Monthly Archives: October 2011

Soon, Very Soon

Last Sunday I hiked the Vondergreen Trail at Beaver Creek State Park near East Liverpool, Ohio. 

The trail follows Little Beaver Creek as it cuts through the surrounding hills.  Along the way there are remnants of the channel and locks of the Sandy and Beaver Canal that ran for 73 miles through 90 locks and two tunnels from Bolivar, Ohio to the Ohio River at Glasgow, Pennsylvania.

Completed in 1848, 20 years after it was chartered, the canal operated for only four years.  It closed in 1852 after the Cold Run Reservoir Dam broke and ruined much of the canal.  By then competition from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad made it uneconomical to rebuild.  The canal boom ended abruptly.

At Grey's Lock I stopped to read the historic marker but I didn't absorb what it said because my attention was snagged by the sound of crows.  Just out of sight, they were flying my way.  150 passed overhead and congregated somewhere on the north side of the creek, still within earshot. 

That flock is just the start of something big.

Right now the crows are gathering in the countryside.  150 here, 200 there.  Some have made it to town, but no great numbers yet.

Soon, very soon, the crows will come to Pittsburgh.  By winter we could have 10,000!

(photo from

Another Reason to Hate Amur Honeysuckle

Lady cardinals like their guys to be colorful.  They prefer mates with the brightest red plumage because the color means he's well fed, healthy, and has a good territory.

The cardinal's color comes from carotenoids in the food he eats so it's been a good breeding cue for females, but a two-year study in Ohio by OSU's Amanda Rodewald and colleagues shows this cue is a trap in stands of Amur honeysuckle.

Amur or bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is a shrub native to Asia that was planted in North America for its beauty and to control erosion.  Unfortunately it takes over rural landscapes, forming dense stands that shade out native species.  It's invasive in Pennsylvania.

Amur honeysuckle berries provide good food and carotenoids for cardinals but the shrub is a gilded trap.  The OSU study found that nests built in it are more likely to be raided and those who choose to nest in it have few surviving offspring.

They found this to be true in rural landscapes but not in urban settings where bird feeders provide supplemental food and predators have a wide selection of things to eat other than cardinal babies.

Ultimately the low success of bright red males in Amur honeysuckle landscapes may cause rural cardinals to become duller red because only the dull guys have successful nests.

Just another reason to hate Amur honeysuckle.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Glow in the Dark

October is a good time of year to see wood glow in the dark.

The phenomenon is called foxfire and is most often caused by the honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea), native to eastern North America.

Armillaria mellea feeds primarily on hardwood and is most often noticed when it produces fruit --> honey mushrooms.  The mushrooms are like the apples on a tree.  There's a big plant structure that produces the fruit, but in the case of Armillaria you can't see the "plant" until it glows.

The glowing comes from its rhizomorphs that look like long, black bootlaces and grow under the bark of dead trees, downed logs, old roots and stumps.  They also grow on living trees which they eventually kill.

The faster they grow, the more they glow because their feeding process produces light.  Their bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that's the opposite of photosynthesis.  The tree they're consuming used CO2 + light to produce organic (carbon-based) material + oxygen.  The fungi use luciferin molecules to combine organic material + oxygen to produce CO2 + light.  Pretty ingenious, eh?

Finding foxfire is problematic, especially for city folks like me.  The light produced is a faint green or blue glow that's easily swamped by man-made light.

The habitat and weather must cooperate too.  The infected wood has to be damp -- not too wet, never dry -- and the best temperature is 77oF though anything above freezing is acceptable.  Summer heat (86oF+) shuts down bioluminescence which makes autumn, with its early sunsets and cooler temperatures, an optimal time to see it.

I've never seen foxfire but that's no surprise.  I'd have to drive to a very dark place (how far?) and wander in the woods at night looking for a faint glow, hoping I don't encounter a mammal I don't want to meet.  Spooky!

Have you seen foxfire?  Where?

(photo of foxfire in Allegany State Park, New York by highlatitude on Flikr, Creative Commons license.  Click on the photo to see the original)

Is It Spring?

By yesterday at lunchtime, Karen Lang and I began to worry because we hadn't seen either of the Pitt peregrines all week. Had something gone wrong?

No.  After work I pulled motion detection images from the snapshot camera and found out our pair had been courting at the nest at 4:00pm.

Here's the photo sequence from yesterday afternoon.

E2 saunters into the nest area.

"Dorothy, come here!"

As Dorothy arrives, E2 bows.

Dorothy bows low.

As usual, E2 leaves first.  

Courtship! Is it spring?

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

In Just Five Minutes

The weather will be beautiful for the next six days so now's the time to get outdoors.

In October, every day brings a change to the landscape.  Are the leaves changing color?  Are there new migrating birds in your area?  Have you seen monarch butterflies flying south?  Yes!

Not only is it fun to observe nature but it's good for you.  Did you know that a nature walk boosts your mental health?

In 2010, UK researchers published an analysis of 10 studies on 1,250 people that showed that exercise in a green space greatly improves your mood and self esteem.

According to the BBC, "the research looked at many different outdoor activities including walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming in locations such as a park, garden or nature trail.

The biggest effect was seen within just five minutes. ... An [even] bigger effect was seen with exercise in an area that also contained water - such as a lake or river."

So take time to get outdoors.  Be happy.

It works for me.

(photo of a park in P?awniowice, Poland by Jan Mehlich from Wikimedia Commons.  ...Resembles Schenley Park, doesn't it?)

For a Pittsburgh Bird Feeder

If you have a bird feeder and live in/near Pittsburgh....

WQED's Chris Fennimore has 3 popcorn tins full of sunflower seeds that he wants to give to a good home.  If you can pick them up at WQED (4802 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh, 15213), then they're yours!

How to "win:"   Leave a comment below to tell me you want them.   First come, first served. 

If schedules mesh, you'll get to meet Chris Fennimore when you pick them up.


Little King

As predicted, the cold, oppressive rain that lingered for four days finally moved east yesterday afternoon.  The sun came out and so did all the migrants who'd been waylaid by the weather.  The world was beautiful again.

On my walk home through Schenley Park I found many small flocks of warblers foraging in the trees.  Best of all, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets were with them.

Our kinglets are Old-World Warblers similar to the goldcrest of Eurasia.  Their genus name, Regulus, and their English name, kinglet, refer to the crown of golden or ruby-colored feathers they raise when aroused or annoyed.

Neither bird breeds in Pittsburgh so their arrival marks a seasonal change.

The golden-crowned kinglet doesn't travel far.  He breeds in the southern tier of Canada, in northern New England, in Appalachia and in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania.  He spends the winter in the continental U.S., including Pittsburgh, so he's here to stay for a while.

The ruby-crowned kinglet is a twice-a-year treat.  He breeds in the Rocky Mountains and in Canada all the way north to the edge of the Arctic and spends the winter in the southern U.S.

His winter range curls up the East Coast enough to include southeastern Pennsylvania.  But here he visits for only a short time where I greet him with joy in April and October.

Welcome back, Little King.

(photo of a ruby-crowned kinglet by Steve Gosser)


Last weekend our friend Eve Beglarian visited us with Mary Rowell on their way west to share music and reconnect with some of the places and people they met two years ago.

Eve is a musician and composer who, in 2009, made a river journey down the Mississippi by kayak, bicycle and car, gathering images, sounds and experiences to compose music evocative of the river and its communities.  During parts of the journey Mary accompanied her and they switched off kayaking.  One would paddle all day while the other drove ahead to the next landing.

By mid-October they were between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau.

On 16 October 2009 the weather was gray with heavy clouds when Eve saw a large flock of birds wheeling and turning in the distance.   The birds, and her conversation with a man named Paul in Cape Girardeau, inspired the music that accompanies this video.

The more I watch In and Out of the Game, the more fond of it I become.

Yes, the birds are there.  Wait for them.

(music and video by Eve Beglarian)

Moving North

Incredible as it seems, the dotted blue line on this map is moving north.

That line is the Arctic Circle which defines the northern region on Earth that experiences at least one 24-hour day in summer and one 24-hour night in winter. 

I thought the Arctic Circle was permanent so I was stunned to find out last weekend that it's moving north 49 feet (15 meters) per year.  The area inside the circle is shrinking -- and it's basically the moon's fault. 

The Arctic Circle moves because the earth wobbles on its axis.  This happens for a variety of reasons but the biggest contributor is the tidal force caused by the moon's gravitational pull.  The result is a 2o change in the earth's tilt over a 41,000 year period.

Right now the earth's tilt is becoming less pronounced and the axis is slowly becoming upright.  Inch by inch, the North Pole is facing the sun less than it did the day before and locations on the edge of the Circle are losing the midnight sun by 49 feet per year.

In practice this is far less noticeable than it sounds because atmospheric refraction bends the light and topography allows us to see the sun longer from mountaintops.

Besides, it's happening very slowly.  I don't know when this particular wobble began its upward tilt nor when it will pause and start back down but with a 41,000 year period I don't expect to see it in my lifetime.  😉

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