Archive for October, 2011

Oct 21 2011

Radioactive bushes

Published by under Plants

On my way to somewhere else on the Internet I found...

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) is a shrubby perennial in the Aster family native to the arid North American West.  It's a hardy plant that thrives in poor conditions, sending down deep roots even in coarse and alkaline soil. I'm sure I've seen it in Nevada but it wasn't blooming at the time.

For most of the year rubber rabbitbrush -- also called chamisa or gray rabbitbrush -- looks a lot like sagebrush but in the late summer and fall it produces clusters of pungent-smelling yellow flowers that light up the landscape.  Pungent is probably a kind word for the smell.  Some compare it to the smell of a wet armpit.  Bees like it, though.

Its names fascinate me.

  • "Rubber" comes from the rubber content of its sap which was studied as an alternate source of rubber during World War II.  The idea didn't catch on.
  • "Rabbitbrush" could mean  that rabbits eat it -- and some probably do -- but for the most part its forage for deer and antelope.  What do rabbits do with it?  Perhaps they hide under it.
  • The word "nausea" sticks to this plant even after a name change from Chrysothamnus nauseosus to Ericameria nauseosa.  Apparently nauseosa is another way to describe its smell.

But what really caught my eye was the fact that in one valley in New Mexico these plants are radioactive.

As mentioned above, rubber rabbitbrush will grow in poor soil and send down deep roots.  In Bajo Valley near Los Alamos there's an old nuclear waste dump.   Years after the area closed, rubber rabbitbrush grows above it and those particular shrubs are radioactive.

According to Wikipedia, "Their roots reach into a closed nuclear waste treatment area, mistaking strontium [strontium-90] for calcium due to its similar chemical properties.  The radioactive shrubs are "indistinguishable from other shrubs without a Geiger counter."

This is happens to humans too.  Our bodies mistake strontium for calcium and put it in our bones.  It's good news when treating osteoporosis with non-radioactive strontium but bad news if your water contains radioactive strontium from industrial, mining or Marcellus shale drilling waste.

When in doubt, test your water.

But don't worry about radioactive bushes.  You'd have to go to Bajo Valley, New Mexico to find them.

(photo by Walt Siegmund, GNU Free License via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)


p.s. On Monday October 31 at 7:30pm, WQED will broadcast Managing Marcellus, an unusual look at Marcellus issues through the lens of a locally-produced play, its performers, and their real-life counterparts.

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Oct 20 2011

Ten Birds Learn to Migrate

Ten of the most endangered birds in North America are making their first migration now.

Whooping cranes are so rare that there are less than 600 of them on earth: 162 are in captivity, 44 are non-migratory and approximately 278 nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and migrate to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Texas. The rest spend the summer in Wisconsin and migrate to Florida on a route they learned from ultralite aircraft.

Back in 1941 whooping cranes nearly went extinct. In the wild their population had dwindled to only 15 migratory birds (21 total) so scientists and crane lovers began a captive breeding program to bring them back.  The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) works to reintroduce them to their eastern range.

Like many animals, whooping cranes imprint on the creature that raises them from babyhood.  In the wild that would be their parents, but in a captive breeding program where adult birds are unavailable humans must dress in crane costumes and use mute gestures so the young birds learn to be cranes.

Thankfully the program increased the eastern whooping crane population but the new birds were non-migratory.  Since cranes learn to migrate from their parents who would teach them?  Enter the ultralite.

Ultralite aircraft are like kites with motors, just a little larger than the humans who fly them.  The first ever whooper-ultralite migration occurred in Idaho in 1997.  Before leading endangered eastern whoopers, pilots Bill Lishman and Joe Duff practiced by leading young Canada geese and sandhill cranes.  In 2001 Operation Migration they led the first group of young whoopers from Necedah NWR, Wisconsin to Chassahowitza NWR, Florida.

The young cranes memorize the route on their way south and fly back to Wisconsin on their own in the spring.  By now there are adult cranes who know the route so WCEP has a Direct Autumn Release project which releases some of each year's young with the Wisconsin adults so they learn to migrate by following them.

The video above from the mid-2000's tells the whoopers' migration story.  Shortly after this video was made, 17 of the 18 whoopers from the 2006 fall migration were killed by violent storms that hit the wildlife refuge one night in February 2007.  The 18th died three months later.  Fortunately this was the only tragedy of its kind but it underscores how vulnerable small populations can be.

This year's cohort of 10 young cranes began their journey on October 9 at White River Marsh Wildlife Area, Wisconsin and are headed for St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve, Florida.  So far they've made little progress because strong gusty winds have kept them grounded for days.  This week they were still at stopover #1!

Follow their journey here on the Operation Migration field journal.  Click here for a video from the ultralite's perspective.  (You may want to turn the sound down; the ultralite motor is loud.)

Learn more at Journey North's Whooper page.

(video from Assignment Earth via YouTube)

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Oct 19 2011

Speaking of Sparrows

Published by under Quiz


Here's a sparrow that's migrating through our area this month.

This one is tricky to identify.  Can you tell what species this is?

Leave a comment with your answer.

(photo by Bobby Greene)

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Oct 18 2011


Published by under Birds of Prey

Last month Cris Hamilton visited Conneaut Harbor, Ohio to photograph visiting gulls and terns at the Lake Erie shore.

While there she saw two immature bald eagles chasing each other.  One had a fish.  The other wanted it.


I wonder if the fish fell in the lake and survived this ordeal.

Click on Cris' photo to see her Conneaut Harbor album.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Oct 17 2011

In Which a Sharpie Learns He’s the Same Size as a Jay

Yesterday at the lake at Moraine State Park I saw some blue jays across the cove.  I didn't pay much attention until I heard an unusual noise coming from their direction.  Was there a green heron over there?

I checked with my binoculars.  No green heron.  Just three blue jays and an immature sharp-shinned hawk. 

The jays were having fun.  The hawk was not.

The blue jays loafed in the trees and waited for the hawk to attack.  The sharpie swooped but the jays always evaded him.  One jay in particular taunted the hawk by flying close and allowing the hawk to chase him.  This must have given the jay an adrenaline rush because the sharpie was faster and sometimes nearly tagged the jay.  At those exciting moments the jay made a green heron noise.

This game went on for 20 minutes.  The hawk could not win.  He was exactly the same size as the blue jays and his speed and anger were no match for their cunning brains.  The sharpie burned a lot of energy but he was not going to quit.

It ended when the "green heron" jay got bored and flew away.

At last the sharp-shinned hawk could focus on finding a meal of an appropriate size.

(Immature sharp-shinned hawk and blue jay; both photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Oct 16 2011

Sparrows, Ducks and Colored Leaves

Published by under Phenology

October 16 already! 

We're heading into the chilly days of the Pumpkin Patch.  Here's what to expect in the coming weeks:

  • Migrating warblers are far south of us now, but sparrows are on the move.  I saw my first white-crowned sparrow on October 3.
  • Soon our lakes will be full of ducks.  Gadwall, American wigeon, and northern pintail are already at Lake Erie. 
  • Yesterday's wind blew a lot of leaves off the trees but those that remain are green.  Watch for bright red leaves on red and sugar maples and burnished red on oaks.
  • First frost coming soon (if you haven't had one already).
  • Pennsylvania hawk watches are counting lots of sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks.  Golden eagle migration will peak at the Allegheny Front in about a week.
  • Watch for big flocks of robins, grackles and crows at dusk. 
  • By the end of October, the sun will be up for only 10.5 hours.
  • Hunting season has begun.  Wear blaze orange and be aware of PA’s hunting seasons.  You're generally safer on Sundays because there's no Sunday hunting.(*)

I'm going out today to see what the wind brought in.  I'm sure I'll find sparrows, ducks and some colored leaves.

(photo of a white-crowned sparrow by Steve Gosser)


(*) By the way, the PA State Legislature is considering a bill (HB 1760) to allow Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania.  Keystone Trails Association (hikers) and the Humane Society are among groups that oppose it.  There will be a legislative hearing in Harrisburg on Oct 27 concerning this bill.  Contact your legislator if you have an opinion about it.

On the soap box:  I hike on Sundays. My personal opinion -- which is my own, and does not reflect the opinion of WQED in any way -- is that I oppose Sunday hunting.   Hunting seasons run almost all year in Pennsylvania depending on the prey. There are 12 million people in PA but only 1 million hunters.  Without Sunday hunting, 11 million people have 1 safe day per week to spend outdoors hiking, biking, farming, horseback riding, birding, nature walking.  With Sunday hunting, hunters will have 7 days; 11 million people will have none.

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Oct 15 2011

Intense Blue

Published by under Plants

Here's another flower that blooms in the fall.

Bottle Gentian or Closed Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is found in moist meadows in the southern half of Pennsylvania.  I usually find it near the lake at Moraine State Park. This one is from Marcy Cunkelman's garden last month.

The flower is fascinating because it's closed so tightly that small insects can't get inside.  Only bumblebees can force their way in to sip the nectar.

Occasionally an insect will bypass the closed tips by drilling straight into the base of the flower.  Alas.  This mars its intense blue petals.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Oct 14 2011

Decorate With Flowers

Today we travel with the BBC to Indonesia where we find a drab bird with an unusual skill:  interior decoration.

Male Volgelkop bowerbirds don't have beautiful plumes to attract the ladies so they compensate by building and maintaining beautifully decorated bowers where they ultimately mate with the females.

The bower is no nest.  It's a work of art which requires constant maintenance over a period of years.  Each feature must be placed to its best advantage, then replaced when it fades or goes out of fashion.

To make his bower easy to find, the male announces it using his amazing voice which can mimic almost any sound.  The birds in this video seem to prefer Star Wars' sounds.

If everything works as planned the male attracts a mate.

Watch the video to see how it's done and learn a valuable lesson:  It pays to decorate with flowers.

(video from BBC One on YouTube)

4 responses so far

Oct 13 2011

Capitalist Birds?

Published by under Bird Behavior

On a recent browse through Science Daily I came upon this amazing headline:  Songbirds With Bigger Brains Have Benefited from the End of Communism.


A 17-year study of bird population trends in Germany and the Czech Republic has revealed differences in bird populations that correlate with the end of communism in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The study by the German Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and Czech Charles University used data collected by "Dachverband Deutscher Avifaunisten" (Federation of German Avifaunists) from 1991 to 2007 and analyzed 57 species, comparing habitat and diet needs, migration strategy, and relative brain size to population trends in each region.

During that 17-year period habitat in western Germany didn't change much but habitat in the former communist nations did.  The urban centers created new green spaces and there was a housing boom in the suburbs which decreased green habitat there.

The result was that birds with bigger brains thrived while those with small brains declined.  The former communist areas now have a lot more common magpies, blue tits, grey tits, and Eurasian jays (pictured above) and fewer whitethroats (warblers).

According to Dr. Katrin Boehning-Gaese, researcher at BiK-F and professor at Goethe-University, "Relative brain size reflects species' cognitive abilities. The increase of such songbirds suggests that species with good cognitive abilities might have been better able to adapt to rapid socioeconomic change and make use of the novel opportunities that arose after the end of communism."

And so I present this logical conclusion:

  • The United States has been a capitalist country for more than 200 years.
  • Our native birds with the biggest brains are corvids.
  • If capitalism benefits brainy birds we ought to have a lot of crows.
  • And we do.

Crows are consummate entrepreneurs.

Quod erat demonstrandum Q.E.D.


p.s.  Read more about the study here.  It is far more complicated than the headline suggests.

(photo of a Eurasian jay by Hans-Jörg Hellwig from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 12 2011

Gems Close to Home

Published by under Plants

We often think of orchids as rare tropical plants that grow on trees.  Did you know we have quite a selection of them in Pennsylvania? 

The Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania's Wildflowers of Pennsylvania illustrates 37 species in our state.  But don't look for them in the trees.  Our orchids are terrestrial.

One of them is Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) and it's blooming right now.  According to Wildflowers of Pennsylvania, "Nodding Ladies' Tresses is usually found as colonies in marshy fields, wet meadows and ditches throughout Pennsylvania."  

Dianne and Bob Machesney found this one at Moraine State Park last Sunday.  "We found 57, in groups of one, two or three, along a half mile trail in a strip mined area, reclaimed with pines."

The photo above is a close-up of the flower spike; the whole plant is shown below.

Look for Pennsylvania's orchids and you'll find gems close to home.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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