Archive for October, 2010

Oct 11 2010

Summer Isn’t Over Yet

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Yesterday Bob and Dianne Machesney saw two Meadowhawk dragonflies mating at Moraine State Park. 

Looks like summer isn't over yet.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

One response so far

Oct 10 2010

Quiz: Whose Holes?

Published by under Quiz,Schenley Park

When the leaves begin to fall I notice more features of the trees.  Here's a tree in Schenley Park with two horizontal lines of holes on its trunk.

I know who made these holes.  Do you?

Leave a comment with your answer.

(photo by Kate St. John)

15 responses so far

Oct 09 2010

Through the Cracks

I don't know about you, but I'm seeing way too much Nature indoors lately. 

Yesterday's suddenly warm weather heated up the bugs and they came inside.  Fortunately I've not seen what I consider "too many" of these critters:

  • Brown marmorated stink bugs:  After a brief hiatus (when it was raining) the parade of stink bugs distracted us at work yesterday.  Despite their large appearance stink bugs can flatten themselves into a narrow profile and drag their large shielded backs through tiny slits.  I've actually seen one emerge through the crack under my office window.  Eeeeewwww!
  • House centipedes:  At home we have had all sizes of house centipedes though thankfully not in great numbers.  I really hate them because their fast-moving legs give me the creeps.  My cat points them out by watching and waiting to pounce.  Get them, Emmy!  (...p.s. See Steve-o's comment below about what centipedes eat.  Maybe I should let them live!)
  • Common house spiders:  Their cobwebs are in nooks and crannies around the house where I had hoped they'd capture the stink bugs and centipedes.  Unfortunately these spiders are too small to tackle such large insects.  Some webs have no spiders; Emmy eats them.  Even the empty webs perform a useful function:  When you want to seal your leaking heating ducts, look for cobwebs nearby.  Spiders always build where there's moving air.

And here's what I haven't seen yet -- and hope to avoid:

  • Asian lady beetles:  Though beneficial these bugs are annoying in large numbers.  I haven't seen them inside yet but their favorite invasion month is October.  Alas, they're bound to come.
  • Mice:  In the fall of 2001, I discovered I had mice when my indoor cats gave me presents:  a white-footed mouse and a house mouse.  Where there's one mouse there's always more, and where there are two species the house is a sieve.  I stopped them by cementing all the outdoor cracks around the foundation.  Well worth the effort, though my cats were disappointed.

The parade of indoor Nature is underway.   Now's the time to seal the cracks.

(photo by Achim Hering from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)

9 responses so far

Oct 08 2010

Anatomy: Eyering

Published by under Bird Anatomy

An eyering is a ring of color around a bird's eye.  It can be composed of orbital feathers or bare skin. 

Bare skin eyerings are often sexual cues for the birds who have them.  Among peregrine falcons the eyerings on adults are yellow, on juveniles they're blue-gray.  This color difference is a cue that the juveniles are not breeding threats.  The juveniles' brown (instead of gray) plumage and blue-gray cere and eyerings probably save them from being attacked when they pass through adult breeding territories.

Eyerings are a useful fieldmark, especially among species that are otherwise similar.  Connecticut warblers look similar to mourning warblers but Connecticuts have white eyerings.  Many thrushes are similar, but Swainson's thrushes have buffy eyerings. 

A striking example of eyerings is the bright orange skin around the eyes of killdeer in the spring.  The skin becomes intensely orange when breeding is about to begin and seems to shout, "I'm ready."

There's no need to mark up this photo.  The eyering is obvious.  This killdeer is ready to breed.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

2 responses so far

Oct 07 2010


Published by under Plants,Songbirds,Trees

The trees and shrubs are all decked out in fruit right now.

Each fruit is a cunning seed delivery system.  On the surface its beautiful color lures animals and birds to eat it.  Under the skin is a tasty treat, the reward to the consumer.  Inside that is the payload, the seed.

It's quite an ingenious system for long distance propagation.  The plants are rooted to the ground and would only spread as far as the wind moves their seeds unless they arranged for someone to carry them.  Their solution is to offer their fruits in pleasing packages to hungry hordes of migrating birds.

This common grackle, feasting on dogwood berries in Marcy's yard, may migrate 30 miles to his next destination where he'll cast the seeds.  In this way Marcy's dogwood may have offspring near Maryland.

Viburnums and pokeberries, mountain ash and dogwoods offer their fruits in the hope that the birds will eat every last one of them.  They're berrylicious for a reason.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

4 responses so far

Oct 06 2010

Wise Guys

Published by under Crows & Ravens

When I found this photo the other day it brought back memories.  Here are a couple of ravens at the overlook at the Petrified Forest.  What are they doing?  I'll bet they're waiting for handouts. 

Back in the early part of this century I visited Death Valley and made a point of stopping at the overlook on the eastern side.  In the parking lot I found a pair of ravens obviously waiting for visitors.  As I parked the car they sized me up.  Likely food source?  "No.  Leave her alone."

Soon a family mini-van arrived and the kids piled out with snack food.  Jackpot!

One raven chose the six-year-old girl as a likely pushover.  He walked to within 10 feet and faced her, watching every move as she brought potato chips to her mouth.  I could hear his thoughts shouting, "Throw one to me!"

Something about her eye contact said "OK, I'll give you one" and the raven stepped forward as the girl handed him a potato chip.  His beak was as high as her hand. 

After several chips Mom broke up this conclave.   No problem.  Mission accomplished.

Eastern ravens aren't as bold around people but they're still tricksters.  On Sunday I saw two ravens at Keystone State Park in Westmoreland County.  One by one they flew out of sight beyond the hill, then appeared above the trees carrying a pinkish-white teardrop-shaped blob.  A small plucked chicken?  I couldn't tell what it was but someone would be puzzled to find it missing.

The ravens made my day.  I always enjoy watching the Wise Guys.

(photo of two ravens, courtesy  Click on the photo to see the original.)

4 responses so far

Oct 05 2010

Which Purple Aster?

Published by under Plants

Asters are hard to identify.  There are many species and many look alike.  Knowing this I mentally gave up on trying to figure them out long ago -- and now I'm sorry.

During all my recent bird walks I've seen beautiful purple asters blooming among the goldenrod but I don't know their name.  To make matters worse, I haven't carried my Newcomb's Wildflower Guide and I haven't stopped to key out the flowers for later identification.

The asters pictured here are New England Asters (Aster novae-angliae) but the ones I see in the field might not be.  All I know is that the flowers are deep purple -- sometimes deep reddish-purple -- and the plants stand about two feet tall.

Have you seen purple asters blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania recently?  Do you know what species they might be?  If so, please leave a comment and enlighten me.

p.s. on October 9:  Today I examined the asters closely and keyed them out in my Newcomb's Guide.  They are indeed New England Asters, planted by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in the wildflower area.

(photo by Mrs. W. D. Bransford from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

2 responses so far

Oct 04 2010

Watch This Bridge

Published by under Peregrines

I'm not telling you to watch this bridge because it's in bad shape.  Far from it!   This is the 62nd Street Bridge over the Allegheny River at Sharpsburg that was completely refurbished in 2008. 

No, I'm suggesting you watch this bridge for peregrine falcons. 

After Mary Cleo (now called Dori) left the 62nd Street Bridge for the Gulf Tower last spring, there were no peregrine falcons here for five months.  On September 13 Dan Yagusic was under the bridge in his boat when he saw a peregrine above him eating a freshly killed bird.  This was new!  He watched for 45 minutes.

Since then Dan has seen a solo peregrine at the bridge throughout September.  On the 23rd he saw two peregrines fly off it and soar together.  By size they appeared to be male and female. 

There's another reason to watch carefully.  Dan says the solo peregrine has a white patch of feathers on its left wing.  The only peregrine we know with this feature is Tasha, formerly of the Gulf Tower.  Could Tasha be at this bridge?  Did she trade places with Dori (Mary Cleo)? 

We won't know until someone identifies the peregrine by its bands -- if it has any.   

And that's why I say, "Watch this bridge."

p.s. October 12:  Got an email from Dan Yagusic.  He says the peregrines are gone from the 62nd Street Bridge.  Maybe they were just migrating through the area.

(photo of the 62nd Street Bridge in 2007 by Dan Yagusic.  The bridge has since been fully reconstructed in the same design.)

8 responses so far

Oct 03 2010


Published by under Water and Shore

I know that killdeer are migrating because I've heard them calling after dark in unusual places. 

Until September 21 I'd never seen or heard a killdeer in my neighborhood but that evening, an hour after sunset, a killdeer called from the ballpark across from my house.  Last night I heard a killdeer overhead at The Waterfront mall in Homestead. 

What are they doing?

Killdeer are gregarious shorebirds who aren't picky about habitat.  They frequent gravel shores but also spend time on golf courses and parking lots.  During migration they travel in flocks but when they land they don't like to be too close to each other.  Fifteen feet apart is about all they can stand before they aggressively push the other guy away. 

When killdeer defend anything -- even their personal space from other killdeer -- they're vocal about it.  Birds of North America Online says:  "In Mississippi, migrant flocks of 15–20 killdeer loaf in mall parking lots at night in September, chasing occasional insects on the asphalt under lights, flying in circles around the lights while calling loudly, and interacting on the ground to defend individual distances of about 5 meters."

Perhaps that's why their species name is "vociferous" -- Charadrius vociferus -- the noisy, vehement plover.

(photo courtesy of  Click on the photo to see the original.)

5 responses so far

Oct 02 2010

The Oldest Known Whimbrel

Published by under Water and Shore

How long do wild birds live?  How old are the oldest birds?

This is largely a mystery unless birds are banded when they're young and found again when they're old.

In North America we know the average and longest age for "city" peregrines because they're banded as nestlings and frequently found when they die but for most species it is rare indeed to find a banded bird, especially an old one.  That's why the discovery of this whimbrel in the U.K. Shetland Islands was so astonishing.

Whimbrels are costal shorebirds about the size of oystercatchers.  They breed on the northern tundra in Europe, Asia and North America and travel nearly worldwide.  In recent years they've been declining at their breeding sites in the Sheltand Islands so ornithologists began a study of the Shetland Island whimbrels this past summer. 

When they captured this bird at Fetlar they were in for a surprise.  His bands indicate he is at least 26 years old, the oldest known whimbrel!

Click on the photo to read his story on the BBC website.

(photo by Dr. Murray Grant, linked from the BBC News article.  Click on the photo to read the article.)

2 responses so far

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