Archive for August, 2013

Aug 21 2013


Great egret trapped in high-strength fishing line (photo by John Beatty)

When fishermen and trappers abandon their lines in the water, they hurt unintended victims.  One careless individual nearly killed a great egret in York County, Pennsylvania.

Thanks to John Beatty, Ann Pettigrew, TriState Bird Rescue and a whole host of caring volunteers the bird was saved.  Here's the story in John Beatty's words:

On August 8th 2013 at William Kain Park I noticed an Egret was trailing behind some high-strength fishing line with a hook attached inside of the corner of its mouth. It was later discovered that this line was left behind by someone attempting to catch Snapping Turtles in the lake. I called the Fish & Game Commission and they dispatched out an officer but before he arrived a couple of local York County Parks employees happened to stop by as well. With a coordinated effort they were able to corral this bird into the woods, capture and retrieve it. By another coincidence there happened to be a veterinarian (Ann Pettigrew) of the Leader Heights Animal Hospital out taking photographs and she offered her help to bring the bird back to her office. The hook was removed from the bird's throat and after being treated and nursed back to health it was released on August 18th. It was very nice that they invited me to come and take photos at the release of the bird.

Above, the egret struggles to remove the line but the hook is lodged in his throat.  In fact it has gone through and is protruding from his neck.

Below, county park naturalists Fran Velazquez and Kelsey Frey slogged through mud, water and thorns to catch the bird.  Wrapped in a towel, they are holding its beak (through the towel).  You can see its black feet near Kelsey's gloved left hand.

GREG_rescue_9464685065_c040a60d68_c_rsz_johnbeattyGreat egret captured to rescue it from fishing line (photo by John Beatty)


At Leader Heights Animal Hospital, Dr. Ann Pettigrew removed the hook and heavy-duty string and treated the bird. Then she took it to Tri-State Bird Rescue for rehab.  In only ten days it was healthy and ready for release.

On August 18 everyone turned out to see the bird fly free.  Here Teresa Deckard of Bird Refuge of York County opens the box.

Great egret released (photo by John Beatty)

That's one happy egret!

Thanks to all the good people who made this happy ending possible.

Don't miss John Beatty's beautiful photos of this egret's rescue and release.  Click here or on any of the photos to see the entire story.

(all photos by John Beatty)


p.s. In the Comments I have transcribed Ann Pettigrew's PABIRDS report of this egret's rescue on August 8.

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Aug 20 2013

Are My Ears Ringing?

iBroad-winged tree cricket, Oecanthus latipennis (phoito from Wikimedia Commons)

This month as I enter Schenley Park and walk up tree-lined Greenfield Road I begin to worry.  With the sound of the expressway on my left and street traffic on my right my ears are overloaded with an additional high-pitched noise.   Are my ears ringing?

I experiment by looking up while listening.  It's worse.  I plug my ears.  It's a little better.  The sound of traffic makes it hard to pick out.  What is that high-pitched whirring sound?

August is bug season so I've come to the conclusion that the sound is tree crickets, probably one of these (click here).  Maybe the Four-spotted tree cricket (Oecanthus quadripunctatus) who sings day and night and is common along roadsides.

To give you an idea of what I'm hearing, click here for the four-spotted tree cricket and a video with his song.  (The video repeats with a pause at the end.  The sound on Greenfield Road never pauses, there are so many.)

I would try to find these insects but all the online sources say they're very hard to see -- and that's coming from the experts!  So I'm accepting this as the song of tree crickets and resting assured that my hearing is not in danger.

For more information on tree crickets I recommend this website: Tree Crickets Sweet Sounds of Summer by Nancy Collins at where you can find close-up photos, songs and videos.


p.s.  In settings with less background noise I've noticed the tree crickets are in full force this week.

(photo of a broad-winged tree cricket (NOT a four-spotted tree cricket) from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 19 2013

Western Hummer Season

Published by under Migration,Quiz

Mystery Hummingbird #1 (photo by Steve Valasek)

Last week Scott Weidensaul reminded Pennsylvania birders that with hummingbird migration underway we might -- just might -- see a rarity at our feeders.

He wrote, "PABIRDers will recall that last fall and winter we documented an astounding 94 western hummingbirds of four species in Pennsylvania, and that was probably the tip of the iceberg."

In honor of Western Hummer Season I've made a quiz with a twist. These recent hummingbird photos were all taken outside of Pennsylvania by former Pittsburghers.  Some of these birds can be found in Pennsylvania, one cannot, and one of Pennsylvania's rarities isn't pictured here at all.

Can you identify these hummingbirds?  (starting with Mystery #1 above)

Experts will know what they are.  The rest of us can appreciate the beautiful photos.  Don't feel bad if you can't identify them -- I couldn't without looking them up.   Answers are in the first Comment.

Mystery Hummingbird #2:
Mystery Hummingbird #2 (photo by Steve Valasek)


Mystery Hummingbird #3:
Mystery Hummingbird #3 (photo by Steve Vlasek)


Mystery Hummingbird #4:
Mystery Hummingbird #4 (photo by Steve Valasek)


Mystery Hummingbird #5:
Mystery Hummingbird #5 (photo by Chuck Tague)


Keep your hummingbird feeders full and watch for unusual birds this fall.  The hint may be just a slight color difference.

After October 15, any hummer you see in Pennsylvania is a western rarity to report on PABIRDS or to Bob Mulvihill at the National Aviary (412.323.7235).


(all photos by Steve Valasek, except for the photo with a flower which is by Chuck Tague)

p.s.  See Rob Protz' comment for the western hummer species I forgot to mention...

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Aug 18 2013

Makes Birds Red

Published by under Plants

Fruit of Amur honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

Amur honeysuckle is invasive but it produces a lot of fruit for wildlife.

These bright red berries make northern cardinals quite red if they eat them while they're molting -- which they are doing right now.

Unfortunately honeysuckle fruit is not as nutritious as our native red berries, such as dogwood, so the birds look great but they don't get as much fat and protein as they'd find in native fruit.

Seeds from the bird feeder can round out their diet.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 17 2013

Now Blooming: Wingstem

Published by under Plants

Wingstem blooming (photo by Kate St. John)

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) is now blooming in sunny woodlands in western Pennsylvania.

It's easy to identify by its ragged yellow flowers whose central disk stands up and whose petals look as if they've been blown back by a strong wind.

Failing that, you'll be able to identify it by the stem which has several "wings" or flanges that run its length.

The stem of Wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

Wing. Stem.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 16 2013

No Birds Here

Downtown Pittsburgh from the Ft Pitt Bridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Which place has fewer birds:  a city?  or a cornfield?

When birders visit cities they often think, "There are no birds here."  This isn't accurate, but I think so too until I realize there's a very high quantity of birds but low quality -- lots of pigeons, starlings and house sparrows.  It's the lack of diversity that prompts the comment.

Bird diversity is highest where the habitat provides a wide variety of food, cover and nesting sites.  A 20-year study of abandoned fields on Long Island found that bird diversity increased with the foliage height.  Since there's not much foliage in cities the birds we find here are those who nest on or in buildings and eat human refuse or handouts -- and the birds who prey on them.  (Peregrines!)

Most songbirds eat insects and invertebrates which are hard to come by in the asphalt jungle. Even hummingbirds who sip nectar feed insects to their young.  If you want birds you must have insects.

Places without insects are biological wastelands because they're also missing everything that depends on insects, all the way up the food chain.  Here's a picture of a wasteland.  There are no birds here.Cornfield in Penn Yan (photo by Jamie Lantzy via Wikimedia Commons)

I bet you're thinking, "That's not possible. There are plants in that cornfield. There have got to be insects and birds there too."

Nope.  Today in the U.S. we use more pesticides than we did when Rachel Carson warned us about them in Silent Spring.(1)

90% of the corn we grow is genetically engineered to survive the assaults of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.  This allows cornfields to be sprayed frequently(2) without hurting the corn.   Seed is also pre-treated with insecticide.

There are no insects in cornfields, no birds, and no plants except corn.  I was amazed when I found out about this at Cornstalks Everywhere But Nothing Else, Not even a Bee.

Not even a bee.  Hmmmm...


(credits: photo of Pittsburgh from the Fort Pitt Bridge and a cornfield, both from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals.  Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 620 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Aug 15 2013

Cicada Transformation

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

A newly emerged adult cicada pumps up its wings (photo by Kim Getz)

Birds aren't the only critters who molt in the summer.  Cicada nymphs dig upward from their lives underground (some live underground for 17 years), then climb up high and pick locations to molt into their winged adult form.

A week ago Kim Getz sent me photos of a cicada her family encountered while camping in Clear Creek State Park.  The nymph had decided to molt while hanging on their clothesline.  By the time they noticed, it had already emerged from its exoskeleton and was clinging to it, waiting for its wings to expand and its body to harden.

Time passed.  Its wings became longer.  Not quite ready though.

Adult cicada, still soft but wings are bigger (photo by Kim Getz)

Kim and her family watched for an hour but the cicada had still not turned dark (and hardened) though it moved to a tree trunk.

Cicada moves to the tree to finish its transformation (photo by Kim getz)

Molting is a long and vulnerable process for cicadas.  During the two hours it takes to become a full fledged adult they are soft and edible.  In China there are recipes for stir-fried cicadas though I am unlikely to try them.

To see the whole process in a matter of seconds, watch the animation below by T. Nathan Mundhenk of a cicada molting in Ohio.   The photos were taken at 1 minute intervals for about two hours.  To make the action move quickly he omitted 30 minutes while the cicada rested.



Was Kim's cicada one of the 17-year cicadas that emerged in parts of Pennsylvania this year?  Probably not.  Adult Magicicadas have red eyes.  My guess is that hers was a Neotibicen species.

(photos by Kim Getz, animation by T. Nathan Mundhenk via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the animation to see the full description)

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Aug 14 2013

Inside The Hive

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs


Yesterday we saw how beekeepers open the hive.  Today we see what the bees are doing.

Beehives are like dense cities containing food for all the bees and baby nurseries for the next generation.  Since bees don't live forever the queen must constantly lay eggs to keep the city running.

The queen lives one to five years laying 1,500-2,000 eggs per day after a single (or several) day mating flight.  She is able to selectively fertilize each egg from the stored sperm of 12-15 drones.  The hive lasts as long as there's a productive queen but the workers have a backup plan.  When they need a new queen they feed selected larvae (laid in queen cups) on royal jelly alone.  Click here for more information on this process.

Below is a photo from Wikimedia Commons of a queen bee with workers.  She is noticeably longer than her workers but is sometimes hard to pick out so beekeepers often mark their queens with a dot of color or a tiny sticker.
Queen bee and some honey bee workers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly the queen does not control the hive but she is treated like a queen. Her every need is met and her reign continues as long as she emits a pheromone that inhibits the workers' desire to produce a new queen.

In summer workers live about six weeks.  Their duties change as they age.

Young workers start inside the hive near the egg chambers, cleaning the hive, keeping the temperature a constant 93 degrees F, producing royal jelly, and feeding larvae.  All larvae eat royal jelly for a day or two before switching to pollen and honey.  Only future queens are fed royal jelly exclusively.

When larvae develop to the pupation stage, the workers cap the chambers as shown on the frame below.



Joan noticed that a new worker bee was emerging from her pupation chamber for the first time.  I've circled her below in green.  The process is a little like hatching as she chews her way out.  It was cool to see a new bee being born.


When their royal jelly glands atrophy, worker bees change jobs.  They build the waxen comb, retrieve nectar and pollen from foragers, store food and guard the hive.

Beekeepers like the bees to build honeycomb on frames separate from the brooding chambers so that no bee larvae are killed during honey harvest.  In the 1700's beekeepers invented a small hive section called a "super," that's placed at the top of the hive and achieves that goal.

Here's a hive frame containing only honey.  The older comb is darkest.  You can see the honey glistening in the comb.
Honeybees with honey comb (photo by Kate St. John)


When they're three weeks old, summer workers graduate to outdoor foraging.  These are the familiar bees we see gathering pollen in sacks on their legs and filling their crops with nectar to carry it back to the hive.  They travel up to 1.5 miles to find food.

Honey bees stop flying when it's 50 degrees F and huddle in the hive to stay warm.  They surround the queen and shiver their muscles to keep the center of the hive a constant 81 degrees F during the broodless period in early winter.  When the queen resumes laying they raise it back to 93F.  These are the workers who live through the winter, eating honey to survive.  They consume 30-100 pounds of it!

Though there are 20,000 species of bees on earth the European honey bee is our bee of choice because it forms large hives (lots of honey!) and the hives are perennial.  None of the native North American bees can match this.  They all die off in the winter, leaving only the queen to start over next year.


Thanks to Joan Guerin for the honey bee tour.  She is WQED's Interactive Director, our website's queen bee.  😉


(queen bee photo from Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by Kate St. John)


p.s. Stay tuned next week for more news about bees.

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Aug 13 2013

From Inside The Veil

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Kate St. John in beekeeping gear (photo by Joan Guerin)

Hello, Earthlings!

Last month I took the opportunity to learn about honey bees from my friend Joan Guerin who has two hives.  Joan loaned me a beekeeping veil and gloves.  That's me waving from inside the veil.

In this one visit I learned so much about bees that it'll take several blog entries to tell you.  Today I'll talk about beekeeping but barely touch the surface.

First rule, if you're allergic to bee stings this is not the job for you!

Gear:  Honeybees only sting to protect their hive or if they get trapped in your clothing.  Since beekeeping disturbs their hive, wear the gear.  I cinched mine tight to prevent wayward bees from exploring under the edges.  Joan is so familiar with her bees that she didn't wear gloves and her hands were just fine ... except that a lone bee walked up under her bell-bottom pant leg, panicked, and stung.  Joan calmly removed the stinger and moved on.    (Many old-timers don't even bother with gear.)  The honeybee that stings, dies of the effort because the stinger yanks off part of her body.

Smoke: Thousands of years ago people learned that bees are less likely to sting if you blow smoke at the hive.  When bees smell smoke they think the forest is burning so they rush to the honeycombs and chow down in case they have to evacuate soon.  Smoke also masks their alarm pheromones so if a lone bee stings you, the rest don't smell the alarm and join in a stinging campaign.

Below, Joan's smoker burns paper and wood chips.  When closed it looks like a teapot with a bellows on the side.
Making smoke to calm the bees (photo by Kate St. John)


Joan started by blowing smoke at the entrance of the first hive.  The entrance is a small space near the bottom, out of view of the camera.


Man-made hives are sectional so the beekeeper can easily open them to check the bees, retrieve bee products and rearrange the sections if necessary.  Rearranging becomes necessary because the queen bee moves upward in the hive as she lays eggs in chambers prepared by her workers. If the queen gets close to filling the available space the colony splits and half of them fly away with a new queen. (Not good for the beekeeper!)

To keep the colony intact, beekeepers move the queen's section to the bottom and add another section for the bees to use. Or the beekeeper can split the hive into a second stack and even provide a new mail-order queen, though the bees can make a new queen on their own (of course).

The Hive Tool: Opening the hive is not a simple matter.  The bees seal everything with propolis so beekeepers use a crowbar-like tool, 10 inches long, called a hive tool (photo from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm).
Hive tool (image from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm)

After prying off the outer lid Joan showed me the inner cover. The center hole is an entry into the hive below.  On the left is the notch that's an exit to the outside world.  Only the older workers go outdoors.

This lid is the only horizontal interior section.  Everything else inside the hive is vertical.

Each section has no bottom and holds 8 to 10 frames that slide in from the top.  The frames have panels with very slight hexagonal surfaces to give bees the hint to "Build here."   The frames are vertical and close to each other for maximum surface area.  The bees build their hive on a vertical surface in the dark just as they would in a bee tree.

Here's the top of the first section with the lid off.  Joan has just "smoked" them so the bees are retreating to the inside.


Joan pried the frame edge and lifted one out.  Here's the same area with one frame missing.  The frames are very close together but that doesn't matter. Bees are tiny.


Each hive contains one queen, thousands of female workers and a few male drones.  When the frame comes out it is covered with bees.  Almost all are female workers.  I saw a few drones but ran out of time to delve deep into the hive and find the queen.

Tomorrow I'll show you what the bees were doing inside.

(photo of Kate St. John waving, by Joan Guerin. All other photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 12 2013

The Warbler Guide

Published by under Books & Events

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle (cover image from Princeton University Press)

If you keep up with birding news you know that The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle came out this spring.  My review is a few months late but it's just in time for the season when we're really going to need this book -- Confusing Fall Warblers!

My interior debate upon opening any new field guide is:  Should I jump right in or read it first?    The first quarter of the book is not to be missed.  It provides excellent tips on how to use the book, What to Notice On A Warbler, How to Listen to Warbler Songs and how to read sonograms.

But during Confusing Fall Warbler season you might have to jump right in.  Use the Quick Finders.

Try the East Fall Quickfinder on pages 110-111.  Use a Post-It note to bookmark the page edge so you can jump here quickly.  Pick the closest bird you see but don't worry about making a wrong guess. When you get to the species account you'll find similar Comparison Species and ample descriptions to point you to the right bird.

If you already have a guess, flip to the species accounts and -- Hooray! -- they're in alphabetical order by common name, not in the confusing ever-changing taxonomic order.

The accounts are rich with easy to find tips.  I've already learned from the Diagnostic Field Mark ? that's "always sufficient for a confident ID."   Did you know you can always ID a drab confusing Blackburnian by the pale braces on its back and dark olive cheek patch that's pointed at back and bottom?  Now I know.

The end of the book is full of treasures too with a Quiz and Review, right-sized photos of Warblers in Flight and a table of Habitats and Behaviors.

Added bonus:  Download the audio guide of warbler sounds including chip calls.  You'll need them during fall migration.

Confusing fall warblers are arriving soon so be prepared with The Warbler Guide.  Click here or the image above to learn more and buy it from Princeton University Press.

(cover image of The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)


p.s. Click here for downloadable versions of the Warbler Quick Finders.

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