Archive for April, 2012

Apr 11 2012

Pink And Blue

Published by under Songbirds

In some bird species it's easy to identify males and females because they look so different. Northern cardinals are easy but adult European starlings are impossible to tell apart.

Or are they?

Did you know you can identify male and female starlings during the breeding season by the color at the base of their bills?  Males have blue or blue-gray at the base of their lower mandibles. Females have pink.

Just like the baby colors -- girls are pink, boys are blue. You can see it with binoculars.

I'm examining starlings more closely now.

Guess which sex this one is.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

7 responses so far

Apr 10 2012

Out of Synch

After stunningly warm temperatures in mid-March, Nature hit the pause button and produced lower than normal temperatures for more than a week. That hasn't been enough to halt the onward march of plant development.

Trees are leafing out four weeks early and the insects that eat them are hatching too.   Tent worms are a case in point.

Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) feast on trees in the Rose family, especially wild cherry, apple and crabapple.  Last summer the female moths laid their egg masses on the branches of host trees.  The eggs remained dormant all winter and then, just as the hosts' buds began to swell, the eggs hatched and the larvae began to spin their tents.  In the past this happened in early May.

This year I saw the first tiny tent on April 1 at Moraine State Park.  A week later I found this much larger tent crawling with activity.

Most birds won't eat tent caterpillars because they retain cyanide from the host plants but cuckoos eat them with relish.

Black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos spend the winter in South America and time their arrival to coincide with the emergence of eastern tent caterpillars.  A few yellow-billed cuckoos have been seen in the Gulf Coast states but the bulk of them aren't in North America yet.  The leaves and tent caterpillars are four weeks ahead of schedule but the cuckoos are not.

What will happen to the cuckoos when the tasty caterpillars they expect to find have retreated to cocoons?  What will happen to our trees if this causes an excess of caterpillars?

Nature is out of synch.  Some things can cope, some cannot. We'll just have to wait and see.

For more information on climate change's effects on bird migration listen to this interview with Powdermill's Drew Vitz on The Allegheny Front.

(photo by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Apr 09 2012

New Leaves

Published by under Phenology,Plants,Trees

Over the weekend I hiked in both Greene and Allegheny Counties where I concluded there are more leaves on the trees near Pittsburgh than in the rural areas south of us.

I suspect that's because Allegheny County is more densely populated, has more pavement and heated buildings, and thus is slightly warmer.

Sugar maple leaves in Greene County were still in the bud on Saturday but I found these newly unfurled leaves at Barking Slopes on Sunday.  They're four weeks ahead of schedule.

I love how red and wrinkled they look.

It won't be long before they're green.

(photo by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Apr 08 2012

The Return of Spring

Published by under Plants

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring.


... Time throws off his cloak again
Of ermined frost, and wind, and rain.

-- from The Return of Spring by Charles D'Orleans


(Large-flowered Trillium at Enlow Fork, 7 April 2012, photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Apr 07 2012

Whose Egg Is This???

Published by under Peregrines

Yesterday the peregrine falcon drama in Rochester, New York went over the top in a twist so incredible that you wouldn't believe it if you saw it on TV.

The story has a Pittsburgh connection -- the two females are the daughter and granddaughter of Dorothy, the matriarch at the Cathedral of Learning -- so I've been watching from afar.  I'll try to replay it here.  Hold onto your hats!

You may remember last year's Peyton Place when Dorothy's daughter, Beauty, and her granddaughter, Unity, both attempted to nest with the same mate, Archer.  He shuttled from Downtown to Kodak Park trying to keep his "wives"  happy but neither nest was successful.  In the months that followed Unity repeatedly challenged Beauty for the main nest site at the Times Square Building.

Archer was out of town on February 10 (he migrates) when Unity beat up Beauty and sent her to rehab.

With Beauty out of the picture and Archer still away on migration, Unity was courted by several males.  She refused their offers and when Archer returned on March 14 he chased them all away.

Unity was on the verge of laying her first egg when Archer lost a battle with another male on March 26.  He returned to the nest to show Unity his condition but he was so badly injured that he couldn't stand up!  He faded into the background to nurse his wounds.

Three days later, on March 29, Unity laid her first egg.   If things had been calm she would have laid her second egg on March 31, but with an injured mate and unknown male victor she stopped laying eggs until she got to know the new guy.

Meanwhile, Beauty had fully recovered.  On April 2 she was released at Montezuma Wetlands Complex.  Everyone expected her to fly home to Rochester, only 50 miles away.

That was the last day anyone saw Archer.

In the meantime DotCa, a large male from Canada, tried to court and mate with Unity.  The two of them weren't in synch yet. Their relationship needed more time when...

Unity died yesterday.  She was struggling with a pigeon and landed on the street where she was struck and killed by a car.

Unity dead, Archer missing and disabled, DotCa claiming his empty domain when...

Beauty came home last night!  She was gone almost two months, unaware of the drama that occurred in her absence.  She vividly remembered her rival and the territory she lost in February.  She returned, wondering where Archer was and obviously wary that her rival would appear at any moment.

At 7:25pm she approached her nest and Lo, what is this?  An eleven-day-old egg!  Just one.  Whose egg is this???

What happens today is anybody's guess.

The drama continues.


(photo from Camera 2 at Rfalconcam, Rochester, New York, 6 April 2012 at 7:25pm)

p.s. Follow the latest developments here on Rfalconcam.


7 responses so far

Apr 06 2012

Tick Warning

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Word on the street is:  It's going to be way too easy to catch Lyme disease this year.  That's because it's a boom year for black-legged ticks (also called deer ticks) and a bust year for their preferred blood host, white-footed mice.  Since mice are scarce the ticks will look for other hosts including us and our pets.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) transmitted by the bite of a black-legged tick.  Black-legged ticks must have a blood meal in order to transition to their next life stage.  Any tick that's acquired the bacteria from a prior host will give the bacteria to its next host.

The nymph stage is the most dangerous to humans because it is so hard to see.  It's a critter the size of a poppy seed that has all the time in the world to walk up your body in search of a sneaky place to latch on and suck your blood.  If it bites you for more than 24 hours you have a higher chance of getting Lyme disease.

You never, ever want to get Lyme disease.  As my friend Dick Martin says:  "About a week after the infection, you will be hit by instant old-age.  Aches, flu-like symptoms, etc. are bad.  I speak from experience."   The disease is debilitating with life-long effects if you don't catch it early.

It's way too easy to get ticks.  Any one of these activities will do it:

So you shouldn't go outdoors?  Wrong!   Your best defense is vigilance:

  • Wear light-colored clothing that covers your skin -- long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with collar.  Pull your socks over your pant cuffs.  I can tell you this outfit is eccentric and stifling in hot weather but it's worth it.
  • Spray your clothing with bug repellent, especially your boots, socks, pants.
  • Check for ticks.  Check your clothing while you're in the woods.  (That's why you wear light colors.)  Check before you get in your car.  Check your body and scalp (take a shower).
  • Remove ticks with precision tweezers
  • Know Lyme disease symptoms and get treatment early.  Dick Martin says,  "Don’t count on the bull's-eye red rash; I skipped that indicator.  If you pick off a blood-filled tick, ask your doctor for a prophylactic dose of an approved medication.  If you hesitate for the week, you have a tougher regimen of medication.  If you somehow ignore that, you have more serious, long-lasting effects."

Read here for more information on black-legged ticks and Lyme disease.

Hawaii is the only state where Lyme disease has never been reported.  Plan accordingly.

(image from  Click on the image to read more about black-legged ticks and Lyme disease)

3 responses so far

Apr 05 2012

Now Blooming: Squawroot

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Squawroot (Conopholis americana) is a plant in the Broomrape family that produces no chlorophyll and has no leaves.  Instead it's parasitic on the roots of trees, especially oaks.

The only time I notice squawroot is when it blooms in the spring.

I found these flowers on Monday in Schenley Park.


p.s. The green leaves on the left are an invasive plant unrelated to squawroot.  Anyone know its name?  (See the comments for the plant's identity.  It is not invasive.)

(photo by Kate St. John)

9 responses so far

Apr 04 2012

New Digs?

Published by under Birds of Prey

On Monday, Steve Valasek sent me this picture of a burrowing owl near his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Talk about cute!

Burrowing owls (Athene cuniculari) are relatively small.  From beak to tail they're only as long as an American robin but they're more than twice as heavy and have double the wingspan.  When you see them you don't think "size of a robin" but they're small enough to fall prey to raptors, dogs and cats.

Burrowing owls live in open habitats from western Canada to the tip of South America.  They often nest colonially using burrows made by other animals (prairie dogs, ground squirrels, armadillos).  The burrows are also their safe zones.

The first time I ever saw a burrowing owl was in Boca Raton, Florida in December 1998.  After Christmas we were sitting around the table talking about birds and my sister-in-law said, "We have burrowing owls."   Yow! A Life Bird!  We drove at dusk to a soccer field at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).  On the edge of the field were orange traffic cones to protect the burrows.  Perched on the fence above the cones were several burrowing owls!

Burrowing owls lived on the land before the University was established and FAU is proud to have them there.  Not only does the University protect the birds but they named their sports team The Owls and their sports arena The Burrow.

Burrowing owls are endangered or threatened in much of the West because of changes in habitat and the eradication of prairie dogs.  To help restore their population, biologists have developed ways to construct safe burrows and carefully place safe perches.  If all goes well, the owls return from migration and discover a beautifully improved home for their families.

Sometimes these methods are used to successfully relocate owls whose land is threatened.  When the owls are settled in their new home I wonder if they put up a sign at the old place.   "We've moved to new digs."


(photo by Steve Valasek)

7 responses so far

Apr 03 2012

Fire Season

Spring is fire season in Pennsylvania.

85% of Pennsylvania's wildfires occur in March, April and May, not because it hasn't rained but because it's windy and the old leaf litter provides a lot of fuel before the new leaves are out.

In Pennsylvania almost all wildfires are caused by people, so from March 1 to May 25 DCNR prohibits open fires in the State Forests.  This burn ban is instituted every year.  Even so, wildfires burn 10,000 acres annually in Pennsylvania.

Spring is also the time for controlled burns to clear the fields for planting.  If you fly across the U.S. on a clear, windless day this month you'll see the smoke of controlled burns across the country.

Fire is the "natural" solution for clearing large fields when it's impractical to till the old plants into the soil, but it's not welcome near residential areas because of the smoke.  In western Pennsylvania I can tell that farmers often use herbicide because I find stark brown fields in April, surrounded by bright straight lines of green plants along the edges.

I'm not wild about herbicides.  If it weren't for the smoke I'd prefer fire except ...

Sometimes controlled burns go out of control as one did last week in Colorado.

Be careful.  It's fire season.

(photo by Richard Chambers of a controlled burn in Statesboro, Georgia via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original)

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Apr 02 2012

A Little Late, A Lot Early

Pennsylvania birders were treated to a surge of ducks last weekend when Friday night's storm forced migrants to stop in our state to wait for better weather.  The migration fallout was especially large on Saturday.

A day late, I went to Moraine State Park hoping to see a few stragglers.  There weren't as many ducks on Sunday but I found a nice variety:  ruddy ducks, buffleheads, horned grebes and five long-tailed ducks.

My own notes indicate that long-tailed ducks usually come through our area about a week earlier, approximately March 25.  This group was a little late, but I was too, so our paths crossed.

Meanwhile, the plants and insects are still early even though our weather has moderated.

A week ago, on March 25, I found this large-flowered bellwort blooming at Barking Slopes.  It usually blooms around April 25 so it was one month ahead of schedule.

A little late.  A lot early.

What will happen next?

(photo of long-tailed ducks by Steve Gosser, photo of large-flowered bellwort by Kate St. John)


One response so far

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