Archive for May, 2011

May 25 2011

Now Blooming … and a Quiz

Published by under Plants,Quiz,Schenley Park

This week in Schenley Park, the hillsides are dotted with the white plumes of False Solomon's Seal.

False Solomon's Seal is a perennial plant in the Lily family that grows in moist woods and thickets.  It goes by many names including Solomon's plume, False Spikenard, Treacleberry, Maianthemum racemosum and Smilacina racemosa.

The plant sprouts every year from creeping rhizomes so you usually find its long slightly zigzag stems in sizable clumps.  The leaves' upper surface is parallel to the stem so the plants lean to one side.  Interestingly, an entire clump tends to lean the same direction, all of them showing their leaves to the sun and their white flowers to pollinating bees and beetles.  It looks like the whole clump is doing "The Wave."

False Solomon's Seal produces red berries in the fall that are eaten by birds and rodents.  People sometimes use the plant as a laxative and deer browse it occasionally but it's not one of their favorites.  Perhaps the deer know about its laxative effects.

So this is False Solomon's Seal, but what plant is "true"... and why?  Leave a comment with your answer.

(photo from Wikipedia.  Click on the photo to see the original)

6 responses so far

May 24 2011

Pittsburgh Alumni in Ohio

Published by under Peregrines

If you're wondering why we band peregrine falcons, here's the answer.

Last week I learned that two more peregrines banded in the Pittsburgh area are nesting in Ohio. This brings the total to six, four of whom are Dorothy's offspring from the Cathedral of Learning.  I like to call them "alumni."

The complete list is:

  • SW:  Hatched at the Gulf Tower in 1999, she's nested at Cleveland's Terminal Tower since 2002.
  • Stammy: Hatched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2003, he nests in Youngstown.
  • Belle:  Hatched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2003, she nests on the bell tower at the University of Toledo.  She's one of Stammy's nestmates.
  • Maddy: Hatched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004, she nests at the I-480 Bridge in Cuyahoga County.
  • An unnamed female (Pennsylvania peregrines are not named at banding):  Hatched at the Monaca-East Rochester Bridge in Beaver County, PA in 2008, she's nesting at the Ironton-Russell Bridge in Lawrence County, Ohio.  She found a site just like home.
  • Another unnamed female: Hatched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2009, she's nesting at the Killen Power Station in Adams County, Ohio.  She's the youngest of Dorothy's offspring confirmed nesting this year.

As you can see from the list above, most of the birds are female.  Young female peregrines typically travel farther from their birthplace than the males do to establish their own nest site.  The closest offspring on the list is a male in Youngstown.  Cleveland seems to be just far enough for the girls.

Pictured above is Maddy near her home at the I-480 bridge.

(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

2 responses so far

May 23 2011

Put Your House Sparrows to Good Use

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

If you have bluebird nest boxes it's mighty frustrating -- and deadly to the bluebirds -- when house sparrows take over.  

Sometimes, hard as you try, you can't eradicate the house sparrows, but this year you can put them to good use.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology is doing a study on variation in eggshell colors and your house sparrows can help.  Here's what to do, quoted from Cornell's NestWatch eNewsletter:

"Because House Sparrows are a nonnative species, they are undesirable inhabitants of nest boxes in North America, but they are an easily accessible study species that can be used to address ecological questions without disturbing native birds.

"Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are currently studying House Sparrows to help better understand the enormous variation in eggshell patterns and color. House Sparrow eggs exhibit an extraordinary amount of variation. Eggshell coloration and pattern may vary with available calcium, sunlight patterns, or habitat quality, and are expected to differ seasonally and geographically as well.

"You can help Cornell researchers gather information about the variation in House Sparrow eggs by submitting digital photographs of sparrow clutches so that the degree of speckling, spot size, and color tone of the eggs can be measured. Based on the variation that the researchers observe, they may find support for particular hypotheses about the underlying causes of eggshell color and patterning.

"To photograph eggs, please place them on a white piece of paper next to a coin for scale. Also, clearly write the date and location (town, state, zip code) on the paper next to the eggs before photographing, or include this information in the file name. Email digital photos to Dr. Caren Cooper ("

A Note from Kate:  Don't do this with any native bird eggs!  Make sure you're dealing with house sparrows before you begin!

(photo of a house sparrow eyeing a bluebird box, by Bobby Greene)

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May 22 2011

Now Blooming: Miami Mist

Published by under Plants

Miami Mist is blooming now in western Pennsylvania... but good luck finding it.

It's so unusual in western Pennsylvania that botany buffs make special trips to see it.  The only place I've seen it is at Enlow Fork.  On Friday, Dianne Machesney found it for the first time at Raccoon Creek State Park where she took this picture.

Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii) is a strangely named flower.  The word "mist" probably comes from its fringed leaves but the "Miami" part is a mystery.

The plant ranges from Ontario to Georgia but does not grow in Florida.   My best guess at "Miami" is that it was named in Ohio or Indiana where the word "Miami" occurs frequently.  There are three rivers (the Great Miami, the Little Miami and the Maumee), many towns and townships, a county and a university all named for the Miami tribe of Native Americans.

This hunch is bolstered by the flower's scientific species name.  Purshii refers to "Frederická Traugott Pursh, a Saxon explorer, collector, horticulturist and author who received plant collections from the Lewis and Clark expedition"(*) and was first to publish on them.

Meriweather Lewis began his expedition in Pittsburgh and rafted down the Ohio River to William Clark's home at the Falls of the Ohio in Indiana.  There they joined forces and solidified plans for the expedition they officially launched near St. Louis.  I wonder if Lewis collected Miami Mist during that first leg of his journey...   Of course, this is just speculation on my part.

Miami Mist is common in Kentucky and Tennessee but it's rare here.  If you find it this year, it may not be in the same place next year because it's an annual plant.

Miami Mist keeps us guessing.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

p.s. On the abundant side of the scale, I've been seeing a lot of Mayapple "umbrellas."

p.p.s.  The Fringetree is now blooming in Schenley Park.

6 responses so far

May 21 2011

Two Mornings of a Fawn

Published by under Mammals

On Friday Jennie Barker, who lives in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, sent a series of photos with the subject line, "Why I didn't cut the grass yesterday." 

Here's the story in her own words. 

"I had finished the front yard and moved to the back, when I found...

"We keep a wire fence around this young dogwood to keep the deer from eating it. Last year, a rabbit made a nest within the fence, but crows took all the young. This year, we put bird netting across the top of the fence to protect the rabbits. As I took this photo, a rabbit stood nearby, looking at the intruder in its spot.

"This is why I stopped cutting the grass and put the lawn mower away.

"This morning, the fawn is gone, leaving behind only a depression in the grass."

That was the first email but within an hour Jennie wrote again and said,

"I didn't finish today either.  After sending the pics of the fawn under the dogwood, I fired up the lawnmower and headed to the back yard, only to come across . . ."  (the brown spot at the edge of the mulch)

(...again, just a little brown lump...)

(Here it is up close.)

Jenny decided to do the best she could.

"I left a 10-12 foot area unmowed so as not to scare it. A doe watched me from the cover of a large bush as I worked.  I was out of sight of the fawn briefly, and when I returned, it was gone. It is probably tucked away in another safe spot in the yard - there are plenty.  For now, my yard work is done."

And that's how a fawn spent two mornings.

(photos and story, thanks to Jennie Barker)

6 responses so far

May 20 2011


Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Last night I woke up at 2:30am and could not get back to sleep.  I lay there thinking of everything and nothing.  At one point I heard sirens in the distance and wondered where they were so I opened the window a crack to listen.

The siren noise was very faint, nowhere near my home, but soon I heard a more interesting sound:  a "peep" like the single note of a spring peeper frog.  And another and another and another for more than 20 minutes.

Now I was happy to be awake.  Swainson's thrushes were flying over my house at night, on their way to Canada. 

The upper sky was clear, the moon was bright and the wind calm.  It was a good night for migration.

Today, somewhere north of here, birders will see the Swainson's thrushes that flew over Pittsburgh last night.  I wonder how far north "my" birds will be.

(photo by Matt Reinbold, Bismark, North Dakota, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

4 responses so far

May 19 2011

News from the Peregrine Banding at Pitt

Published by under Peregrines

The peregrine banding went well at the Cathedral of Learning this morning.   When the chicks were weighed and measured we learned that Dorothy and E2 have one boy and three girls this year.  All are in good health.

As expected, Dorothy was upset even before the festivities began.  She perched near the nest and refused to budge when WCO Beth Fife came out on the ledge.   Beth attempted to net her but Dorothy escaped and flew furiously back and forth.   E2 strafed the area as well, performing an amazing precision maneuver, one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.

Eventually Beth and WCO Doug Dunkerley made it to the nest but Dorothy landed above them and puffed herself up as large as possible to scare Beth while she collected the chicks.  Dorothy would have attacked except for the pole Beth used to keep Dorothy at bay.

Here's what all the squawking was about -- one of Dorothy and E2's cuties, wrapped in a towel to keep him calm while the vet begins the exam.

Meanwhile, Dorothy waited outside.  She cocked her head to hear what was happening as Pat Szczepanski took her picture through the window.

The male chick was the first one weighed and banded.  He was very calm and quiet as you can see.

Not like his sisters!

Samara Trusso applied the bands to one of the three females.

Doug Dunkerley banded all the rest.

In less than an hour Beth returned the babies to their newly cleaned(!) nest and the Cathedral of Learning peregrine family returned to normal. 

In only two weeks they'll be ready to fly!

(photos 1, 2, 3 and 5 by Pat Szczepanski; photos 4, 6 and 7 by Kate St. John)

12 responses so far

May 19 2011

Pitt Peregrine Banding This Morning

Published by under Peregrines

If you're watching the Cathedral of Learning falconcam between 9:00am and 10:00am this morning, you'll see some unusual activity. 

Today the peregrine chicks will be banded.  (Here's what "banding" means.)  The parent birds, Dorothy and E2, are very familiar with Banding Day activities, though they don't like them. 

It happens the same way every year. 

As soon as the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Beth Fife comes out on the ledge, E2 flies around "kak"ing and Dorothy stands guard with her hackles up (shown above from last year's Banding Day). 

If given the chance Dorothy will attack Beth and both of them could get hurt, so Beth captures Dorothy with a net (shown below) and sends her indoors with her chicks.

As soon as the area is clear, Beth cleans the nest.

Indoors, all the birds are given health checks and the young are weighed and banded.  The process takes less than an hour, then Beth delivers the chicks to the nest and Dorothy is released.

The first thing Dorothy does when she's free is to circle back and try to attack Beth.  Beth is the one Dorothy guns for and she comes mighty close.   I think she blames Beth for everything -- even the clean nest.

I'll be at the banding today taking pictures with my cell phone.  Look for an update this afternoon.

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera in May 2010)

3 responses so far

May 18 2011

Wet Visitors

Yesterday morning I stopped in Schenley Park on my way to work even though it looked like the rain would resume at any minute.

The thick, low clouds were ominous.   Nonetheless, as soon as I stepped out of my car I heard a Tennessee warbler high in the oak next to me.  I rarely see this warbler in western Pennsylvania so I worked to find him.

This took a long time.  The Tennessee warbler is gray-green and smaller than oak leaves.  My particular warbler was not moving much.

Five minutes later and now across the street for a better view I was still looking for him when it started to rain.

Forget the umbrella!  I saw him move lower.  Eventually he perched in an open bush at eye level, still singing.  Success!

And now there were many warblers at eye level.  On the hillside behind the Visitors Center I saw a second Tennessee warbler and heard,  "Chip chupety swee-ditchety."

A beautiful Canada warbler with a bright yellow belly and black necklace sang in an opening below me.  He moved slowly and let me see him from all angles.  What a nice reward after my long search for the camouflage bird.

In the end the rain helped me find them.  This flock of migrants had been waylaid by the weather and when the rain forced the insects beneath the leaves, the warblers followed.

This morning it's raining again.  The Post-Gazette says it will rain until July. (!)

I wonder if I'll find wet visitors in the park today.

(photo of a Canada warbler by Cris Hamilton)

2 responses so far

May 17 2011

The Sound of Baby Robins

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

"Prrruurrpp!"   "Prruurrpp! "

Last week I heard this sound for the first time this year.  It emanates from a low branch or a dense bush, sometimes from the ground.

"Prrruurrpp!"  is the sound of a newly fledged baby robin, begging for food.  The first batch of robins has fledged.

Baby robins always look vulnerable with their short frowning beaks, short tails, short wings and fluff-tufted heads. 

Indeed they are.  They don't fly well and they make loud noises that could draw unwanted, predatory attention.  But for a baby robin, the noise is necessary.  It tells their parents, "Here I am and I'm hungry." 

Don't rescue these baby robins.  Their parents have not abandoned them.  The adults are gathering food nearby, rushing around collecting beakfuls of worms and bugs.  The noise tells them where to deliver it.

If you listen closely you can hear when food arrives.  The "Prrruurrpp!" is replaced by very loud cheeping and then a moment of silence.  Ahhhh!

Though there's high mortality in the nesting through fledging stage, robins make up for it by laying three to five eggs per clutch and nesting two or three times per year.  The baby robin pictured above is probably from the second or third nesting since he's perched among summer flowers.

In the end, more than enough baby robins survive to migrate with their parents in the fall.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

4 responses so far

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