Jul 22 2017

Fairy Candles

Published by under Plants

Close up of black cohosh flowers, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Close up of black cohosh flowers, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In July you’ll see white “fairy candles” blooming in the woods.  They’re the flowers of black cohosh, raising their spindly stems toward the light.

Black cohosh in bloom, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Black cohosh in bloom, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

These “fairy candles” are also called “black snakeroot” because the root is black.  Native Americans used the root to treat pre-menstrual symptoms, an herbal treatment that’s still in use today.

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, syn. Cimicifuga racemosa) looks a lot like mountain bugbane (also known as American bugbane, Actaea podocarpa) because the plants are related.  Mountain bugbane is endangered in Illinois and rare in Pennsylvania.  Get a whiff of the flowers to tell the diffrence:  Mountain bugbane smells good, black cohosh smells bad.

Unfortunately some people dig up both plants thereby killing them and making them harder to find in the wild.  Whether digging is legal depends on the rare/endangered status of the plant and who owns the land. It’s legally complicated but ethically simple: Removing shared beauty for private use leads to the Tragedy of the Commons.

 

p.s. U.S. Forest Service has a good article — here — about the legality and ethics of taking plants on Federal land.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 21 2017

Beautiful Finland

Published by under Travel

Early morning, 5:30am, Rikkavesi lake

Early morning, 5:30am, Rikkavesi lake

Two weeks ago my husband and I returned from a visit with friends in Finland.  Today I’ll share some of the beautiful scenery and tell you a bit about the country.

Finland is a Nordic country located between Scandinavia and Russia.  For centuries it was alternately ruled by its two powerful neighbors, Sweden and Russia.  This year Finland celebrates 100 years of independence, released by Russia in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Location of Finland (map from Wikipedia)

Location of Finland (map from Wikipedia)

Though it’s the eighth largest country in Europe, Finland is the most sparsely populated in the European Union.  One quarter of its 5.5 million people live in metro Helsinki with the rest spread out among towns and country, mostly in the south.

We stayed with our friends Erkki and Helena at their summer cottage on Lake Rikkavesi (very sparsely populated; located at blue arrow) and at their home in Joensuu, a town of 58,000.

The area where we stayed in Finland (population map of Finland from Wikipedia, annotated)

The area where we stayed in Finland, July 2017 (population map from Wikipedia, annotated)

Their summer cottage consists of three buildings — sleeping space, living space, and an outhouse.  It’s semi-rugged with electricity, a wood burning sauna (everyone has a sauna in Finland!), lake water for washing not drinking, and a composting toilet.  Middle of the night bathroom visits required walking outdoors, but no problem. It is never dark in July.

Most of my photos below were taken at Lake Rikkavesi (check the captions for more information).  For a full-screen view of the scenery, click here for the larger slideshow.

  • Coming to Kuopio: From the air an island with a crop of mustard seed
    Coming to Kuopio, 1 July 2017: From the air an island with a crop of mustard seed

 

Beautiful Finland. The land of 188,000 lakes.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 20 2017

Double Named

Published by under Musings & News

Red-footed booby, Sula sula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-footed booby, Sula sula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Some birds have scientific names that repeat themselves.

Read about this odd bird’s odd name in this vintage article from July 2010:

Double Names

 

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

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Jul 19 2017

The Same Bird Everywhere

Published by under Travel

Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)

During my recent trip to England and Finland I was happy to see lots of new Life Birds but was amazed at how many birds were the same at home and abroad.

Some are on both continents because they were introduced — rock pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, ring-necked pheasants and mute swans. But many in the duck, gull and tern families occur in both places because they flew there on their own. There are usually different subspecies on each continent(*) but in a few cases the exact same species is everywhere.

Here are four such birds, easily found in North America and Europe. There are no subspecies so if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

Above, I saw northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) in England where they’re simply called “shovelers.” I was amazed to learn they’re the same bird everywhere though I should have known. They breed across northern America and Eurasia.

 

Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) breed in northern America and Eurasia and travel far on migration (for a merganser). They spend the winter at both salt and fresh water so it’s no wonder they can change continents.

 

Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)

Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)

Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) are the largest tern on earth and found on every continent except Antarctica, though their distribution is scattered on coasts and in the interior. In western Pennsylvania they’re at Presque Isle in the spring.

 

Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame via Flickr Creative Commons license)

And finally, great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) are coastal and Great Lakes birds found on both sides of the North Atlantic. As the largest member of the gull family this bird is so powerful that it eats smaller gulls, even adults!

When you see a great black-backed gull at the beach this summer, consider this:  It’s the same bird everywhere.

 

(Great black-backed gull photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original. All other photos by Steve Gosser)

(*) p.s. A few examples of different subspecies between North America and Europe: green-winged teal, sandwich tern, barn swallow, barn owl, peregrine falcon.

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Jul 18 2017

Keep Eating!

Japanese beetle eating Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Japanese beetle eating Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month along the Panhandle Trail I paused to look at a wildflower near some Japanese knotweed when I noticed the knotweed was being eaten by Japanese beetles.  🙂

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) were introduced to North America by accident in the early 1900s and spread across the continent.  The adult beetles eat leaves, the larvae eat roots.  If you have roses, you’ve been battling Japanese beetles your entire life.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was introduced as a garden plant but is so aggressive that it chokes out native plants and even grows through asphalt.  As one of the world’s worst invasive species, it’s such a pest in Great Britain that as recently as five years ago you couldn’t get a mortgage if there was Japanese knotweed on the property. (That has since changed.)

Of course I was happy to see these two “Japanese” species together.  The beetles felt so at home on the knotweed that they were mating on it.

Japanese beetles mating on Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Japanese beetles mating on Japanese knotweed, Allegheny County, PA, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

My hope is that the female beetles will drop to the ground below the knotweed and lay their eggs.  When the eggs hatch the larvae will burrow underground and eat the roots of nearby plants.

Good.  Eat the knotweed roots.  Eat the leaves.  Go on, Japanese beetles.  Keep eating!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 17 2017

On Silent Wings

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I mentioned that seeing a barn owl in flight was the visual highlight of my trip to England.  Today I’ll give you a taste of what it was like to watch this beautiful bird.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) live around the world (see map) but declined 50-70% in parts of their range after World War II due to intensive farming practices, the conversion of farmland to housing, and the introduction of pesticides.  In the U.K. the population fell 70% by the 1980s.  In North America they’re now endangered in Vermont, Connecticut and the Midwest, including Ohio.

Because barn owls are so secretive and rare in the U.S. I had seen only one in the wild — and it was roosting.  I had never seen a barn owl fly.  What a thrill it was to see one hunting the tall grass near the River Wensum in England.

The short video below is similar to my experience, though not the same owl.

 

I know I wouldn’t have seen a barn owl in Britain if it weren’t for the decades-long efforts of local wildlife agencies and trusts working to restore this bird to the English countryside.  One such group is The Barn Owl Trust located in Devon near Dartmoor.  Since 1988 they’ve worked to conserve barn owls and educate the public about these beautiful birds.  Learn more in their video below.

 

Thanks to conservation efforts around the world, we’re still thrilled to see barn owls float by on silent wings.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flight sequence video from the BBO Wildlife Trust on YouTube. Video on the history of The Barn Owl Trust UK from YouTube)

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Jul 16 2017

Now Blooming

Published by under Plants

Turk's cap lily, Butler-Freeport Trail, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s cap lily, Butler-Freeport Trail, 15 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In western Pennsylvania there aren’t many flowers in June but things start to get exciting in July. Here’s what I’ve seen in the past week.

It’s lily time! The Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum), above, is blooming along the Butler-Freeport Trail. The Canada lily (Lilium canadense), below, was blooming in Raccoon Creek State Park on July 9.

Canada Lily, Raccoon Creek State Park, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Canada Lily, Raccoon Creek State Park, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) is also blooming everywhere.  This one was along Nichol Road at Raccoon.

Tall meadow rue, Raccoon Creek State Park, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tall meadow rue, Raccoon Creek State Park, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

And here’s a puzzle.  The photo is a nice “beauty shot” but doesn’t show enough of the flower for me to positively identify it. My best guess is woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus).  I wish I’d taken photos of the stem!

Woodland sunflower perhaps, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Woodland sunflower, perhaps, 9 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 15 2017

Catching Up With The Harmar Eagles

Published by under Birds of Prey

Juvenile bald eagle flies near the Harmar nest, July 2017 (photo by Annette Devinney)

Juvenile bald eagle flies near the Harmar nest in Allegheny County, PA, 9 July 2017 (photo by Annette Devinney)

While I was on vacation I lost track of local news.  Today I’m catching up with the Harmar bald eagles.

It’s been more than a week since the two young eagles from the Harmar nest made their first flight.  Annette Devinney and her husband Gerry captured photos and video last Sunday July 9.  The juvies are looking good!

 

I hope to have a look at them this weekend from the Harmar end of the Hulton Bridge if they’re still near the nest.

Meanwhile, read their happy news and see more of Annette’s photos in Mary Ann Thomas’s TribLive article from Monday July 10 (click here).

 

(photos by Annette Devinney, video from Gerry Devinney on Vimeo)

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Jul 14 2017

Only One Left

Published by under Peregrines

Juvenile female peregrine, 08/BR, at Heinz Chapel, 8 June 2017 (photo by Peter Bell)

Juvenile female peregrine, 08/BR, at Heinz Chapel, 8 June 2017 (photo by Peter Bell)

Yesterday I learned that this juvenile female peregrine, black green 08/BR, was found dead at Allegheny County Airport, apparently hit by a plane on Sunday July 9.

08/BR hatched at the Cathedral of Learning this year and left home to start her new life four weeks after she first learned to fly — right on time.  Just 6.3 miles away she found a big open space in which to hunt.  Alas, she didn’t know anything about airplanes.

The video below by Peter Bell shows her on 8 June 2017 at Heinz Chapel when she was new to flying.

 

Her death, and the death of her brother 09/AP, leaves only one surviving juvenile from the Cathedral of Learning 2017 nest.  With a 62.5% mortality rate in their first year of life this peregrine brood has now matched the statistics, unhappy as that is.

Meanwhile, as of today July 14, we can confirm that the remaining young female is fine.  She’s been seen and heard nearly every day in Oakland, begging from her parents in a very loud voice.  She’s due to leave home any day now.

 

(photo and video of Pitt fledgling, black/green 08/BR, by Peter Bell)

UPDATE 21 July 2017:  The young peregrine died at Allegheny County Airport, not Pittsburgh International.  Thanks to Ryan for providing the correct information in the comments.

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Jul 13 2017

The Dickcissels Came Back

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Dickcissel singing in western PA, 10 June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Dickcissel singing in western PA, June 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

While I was on vacation in Europe I missed the chance to report on an unusual bird in Pennsylvania this summer.

First seen in early June, dickcissels (Spiza americana) have now been reported in 14 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, north, south, east and west.

Their sudden appearance in the middle of the nesting season is a tribute to their peripatetic lives.  If nesting fails at their preferred location they’ll travel a thousand miles to find a better nesting site.

Perhaps they came to Pennsylvania this year because there’s a severe drought where they usually nest in the plains of North and South Dakota and Montana. Bob Mulvihill wrote about this correlation during the dickcissel invasion of 1988 (click here and scroll to page 6).

U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)

U.S. Drought Monitor map, 4 July 2017 (map from U.S. DroughtMonitor, UNL, USDA, NOAA)

 

In the summer of 2012 when there was a severe drought in the Midwest, dickcissels came back to Pennsylvania.  Read more about them in this vintage post from June 2012.

Dickcissels

 

(June 2017 photo by Anthony Bruno)

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