outings in September. As always, check the 3RBC website and Facebook page for details. At this point, things are looking good!

    •   3RBC Vice President Mike Fialkovich next relayed recent bird sightings. He reported that this year's spring migration yielded good variety, but not big numbers; in particular, there was a paucity of migrating warblers in several locations. Mike noted that there were good numbers early in the season, but the unexpected stretch of cold weather resulted in fewer birds stopping here. He reported the following sightings: Semi-palmated Plover, Lesser Yellow Legs and Short-billed Dowitcher at Imperial; 48 Great Blue Heron nests were counted on Fourteen Mile Island (just past the Turnpike Bridge), and 6 nests on Six Mile Island (near the Highland Park Bridge); Red-breasted Nuthatches at Squirrel Hill, Pine Township, and Frick Park; Wood Thrush at Pleasant Hills; a leucistic American Robin photographed in Monroeville; Purple Finches in Mt. Lebanon, Pine Township, and Natrona Heights; Vesper Sparrow at Boyce-Mayview Park; a Baltimore Oriole overwintered in Oakland; Worm-eating Warblers at Harrison Hills Park; Golden-winged Warbler at Homewood Cemetery; Morning Warblers in Upper St. Clair and Frick Park; Long-tailed Duck in Tarentum; Surf Scoters on the Allegheny River at Verona; Northern Bobwhites at a feeder in Chapel Harbor (at present Northern Bobwhites in Pennsylvania are not wild birds, but rather have been released - they are extirpated in Pennsylvania, gone since the 1990s, with the last populations of native birds seen in southern Lancaster and Chester counties); Bonaparte Gulls at the Highland Park Bridge, Verona, and Oakmont; Common Tern photographed at Duck Hollow; Forster's Terns at Verona and Imperial; Caspian Terns at Dashields Dam and North Park; Black Tern on the Allegheny River at Chapel Harbor; Great Egrets at Highland Park Bridge, Oakmont, North Park, and Chapel Harbor; American Bittern at Frick Park; Virginia Rails at Harrison Hills Park and Wingfield Pines; Common Gallinule at North Park; Black-bellied Plover at Duck Hollow; Dunlin at Imperial; Black Vultures flying over I-79 near Coraopolis, Hampton Township, Fox Chapel, and near Emsworth; Fish Crows at Squirrel Hill; Red-headed Woodpeckers in Jefferson Hills and Elizabeth; Alder Flycatcher at Frick Park; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher banded in Upper St. Clair; Olive-sided Flycatcher at Frick Park; Evening Grosbeaks at Frick Park; Prothonotary Warblers at Duck Hollow and Wingfield Pines; Northern Water Thrush at Frick Park and North Park; Swainson's Warbler found stunned after striking a building in Downtown Pittsburgh (second year in a row!); Orange-crowned Warbler at Frick Park; a first-year male Yellow-headed Blackbird at a feeder in Elizabeth (first county sighting in 80-100 years!); finally, concluding the spring migration highlights, a Summer Tanager was heard calling at Frick Park.

    •   Program Coordinator Dave Brooke noted that the club's next meeting - also on Zoom - will be Wednesday, August 4, 2021, and will feature Luke DeGroote, who oversees bird studies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Avian Research Center in the Ligonier Valley. He will present "The Allegheny Bird Conservation Alliance: Making Pittsburgh a More Livable City for Birds." He'll explain how Powdermill Nature Reserve teams up with other conservation organizations in our region to help declining bird populations through research, restoration, and education. In accordance with our recent practice, this will be a Zoom meeting online, starting at 7:00 PM, giving access time to log on. The business meeting will begin at 7:30 PM, and Luke's presentation will start at 8:00 PM. Details on joining the meeting (Zoom passcodes and other instructions) will be supplied.

Dave next introduced the evening's speaker. Pennsylvania's own Mark Bonta, a birder, geographer, conservationist, and wildlife tour leader. Mark is known worldwide for his pioneering research in many fields. His roots are on a mountaintop in central Pennsylvania, and he has traversed more than 40 countries on 6 continents. Mark has also aided conservation efforts in the Philippines, Australia, Honduras, Mexico, and the U.S. In addition, he leads nature tours to many areas around the world.

Mark Bonta
Mark Bonta
with Australian camel
Mark presented a controversial and amazing story, which begins in Australia's tropical north. For a very long time, Black Kites, Whistling Kites, and Brown Falcons have taken advantage of the fact that Australia's typical grassland wildfires send small rodent and insect prey scattering. Burning tropical savannas attract fire-foraging birds that prey on vertebrates and invertebrates fleeing flames and smoke, as well as on the remains of animals killed by fires. Mark claims that, in what he calls an amazing example of evolutionary education, these raptors purportedly snatch burning sticks in their talons and beaks from these grassland fires, and carry them away, dropping the sticks onto other dry grasslands (as far as a mile away) to create more wildfires - and more easy meals. His research claims that birds may also grab burning sticks from human cooking fires in addition to burning or smoldering vegetation. The reputed intent of these raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations - for example, the far side of a watercourse, road, or artificial break created by firefighters - to flush out prey via flames or smoke. Though research has not yet found unequivocal accounts of fire-spreading outside Australia, this behavior could possibly occur globally in other tropical savanna regions as well.

Bonta prefaced his presentation with a disclaimer, stating that he did not have confirmed video or photographs of any of the raptors in question actually carrying burning sticks or embers; nor did he himself in fact see this behavior. The conclusions reached in his Journal of Ethnobiology paper are primarily based on the accounts of non-Aboriginal Australians, including Bob White, Nathan Ferguson, and Dick Eussen.

He began his talk with two videos: the first depicted mostly Black Kites swarming around a burning grassfire, seeking and catching small insects and rodents fleeing the flames; the second, showing much of the same footage as the first, was from an Australian media outlet, which rather sensationally edited the footage and added voiceovers which claimed that raptors were definitely responsible for extending and starting new fires, even though there has been absolutely no photographic or video evidence of the behavior. Mark explained that the second video is an example of what can happen when control of the narrative is lost to sensationalizing media outlets.

Methodologically, Bonta worked with fire fighters and several Australian Aboriginal groups who start fires intentionally as a means of reducing biomass and underbrush, which ultimately controls wildfires. He employed descriptive ethno-ornithological methods to understand the basic parameters of fire-spreading, as reported in the literature and by credible witnesses that he interviewed. He searched published and unpublished literature from a variety of popular and scholarly anthropological, ornithological, and ethno-ornithological sources for reports of interactions between people, birds, and fire in tropical savannas in general and, specifically, of alleged fire-spreading behavior by raptors in northern Australia and elsewhere.

The story of the so-called "fire hawks" is widely prevalent in Aboriginal folk knowledge and tales passed down through the generations, but modern Australian ranchers also claim to have witnessed the practice. For many centuries, Aboriginal fables have related how raptors raid campfires and brushfires, grabbing burning sticks to light new fires. This purported behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely retold by local people in the Northern Territory, where Bonta carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017. One of the goals of Bonta's research was to determine the veracity and credibility of this folk tradition. Another goal was to explore the possible tool-using ability of these raptors, and to study the evolutionary process which could result in the development of such a practice. Mark's talk developed these twin themes.

One key finding was that further research is needed, and this rumored fire-starting-by-birds phenomenon is very poorly studied. The vastness of the area, the inhospitable environment, the language barrier (Aboriginal languages are devilishly difficult), and the expense involved in traveling to the far remote stretches of the Australian bush are formidable obstacles to furthering this project.

Ultimately Bonta surmised that, through ethno-ornithological workshops and controlled field experiments with land managers, further research may establish avian fire-spreading as an important factor in fire management and fire ecology. What's more, Mark believes that, in a broader sense, better understanding of putative avian fire-spreading, both in Australia and, potentially, elsewhere, can contribute to theories about the evolution of tropical savannas and the origins of human fire use.

After the talk, Mark took several questions.

Sheree thanked Mark for his presentation. She wished everyone well, cautioned us to stay safe, and adjourned the meeting.

— prepared by Frank Moone on 6-9-2021

Image Gallery

Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!

© Photo Credits:
Sherron Lynch, Tom Moeller, Brian Shema, and Chuck Tague