Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Husking Story

Here's what black walnuts look like on the tree in July.

If you like to eat them, choose your favorite black walnut tree now and watch in early fall for the green husks to turn yellow-green.  You'll then have a brief opportunity to collect the nuts before the squirrels get them.

Your next challenge will be to remove the husks and expose the shell beneath.  Don't procrastinate or the over-ripe husks will spoil the nuts' flavor.

Husking black walnuts is a difficult and messy task.  The husks are really hard to remove and they leave a stain. Suggestions on husk removal range from hammers to gravel slurries to running over the nuts with your car (this last one is a bad idea).

The process is so messy that you'll want helpers.  If you're really smart you'll make it a Tom Sawyer moment and convince your friends to do it for you.  This happened to me when I was ten years old.

That year a new family moved into our neighborhood from Georgia and the kids joined our neighborhood group.  One day the mom gave us kids a fun job to do.  She supplied us with hammers and bricks and a big bucket of black walnuts.  We went to work hammering and smashing the husks on the driveway.  We didn't even think about the mess until we looked at our hands and clothes.  Stained!

We went indoors to wash up but the stains remained.  When I got home it was easy to explain what I'd been up to.

I remember thinking at the time that black walnut husking must be some strange custom from Georgia.  I'd never encountered anyone else who did it. And now I know why.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Extreme Builder

Most birds build nests but this one takes construction to an extreme.

The hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is a heron-like bird native to Africa that builds a domed nest so large a man can stand on it.

When they begin a new nest, the hamerkops find a suitable tree and spend six to eight weeks collecting 10,000 sticks and cementing them with mud to create a dome with a hidden entrance.  They finish it off with thatch and decorations... er, rather, their idea of decorations which are sometimes colorful bits of trash.

A new nest is approximately three by five feet, perhaps not sturdy enough to support a man.  But don't worry, the hamerkops aren't going anywhere (they're non-migratory) and they're not going to abandon their investment.  Year after year they add more sticks and mud and the nest grows, sometimes to 6.5 feet in diameter.  Now you can stand on it.

Click here and here to see what their nests look like.

What a big pile of sticks! And a remarkable feat for a dull brown bird just slightly larger than a green heron.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. If you want to see a hamerkop in Pittsburgh there's one in the Wetlands Room at the National Aviary.  Until I learned about his nest, I never noticed him there because he's dull brown and stays in the background.

Good Job!

Good news from the Wilmington, Delaware peregrines.

If you've been following the Wilmington peregrines this year you know all four chicks are female and that they fledged by May 30.

On the afternoon of June 28 the juveniles were waiting for dinner when Wilmington's falcon fans gathered on the roof of a nearby parking garage for the Fifth Annual Wilmington Falcon Watch. They were treated to quite a show.

Right above their heads an adult peregrine did a food exchange with one of the "girls."  Kim Steininger captured the action in a photo sequence which I've made into a slideshow.  Click on the photo above to watch.

My two favorite frames are the slide where the juvie (nicknamed RG) looks worried that she'll drop her meal and the slide where the adult turns his head far sideways to check on the kid, "Did she grasp the food or did she drop it?"

In the end it was a successful transfer.  Good job, RG!


(photos by Kim Steininger)

p.s.  More good news, though we're waiting for confirmation:   Last week I learned that the nesting peregrine pair at the Warren, Ohio water tower is a male from Pitt 2007 and a 2008 female from "the DuPont Building in Bloomington, Delaware."  There is no Bloomington in Delaware so this might be a typo for Wilmington.  If the band-number of the female is confirmed to be from Wilmington, it means one of Dorothy's sons has hooked up with a Wilmington girl.  I hope it's true.  How cool is that!

Loves Heat

Last weekend we visited my family in southeastern Virginia.  Man, it was hot!!   80o at 7:00am, 102o in the afternoon.  The weather looked great as long as you weren't out in it.  The only comfortable time outdoors was before 9:00am.

During one of my early morning forays I examined crepe myrtle flowers for the first time.

Crepe myrtle (also spelled crape myrtle and crapemyrtle) is a small ornamental tree or shrub from Asia and the Indian subcontinent whose flowers are crinkled like crêpe fabric.  It blooms profusely in shades of pink or white throughout the summer. There are many Lagerstroemia species.  The ones I examined were probably indica cultivars.

The flowers looked great all day despite the heat.  What's crepe myrtle's secret?  It loves full sun and heat -- the more the better.  The only thing it doesn't like is prolonged frosty weather.

Crepe myrtle grows anywhere south of USDA zone 6 (in other words, zones 7 and higher).  On the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness map, small parts of the Pittsburgh area inched into zone 7. Maybe by mid-century we'll be growing crepe myrtle in Pittsburgh.

When that happens we'll have to love heat, too.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Favorite Wildflower Guide

Early this month I received a request:  "I am trying to be a naturalist and your information about plants and trees has helped me better recognize my world here in Michigan," wrote Matt LaMore.  "Can you recommend some reading for me to better identify the plants I see throughout the woods and fields? "

As I prepared my answer I realized a lot of you may have the same question.

Last winter I wrote a series about trees and recommended the Winter Tree Guide but I've never discussed wildflower books. Here's my favorite.

If you want a single field guide for identifying wildflowers in northeastern North America Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is the one for you.  First published in 1977 it covers 1,375 wildflowers, vines, and shrubs --  from southern Canada to Tennessee, from Maine and the Maritimes to Wisconsin.

Instead of grouping flowers by color, Lawrence Newcomb guides you through a unique key system to help you identify the species.  You examine the flower's symmetry, count its repeating parts, look how the leaves are arranged on the stem, and determine whether the leaves are smooth-edged, toothed, or have multiple leaflets on one main stem.

After you've answered these few basic questions the key guides you to the appropriate pages.  There you find pen and ink illustrations with descriptions to narrow your selection.  Often the plant you're seeking is right there on the first page. The black-and-white illustrations are more helpful than color photos.

With practice you'll identify nearly every flower you see.  I am so well-trained by Newcomb's that I now think of plants in terms of his key so I can look them up later if I don't have the book with me.  (I'm not a botanist so my field notes include cryptic references like "5, alternate, divided" which I look up when I get home.)

This is a book you'll want to own and carry with you.  Click on the book cover above to buy it at Amazon.

(image of book cover from

A Bad Hair Day?

This flower looks like it's having a bad hair day but that ragged look attracts many pollinators.

Bee balm's (Monarda didyma) nectar treat is deep inside those long, red tubes.  Each tube is a flower with stamens and pistils just waiting to touch a visitor.

The color is red, the tube is long. It's perfect for hummingbirds.

And for moths that resemble hummingbirds -- like this hummingbird clearwing.

Love that tousled look.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Dunkin Peanuts

Last month a common grackle carried a piece of stale bread to my birdbath and dropped it in to soak.  He flipped it over once, then retrieved and ate it.

Though this is common behavior in grackles most other birds don't do it, so I began a quest for a photo of a grackle dipping bread in water.  It was amazingly difficult to find but here's something even better:   The Backyard Bag Feeder Project.

Starting in 1998, Zach Glenwright set up computers, video cams, a tray of water and a specially constructed "bag feeder" to attract and film animals in his backyard.  In the video above you can see his foam-filled Ziploc bag has cutouts with peanuts inside.  Birds and animals yanked food out of the bags but the plastic slowed them down enough to film them doing interesting things.

And the grackles were certainly interesting.

Here a grackle parent collects peanuts to feed his chicks but before he puts the food in their mouths he does a very Grackle Thing. He dips the peanuts in water.  Sometimes he dips them more than once.  Sometimes he leaves them in the water to soak.  This has no affect on the peanuts' consistency but he does it anyway.

He obviously prefers Dunkin' Peanuts.  His kids like them, too.

Click here to read more about grackles and their love of water.


(YouTube video from the Backyard Bag Feeder Project by Zach Glenwright on YouTube)

Aphelion Today

Today the Earth reaches its furthest point from the Sun in its annual orbit.  This is Earth's aphelion, position 1 above.

It's a source of wonder to me that this happens at our hottest time of year.  Shouldn't aphelion cool things off?

Apparently not by much.  The orbit determines Earth's livability but has far less affect on temperature than the composition of our atmosphere and the tilt of the earth's axis.  Right now the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and we certainly feel it.

If we had the data and computer horsepower we could prove aphelion's effect on climate because it hasn't always occurred in July.

According to Wikipedia, "On a very long time scale, the dates of perihelion and aphelion progress through the seasons and make one complete cycle in 22,000 to 26,000 years. There is a corresponding movement of the position of the stars as seen from Earth that is called the apsidal precession."

So, hey, if you're around 12,000 years from now, aphelion will happen in December.

It's something to look forward to.

(drawing of aphelion and perihelion by Peasron Scott Foresman via Wikimedia Commons)

Flag Waving Fawn

Though this picture was taken around Memorial Day, the fawn looks as if he's celebrating the Fourth of July.

This little guy and his mother are part of the large deer herd that lives at Allegheny Cemetery in the city's Lawrenceville neighborhood.  In late May the Veterans' section was all decked out in red, white and blue.  The deer didn't seem to mind the waving flags.

Sharon Leadbitter took their pictures and as the deer left the area the fawn did a little flag waving of his own.  See how his tail is up in that first photo?

According to a 1991 study published in The American Naturalist, fawns wave their tails much more than adults.  Winston Paul Smith studied the reasons why white-tailed deer wave their tails and wrote, "Tail flagging was observed in all age and sex groups, even neonates within hours after birth. The tendency to tail flag was greatest among fawns. As fawns became older, tail flagging decreased so that by 7 mo of age they tail flagged at a rate similar to that of yearlings and adults."

Watch the Fourth of July parades today and see if you don't think this applies to small humans, too.  Everyone waves flags but the youngest wave them more.

Happy Fourth of July!


(photos by Sharon Leadbitter)

Inside My Window

Yesterday morning I got a call from the Business Office, "There's a bird in Payroll.  Can you come down?"

I grabbed my bird rescue towel (nothing special, just a bath towel) and headed for Lindy Mason's office.  Someone had probably left the loading dock door open and a bird got in.  Once inside, birds always fly through the open concourse to the third floor lights and windows and are stuck upstairs without an exit.

I expected to find a song sparrow, easy to catch because they doggedly stay by the window, but when I closed Lindy's door to contain the action I was surprised to find a male house sparrow and he had some tricks up his sleeve.

For starters he was fast.  Like a house fly he waited until I got close then darted away.

Worse, he hid.  While my back was turned he zipped into Lindy's shelving and hunkered down like a mouse.  Silence.

It dawned on me that because house sparrows are cavity nesters they feel right at home in small dark spaces.  This was not going to be an easy rescue.

To give you an idea of the challenge I took some pictures after he was gone.

Here's where he was.  It should have been easy to see a bird in here. Not!  It was dark and he was dark.

After moving the tape dispenser, file folders, and books not shown in this picture I found him on the bottom shelf in the back corner of the letter tray (where that yellow marker is).

And he escaped!!  I couldn't find him anywhere.  Aaarg!!

Lindy came in to help me take her office apart.  We closed drawers, cleared the floor and moved the trash can up to the window ledge.

I finally found him in a very dark corner on the floor.  He flew again, darting back and forth (lots of shouting!) and then a miracle.  He fluttered at the window and dropped into the trash can to hide.

I was laughing so hard I couldn't believe our luck.  He was hiding in something I could carry!

I checked to make sure he was in there among the trash.  He's not in this picture but he was unbelievably hard to see among the folds of the liner bag.  I draped the bird towel over the trash can and took my bundle to the loading dock.

The loading dock door was closed.  The bird flew free.

We're all happy that he's now outside our windows.

(photo of a house sparrow in France by Pierre Selim on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.  Remaining photos by Kate St. John)