Archive for July, 2013

Jul 21 2013

Up Close With Blue Vervain

Published by under Plants

Close-up of Blue Vervain blooming (phto by Kate St. John)

Here's an unusual look at blue vervain -- a view from above at very close range.

Verbena hastata is one of my favorite flowers because of its color and size.  The plant can grow five feet tall but its flowers are tiny, five-petaled and blue.  They bloom in clusters that ring the flower spikes as they bloom from bottom to top.

Click here for a more typical view.

Blue vervain blooms from late June through September in western Pennsylvania.  You'll find lots of it at Jennings Prairie.

Visit the prairie with the Wissahickon Nature Club on Monday, July 29.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 20 2013

Mr. Gorgeous

Indigo Bunting, male (photo by Shawn Collins)

Beautiful and blue, a male indigo bunting poses for a photograph.



(photo by Shawn Collins)

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Jul 19 2013

Peregrine Chicks at Green Tree!

Published by under Peregrines

Vantage point for watching the Green Tree peregrines (photo by Shannon Thompson)

For a month now we've had no peregrine nesting news in Pittsburgh.  I thought the season was over...  right?

Not!   This afternoon Art McMorris, Peregrine Coordinator for the PA Game Commission, reported that the peregrine pair at the Green Tree water tower have nestlings!   Here's an excerpt from Art's email:

"As you know, the peregrines' nesting attempt this spring failed, and all indications were that they were not re-nesting, so we (PA Game Commission) gave the water company the go-ahead to resume the work they postponed to protect the peregrines. Today the contractors started working -- and they saw the adults flying in and out of the nest feeding chicks that they could hear, but not see.

They have agreed to suspend work, again, to protect the peregrines. ...  Since the workmen could hear the chicks, I think they must be at least 10 days old; but beyond that, I have no idea. For all we know now, they could even fledge tomorrow."


Art needs our help monitoring the Green Tree site.  How many chicks are there?  Have they appeared at the nest opening yet?  Let's make sure they fledge safely.  Stop by the Green Tree water tower (visit the park behind the Green Tree Borough City Office) and look under the bulb of the water tank at the shelves beneath.

Congratulations to this persistent pair at the water tower. ("Mom" & "Dad" pictured below.)
Green Tree water tower peregrine pair

Hooray, it's peregrine season again!


(photos by Shannon Thompson)

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Jul 19 2013

Man, It’s Hot!

Dorothy panting to cool off after the banding (photo by Donna Memon)

Man, it's hot here in Pittsburgh!  Yesterday the heat index was near 100 degrees.

We stay inside air conditioned buildings to avoid the heat but birds can't do that.  Instead they use both obvious and amazing techniques to stay cool.

Just as we do, birds avoid heat.  They...

  • Reduce activity by roosting during the hottest part of the day.
  • Stay in the shade:  At midday Pitt's peregrines roost on the north face of the Cathedral of Learning where it's always shady.
  • Soar where the air is cool.  (Wish I could do that.)

Birds actively lose heat.  Dorothy used four of these techniques when she was overheated on Banding Day 2012 (pictured above).  Birds...

  • Pant.
  • Hold their wings slightly open.
  • Sleek their feathers to squeeze heat out of their downy undercoat.  That's why Dorothy looks so thin here.
  • Expose the skin on their legs, wattles, etc. to lose water through their skin. Dorothy moved the feathers away from her legs so we can see her bands.
  • Gular fluttering:  Seabirds and nightjars can vibrate the muscles and bones in their throats to increase heat loss.  You've probably seen gulls doing this.
  • Bathe: We go for a swim, birds take a bath.  Vultures and storks don't even have to find water.  They defecate on their legs to cool them off.
  • Turn on fans:  I'm not kidding. Scientists trained pigeons in 1975 to turn on fans when they were hot and thirsty.

And finally, some birds actually raise their body temperature.  This is amazing!  If your body temperature is warmer than the air you lose heat.  Hyperthermia can lead to heat exhaustion or death but some desert birds can raise their body temperatures in a controlled fashion to keep themselves cool.  Ostriches raise their body temperatures 4.2o C (7.5o F) every day. This saves water because they don't lose any to cool off.

The weather forecast says today is the last of the unbearable heat before thunderstorms usher in a cold front.  I sure hope so!

In the meantime don't be surprised to see birds with their mouths open.  They pant even when they fly.


(photo by Donna Memon.  Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 160 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Jul 18 2013

Dives Vertically to Capture Prey

Shikra, adult male (photo from Wikipedia)

What does this bird ...

... have in common with this roller coaster?

SheiKra roller coaster, Tampa Bay, FL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The roller coaster was named for him.

The SheiKra roller coaster in Busch Gardens Tampa amusement park dives 200 feet at 70 miles an hour.  In the photo above, the sloped run takes the cars up.  The dive section is so vertical you could mistake it for a support strut.  Yow!

The coaster was named for the shikra (Accipiter badius), a hawk of Asia and Africa, because the hawk will dive vertically to capture prey.

He looks a lot like a Coopers hawk because both are accipters.  In fact he's very similar in lifestyle and size to our sharp-shinned hawk.  When they're upset they nearly sound the same.  Here's the voice of a shikra, and here's the voice of a sharpie.

I would not know of the shikra's existence except for a Wikipedia article that featured the roller coaster.  When it mentioned a bird I had to look.

I love these connections.

(both photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on an image to see its original)

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Jul 17 2013

Metallic Green On…

Metallic green bee on Spotted knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Close looks reveal new wonders.

Until recently I had no idea that metallic green bees existed.  Then I saw one on a chicory flower in Schenley Park and that started the ball rolling.

Soon I found another one, this time on spotted knapweed on the Montour Run bike trail.  She's a beautiful green color with huge yellow pollen sacks on her legs.  (I don't know the sex of this bug; just guessing.)

My searches on the web indicate she's one of 11 species of Agapostemon sweat bees, bugs of the western hemisphere.  If I had known what to look for I could have used this guide at Discover Life to identify her species.

Though sweat bees are sometimes attracted to sweat, the bees I found were only interested in flowers, especially blue and violet flowers like spotted knapweed.

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) has a pretty flower but it's an invasive species that's consumed 7 million acres of North America.  It gains a foothold in disturbed soil, then spreads through high seed production, toxins in its roots that inhibit other plants, and an unpalatable taste that prevents deer and other animals from eating it (alas!).

It's identified by its distinctive thistle-like flower head with black-fringed bracts.

Spotted Knapweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Spotted knapweed is blooming everywhere right now.

Look closely and you might find a native metallic green bee taking a sip.


p.s. Check the comments for a link to a cool close-up by Mike Vosburg!

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 16 2013

Arctic Summer Bird Activities

Red phalarope, Barrow, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though the solstice was more than three weeks ago the sun still hasn't set in the Arctic.  Some arctic animals have no circadian rhythm because there's no light/dark cycle.  What do the birds do?

The Max Planck Institute of Ornithology studied four species that nest near Barrow, Alaska.  What they found is that some stayed on a 24-hour clock while others had no daily pattern.  Their circadian rhythms varied based on lifestyle, sex and breeding stage.  Here are the four they studied:

  • Semi-palmated sandpipers are totally monogamous and share incubation and child rearing.
  • Pectoral sandpiper males have multiple wives. Only the females incubate and take care of the kids.
  • Red phalaropes reverse these roles.  The females have multiple husbands.  Only males incubate and raise the kids.
  • Lapland longspurs are monogamous with the occasional male having multiple mates.  Both parents take care of the kids but only the female incubates.

During the courtship period the shorebirds showed no daily pattern while the lapland longspurs simplified their lives by never giving up their 24-hour clock.

Incubation changed the shorebirds' clocks.  In summertime the ground temperature in Barrow varies daily from near freezing (11:00pm to 7:00am) to 60 degrees F (noon to 6:00pm).  As soon as incubation began the incubating parents -- pectoral sandpiper females and red phalarope males -- began to follow a daily clock so they'd be on the nest when it's cold.

The exception were the semi-palmated sandpipers.  Because they completely share parental duties they threw out the clock when incubation began and synched as couples.  "Who cares what time it is.  We have each other."

Meanwhile the pectoral sandpiper males and red phalarope females never stopped courting so they never developed a daily rhythm.

In the end the study shows that arctic-nesting birds are very flexible.  They can be active regardless of time of day, then alter their circadian clocks when their needs change.

Those needs will change soon.  The sun will set for the first time on August 1 and the birds will prepare to leave.  For some shorebirds, migration has already begun.

For more information read a summary of the study in Science Now or the entire study at the Proceedings of the Royal Society.


(photo of a female red phalarope in Barrow, Alaska from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 15 2013

Birds Here And Gone, July 21

Published by under Books & Events

The Lost Bird Project, Greak Auk at Fogo Island (photo courtesy of The Lost Bird Project)

This Sunday, July 21, WQED will feature three programs with the theme of Birds Here and Gone.

  • 4:00pm, Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air is an old favorite with stunning close-up footage of these tiny flying jewels.  See my review here.
  • 5:00pm, Bird Tales will air for the first time on WQED.  I reviewed it for the original air date in January but we were unable to broadcast it then.  See my review here.
  • 6:00pm, The Lost Bird Project.  Don't miss this show!

The Lost Bird Project begins slowly, introducing us to sculptor Todd McGrain and his passion for memorializing five extinct birds.

Inspired by the book Hope Is The Thing With Feathers by Christopher Cokinos, McGrain realizes that the birds were driven to extinction by human actions and now other animals are on that same trajectory. Meanwhile we've forgotten how this happened.  How can we understand what we've lost and mitigate the future?  He decides to memorialize the birds.

McGrain approaches his mission with humor and poignancy.  With his brother-in-law Andy Stern he visits each site where the last bird died, negotiates to place the sculpture, gets to know the local people.

Like the locals we don't understand it at first.  How will this work?  Why is it important?

As the show continues all of us "get it."

The heath hen, similar to the prairie chicken, was hunted until all had died on mainland North America.  The last population remained at Martha's Vineyard where hunting was prohibited, a heath was preserved, and habitat was improved but the heath hen continued to decline.  In 1929 the last heath hen called for a mate.  His species normally called near the ground but his calls went unanswered.  He flew to the top of a tree.  He called and called but no one came.  He was alone.  He died in 1932.

McGain's sculpture of the great auk, last alive in 1844, gazes out at the North Atlantic from Fogo Island, Newfoundland.   This is what we lost.  It doesn't have to be this way.  We can do better.

Click here to see the trailer and learn more about The Lost Bird Project.

Don't miss three bird shows this Sunday, July 21 on WQED.  Birds, here and gone.


(photo courtesy of The Lost Bird Project)

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Jul 14 2013

Guess What

Published by under Plants,Quiz

Intricate flower on a common weed (photo by Kate St. John)

This summer I'm having fun taking a close-up look at nature.

Here's a small, incredibly common flower that a lot of people can't stand.  Can you guess what it is?

Here are some interesting facts about it:

  • It's native to Eurasia, introduced to North America and Australia.
  • The flower spike blooms bottom to top.
  • The plant is wind-pollinated, which probably explains why the stamens stick out so far.
  • It grows very easily in sunny disturbed soil.  I've found it growing in cracks in the pavement.
  • In archaeology its pollen has been used as an indicator of agriculture.
  • It is very hardy and will come back again and again after mowing.
  • Tea made from its leaves is an herbal remedy for coughs.
  • In some states it's not listed as invasive because it only grows in disturbed soil and waste places.
  • Chemical lawn treatments target these broad-leaved plants but force those lawns to be monocultures of grass.

Can you guess what it is?  


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 13 2013

Enchanters’ Nightshade

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Enchanters' Nightshade in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This plant has a conspicuous name and inconspicuous flowers.

Enchanters' Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana, ssp. canadensis) blooms in shady woodlands in June and July. Subspecies are native to Europe, north Africa, western Asia and eastern North America.

The plant's common and scientific names both refer to magic though it's hard to find out why.  Some sources say Circe used this plant to turn Odysseus' men into swine, thus the genus name Circaea.  The species name lutetiana is the Latin name for Paris.  Is this Paris the city?  Or is it Paris of Troy who started the Trojan War that spawned Odysseus' epic journey home?  The sources don't agree.

I like this plant's open airy structure but that makes it hard to photograph.  I spent a lot of time on my knees in Schenley Park and threw away a lot of bad pictures.  Above is the best I could do.

To see the flowers, here's a closeup from Wikimedia Commons taken by Randy Nonenmacher in Skaneateles, New York.

Close-up of Enchanters' Nightshade flowers (photo by Randy Nonenmacher on Wikimedia Commons)

Notice how the flower stems turn down and the receptacles(*)  are poised to become the seed pods. The flowers look so delicate.



(whole-plant photo by Kate St. John.  Close-up from Wikimedia Commons; click on the close-up to see the original image)

(*) Receptacles are defined in this diagram of a flower.

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