Archive for September, 2011

Sep 20 2011

Look Before You Drink!

Watch out!  There might be a yellow jacket in your soda can!

All summer long we’ve been able to eat outdoors without being plagued by yellow jacket wasps, but now it’s downright dangerous to put the can to your lips unless you’ve guarded it from these invaders.

Why do they do this?

Yellow jackets are members of the Vespidae family (wasps) who build papery nests underground.  Last spring a single fertilized female, the queen, came out of the crevice she hid in all winter.  She built a few papery cells underground, laid some eggs, tended the nest and fed the larvae.  Within 30 days her eggs became sterile female workers. 

The colony was born.  From that point forward the queen merely laid “worker” eggs and her growing population of sterile females did all the work.  They tended the nest, and collected insect prey (meat) to feed the larvae.  They weren’t interested in sweets.

But in late summer a change occurs.  The queen lays eggs that become males and fertile females who leave the colony to mate when they mature.  Meanwhile, the queen stops laying eggs and colony social life breaks down.  The workers stop tending the remaining larvae and leave the nest to go roaming.  Now they’re looking for sweets to eat — fallen apples and your can of sweet soda. 

This will end.  By late fall all the yellow jackets will die and the newly fertilized queens will retreat to their crevices to wait out the winter and restart the cycle next spring.

Coincidentally, we stop eating outdoors by then so we don’t notice.


p.s.  Do you have a yellow jacket story?  Leave a comment to share it with us.

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

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Sep 19 2011

Pitt Peregrine Nesting Highlights, 2011

Published by under Peregrines

The peregrine nesting season is over and though we sometimes find Dorothy sleeping at the nestbox and sometimes see and hear(!) her son Henry begging for food, peregrine activity has slowed down considerably at the University of Pittsburgh.

Now that it's quieter I decided to make a slideshow of this year's highlights.  It took me a long time to create because every photo brought back memories. It was hard to choose favorites.

Click on Peter Bell's photo of E2 carrying prey to see the results.

(photo by Peter Bell)

p.s. I'll assemble a slideshow of Gulf Tower highlights as soon as I get a chance. If this one is any indication, it could take weeks!

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Sep 18 2011


Published by under Phenology,Plants

September is the month for goldenrod.

Solidago, the genus name for goldenrod, is a member of the Asteracea or Composite family.  In North America there are about 100 species of goldenrod, many so similar that it's hard to tell them apart.  Newcomb's Wildflower Guide lists 29 species in eastern North America but I'll bet there are more.  Goldenrod can hybridize and eventually form new species.

Most goldenrods are "short-day plants" whose blooming is triggered by longer nights and shorter days.  They are actually light sensitive to darkness and require lengthening periods of uninterrupted night in order to bloom.  If their nights are interrupted by bright lights they don't bloom at all.  Fortunately moonlight and lightning don't affect this.  (I wonder if floodlights do.)

By July the nights are long enough to trigger blooming but most goldenrods wait for August.  Early goldenrod is called "early" because it blooms just after the summer solstice. 

Like all members of the Composite family, goldenrod produces windborne seeds with fluff to carry them on the wind.  Composite seeds are so lightweight that strong winds can carry them thousands of feet above the earth where they've been found by scientists during atmospheric sampling.  At this height the seeds can travel around the planet and eventually colonize remote oceanic islands.  

Imagine this:  A strong winter storm passes over Jennings Prairie in the months ahead.  It blows the goldenrod seeds to atmospheric heights where they travel around the world and over the Pacific.   Eventually the seeds land on Midway Island...  and in some future September the offspring of Jennings Prairie bloom as an echo more than 5,000 miles away.

(photo by Daryl Mitchell from Wikimedia Commons)

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Sep 17 2011

This is a Robin

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Our robin was named by British immigrants for this bird they remembered from home.  Though our American robin has a gray-brown back and rusty breast the resemblance is only superficial.  Our robin is a thrush twice his size.

The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a perky little bird whose behavior is more like a wren than a thrush.  Centuries ago he was considered a thrush but has long since been reclassed as an Old World flycatcher.

This robin is especially loved in Britain where he's relatively unafraid of people.  He's known to frequent gardens and hop down next to the gardeners when they dig the soil so he can look for newly exposed insects.  Some robins will even feed from a person's hand like our black-capped chickadees.

I've noticed American robins take an interest in overturned soil but they won't come close to us.  I wonder if their wary attitude was a disappointment to those who knew the original "robin redbreast."

(This is a featured photo on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 16 2011

Fledge Watch in Finland


"City eagle-owl-boy's flight tour"

Peregrine fans know the excitement of waiting and watching for a nestling to make its first flight.  In Helsinki, Finland last April fans of the Eurasian eagle owl experienced the same excitement and a successful rescue.

The Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo or Huuhkaja in Finnish), ranges from Norway to China and is similar to our great horned owl though much larger.  The eagle owl's wingspan is 4.5 to 6.5 feet and it weighs 3.3 to 10 pounds (females are largest) compared to a 5 ft wingspan and average 3.1-pound weight for our great horned owl.  These birds are huge!

Until recently eagle owls lived only in the countryside in Finland but in 2005 the burgeoning rabbit population attracted them to Helsinki.  Slowly their numbers increased but there was no nest in the city until a pair chose the roof of the Forum Shopping center this spring, a site easily monitored from the building across the street.   Everyone was excited to see the Helsinki city nest because the eagle owl is a national sports symbol in Finland(*).

By the 20th of April the nestlings were roaming the roof and ready to fledge.  One of them attempted a short airborne hop but he miscalculated and it became his first city tour, complete with a rescue by the fire department from the top of the "Southern Fried Chicken" sign where you see him perched above.

The video is a compilation of his adventure from the roof to the rescue net.  I love how the fireman waves at him and points to the sky as if to say, "Look up there.  Don't look at my net."

The owlet was returned to his nest and later fledged successfully.


(*) National sports symbol:  Finland's soccer team has been nicknamed the "Eurasian Eagle Owls" ever since 6 June 2007 when an eagle owl landed on the field during a Euro 2008 Finland-vs-Belgium qualifying match at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. The game was suspended during the eagle owl's visit and the crowd cheered "Huuhkaja!"   Finland won the game 2-0.  The owl was nicknamed Bubi and "Helsinki Citizen of the Year."   See a video of his game-time visit here.  (Bubi is not one of the parents of this owlet; Bubi's territory is at the stadium.)

(video of Eurasian eagle-owl fledging from YouTube)

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Sep 15 2011

A Silver Lining

News of the intense drought and wildfires in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona this summer has been very disturbing, especially since the forecasts indicate this could be the start of a much longer perhaps permanent condition.

Drought on such a large scale will be bad for the people who live there but even worse for the wildlife that depends on the local grasslands and forests.  What will happen to them?

Scientists from Baylor University conducted a three year study of the habitat and wildlife at 70 locations in the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas and New Mexico.  Then they used their data, satellite imagery and modeling to predict what will happen in the next 50 years.

They found that as the grasslands and forests dry out they'll burn repeatedly, eventually consuming all the fuel.  The good news is that the incidence of wildfires will decrease in the next 50 years.  The bad news it that local species will decline or disappear because their habitat will be gone.

But there's a silver lining.  The model shows that three species of birds may benefit.  The scaled quail, the rock wren and the loggerhead shrike will not only survive but may prosper in the new landscape.  It will be easier for them to find food.

The drought and fires are grim for almost everyone.  I hope this silver lining continues in the years ahead.

Read more here in Science Daily.

(photo of a loggerhead shrike by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 14 2011

Also Comes in Green

Though our gardens have been awash in brown marmorated stink bugs I found some green ones last week in Schenley Park.

Are these the same species as the annoying, invasive stink bugs from Asia?  No.

Green stink bugs are native to North America.  Just like the brown marmorated stink bug they eat a wide variety of plants so they're considered an agricultural pest.

In Schenley Park I first noticed them when I saw a green stink bug (at right) perched on yellow jewelweed.  This is the adult.

Out of curiosity I checked the rest of the jewelweed for more insects and found a Japanese beetle and the small, round, ornately marked bug at left.   The left-hand bug is not to scale. It's actually half the size of the bug on the right.

At first I was sure that the small, ornate bug was a unique and wonderful species ... until I looked it up.  The left-hand bug is a green stink bug nymph (young).

Since there's more than one species of green stink bug in North America, I might not have identified the bugs I saw in Schenley Park correctly, but these photos look like what I saw. They are Acrosternum hilare photographed by Susan Ellis at

(photos of green stink bugs, nymph and adult by Susan Ellis at

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Sep 13 2011

Meanwhile in Lawrenceville

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine fans in Lawrenceville report that Dorothy's been hanging out at St. Augustine's for the past few days. 

We know the Pitt peregrines go there for the plentiful food (pigeons) but Dorothy might have a second connection to the place.  St. Augustine's is Pat Szczepanski's parish church.

Dorothy tolerates humans but she doesn't trust them.  Pat Szczepanski is the only person I know for whom Dorothy will calmly relax, perch and preen for as much as an hour at the Cathedral of Learning, allowing Pat to take her picture through a window.

Pat built this trust through years of quiet, non-threatening observation. 

It's an amazing coincidence that Dorothy's favorite place to be when she's not at the Cathedral of Learning is St. Augustine's, Pat's parish church her whole life. 

Is it just a coincidence?  Only Dorothy knows and she isn't saying.

Pat took this picture of her hunting last Sunday.

(photo by Pat Szczepanski)

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Sep 12 2011

Pent Up Desire

Published by under Migration

Last weekend was a great time to find migrating birds in Pennsylvania. 

Reports from across the state on the PABIRDS listserve told of hawks, shorebirds and warblers.  Hawk Mountain reported 1,120 broad-winged hawks on September 10, there were American golden plovers and buff-breasted sandpipers in Mercer County, and many of us found mixed flocks of warblers at our local hotspots.

My favorite find was a Cape May warbler yesterday at Moraine State Park.  The Sibley Guide says they're "uncommon and irregular in mature coniferous forests" so we see them only on migration in our deciduous state. 

All of this activity is due to what I call "pent up desire."  For two weeks rain plagued Pennsylvania so the birds waited north of here for the weather to break.  Day after day their desire to fly south increased.  Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's birders were cooped up indoors wanting to go out.  When the rain ended, we had a flood of birds and birders.

I wouldn't wish two weeks of rain on anyone -- except perhaps Texas where they really need it -- but it sure makes for good birding.

(Steve Gosser photographed this Cape May warbler in Harrison Hills Park yesterday.)

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Sep 11 2011

Flipped a Rock

Published by under Books & Events

Unnoticed among the 10th Anniversary commemorations of 9/11 is this:  Today is also International Rock Flipping Day (IRFD). 

Back in 2007  Dave Bonta and Bev Wigney started "Rock Flipping Day" as a blog carnival -- a day in which to look for and blog about Nature in an unlikely place.  It immediately became an international event when bloggers from four continents posted their findings under rocks around the world.  Susannah Anderson (Wanderin' Weeta) now organizes the event on the second Sunday of September.  In 2011 it happens to coincide with an important day in U.S. history.

I've participated in IRFD since 2009 so I decided to flip a rock despite today's somber tone. 

My chosen rock is in our city backyard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  It's not actually a rock but a large concrete paving tile in the alley behind our back fence.  My husband helped by lifting one end while I snapped away with the camera.  You can see his feet as he holds up the slab.


What have we here? 

Tunnels and trash. 

The tunnels are easy to see.  Inside the tunnels are two bits of trash, positioned as if dragged there by the tunnel-maker. Only one is visible in the picture.  The square in the center of the photo that's faintly yellow with a turquoise stripe is a piece of cellophane wrapper.

What lives in the city, makes tunnels, and pulls trash into them? 

A gray-colored rodent with a naked tail.  🙁

I didn't expect to find this.  It's creepy to think the tunnels were made by a rat right there behind my back fence, but what else could it be?  The slab is in the alley where everyone keeps their garbage cans.  

I have seen lots of wildlife in the City of Pittsburgh: hawks, owls, a bald eagle, groundhogs, raccoons, white-footed mice, deer, a red fox, even a toad. Just because I rarely see rats doesn't mean they aren't here.

Fortunately nothing moved under our rock and the tunnels don't look recently used.  Perhaps our "visitor" moved on when I stopped feeding the birds in the spring to keep away rodents this summer. Or maybe an owl or a red-tailed hawk ate him.

I can only hope! 

Update: I did some research and I am very relieved! The tunnels are nowhere near large enough nor long enough to be rat tunnels. The tunnels under my rock are about 1" in diameter and have straight-ways less than 6" long. Rat tunnels are 3" in diameter and 2 to 6 feet long. So the rock had a small rodent under it. Perhaps a mouse. I can cope with that!

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Here's the list of other bloggers who flipped a rock this year:
A Roving I will Go
Rebecca in the Woods
Fertanish Chatter
Bug Safari
Growing with Science Blog
Wild About Ants
Powell River Books Blog
Meandering Washington
Cicero Sings
Via Negativa
Mainly Mongoose
Chicken Spaghetti
Wanderin' Weeta
Rock, Paper, Lizard. (The Interpreter)
_Cabin Girl
From Twitter: At Rattan Creek ff. From @gjesse on Twitter
From Flickr: Flickr group

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