Jun 22 2017

Poison Hemlock

Published by under Plants

Poison hemlock flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Poison hemlock flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking of poisons as I did yesterday, here’s a poisonous plant that’s probably growing in your neighborhood.  In late June it’s five to eight feet tall.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is an invasive weed made famous for killing Socrates.  Arrested and condemned to death, Socrates had to drink hemlock infusion as the capital punishment of ancient Greece. If you’re curious about what happened next, click here.

How do you know if it’s in your neighborhood?  Look for a member of the carrot/parsley family that has purple splotches on its stems, as shown below.

Purple-splotched poison hemlock stem (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Poison hemlock stem (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out more in this vintage article from June 2011:

It’s Best to Know What You’re Dealing With

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 21 2017

Surprisingly Poisonous

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that your fingers will go numb or burn if you handle this bird?  You’ll be lucky that’s all that happens.  This bird is poisonous!

Though it superficially resembles our orchard oriole the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is an Old World oriole that lives on the islands of New Guinea. Its skin and feathers are poisonous to touch though not as deadly as the golden poison frog of South America shown below.  Both animals exude batrachotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin that kills by paralysis and cardiac arrest.  The frog is 50 times more poisonous than the bird.  He contains enough poison to kill 10 men!

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

These animals are poisonous because they eat poisonous insects and yet they don’t die!

Fascinated?

I learned this and more at The Power of Poison exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The exhibit explores our relationships with poison in nature including how we avoid it, work around it, use it to kill or use it to cure.  Throughout it all we are fascinated by its power.  Here are a few of the cool things you’ll see:

  • A terrarium with live golden poison frogs!  (Find out why these particular frogs are harmless.)
  • Foods we eat that are/were partly poisonous. How about cashews?
  • The real poisons behind famous literary scenes in Macbeth‘s witches’ brew, Alice in Wonderland‘s Mad Hatter, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
  • What killed the Borgias’ enemies? Cleopatra? Ponce de Leon?
  • Poisons that cure cancer and treat high blood pressure.

In the end you’ll get to test your skills with solve-it-yourself poison mysteries.

Visit the Carnegie Museum’s The Power of Poison exhibit, now through September 4, and find out what’s surprisingly poisonous.

Make plans for your visit here.

 

p.s. By the way, poisons in nature aren’t that unusual.  We have poisonous blister beetles, jimsonweed and poison ivy in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

(photo credits: bird and frog photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
‘Poisons in Nature’ banner from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
)

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Jun 20 2017

My Heavens! We Have Fish

Panther Hollow Lake at Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

During Phipps Conservatory’s Schenley Park BioBlitz on 11 June 2017, scientists tallied as many species of plants and animals as they could find in only a few hours.  One place they looked was in the concrete-edged pond called Panther Hollow Lake.  And they found fish!

I’m excited by this discovery because Panther Hollow Lake has a host of challenges including low stream flow, storm water inundation and deep sediment (13 feet of sediment under 2 feet of water!).  In hot weather mucky algae floats on the surface and the lake stinks.  This will all be corrected as part of the Four Mile Run Watershed Restoration Project but in the meantime, yuk!

Despite these problems, four species of fish were found during the BioBlitz. They are:

* Blue gill (Lepomis macrochirus), a game fish native to eastern North America but introduced around the world.

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus), a small fish native to eastern North America.

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis), a native catfish that tolerates pollution.

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Goldfish (Carassius auratus), native to east Asia and commonly kept as a pet.

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Truth be told, participants at my last Schenley Park outing pointed out a goldfish in the pond.  It was orange and white and huge!  I can guess where it came from.  Years ago someone said, “We can’t keep this fish at home anymore.  Let’s release it in the lake.”

Click the link to check out all the species found in Schenley Park during the Phipps 2017 BioBlitz.

 

(photo of Panther Hollow Lake by Kate St. John.  All fish photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 19 2017

Fool Me Once …

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Raven in Akureyri (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Raven in Akureyri (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

A recent study has found that ravens understand this principle as much as we do.  When a human cheats a raven, the bird remembers the experience and refuses to deal with that person in the future.

Common ravens (Corvus corax) are one of the smartest birds on earth. Not only can they solve puzzles, find long cached food, and remember their own complex social structures, but they recognize our faces and understand reciprocity with humans.

To test the ravens’ memory of fair play, researchers worked with ravens in an aviary in Austria. The goal was two-fold: (1) Can ravens remember who acted cooperatively or defectively in a single session? and (2) Can ravens who observe an interaction but have no first-hand experience remember who’s who and act accordingly?

Before the experiment began the ravens learned to offer bread to a human and receive cheese in return. They love cheese.

The experiment involved one-on-one interactions with women the birds had never met before.  A woman faced the raven and held out an empty hand to receive bread while displaying a piece of cheese in her other hand.  A “fair” experimenter received the bread, then gave the cheese to the raven.  A “deceiver” received the bread but ate the cheese herself.

Cheated ravens were outraged!  Every one of them vocalized and hopped around, then ate or hid his remaining bread so the cheater couldn’t get to it.

A month later the same experimenters tried the exchange again.  The ravens remembered the people who cheated them and refused to deal with them.

Did ravens who observed the cheating behavior avoid the deceivers?  Not really, but this doesn’t mean they were stupid. We humans do it, too. “She cheated him but she won’t cheat me.” Hah!

So it comes down to personal experience:  Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

For a quick summary of the study see this article in Science Magazine, or read the complete study at Science Direct.

 

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

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Jun 18 2017

Today’s Outing at Nine Mile Run Trail

Published by under Books & Events

Some of the 27 participants in this morning's outing at Nine Mile Run Trail, 18 Jun 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Some of the 27 participants in this morning’s outing at Nine Mile Run Trail, 18 Jun 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

This morning was hot and sunny as 27(!) of us walked the south end of the Nine Mile Run Trail in Frick Park.

My outing description last Monday promised orchard orioles and hoped for willow flycatchers.  The orchard orioles cooperated but the willow flycatchers were missing.

However we saw 26 species and had good looks at indigo buntings, yellow warblers, cedar waxwings, red-tailed hawks and the ever-famous orchard orioles.

We also saw purple nodding thistles, clouded sulfur butterflies and the larval stage of brown marmorated sinkbugs, shown below.

Larvae of brown marmorated stink bugs, 18 June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Larvae of brown marmorated stink bugs, 18 June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Steve Valasek for posting our sightings in eBird.  Thank you, Steve, for keeping the list:
Duck Hollow
Jun 18, 2017, 8:26 AM
Traveling 0.36 miles, 118 minutes
All birds reported? Yes.
30 Canada Goose
6 Mallard
5 Turkey Vulture
2 Cooper’s Hawk – flyover
3 Red-tailed Hawk – flyover
7 Mourning Dove
3 Chimney Swift
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1 Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)
2 Red-eyed Vireo
8 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
2 Carolina Wren
5 American Robin
1 Gray Catbird
2 Northern Mockingbird
1 Cedar Waxwing
5 Yellow Warbler
4 Song Sparrow
1 Northern Cardinal
3 Indigo Bunting
5 Red-winged Blackbird
5 Common Grackle
1 Brown-headed Cowbird
7 Orchard Oriole
1 Baltimore Oriole
3 American Goldfinch

Number of Taxa: 26

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jun 18 2017

Young Eagle Is Flying at Hays

Published by under Birds of Prey

H7 takes flight at Hays, PA (photo by Annette Devinney)

H7 takes flight at Hays, PA (photo by Annette Devinney)

Last week was First Fledge Week for the young bald eagle at Hays.  Annette Devinney captured the action in pictures.

When was H7’s first flight? No one knows for sure. Wendy (Eaglestreamer) told me the bird was still branching in the nest tree on Monday evening but wasn’t there at all on Tuesday morning June 13.  He/she(*) was found later on another tree so she(*) must have fledged … but no one saw it.

Landing is harder than it looks; H7 on the vines (photo by Annette Devinney)

Landing sites are hard to choose; H7 on the vines (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

Since then there have been daily opportunities to watch what looks like H7’s first flight.  Eagles are much larger and heavier than peregrines so it takes them longer to become agile at flapping and landing — especially landing.

H7 is still learning that small branches can’t support her weight.  Sometimes she lands on a snag or a stable mound of leaves (above) but other landings are embarrassing as she slowly drops from tiny branch to tiny branch and disappears from sight.  Click on the screenshot below to see a video of one such landing.  Annette’s husband Gerry, who took the video, says H7 wasn’t hurt at all.

H7 flies well but lands poorly (screenshot of Gerry Devinney video)

H7 flies well but lands poorly (screenshot of Gerry Devinney video)

 

As we’ve learned with peregrines, the adults show us where their fledgling is.  The eagle parents carry fish back and forth near the young bird and ostentatiously eat within H7’s line of sight as if to say, “Come on up here and you’ll get some.”

Mother bald eagle carries a fish, apparently to entice H7 (photo by Annette Devinney)

Mother bald eagle carries a fish, apparently to entice H7 (photo by Annette Devinney)

 

And when H7 drops out of sight during an awkward landing the adults look below.  Annette’s caption is priceless!  “I told you not to land on the flimsy ones.”

"I told you not to land on the flimsy ones" 6-15-2017 (photo by Annette Devinney)

“I told you not to land on the flimsy ones” 6-15-2017 (photo and caption by Annette Devinney)

 

Come on down to the Hays Bald Eagle Viewing Area on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail to watch the action.  Perhaps you’ll see Annette, Gerry and Wendy there.

Click here for directions.

 

(photos by Annette Devinney, linked video by Gerry Devinney)

(*) p.s.  We don’t know yet if H7 is male or female but it’s awkward to read “he/she” and “him/her” throughout the text so I’ve simplified by using the female pronoun.  Bald eagles are like great battleships compared to peregrines as fighter jets.  Since ships use the female pronoun I am using “she” for H7.

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Jun 17 2017

Unhappy Friday: Peregrine Window Kill

Published by under Peregrines

Juvenile Pitt peregrine, 09/AP, in happier days (photo by Peter Bell)

Juvenile Pitt peregrine, 09/AP, in happier days (photo by Peter Bell)

On Friday morning, 16 June 2017, this young male peregrine from the Cathedral of Learning flew head first into a window at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) on Fifth Avenue. He died instantly.

Banded black/green 09/AP, he was the adventurer among this year’s three chicks.  He flew faster, tried more stunts, and chased his parents more than his sisters do.  But, like all birds, he didn’t realize that the reflection of the sky in a window is not the sky.  He never got a second chance to learn.

When he was found dead at SEI’s front door, someone called the Pennsylvania Game Commission. WCO Kline recovered the bird’s body and took this picture of the location where he was found.  There’s a bird-strike smudge on the top right pane in the vault above the front door.

SEI front door vault where 09/AP died (photo by WCO Kline, PA Game Commission)

SEI front door vault where 09/AP died (photo by WCO Kline, PA Game Commission)

From the ground the top right window doesn’t look like the sky, does it?  At a higher elevation the windowpane reflects the sky.  The strike mark’s background is blue.

Front door vault at SEI with peregrine smudge on sky-background of top right glass (photo by Kate St. John)

Front door vault at SEI with peregrine smudge on sky-background of top right glass (photo by Kate St. John)

And here it has a dark reflected background so you can see it.

Feather dust at 09/AP's impact location (photo by Kate St. John)

Feather dust at 09/AP’s impact location (photo by Kate St. John)

 

These photos show why the building fools birds. On every side it looks like open rectangles to the sky.  In 2011, two of Pitt’s young peregrines hit the building on the Henry Street side. One died, one survived.

West wall of SEI, Dithridge Street (photo by Kate St. John)

West wall of Software Engineering Institute, Dithridge Street (photo by Kate St. John)

Front arch of Software Engineering Institute, Fifth Avenue (photo by Kate St. John)

Front arch of Software Engineering Institute, Fifth Avenue (photo by Kate St. John)

Back of Software Engineering Institute, Henry Street (photo by Kate St. John)

Back of Software Engineering Institute, Henry Street (photo by Kate St. John)

 

But this building is not unique.  Over the years young peregrines from the Cathedral of Learning have hit windows at other buildings near Fifth and Craig, died in a chimney (which has since been covered), and been hit by a vehicle.  Unfortunately peregrine mortality is 62.5% in the first year of life.

Meanwhile, windows kill one billion birds every year in the U.S.  You can help mitigate this problem by volunteering in many ways:

  • In many U.S. cities & Canada:  Volunteer with a group that rescues window-stunned birds and tracks window kills. In our area contact BirdSafe Pittsburgh (or their Facebook page).
  • If you know architects and developers, learn about bird-safe glass and urge them to use it.
  • If you have influence with LEED certification of “green” buildings, urge LEED to formally add bird-safe glass to the certification requirements (it’s in the pilot phase now).  Then urge developers to use LEED.
  • Prevent window strikes at home by treating your own windows so they don’t fool birds.

 

(photo of 09/AP by Peter Bell. photo of SEI front door area by WCO Kline; photos of SEI building by Kate St. John)

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Jun 16 2017

The Most Beautiful Song on Earth

I used to think that the wood thrush had the best song of all North American birds until I stood on a trail in north central Michigan this week surrounded by singing hermit thrushes.  What a privilege to hear them!

If you’ve never experienced their ethereal song, don’t put off the experience for two decades as I did. Hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) nest on the ground in coniferous or mixed northern forests.  As our climate warms their preferred habitat will be disappear from the eastern U.S.  By 2050 their eastern breeding range will move north into Canada at Hudson Bay.

Listen now to the most beautiful song on earth.

 

(video of a hermit thrush in Maine by Wild Bird Videos by McElroy Productions on YouTube)

8 responses so far

Jun 15 2017

Fireflies!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

Most of the year I forget they exist and then one evening in early June I’m surprised by joy.  The fireflies are back!  It doesn’t matter how old I get.  I’m always excited to see them.

I love their yellow-green lights, their hard-to-track flight paths, and the way they raise their wing covers and pause … just before they fly.

 

Did you know that their Photuris pensylvanica species is the Pennsylvania State Insect?  Read more in this vintage article from 2011:

The Lightning Bugs Are Back

 

(photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org; Video from Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 14 2017

Nightshade in the Garden

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Anne Marie Bosnyak sent me a photo, below, of a plant that popped up in her garden.

It has purple flowers and tomato-like fruit. It’s obviously growing in the wrong place.  Is it a weed?

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Well, yes.

It’s bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a perennial from Eurasia that’s considered invasive in Pennsylvania.

Did you know it’s related to potatoes?  Don’t eat it!  Read on.

Not Tomatoes!

 

(flower photo by Chuck Tague, plant photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

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