Monthly Archives: September 2009

Tomorrow is International Rock Flipping Day

International Rock Flipping Day 2009 is Sept 20Sorry for the late notice but I just found out that tomorrow is International Rock Flipping Day.

Founded in 2007 by Dave Bonta (from Plummer's Hollow, Pennsylvania!), this will be the third year for people all over the world to take the time to flip a rock, record what they see and tell this year's coordinator, Susanna Anderson the Wanderin' Weeta blogger from British Columbia. 

I plan to participate but I can't decide whether to flip a small rock in my city back yard (boring but quick) or go somewhere far away and turn over a big one (time consuming and potentially exciting).  My decision will be influenced by my earlier rock-flipping experience.

Years ago my husband and I took a 6-hour Reptiles and Amphibians class in which we watched a two-hour slideshow presentation, then went on an afternoon field trip.  The class was in the city, the field trip was in Elk County - timber rattlesnake country.  My husband has never been interested in nature classes but he did want to learn about snakes.

Before we began to flip rocks, Dr. Art Hulse explained it was very important to pull up the rock from its far edge so the rock shields your body from what's underneath.  My husband is very near-sighted (he can't drive or watch birds) so we were a team.  He pulled up the rock, I looked under it. 

On our first rock we found a ring-necked snake - harmless, kind of pretty and very stinky.  On our second rock we found something that was coiled in a circle and silently shaking its tail.  I called out, "It looks like a milk snake."   Dr. Hulse said "Careful!  Hold on!" and came running with his snake handling stick.  He pinned the snake's neck and held it up for all of us to see.  It was a baby timber rattlesnake, so young its rattler made no noise.  Half the class jumped back in fear.  The other half peered forward in fascination.

Since that day I have a motto for those who tell me they're afraid of snakes, "If you don't want to see snakes, don't flip over rocks."  I hope this doesn't eliminate half of my reading audience from tomorrow's activities. 

In any case, tomorrow's the day.  The rules are simple.  Susanna describes them here.  Go flip a rock and send your findings to

p.s. Remember!  Pull up the far edge of the rock and, please, carefully replace the rock without harming the creatures you found under it.

(International Rock Flipping Day logo via IRFD coordinator Susanna Anderson)

Action Shot

Dorothy in action (photo from peregrine webcam at University of Pittsburgh)

In September local peregrine falcon activity is very quiet. 

Our only real news is this sad note: A juvenile peregrine born at the Monaca bridge this spring was found dead at Pittsburgh International Airport on August 31, killed by a plane.  He was probably hunting the many birds that pause on the huge, flat, open land at the airport.

Meanwhile, the adult peregrines at the University of Pittsburgh are staying close to home but aren't visible very often.  Fortunately the webcam's motion detector is able to capture them lounging on the perch, courting or flying away from the nestbox. 

This action shot is probably one of Dorothy, the adult female, as she leaves the scene. 

Dorothy has been visiting the nest box about once a day and E2 sometimes stops in for a courtship bow.  Click the image above to see an action shot of E2 jumping into the box to bow to her.

(photos from the National Aviary peregrine webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

Faster than the Internet

Rock pigeons (photo by Chuck Tague)I am happy to report that this bird, the lowly pigeon, is faster than the Internet.  Yes, faster than broadband. 

An I.T. company proved it recently when users of South Africa's largest Internet provider, Telkom, complained their ADSL broadband speeds were so slow it would be faster to deliver the information via carrier pigeon. 

Always up for a challenge the pigeons responded, "Bring it on!"   They deputized a carrier pigeon named Winston to fly a 4GB memory stick 60 miles from Howick to Durban.

As Winston's owner released him on his journey, staff at Unlimited IT clicked on the download button to start transferring the same 4GB over the Internet from their Howick to Durban offices.

Winston made the trip in 1 hour 8 minutes.  Broadband delivered the data in nearly twice the time: 2 hours 6 minutes.

So if you want to deliver a lot of data quickly, hire a pigeon.

For the BBC video of this amazing feat, click here

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Fall Colors: Bottle Gentian

Closed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here's a flower that I look for in September at Moraine State Park.  Closed or Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) likes to grow in damp soil so I risk getting my feet wet when I look for it.  It's always a pleasant surprise to find it.

The petals of Bottle Gentians never open but a bumblebee can force its way into the flower at the top.  In fact, bumblebees are just about the only insect who wants to - and can - collect the nectar. 

It seems to me this is a lot of trouble to go to for each flower.  It must be worth it.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

A Sound Like Spring Peepers

Swainson's Thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

Yesterday morning I stepped out on the front porch just after 6:00am to check the weather.  It was my first morning home from Maine and I was a little surprised that the sun hadn't come up yet.  What was I thinking!  Maine is so far east that the sun rises there 45 minutes earlier than it does in Pittsburgh.  I had nearly an hour to wait for dawn.

As I gazed at the waning moon I heard a sound like spring peepers coming from above.  I knew the distinct solo "peeps" were the nocturnal flight calls of migrating thrushes, but which ones?

The pre-dawn sky was clear with a light wind from the north.  The birds kept coming with hardly a pause.  I rushed indoors to get my binoculars but it was too dark to see the birds.  In my excitement I forgot to count the sounds so all I can tell you is that they passed by steadily for 20 minutes.  My guess is there were several hundred of them.

Later indoors, I listened to recordings of nocturnal flight calls.  I couldn't find any audio examples - only voice-prints - but I looked through descriptions of various thrushes' calls and found this at the All About Birds description of the Swainson's thrush:  "Nocturnal flight call a "peep" similar to a single note from a spring peeper frog."

So that's who they were.

I heard Swainson's thrushes migrating this morning as well.  I wish I could have seen them.


(photo by Chuck Tague)

What are those purple panels in the trees?

I'm back in western Pennsylvania and...

Odd-shaped purple things have been scattered across the state for months but I only learned their purpose recently - and soon they'll disappear.

These gorgeous three-sided panels can be seen from the roadside hanging in trees or on stakes.  At a distance their labels aren't visible but their color is so beautiful and their shape so clean that I assumed the first one I saw was a decoration.  Miles and days later I saw another.  Was this a new fashion?  More miles and days I saw a third.  Rural installation art?

No, these are emerald ash borer traps strategically placed by DCNR to detect the leading edge of the emerald ash borer invasion.  These Asian bugs kill ash trees and there's no cure yet.  The only way to stop them is by quarantine.

Emerald ash borers are not great travellers.  They were first detected in Michigan in 2002 where they probably arrived as stowaways in wooden pallets.  They would have been isolated in Michigan for a long time but humans helped them across state lines by carrying their own firewood and selling infested nursery trees.  That's how the bugs made it to Pennsylvania - in landscaping trees planted in Cranberry Township, Butler County.  We've been under quarantine since they were found in 2007.

Foresters want to know where the bugs are going so they've placed these sticky panels in ash trees to trap them.  The panels don't attract the bugs long distances, just trap them if they're already present.  At the end of the growing season, DCNR will collect the traps and note the locations of emerald ash borers.  Inevitably the bugs will have expanded their range so the quarantine will expand too.

By now the panels have been out there for about four months.  Their colors have faded and their sides are coated in bugs but you might still catch a glimpse of one before they're collected for study.

If the project continues we'll see them sprout again next spring.  This time I'll know what they are.

(photo linked from this article at the University of Illinois Extension)

Pearly Everlasting

Pearly Everlasting (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here's a flower that blooms in Pennsylvania - and in Acadia National Park in September.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritaceae) probably got its "everlasting" name because it dries well for use in winter flower arrangements.  It's a member of the Aster family.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

A Human Voice

Common Raven (photo by M.I.K.E. via Shutterstock)

Early one morning in Maine I heard a girl calling in the woods, "Ho!"  When I looked for the voice I found a young raven.

Crows and ravens are in the same family but they aren’t friends.  Crows are smaller and sometimes preyed upon by the smarter more powerful ravens, so crows raise the alarm – if appropriate – when they see a raven.

I say “if appropriate” because crows are careful.  If they don't think they can safely make a ruckus they quietly leave the scene.  But if the raven is at a disadvantage, watch out!

That morning at Acadia I saw two ravens fly over the road.  About ten minutes later six crows showed up.  As they approached, a crow called from one of the trees but instead of happily joining one of their own the flock zoomed into the tree scolding loudly.  They had surrounded an immature raven speaking “crow.”

The young raven was at a disadvantage so he changed his tune and called, "Ho!"  I'd heard that sound the day before and thought it was a girl calling to her companions on the hiking trail.

Ravens are great mimics so perhaps this one had listened to a real person. He called again, his parent returned, and the crows quickly dispersed.

His call for help worked, even though it was the sound of a human voice.


p.s. You can tell this raven is immature by the red skin at his gape (beak).

(photo from Shutterstock)

Flying Ants

Ring-billed Gull (photo by Chuck Tague)

The gulls wheeled and dipped above the bayside trees.  They were traveling in circles, swooping up, dropping down, zigging left, zagging right.

As I watched them a passerby asked, "What kind of gulls are those and what are they doing?"

They were ring-billed gulls on fall migration from their inland nesting grounds to their coastal winter zone, and they were hawking insects - some kind of flying ants.

I think of gulls as crab and trash eaters so it was fascinating to see them eating flying bugs.  Then I remembered the story of their relatives, the California gulls, in Utah.

The Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847 to establish a religious community near the Great Salt Lake.  Their first crops were nearly ready to harvest the next summer when thousands of "Mormon crickets" (actually a flightless relative of the katydid, Anabrus simplex) swarmed across the countryside.  These insects eat everything in their path - even their fallen comrades - so the Mormons thought their crops would be lost.  But a flock of California gulls arrived and ate the insects.  The Mormons called this the Miracle of the Gulls and named the California gull the state bird of Utah.

Ring-billed gulls haven't done enough to be named a state bird but I am grateful they eat flying ants.  Now that I know to what to look for, I see them hawking insects every fall in Maine.  The flying ants swarm and the gulls do what comes naturally.  They eat them.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

The loudest animal in the Maine woods

Red Squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

September isn't the best time of year to hear wildlife.  The birds have stopped singing and a lot of animals are quiet as they prepare for winter.

Not this guy, though.  He's as loud as can be when he's worried and my presence in his woods worries him.

I'm out on a peaceful hike.  There's no noise in the woods.  I'm looking at the ground, watching my step over roots and rocks when, Yikes!   A red squirrel shouts right above me and I nearly jump out of my skin.  As soon as he's startled me, he subsides into a long, scolding chatter.   He flicks his tail and stamps his feet.  He is mad!

Red squirrels are highly territorial - even aggressive.  They scold other red squirrels just as much as they scold me.  I've even heard one scold a goshawk - a dangerous feat if there ever was one!  I'm not sure what advantage it gives these guys to be noisy around danger, but maybe they just have so much attitude that they don't know how to shut it off.

This red squirrel sure "got" me.  He had my heart pounding until I figured out what he was.  There might be a louder animal in Maine at another time of year but for an all-around noisy, brash animal you can't beat this tyke.  I give him the Loudest Animal award.

(photo by Chuck Tague)