Archive for July, 2012

Jul 21 2012

These Are Not Moths

Last weekend in Schenley Park I noticed white fuzz and a row of decorations on the stems of yellow jewelweed.  When I stepped closer I learned they weren’t decorations at all.  They were insects that resembled tiny moths.

I had a camera with me so I sent photos to my bug experts Chuck Tague and Monica Miller asking, “What are these insects and is the white fuzz related to them?”

Chuck and Monica agreed — these are flatid planthoppers — but they wouldn’t speculate on the species.  Some flatids are so hard to identify they have to be dissected by an expert.

No matter the species, planthoppers have similar lifestyles:

  • They often resemble parts of plants as a means of camouflage.
  • They move very, very slowly so as not to attract attention but they hop like grasshoppers when disturbed.  The group I photographed may have been moving but I never noticed.  I wish I’d known they hopped. I might have tried disturbing them.
  • Though planthoppers suck juice from plants they rarely reach the ‘pest’ level.
  • Adult females secrete a waxy substance that protects the eggs and young from water and predation.  This is part of what makes up the white fuzz.
  • Their nymphs are ghostly white with fuzzy, wispy tails.  They’re so small they look like fuzz without magnification.

The nymphs are kind of cute except their faces are spooky.  Here’s a close-up from to show you what I mean.


So when you see fuzz on a plant it’s worth a second look.  There might be something really interesting in it.

(photo of planthopper nymph by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Photo of adults by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Jul 20 2012

Sky Divers

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine falcons are famous for their sky diving speed.  How to measure it?  Dive with them.

In this video a British falconer taught his female peregrine, Lady, to stoop at a yellow lure from a hot air balloon.  Then he took her up with two skydivers who strapped together and jumped, holding the lure.

Lady followed in a stoop and caught up to them within seconds.  To do so she had to accelerate to over 180 mph.  Perhaps she thought they were going a little slowly.  The divers saw her play in the air nearby as they fell.

In the end Lady got her prize and proved that peregrines dive faster than humans.

Of course they do.  Peregrines are the original sky divers.  😉


(video from BBC Worldwide on YouTube)

5 responses so far

Jul 19 2012

Sunday at 1:00pm, 1360 AM Radio, Pittsburgh

Published by under Books & Events

This Sunday July 22 at 1:00pm I’ll be chatting with Scott Shalaway on his Birds and Nature radio show on 1360 AM radio.  Tune in at noon to hear Scott’s entire show –>  noon to 2:00pm on Sundays, 1360 AM.

You can listen online by clicking the [Listen Live] button at

One response so far

Jul 19 2012

Milkweed Transformation

Published by under Plants

How does a Common Milkweed flower go from a pink ball to a spiny gray container of fluffy seeds?

The shapes don’t resemble each other so it’s hard to imagine how one transforms into the other.

To solve the mystery I photographed milkweed’s stages and assembled them into a slideshow.  Click on the image above and watch carefully as…

  1. The 5-sided buds are not yet open.
  2. Each flower opens into an unusual 5-pointed shape with a cylinder in the middle. (This photo is by Marcy Cunkelman.)
  3. The flowers fade and droop.  Notice the flower base, the ovary, where the petals are attached.
  4. Completely faded, the fertilized ovaries begin to swell.  This is the critical step that shows where the seed pod develops.
  5. The swelling ovaries begin to take on the classic seed pod shape.
  6. Some of the new pods still have a faded flower on top.
  7. In July the pods are green.
  8. In December they are dry and gray.  They crack open to release their fluffy seeds.


Now you know milkweed’s secret.


(flower with black-and-orange milkweed bug by Marcy Cunkleman; all other photos by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Jul 18 2012

The Starlings, They Are A’Changing

Published by under Songbirds

The breeding season is over for the European starlings in my neighborhood.

The first sign that the adults had thrown in the towel came early this month when I noticed their beaks had completely changed from breeding season’s yellow back to black.

They’re also molting, replacing their dark, shiny feathers with new white-tipped ones that make them look speckled or “starry” (hence their starling name).

Right now they look like to the two birds in the foreground, above.  Only two months ago they looked like this.

Not to be outdone, the juvenile starlings are molting, too.  A newly fledged starling has drab brown feathers (click here to see) but they become starry by their first winter.  Halfway through the molt sequence they look like the two motley birds in the background, above — drab heads, starry breasts.

Believe it or not, summer is half over.

The starlings, they are a’changing.

(photo by Daniel Plazanet on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

4 responses so far

Jul 17 2012

Trapping Very Small Game

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

We had a fruit fly episode at work last week.  We trapped and did not release.

It all began when Emily came back from maternity leave and discovered a co-worker had left old food in her office refrigerator.  Emily carefully wrapped up the rotting fruit and threw it away but a couple of fruit flies escaped.

For two days we barely noticed them.  A single fruit fly would appear at mealtimes and disappear afterward. By Thursday however the single fruit fly became two and one of them never went away.

I’m no expert on fruit fly identification but these seemed to be Drosophila melanogaster nicknamed “vinegar flies” because they’re especially attracted to vinegar, a by-product of the rotting fruit which is their favorite food. Here’s a close-up from Wikimedia.

D. melanogaster is well studied.  For more than 100 years it’s been the subject of genetic research because its traits are easy to parse out and it reproduces quickly.  At warm room temperature (77oF) a newly laid egg becomes a breeding adult in only 8.5 days.  The adults live about three weeks during which time the females can lay 100 eggs per day.   The D. melanogaster population can quickly get out of hand if you don’t have swallows and flycatchers around to eat them.

Fortunately Emily knew exactly what to do.  She taught us how to make vinegar traps, as in…

  1. Pour a little vinegar in the bottom of a cup
  2. Cover the top, leaving only a small hole.  We used tape to cover the cups.
  3. Wait for the flies to fly in and never come out.

Emily supplied the plastic cups.  We supplied the tape and vinegar.   All we had was balsamic vinegar — very dark.

The first photo shows what our traps looked like from the side.  The photo below shows them from the top. Because we used tape, the trap hole is a triangle.

My traps caught nothing for hours. Emily’s caught many.

When she left for the day Emily threw away her traps so the next day was quite a success for mine.   Using their keen sense of smell, the flies flew further to find the vinegar.  In a matter of seconds they could find a new food source down the hallway, the equivalent of a human smelling food and traveling seven miles.

My traps’ success is shown below with three circled fruit flies.  And what are those tiny dark specks near the flies?  Eggs!

Without indoor birds to eat the flies, vinegar traps will have to do.

(close-up of D. melanogaster from Wikimedia Commons, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

5 responses so far

Jul 16 2012

Rare Sight

Published by under Mammals

For many years Paul Staniszewski has photographed Pennsylvania’s elk herd near Benezette, Pennsylvania, often with beautiful and impressive results such as a photo of a bull nicknamed “Attitude.”

But he hadn’t been able to capture a good photograph of a newborn calf … until last month.

Paul sent me the picture above and wrote,  “Since I have been photographing elk, I was never able to get a decent shot of a new born elk calf.  There always seemed to be some problem: the calf was too skittish, the grass was too tall, the mother was being too protective, the light was not good, and etc… Well on this occasion [June 12], I finally was able to get what I consider to be a perfect photo of an elk calf that was born just hours before.”

As you can see, elk calves resemble white-tailed deer fawns.  What you can’t tell by the picture is the calf’s size.  Adult elk are 3-4 times larger than white-tailed deer and their babies are too.  Elk calves weigh 30 pounds at birth compared to newborn fawns at 4-10 pounds.

You might think a baby this large would be easy to see, especially since elk live in a herd, but the mothers go off alone to give birth and they are very protective of their young.

An elk cow doesn’t have antlers, but she’s not something you want to tangle with.  She weighs about 500 pounds, stands 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder and is 6.5 feet long from nose to rump.

She’ll charge at you if she thinks you’re a threat to her baby.

That’s why her newborn calf is a rare sight.


Thanks to Paul Staniszewski for sharing his photos. For more views of Pennsylvania’s elk and information on photographing them, see his website here.

(photos by Paul Staniszewski)

5 responses so far

Jul 15 2012

A Trick Of The Light

Have you ever noticed how the amount and direction of light can make a bird look different?

Male Costa’s hummingbirds have shiny purple feathers all over their heads but the feathers look black when the light is at the wrong angle.

This male fluffed his face feathers while Bill Parker was taking his picture in California last winter.  Here’s what he could have looked like had he kept his feathers sleeked.

The light has been subdued in Pittsburgh this weekend because of cloudy, rainy weather.   The birds look dull but we need the rain.

(photo of a Costa’s hummingbird by William Parker)

2 responses so far

Jul 14 2012

Monkey Face

Published by under Plants

Does this flower look like a monkey face to you?

Apparently it looked that way to the person who named this the Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens).

Monkeyflowers are found in wet habitats across most of the U.S and Canada.  In the Pittsburgh area the one place I’m certain to find them at this time of year is in the wet patch below the wooden footbridge at Jennings Prairie.

Dianne Machesney found this one at Moraine State Park last weekend.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Comments Off on Monkey Face

Jul 13 2012

Testing Their Skills

Last month Pittsburgh’s young peregrines made their first short flight.  This month they’ll become self sufficient and ready to leave home.

When they do, they’ll have adventures and most of them will be firsts:  the first time they’re alone without family, the first time they see the ocean or the Great Lakes, the first time they encounter birds they never saw at home.

I wonder what they’ll do the first time they meet a raven.

Ravens are slightly larger than peregrines and are acrobatic fliers though not as fast as peregrines.  In this video from the raven’s perspective, a peregrine and a juvenile raven wheel and joust in the air.  You’d think this would be dangerous for the young raven but his parents are unconcerned.

Maybe the peregrine and raven are testing their flight skills.  Maybe the peregrine is a juvenile too.  Maybe that’s why they’re playing.

(video by Rick Boufford at The Raven Diaries,

7 responses so far

« Prev - Next »