Oct 20 2016

Anniversary of The Fox

Published by under Mammals

Red fox crossing a street in Portugal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red fox in Denver neighborhood (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In autumn young animals leave their birthplace to find a home of their own.  Sometimes they wander into dangerous places — roads, for instance — and sometimes they surprise us.

Seven years ago this month a red fox wandered into my Pittsburgh city neighborhood and spent a couple of weeks in the block near my house.  Our first hint of her presence was the sound of her voice.

On this Anniversary of The Fox, read more about her visit at:

Mystery Solved


p.s. I’m only guessing she was female.  There’s no way to know.

(photo of a fox crossing a street in Denver, Colorado from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 19 2016

Prevent Lyme Disease In Your Own Backyard

White-footed mouse raiding the peanut feeder at night (photo by Rob Ireton, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

White-footed mouse raiding a backyard peanut feeder at night (photo by Rob Ireton, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

If you live in a Lyme disease area and feed the birds, you might get Lyme disease in your own backyard.  Here’s what makes that possible and how you can make your yard safe.

When you provide food for birds, a lot of other animals eat that food as well.  Squirrels and chipmunks eat during the day.  The mice come at night, especially white-footed mice pictured above at a peanut feeder.

Animals live close to their food sources so they live in your backyard or even your house. Here’s a favorite mouse and chipmunk home — the nooks and crannies of stone walls.

Stone wall (located in Vermont, photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Stone wall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


The abundance of birds and rodents in your yard attracts predators: hawks, owls, cats and even ticks. You’ll see the big predators but you might not notice the tiny ones.  Adult black-footed ticks are very hungry in October and November so watch out.

Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Birdseed –> mice –> ticks –>  Here’s the Lyme disease connection:  White-footed mice are reservoirs for Lyme disease so the black-footed ticks that feed on your backyard mice may be infected.

What to do?

It’s impossible to get rid of all the mice — even if you stop feeding the birds — but you can get rid of ticks, and that’s what counts in this battle against Lyme disease.

The mice will help you do it.  Mice like soft fluffy bedding in their nests and will carry it into their secret hiding places.  If you give them anti-tick bedding it kills the ticks on them and in their nests.

This ingenious defense is described here at TickEncounter.org.  In their photo below, a mouse is gathering anti-tick bedding — permethrin-sprayed cottonballs — from the blue-green tube.

White-footed mouse with anti-tick tube and cottonball bedding (photo from tickencounter.org)

White-footed mouse with anti-tick tube and cottonball bedding (photo from tickencounter.org)

You can make your own tubes (cottonballs, paper tubes, Permethrin) or buy them complete with instructions at ticktubes.com.  Be sure to read about this technique at Tick Encounter before you begin.  And then …

No more ticks!


p.s. You’ll see at Tick Encounter that July and August are the optimal time for setting out Tick Tubes.  Sorry my timing is off.

p.s. Be sure to read the comments about Permethrin hazards. It is very bad for pets!

(photo credits: Click on the images to see the originals in context
White-footed mouse at night by Rob Ireton, Creative Commons license on Flickr,
Stone wall photo from Wikimedia Commons,
Chart of black-legged tick life stages from Wikimedia Commons,
White-footed mouse with anti-tick tube and cottonball bedding from tickencounter.org

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Oct 18 2016

What Eats Stink Bugs?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Stinkbug on a leaf in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinkbug on a leaf in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s warm today but as soon as it turns cold brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) will try to squeeze into every crack in our buildings.  They’re everywhere.  What can we do?

Ever since these Asian bugs first appeared in North America (in Allentown, PA in 1998) we’ve wondered how to control them.  They destroy crops, especially fruits and tomatoes, so USDA has been studying them for a while.  Do our native species eat them or must we import a stink bug predator from Asia?

To tease out the answer, researchers at USDA-ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia placed stink bug egg masses near potential predators and documented what happened.

Brown marmorated stink bug eggs (photo by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org)

Brown marmorated stink bug eggs (photo by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org)

Some of the egg masses disappeared.  It turns out that katydids eat the eggs completely, shell and all!

Katydid, Microcentrum species (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Katydid, Microcentrum species (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other egg predators include crickets, ground beetles, earwigs and jumping spiders.

Jumping spiders pick up the entire egg mass, flip it over and suck out the eggs’ contents from the underside. (This is a “daring jumping spider” … cool name, eh?)

Daring jumping spider (photo by Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org)

Daring jumping spider, Phidippus audax (photo by Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org)

Moral of the story:  If you don’t use pesticides, native insects and spiders will do the work for you.  Goodbye, stink bugs!

Read more about the study and watch the videos here in Entomology Today.


(photo credits:
Stink bug on leaf by Kate St. John
Stink bug eggs by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org
Katydid, Microcentrum species from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
Daring jumping spider photo by Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

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Oct 17 2016

The Bridge Moves

Published by under Musings & News

Rainbow Bridge, Utah (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Rainbow Bridge, Utah (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah is a bridge of solid rock carved by water during the last ice age.  At 290 feet tall it’s one of the highest natural bridges in the world and held sacred by Native Americans in the region. But it doesn’t stand still. Like all structures it moves in response to vibration.

Last year the University of Utah obtained permission to measure resonance at the Rainbow Bridge.  Their report, published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the bridge is affected by both natural and human activity.  Wind can make it hum. Waves from man-made Lake Powell on the Colorado River, only a mile away, make it sway a little.  During two days of measurements the bridge felt three earthquakes, one of which was a man-made earthquake in Oklahoma.

The report includes this video of the Bridge’s eight modes of resonance.  The animation is exaggerated so you can see the movements.  “Mode 7” at the 0:23 mark looks positively scary!


Read about how the Rainbow Bridge moves at Resonance in Rainbow Bridge: University of Utah study listens to the natural bridge vibrate and sing.


And speaking of scary bridge movements …

Man-made bridges are engineered to move just a little in response to wind and other forces, but they mustn’t move too much or they break.  In a spectacular case of poor design the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built to withstand 120 mph winds, collapsed on 7 Nov 1940 in a 40 mph wind only four months after it opened.  The cause was attributed to resonance, though more recently to aeroelastic flutter.  Watch the bridge collapse below. Read the whole story here.


(photo credits:
Rainbow Bridge from Wikimedia Commons, click on the image to see the original.
video of Rainbow Bridge from University of Utah
Video of Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse by Barney Elliot, 7 Nov 1940 via Wikimedia Commons

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Oct 16 2016

This Morning’s Outing in Schenley Park

Participants in Schenley Park outing on 16 October 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Participants in Schenley Park outing on 16 October 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning it was jacket weather with lots of dew (wet shoes!) as 14 of us gathered at the Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park.

We found plenty of birds — at least in terms of individuals.  Not only were there many blue jays and robins but midway through the walk several hundred common grackles showed up to snatch the bread cubes scattered beneath the oaks near Bartlett Shelter.

A low-swooping red-tailed hawk kept the chipmunks and jays on their toes and a flock of cedar waxwings stopped in to eat porcelain berries.

Best Bird: Blackpoll warbler.   Fall blackpoll and bay-breasted warblers have many of the same field marks — warbler size, thin warbler beak, wing bars, yellow wash on throat, faint eyeline, olive back with subtle stripes, faint stripes on chest — but blackpolls have orange feet and sometimes orange legs, too.  This one was immature with black legs and and orange feet. Click here and scroll down to see an immature blackpoll up close.

Best mammal: We saw a very plump raccoon climb a tall tree and finally insert itself into a hollow space at the top.  “Insert” is a good description.  The raccoon was so plump that it took a while for him to ooze into the crack and disappear.  Perhaps he exhaled to make himself thin.

Here’s the complete list of birds.  (You’ll notice that I didn’t count most of them — too hard to both to count and lead.)


(photo by Kate St.John)

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Oct 16 2016

Birding, Botany and Outdoor Fun

Published by under Books & Events

Indian cucumber in October (photo by Kate St. John)

Indian cucumber in October (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a great time to get outdoors before the weather changes.  Here are just a few of the many things to do — including indoor and outdoor fun.

Oct 16, Tonight:  Full Moon Hike, two locations: Boyce Park and Harrison Hills Park, 8-10p.  Free.  Hike by the light of the moon, led by Allegheny County Park Rangers.  Click here for more information.

Oct 22: Acorn Harvesting and Processing Class, at North Park, 1:00p-4:30p.  Cost=$45.  Learn about acorns and how to make acorn flour. Registration + fee required:  Acorn Harvesting And Processing Class & Autumn Foraging Walk

Oct 12 – Dec 3Project Owlnet banding northern saw-whet owls, at Sewickley Heights Park, Wed,Fri,Sat; Oct 12 to Dec 3, sunset to midnight.  Free.  Be sure to read the details here.  Weather is a factor!

Oct 27:  The Great Texas Birding Trail, Rio Grande Valley presented by Jeffrey Hall, at Wissahickon Nature Club, 7:30p.  Free.  The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas teems with unique birds.  Program here.  Location here.  Arrive early to share coffee and snacks.

Oct 30: Annual Outing and Picnic of Three Rivers Birding Club, Moraine State Park, 8:00am. Free. Bring a lunch.  Late October is a good time to see ducks and sparrows.  Details here.

Nov 4-6: Wings and Wildlife Art Show, at National Aviary.  Cost=Aviary Admission; free to members. 34 wildlife artists from five states exhibiting and selling their art. Click here for more information.

Nov 5:  Joint Outing of Three Rivers Birding Club and Todd Bird Club, at Yellow Creek State Park, 8:00a.  Free.  Yellow Creek’s large lake attracts waterbirds and occasional rarities. Details here.

Nov 5-6: Hawk Mountain Outing with PSO (Penna. Society of Ornithology), at Hawk Mountain, Kempton, PA.  Free. Watch hawks migrating at one of the best sites in eastern North America.  Details here.

Nov 10:  Gardens Around the Globe presented by Judy Stark, at Wissahickon Nature Club, 7:30p.  Free. Special features of five gardens: Longwood (PA), Stan Hywet (OH), VanDusen (Vancouver,BC), National Botanic Garden (HI) and Powerscourt (Ireland). Program here.  Location here.  Arrive early to share coffee and snacks.

Nov 18-19, Sign Up Now: Pennsylvania Botany Symposium, at Penn Stater Conference Center, State College, PA. Registration required + cost starts at $100.  Brings together amateurs, academics, and those interested in the natural world to share our work and celebrate our botanical heritage. All invited speakers are experts with reputations for being engaging and entertaining. Click here for pricing and registration.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 15 2016

What To Look For In October

Published by under Phenology

Fall foliage (photo by Chuck Tague)

Fall foliage (photo by Chuck Tague)

Autumn is here though the temperature may fool you.  After near-frost last Thursday we’ll reach 81oF next week.

Despite the fluctuating temperatures, plants and animals are getting ready for winter.  What will we see outdoors in the weeks ahead?  Here’s a list from Chuck Tague’s phenology for the month of October.

  • Fall foliage will peak from north to south and from the mountains to the lowlands.  Color hasn’t reached its peak in Pittsburgh yet.
  • Blue skies and pretty sunsets, but shorter days as we lose 3 minutes of daylight each day. Daylight Savings Time ends at 2:00am on Sunday November 6.
  • Sounds: Listen for blue jays, chipmunks and the last of the crickets.
  • Flowers: Asters! and smartweeds, chicory, spotted knapweed, and white snakeroot.
  • Fruits, nuts, berries, acorns and “hitchhiker” seeds are everywhere.
  • Migrating songbirds:  The first dark-eyed juncoes, purple finches and golden-crowned kinglets arrived in my neighborhood last week.  We’ll also see yellow-rumped warblers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, blackbirds, grackles, brown creepers and lots of sparrows including song, chipping and white-throated.
  • Watch for these uncommon migrants:  Lincoln’s sparrows and rufous hummingbirds.
  • Hawks: October is the month for sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels and red-tailed hawks.  Golden eagles begin their peak at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in late October.  The Front’s highest-ever golden eagle count was last year: 74 on October 24, 2015.
  • Ducks and cormorants are moving south.  Last Sunday at Pymatuning the Three Rivers Birding Club outing found mallards, American wigeons, wood ducks, blue and green-winged teals, northern shovelers, gadwalls, ruddy ducks and ring-necked ducks.  The lakes aren’t freezing so the ducks are taking their time getting here.
  • Owls:  Short-eared owls and northern saw-whets are on the move to their wintering sites.  Eastern screech-owls and great horned owls stay home to claim their territories.
  • Rodents are stocking up on food: Squirrels are burying it, mice and chipmunks are stashing it, and groundhogs are eating it.
  • The white-tailed deer rut has begun and so have various hunting seasons.  Wear blaze orange and stay safe.

For more of Chuck Tague’s beautiful photos and his description of October’s wonders see his 2011 blog at: Asters, Wooly Bears and Sweaters: a Phenological perspective for October

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 14 2016

Why Do Peregrines Like Bridges?

Hope (69/Z) at the Tarentum Bridge, July 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hope (69/Z) at the Tarentum Bridge, July 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)


Out in the wilderness, peregrine falcons nest on sheer cliffs.  Pittsburgh doesn’t have those cliffs but we do have nesting peregrines at two sites on buildings and five on bridges.

It’s easy to see that a tall building resembles a cliff …

Cathedral of Learning (photo by Kate St. John)

… but bridges are open structures without sheer walls.
Tarentum Bridge nestbox project, The Bucket Truck, 27 Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Why do peregrines like bridges?

I found the answer in a blog post from The Center for Conservation Biology.  CCB monitors peregrines in Virginia where many falcons prefer bridges at the coast.

As you read the article linked below, watch for a photo of the Benjamin Harrison Lift Bridge where Hope (black/green, 69/Z) pictured above, was banded. She has nested at both kinds of sites in Pittsburgh:  six years at the Tarentum Bridge and now at a building, the Cathedral of Learning.


Peregrines and Bridges


p.s. The article explains that peregrine nestlings from the Lift Bridge are hacked in the Shenandoah Mountains. Hope was one of those birds.

(photo credits:
Hope at Tarentum by
Steve Gosser
Cathedral of Learning and Tarentum Bridge by Kate St. John
peregrine on nest by Bryan Watts linked from CCB blog

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Oct 13 2016

Chipmunks Are Packing It In

Published by under Mammals

Chipmunk with food in his cheeks (photo by Chuck Tague)

Chipmunk with food in his cheeks (photo by Chuck Tague)

If you haven’t seen a chipmunk all summer, I guarantee you’ll see one now.

The “chippies” are very busy getting ready for winter, running to and fro with their cheeks stuffed with food.  This vintage article from 2009 explains why they’re …

Packing It In


(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 12 2016

As High As A Jet

Published by under Bird Anatomy

View from a jet crossing the Himalayas (photo by David Jones)

View from a jet crossing the Himalayas (photo by David C. Jones, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Jet airplanes cruise at 30,000 to 40,000 feet.  Did you know that birds can fly at the low end of that range?

Birds’ respiratory systems are so efficient that they can pull oxygen out of very thin air.  We know this because they migrate over the Himalayas.

Common cranes (Grus grus) are widespread across Europe and Asia, nesting from Norway to Siberia and wintering from Africa to southern China.  Those that nest in eastern Kazakhstan and northwestern China fly over the Himalayas to spend the winter in India.  They’ve been clocked at 33,000 feet!

Common cranes in flight (photo by Ján Svetlík)

Common cranes in flight (photo by Ján Svetlík, Creative Commons license via Flickr)


Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) nest in the Tibetan highlands and spend the winter in the lowlands of India. The shortest route from Tibet to the sea is to fly directly over the Himalayas, and so they do.  They’ve been recorded at 29,600 feet and seen flying over Mount Everest!  This video shows how they do it.


And even mallards, the ubiquitous ducks that eat bread at the boat launch, were seen migrating at 21,000 feet over Nevada.


Birds don’t need oxygen masks at those high altitudes.  They just fly by.


(photo credits: All photos are Creative Commons licensed via Flickr. Click on each image to see its original:
View from a jet over the Himalayas by David C. Jones on Flickr
Common cranes in flight by Ján Svetlík on Flickr
Mallards in flight by Ken Slade on Flickr
Video from FantasticAnimal on YouTube

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