Beautyberries

Beautyberries in a garden, November 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Beautyberries in a garden, November 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

I'm very fond of the color purple so I was captivated by these stunning berries on a bush in someone's garden.  I'm not surprised that they're called beautyberries.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa) is a mostly-tropical plant native to Asia, Australia, Madagascar, and the Americas.  American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) ranges from Maryland to Florida so garden plants here in Pittsburgh could be native cultivars or imported.

Amazingly, American beautyberry contains four chemicals that can be used as mosquito repellent.  USDA has patented the use of one of them: callicarpenal.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

Happy Thanksgiving

How do you tell a wild turkey from a domestic one (ignoring the fact that they're in a pen)?

In my experience, wild turkeys walk away from you. Domestic turkeys walk toward you and they try to get as close as they can.

And then they make you laugh.  😉

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

(YouTube credits: Produced in Cooperation with NasenNews Location: Turkey Farm in the wonderful Odenwald, Germany)

Singing In November

Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)
Northern mockingbird (photo by Don Weiss)

This fall migrating mockingbirds came back to town to spend the winter.

Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) were a southern species that now nest as far north as southern Canada. In autumn the birds move south and some decide that Pittsburgh is as far as they need to go.  New arrivals immediately set up territory and warn off other mockingbirds by singing, "Mine, Mine, Mine."

The songs are pretty, and pretty confusing because mockingbirds mimic other species.  For instance, this Xeno Canto recording by Joshua Stevenson has an American robin sound at 0:11.  No it's not a robin.

When I walk around my neighborhood this month I hear 15 different songs but they come from only two locations.  Two mockingbirds are "dueling" from opposite sides of Magee Field, the only birds singing in November.

Read how mockingbirds create The Voice of a Crowd in this vintage article from 2010.

 

(photo by Don Weiss; audio Xeno Canto #XC170052 by Jonathan Stevenson)

The Best Snood Wins

Wild turkeys displaying (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Wild turkeys displaying (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Here's some trivia for Turkey Day.

Did you know you can determine a male turkey's health and his success with the ladies by the length of his snood?

What's a snood?

On humans it's a large-mesh hairnet worn by women, or ...

Women workers wearing snoods, 1942 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Women workers wearing snoods, 1942 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

... a beard snood worn by men.

Beard snood sold by Creeds, UK (image from Creeds UK)
Beard snood sold by Creeds, UK (image from Creeds UK)

But on turkeys the snood is the piece of flesh that dangles from the male turkey's forehead and droops over his beak.

Here's a Wikipedia diagram of the male turkey's anatomical ornaments:
1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (Dewlap), 4. Major caruncle, 5. Beard

Diagram of a turkey's head and chest ornaments (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Diagram of a turkey's head and chest ornaments (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The two wild turkeys at top are displaying to females.  Which one has the best snood?  I can't tell but the females can.  Click here to see how the ladies reacted.

 

(photo credits:  two wild turkeys by Cris Hamilton; women wearing snoods from Wikimedia Commons; man wearing a beard snood from sales page at Creeds UK; wild turkey diagram from Wikimedia Commons. click on the images to see the originals)

Watch Out! Deer Damage Ahead

Deer in Schenley Park, 22 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Deer in Schenley Park, 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nowadays I don't have to go far to see white-tailed deer in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The deer population in Schenley Park has grown by leaps and bounds since I first noticed them a decade ago.

When I don't see the animals, I see their evidence. In July, they eat so much jewelweed that it looks like the trail edges were weed-whacked.

Jewelweed eaten by deer in July, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)
Jewelweed eaten by deer in July, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)

In winter they eat shrubs like this arborvitae on Schenley Golf Course until there's no green near the ground.

Arborvitae eaten to the browse line, Schenley Park Golf Course (photo by Kate St. John)
Arborvitae eaten to the browse line, Schenley Park Golf Course (photo by Kate St. John)

And they eat small trees. More than a year ago they ate the leader shoot of this hackberry seedling.  The next year two branches sprouted to compensate and the deer ate those.  And on and on and on.  The tree grows old but never tall.

Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

These signs of deer damage indicate their over-population in Schenley Park but the scariest sign is the growing number of deer crossing the road.

Last week I saw an 8-point buck ambling across Greenfield Road while pedestrians stopped and stared.  He was majestic and he was lucky.  No cars were coming.

Last June a deer leapt over a guard rail in Indiana County and landed on the hood of Marcy Cunkelman's car.  She couldn't see it coming and she couldn't see to drive after it crumpled the hood. The deer didn't survive the accident but Marcy and her family were fortunate.  They were fine and the airbags didn't deploy.

Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)
Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)

That happened in June when deer are less distracted than they are in autumn.  This month there's a much higher chance of hitting a deer because they're on the move and they aren't paying attention.  It's mating season.

Pennsylvania is the #3 state for vehicle-deer insurance claims.  According to State Farm's annual report, there were more than 142,000 vehicle-deer collisions in Pennsylvania from June 2016 to June 2017.  On an annual basis we have a 1 in 63 chance of a hitting a deer but during mating season that likelihood more than doubles ... to maybe 1 in 30.  Yikes!

So stay alert!  Watch out for deer, especially at dusk.  Click here for State Farm's tips on what to do.   ... And good luck.

 

p.s.  Wear blaze orange if you're going into Pennsylvania's woods, especially during PA's deer (rifle) season, Monday Nov 27 through Dec 9, 2017. Click here for PGC details on antlered/antlerless dates and locations.

(deer and plant photos by Kate St. John. Car damage photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Could We Bring Them Back?

Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

A new DNA study of the passenger pigeon brings up an interesting question:  Could we bring the species back from extinction?

Genetic engineering now makes it possible to transfer genes across species boundaries.  Using these techniques a group named Revive and Restore is working to modify the genes of the passenger pigeon's closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), to make a new bird that resembles a passenger pigeon.

Band-tailed pigeon, Sonoma County, CA (photo by Ingrid Taylar on Wikimedia Commons)
Band-tailed pigeon, Sonoma County, CA (photo by Ingrid Taylar on Wikimedia Commons)

If successful, they'll release the new bird in the wild to repopulate eastern North America.

But a new study published this month in Science may throw a wrench in their plan.

Researchers gathered DNA from the toepads of passenger pigeon museum specimens and sequenced the full genomes of four birds.  In doing so they discovered that passenger pigeons were extremely diverse at the ends of their chromosomes but had low diversity in the middle.  Most animals, including the band-tailed pigeon, aren't like that.  Most animals are diverse all the way through.

This trait may indicate that the passenger pigeon in its final form had evolved to live in enormous flocks.

Ed Yong at The Atlantic interviewed the study's author, Beth Shapiro, and writes:

So, why did this superspecies die out? Shapiro thinks it’s because the bird specifically evolved to live in mega-flocks, and developed adaptations that became costly when their numbers suddenly shrank at human hands. “Maybe they were simply not adapted to being in a small population, and didn’t have time to recover,” she says. Maybe they hit a tipping point when there were just too few of them to survive, regardless of whether they were being hunted.

Would a small population of passenger pigeons be possible in the wild?  And could the birds survive in this century's altered and deforested landscape?  Revive and Restore believes the answer is yes.

Can humans bring back the passenger pigeon?  Should we try?

 

Read more in The Atlantic at:  What DNA Says About the Extinction of America’s Most Common Bird ... and its possible resurrection.

(photo credits: Passenger pigeon specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Kate St. John. Band-tailed pigeon from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Hackberries

Hackberries (photo by Kate St. John)
Hackberries (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Sunday in Schenley Park I found these small hard berries littering the trails ... and then one fell on my head.  I looked up to see a flock of robins knocking berries to the ground as they reached to eat them.

It's easy to identify the berries by the bark of their tree.  The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) has distinctive layered ridges.

Bark on the common hackberry tree (photo by Kate St.John)
Bark on the common hackberry tree (photo by Kate St.John)

Here's a closeup of one ridge, photographed on a frosty morning.

Hackberry bark in winter (photo by Kate St. John)
Hackberry bark in winter (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Birds eat the berries. Deer eat the twigs.

Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Deer damage on hackberry twigs, Schenley park, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Hackberry trees provide lots of food for wildlife.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

The Crow Report

Crows gathering to roost in a tree near the Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Crows gathering in a roosting tree near the Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

The black silhouettes in this tree near the Cathedral of Learning are not leaves. They're crows.

Pittsburgh's crow population has swelled since the weather turned cold last weekend.  On Monday I counted 4,000 flying into Oakland from the south, pausing on the roof of Carnegie Museum before heading to their final destination.

American crows gather on the roof of Carnegie Museum, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
American crows gather on the roof of Carnegie Museum, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

I couldn't even see the crows arriving from east, west and north but distant trees at Schenley Farms were coated with crows and hundreds, perhaps thousands, gathered on the rooftops north of Fifth Avenue.  My cellphone barely captured a look at them as night was falling.

Crows fly at dusk, Fifth Avenue in Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Crows fly at dusk, north of Fifth Avenue in Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Where did they roost?  I didn't stay long enough to find out, but they left their evidence behind.

On Tuesday Claire Staples sent me photos from St. Paul's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.  The crows left a mess on the wall and sidewalk below the stately London plane trees.

Evidence of the crow roost near St. Paul's Cathedral, Nov 14, 2017 (photo by Claire Staples)
Evidence of the crow roost near St. Paul's Cathedral, Nov 14, 2017 (photo by Claire Staples)

Sidewalk evidence of the crow roost near St. Paul's Cathedral, Nov 14, 2017 (photo by Claire Staples)
Sidewalk evidence of the crow roost near St. Paul's Cathedral, Nov 14, 2017 (photo by Claire Staples)

For now the crows are roosting near Fifth Ave and Craig Street but that will change.   They're wearing out their welcome.

 

(photos by Kate St. John and Claire Staples)

Prairie Falcon Remembered

Prairie falcon in Colorado (photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Prairie falcon in Colorado (photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There are six falcons native to North America -- gyrfalcon, peregrine, prairie falcon, aplomado falcon, merlin and American kestrel -- but back in 2010 I had seen only four of them because I hadn't traveled west or south to the places that prairie and aplomado falcons call home.

That year I didn't need to leave Pennsylvania to find a prairie falcon.  Since 2005 a single bird had spent the winter near Mud Level Road in Cumberland County.  In November 2010 I decided it was time to chase that Life Bird.

Prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) range in North America from the Great Plains westward to the Pacific coast.  They move in spring and winter but normally travel north-south or up-slope/down-slope.  Pennsylvania is not only wetter than their usual habitat but is very far away.  The purple squares below show where they were reported on eBird, 2015-2017.  The darkest purple is their most frequent location.

eBird range map of Prairie falcon, 2015-2017
eBird range map of Prairie falcon, 2015-2017; click on the image to see the original

When a prairie falcon was first noticed at Mud Level Road in late fall 2005, birders assumed it was an escaped falconer's bird though it showed no signs of a former life, no jesses, no radio tracking antenna.  They soon found out it roosted overnight at a nearby quarry. Then year after year the bird came back in November and left in early spring, obviously migrating.  From the winter of 2005-2006 through the winter of 2013-2014 he returned for eight more years.

Like the peregrines I can identify as individuals because they're the only two on territory at Pitt, this prairie falcon was unique because of his location.  He was not just any falcon.  He was the prairie falcon.

On Throw Back Thursday read of my near miss in finding this unique Life Bird three hours from my Pittsburgh home:  Prairie Falcon at Mud Level Road.

 

(photo of a prairie falcon in Colorado by Pat Gaines on Flickr, prairie falcon range map via eBird sightings, 2015-2017.  Click on the images to see the originals)

When Green Is Not Good

Peak Microcystis bloom, Lake Erie on September 19, 2017. Sample taken directly from the lake. (photo by NOAA GLERL)
Peak Microcystis bloom, Lake Erie, September 19, 2017. Sample taken directly from the lake. (photo by NOAA GLERL)

There's something wrong with Lake Erie.  Every summer when the water heats up it turns a thick soupy green, especially at the western end from Toledo to Sandusky and Point Pelee, Ontario.

The waves look like this or even worse.

Algal bloom on Lake Erie at Point Pelee (photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)
Algal bloom on Lake Erie at Point Pelee, June 2011 (photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

The green is not good.  It's caused by Microcystis algae which produces toxins that kill fish and harm humans. The algal bloom was so bad in 2014 that the Toledo Water Authority told their 500,000 customers not to drink the water and not to wash dishes with it.

The bloom reaches it peak in autumn.  You can see the green muck from outer space in this satellite photo from September.

Lake Erie harmful algal blooms, Sept 2017 (satellite photo via NOAA GLERL on Flickr)
Lake Erie harmful algal blooms, Sept 2017 (satellite photo via NOAA GLERL on Flickr)

These algal blooms are triggered by warm water containing excessive nutrients:  nitrogen from sewage and/or phosphates from fertilizer.  In this century the water is warmer and it contains a lot of phosphorus flushed into the lake by heavy rain.  Cleveland.com explains that "The Maumee River contributes half of all phosphorus in the lake, with about 85 percent of it from fertilizer runoff."  (The Maumee enters the lake at Toldeo.)

We know how to fix this problem.  We've done it before.

Back in 1969 Lake Erie was plagued by pollution, toxic algal blooms and dead fish. One of its tributaries, the Cuyahoga River, caught fire in Cleveland.  Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the EPA established by President Nixon, Lake Erie was cleaned up quickly and stayed that way for 30 years.

Now the lake is in trouble again.  Michigan has already declared the lake impaired but Ohio officials are hesitating to do so because "they don't want to scare away swimmers and boaters."  Meanwhile people see and smell the algae and they're already staying away.

This 2013 video from KQED tells the story.

 

(photos by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab on Flickr; video by KQED on YouTube)