Monthly Archives: May 2010

Smells So Sweet

Black Locust tree in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)
The air in my neighborhood smells so sweet!  The black locust trees are in bloom.

Black locusts dominate my neighborhood because they're one of the first trees to grow in poor, disturbed soil.  They are ugly in winter with gnarly bark and twisted branches.  Not for us the beauty of oaks and maples.

But when the locusts bloom they're gorgeous.  Their flowers hang like bunches of grapes, showing off their membership in the pea family.  The flowers even smell like grapes in order to attract bees.

Black locust blossoms normally reach their peak on May 12 but this year they're early in our unusual, early spring.

Time to smell the flowers!  They last only 10 days.

p.s. Did you know that rose-breated grosbeaks eat these flowers?  They use their large beaks to grab the base of a flower and twirl.  The white petals fall off.  They swallow the nectar end.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Messy Nest

We each have our own housekeeping style.  Some of us are as neat as a pin, others are not.

Dorothy is not. 

I have been watching Dorothy, the female peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning, for as long as she's lived at Pitt and I can tell you she's one messy housekeeper.  Every year when her "kids" are old enough to move from the scrape, the nest gets messy.  

It looks like a Bird Bomb hit it.  Something with feathers definitely exploded here.

The "kids" don't seem to care.  They have no idea this is a mess.  How would they know? 

Will they learn this behavior or will some of them turn out to be "neat-niks?"  

We won't know until one of them nests in front of a webcam.

(photo from the National Aviary webcam at the University of Pittsburgh)

City Piglet

Early Sunday morning as I left the house I saw a mammal trot across the street and head up the hillside at the end of the block.

What was that?  It looked like a small pig with a long tail.

A prehensile tail, to be exact. It was a Virginia opossum and it appeared to be pregnant, "Virginia" and "pregnant" being two inaccurate words to describe it.

Virginia opossums were named by Europeans arriving on the East Coast.  In reality, opossums range east of the Rockies from Central America to Canada.  People also introduced opossums on the West Coast (what were they thinking!?!).   So "Virginia" is a misnomer, though not as bad as the "Tennessee" warbler who spends about six days a year in Tennessee.

Opossums are Pennsylvania's only marsupial so "looking pregnant" is also inaccurate.  Possum babies are the size of honeybees when, at 13 days gestation, they crawl on their own from their mother's womb to her pouch.  There they latch onto her 13 nipples (not just an odd number ... 13!) and grow for two months before they emerge again.  So a possum is not pregnant when she looks pregnant.  That bulge is her pouch.

Why have 'possums come to the city?  Because they eat anything and we have lots of it.  In the country they often eat roadkill, become roadkill themselves, and thus food for vultures.

Vultures and opossums!  The city's gone wild.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Watch Out Below!

When peregrines attack you'd better watch out, even if you're not a bird.

At lunchtime on Friday my friend Karen Lang saw a turkey vulture slowly glide toward the Cathedral of Learning, home of the Pitt peregrines' nest.  This was probably the same vulture we'd been seeing for more than a week, always passing between 1:00 and 2:00pm, and always causing a stir.

Peregrines cannot stand it when a bird of prey flies near their nest, especially when they have nestlings.

Every day when the vulture appeared Dorothy and E2 would fly toward it and force it to change course before it could get near the building.  But on Friday they were busy and didn't see it until it was above the Cathedral of Learning.

Red alert!  Both peregrines flew off the building in a fury and attacked the vulture.  They dove and swooped like fighter jets attacking a bomber.  Brave and relentless they would not give up.

The vulture was surprised and frightened so he flipped upside down to fend them off.  Then Karen saw a blob of liquid fall from sky.  And another blob.  What was that?

Vultures are not equipped with talons but they have a very effective defense mechanism.  When frightened, they vomit on their opponents.  The smell is so obnoxious that the attacker leaves.

Projectile vomiting during an aerial attack doesn't work well on peregrines but anyone in the line of fire on the Cathedral lawn was certainly repulsed.

Watch out below, indeed!

(photo of a turkey vulture by Chuck Tague)

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Every morning the air is filled with song.

This time of year a crescendo of birds arrives in the big northward push of migration.  Some of the migrants will stay to nest, others will continue north, but no matter where they’re going, they sing.

Birdsong is an ingenious, safe way to attract mates and establish territory.  The songs tell other birds important information without having to make physical contact.

Songs prevent fighting.  It’s not a bad arrangement and it’s beautiful to listen to.

And so, in early May the birds are compelled to sing.  I feel like joining them…

My life flows on in endless song:

Above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, tho' far-off hymn

That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--

How can I keep from singing?

................................ -- from How Can I Keep From Singing


(photo of a Song Sparrow by Chuck Tague)

Signs of Spring: Fire Pink

It's a little early for Fire Pink to be blooming but this is an unusual spring. 

The Wissahickon Nature Club found it along the Butler-Freeport Trail last Wednesday. 

Fire Pink (Silene virginica) is in the Pink or Carnation family of plants.  These flowers are called "pinks" not because of their color but because the tips of their petals are notched as if you trimmed them with pinking shears.  Look closely and you can almost see the pinking on these petal tips.

Did you know chickweed is also in the Pink family?  Check it out with a magnifying glass and you'll see that what appear to be 10 petals are actually five, cleft nearly to their base.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)