Monthly Archives: August 2011

Walks On Water

What a cute baby bird... but look at those feet!   Each toe is as long as his tiny body.

This is an African jacana chick and his lifestyle is as odd as his feet.

He hatched in a floating nest built by his father on a shallow tropical lake.  Not only did his dad build the nest but he incubated the eggs and raised the chicks.  

His mother had nothing to do with the family.  After she laid the eggs she went off to spend time with the other males in her harem as is typical in the jacanas' female-dominated society.

Dad's nest building skills were acceptable but a floating nest does get wet.  Fortunately the eggs are waterproof and the chicks precocial -- they can walk and find food as soon as they hatch.

And that leads back to this baby's feet.

Since jacanas live on lakes they have to be able to walk across very flimsy floating vegetation.  Their big feet can do this because they act like snowshoes, distributing the birds' weight across a wide surface.   This earned African jacanas the nickname "lily trotter."

He walks on water.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original, taken at a zoo in Japan)

August Update

Compared to the month of May, Pitt's peregrines are very quiet in August.  Right now they're molting, which tends to make them sedentary.  Some days our only view of Dorothy is her back as she roosts high on the Cathedral of Learning in the midday heat.

When we don't see the peregrines we think they aren't at home, but the webcam tells us otherwise:  Dorothy and E2 bow at the nest several times a week.

A bowing session usually begins when E2 calls out, "Dorothy, come here!"


Sometimes it takes her a while to get there.  When she arrives E2 bows low.


As they chirp and turn their heads, Dorothy warms up and E2 cools off.  It looks like she's telling him sweet things but E2 has lost interest already.


E2 always leaves the nest first; Dorothy gazes into thin air.

There are two interesting facts imbedded in these pictures:

  • In the first photo, E2 is showing his leg bands.  I was able to read them and, yes, it's him.
  • In the last photo Dorothy has two short tail feathers with white tips.  Those are new feathers.  Her old feathers lost their white tips through wear during the nesting season.  By the time her molt is done she'll have a white edge on her tail again.

p.s.  D and E's son "Henry" is still in town.  I saw and heard him on Tuesday evening.  He is one loud peregrine!

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

What’s That Sound?

Ticking, whirring, grating, droning.  August is Bug Noise month.

Nature is loud right now.  During the day there's a chirping and buzz-saw whine; at dusk, a grinding, droning chorus and a faint whirring sound.  Marianne Atkinson, who lives in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, says "a loud, 2 part, harsh sound, repeated quickly, sort of like saying hello" starts up at twilight near her home.

What makes these sounds?

I searched the web for an answer and found this helpful page on the Music of Nature website:  the songs of 20 common insect species.

Just for fun I listened to a few of the recordings and they solved an old mystery.

Years ago, before Duquesne Light cut back the trees across the street, we heard a ticking sound at night in the summer.  The bug that made that sound is pictured above, a greater angle-wing katydid.  It actually made two mystery sounds:  the ticking and a periodic "dzit."

When we had the greater angle-wing katydid in our neighborhood I never saw it among the leaves.  If it had perched on a lawn chair, as this one did in Texas, I would certainly have noticed it!

Listen to the Songs of Insects and you might find the one that puzzles you.

(photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

Now Blooming: Downy Rattlesnake Plantain

Here's an orchid with a very strange name: Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

"Plantain" probably describes its leaves which are rounded and basal like the common plantain weed.  "Rattlesnake" comes from the rumor that it cures snakebite, though it doesn't as far as anyone can tell.  "Downy" is the one word that really applies.  It has fine down on its leaves and stem which you can see in photograph above.

This orchid is easy to identify at any time of year.  It doesn't lose its leaves in winter and they have bright white stripes down their centers and white patterns along the veins.  In my experience we have no other plant with leaves like this.  (Someone correct me if I'm wrong!)

When in bloom, downy rattlesnake plantain's ghostly white flowers cluster on a spike 6" to 20" tall.  The plant's silhouette resembles common plantain, though the flowers are much larger.  From a distance the flowers look like beads with lips because the petals curve around the opening.

Though uncommon you'll find this orchid in coniferous woods.  In southwestern Pennsylvania I usually find it on a hill above a creek because that's where our most common conifer grows, the eastern hemlock.

Watch for this downy orchid, now blooming in our area.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Bug on a Pogo Stick

Three weeks ago I hiked along Hell Run down to Slippery Rock Creek and paused by the stream to eat lunch.

It was cooler by the creek so I stayed a while and watched the water striders patrolling the quiet pools.  Eventually a dragonfly flew over the creek, then hovered above the riffles and began to bounce her tail in the moving water over and over again.  It looked like she was riding a pogo stick.

What was this?

My bug knowledge is almost non-existent so I asked Chuck Tague and he put me in touch with Ben Coulter.  Ben told me I saw the typical ovipositing behavior of a female spiketail. Though I couldn't describe the bug well enough to identify the species, it was in the Cordulegaster genus.

Yes, the dragonfly was laying eggs.

To show you how strange this looked I found two videos on YouTube.  The first, above, is a good illustration of the pogo-stick behavior even though the bug in the movie is not native to North America.  (The golden-ringed dragonfly lives in Britain.)

The second, below, is an award-winning video I'm sure you'll enjoy -- and it shows dragonflies native to Pennsylvania.

David Moskowitz studied Tiger spiketail (Cordulegaster erronea) mating behavior by suspending fake female look-alikes from fishing poles to see if they could attract a mate.   When the fake females did not bounce, the males were uninterested.  When the "females" looked as if they were ovipositing, the males tried to mate with them.  Notice how the male rushes over and grabs her!

Turn up your speakers; you'll like the music.  (Sorry about the ad a few seconds into it.)

And don't miss David Moskowitz' Bug Addiction website.

(videos from YouTube)

If Only…

There are many kinds of starlings but not in the western hemisphere.  The only kind we have is the European starling, introduced in New York's Central Park in 1890

Unfortunately they've given starlings a bad name.  They spread across the continent in less than 100 years, displaced native cavity-nesting birds, and now boast a population of 200 million.  They're ubiquitous in cities, noisy, and oily-looking.  There's not much to love about a starling...

...unless it looked like this!

This is Hildebrandt's starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti), a native of Kenya and Tanzania.  Like our starlings it lives in relatively open areas and nests in cavities.  The male and female look alike and the young are dull brown. 

If only our starlings looked like this, perhaps we'd like them better.

(photo by Noel Feans from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)


This amazing creature with beautiful orange and yellow accents is a regal or royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis), the largest moth north of Mexico with a wingspan of up to six inches.

He didn't always look like this.

As a caterpillar he molted five times, becoming bright green with scary horns and "about the size of a large hot dog," according to the Bug Guide.  He preferred to feast on hickory and walnut trees, earning him the name hickory horned devil.

In his final instar, when he'd eaten his fill, the hickory horned devil turned a beautiful turquoise color and searched the ground for a suitable place to burrow 5-6 inches under the soil and spend the winter pupating.

Marcy Cunkelman captured this process, beginning in August last year, when the man who services her furnace brought her a hickory horned devil.   She marked the place where the caterpillar burrowed and brought him above ground at various stages to see what he looked like.

He shed his skin, turned a beautiful color, then became dark and emerged as a moth early this summer.

Here he is just before he flew away, destined to live only a week.  Regal moths have no mouths and cannot eat.  Their only purpose is to reproduce.

Click on Marcy's photo to watch the metamorphosis.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

Feeling Dewy

Ladies of my grandmothers' generation never felt hot and sweaty.  They may have perspired but they never called it sweat.  Instead they "felt dewy."

We've all been feeling dewy lately.  The humidity has been so thick in Pittsburgh that we've been cloaked in haze for days.  When we step out the front door at dawn it feels hot even though it's only 73oF.

Temperature has been no guide when choosing what to wear.  73oF outdoors is oppressive; 73oF on an air conditioned bus is freezing!

My niece Kelley, who grew up in south Florida, gave me a tip on what to listen for in the weather report:  Dewpoint is the number to watch.  If it's 70oF or more you're going to feel hot.

The dew point is the saturation temperature, the point at which dew will form if the air pressure remains constant.

Our bodies cool by evaporating perspiration from our skin.  When the dewpoint is over 70oF we perspire but the dampness doesn't evaporate and we still feel hot.  The weather's oppressive even though the temperature sounds comfortable.

Since Kelley told me about dewpoint I've been paying attention to it.  This morning it was 69oF.

Dress accordingly!

(photo by Sam Leinhardt)

A Trip to Lawrenceville

On June 19 Cheryl Mosco sent me a message, "Hi Kate, I've been noticing a family of peregrines on top of the St Augustine's crosses in Lawrenceville. This morning, the parents were feeding their young one of my pigeons that frequently stop by for breakfast."

Cheryl said the peregrines usually visited between 6:00 and 8:00am and were very noticeable because they screamed and sometimes swooped at each other. 

I should have leapt at her message and gone over to investigate but life got in the way and the message became buried in my mailbox.

On July 23 Cheryl reminded me again, "Did you ever get a chance to check out my peregrines? I'm counting 3 now, hanging around the steeple for the past couple of weeks. ... If you stand in Arsenal Park at the 39th [Street] entrance, you can get a pretty good view."

Yikes! I forgot!  And I wouldn't be able to get over there for a week.

On Saturday July 30 I drove to Lawrenceville and paused on 39th Street to look at St. Augustine's.  Yes, there was a peregrine on the cross.  Who was it?

I drove the one-way streets to get a better view and eventually parked close enough to see the bird quite well with my binoculars.  It was Dorothy!

I know you're going to say, "How do you know it was Dorothy?"  Well, I was close enough to recognize her face.

It's easy to see why she was there.  A flock of 200 pigeons lives on 39th Street and Dorothy wanted breakfast.  Though she was alone on Saturday, I could imagine her youngsters following her to Lawrenceville and screaming, "Mom! Get me one of those pigeons!"

Cheryl's messages solved some mysteries of the past six weeks. 

  • When Karen Lang and I couldn't find Pitt's peregrines for days in a row they were probably in Lawrenceville. 
  • When Cheryl mentioned the peregrines screaming in mid-June, it was while the youngsters were learning to hunt and screaming to their parents for food. 
  • The peregrines probably got quieter at the end of June but Henry (Red) hit the SEI windows on July 6 and his parents started feeding him again.  The family returned in July. 
  • Henry is a very vocal peregrine -- quite a screamer.  As he recovers from his injury, his parents will feed him less and he will scream more … which explains Cheryl’s message on July 30.

July 30:  "One adult or possible two, and a smaller one are up there now, around 7:45 am, Sunday,- and she's been just screaming up there for about the past hour or so and still, ongoing. I can hear her even over the air conditioner. "  

(Male peregrines are a third smaller than females so that small screamer was probably Henry.)

After I returned from St. Augustine's I passed along Cheryl's news to the Pittsburgh peregrine fans and Sharon Leadbitter stopped by to take these pictures.  Here's her close-up of Dorothy:

Thank you, Cheryl, for telling me about the peregrines at St. Augustine's.  I wish I'd come over sooner!


p.s.  Why am I sure this is the Pitt family instead of Gulf ?   Not only did I recognize Dorothy but Pitt is much closer to St. Augustine's than the Gulf Tower.  Pitt to StAugs is 1.57 air miles.  Gulf to StAugs is 2.32 air miles.   And for completeness, Gulf to Pitt is 2.22 air miles.

(photos by Sharon Leadbitter)