Archive for August, 2013

Aug 11 2013


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Pandorus Sphinx moth (photo by Monica Miller)

Extra-spectacular.  That's how describes the Pandorus Sphinx moth.

When you see this 3.5" to 4.5" moth it stops you in your tracks.  It's huge, beautiful olive green, has black and pink highlights, and is as big as the palm of your hand.

Years ago I saw my first Pandorus Sphinx month perched on an end-wall of the Greenfield Bridge over the Parkway East.  What was it doing there?

Pandorus Sphinx larvae feed on grapevine and Virginia creeper leaves.  There's a lot of invasive grapevine draping the hills near the bridge so that moth may have spent its caterpillar days there.  Perhaps it was a female waiting for night to fall so she could emit pheromones which the males "smell" and follow upwind to find her.

I'd love to see the caterpillar some day.  They're extra-spectacular too -- bright green or burnt-orange with orangy or white spots.  Their third thoracic segment is oversized so they can draw their heads and first two segments into it for protection.

Here's a rust colored caterpillar with his head drawn in.

Pandora Sphinx Moth caterpillar, Moraine State Park, 2008 (photo by Chuck Tague)

August is a good month to see these moths and their larvae.   I hope I get lucky.

And thanks to my personal bug guides, Monica Miller and Chuck Tague, who took these pictures.  They are both very lucky when in comes to bugs.


(moth photo by Monica Miller, caterpillar by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 10 2013

More Jewels

Published by under Plants

Slender-leaved sundew (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here's a closeup of another plant whose leaves bear tiny jewel-like drops, but they aren't benign like jewelweed.

This is slender-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis), a member of the Drosera genus of carnivorous plants whose mucilage droplets attract, trap and digest insect prey.  The drops are so sticky that insects can't escape.  The tentacles are so sensitive to touch that at the footfall of an insect they bend to entrap the victim.  The insect dies within 15 minutes.

It seems ironic that the plant also produces flowers and holds them high to attract pollinators.  Isn't it counterproductive to eat the insects it depends on for pollination?  But it doesn't.  The pollinators aren't attracted to the droplets so they don't get hurt.

When the flower blooms the plant looks like this.

Slender-leaved sundew blooming (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Two species of sundews bloom in spaghum bogs in western Pennsylvania from June through August.  The slender-leaved sundew is relatively rare.  Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is more common.

The flowers only open in strong sunlight.  My favorite place to see them is at Spruce Flats bog at Laurel Summit State Park.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Aug 09 2013

Ugly Ducks

Published by under Tenth Page

Mallard hybrid (photo by Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons)

We've all seen them: ugly ducks that defy identification.

They have mallard heads with blotchy white bodies, or yellow legs instead of orange, or a wild duck head with a domestic's body.  They look like this because they're hybrids, a phenomenon that occurs easily in birds because Aves have retained a high level of genetic compatibility.

Hybrids confuse ornithologists.  Brewster's and Lawrence's warblers were classified as unique species until they discovered that both are hybrids of blue-winged and golden-winged warblers.  Dr. Frank Langdon fell into the hybrid trap with his Cincinnati warbler, revealed 100 years later to be a Kentucky and blue-winged hybrid.  The AOU famously lumped Bullock's and Baltimore orioles into the "northern oriole" in 1983, thinking that their hybridization meant they were the same species.  Not!  Fifteen years later the orioles were split back into Bullock's and Baltimore.

Hybrid birds aren't always sterile but when they are it happens to the females.  Sterile females lay eggs that never hatch because their genetic blend causes their embryos to die during development.  In the early days of peregrine falcon reintroduction, management agencies removed sterile hybrid peregrines so the male could find a fertile mate and increase the species.  This happened at Cleveland's Terminal Tower in 1993 (Zenith moved into that opening) and in Harrisburg, PA in 1998.

Male hybrids are fertile but they often fail to find a mate because their plumage, voices and courtship displays are just "off" enough that they don't attract any females.

Did this hybrid mallard in Germany have a mate?  Perhaps the ladies think he's ugly.


(credits: photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 590 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

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Aug 08 2013

Experiments with Jewelweed

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Jewelweed jewels (photo by Kate St. John)

Tuesday dawned cool and clear with patchy morning fog and lots of dew.  As I walked to work through Schenley Park I noticed that the jewelweed leaves were dripping with tiny round jewels.

Jewelweed gets its name from the way water beads up on top of the leaves but I'd never before seen jewels drip from the tips so I took a picture.  Then I experimented.

What would happen if I touched a jewel?

It came off on my finger and stayed in its rounded jewel form.  It wasn't pure water.  It didn't roll off.
Jewel on my fingertip (photo by Kate St. John)


While I was experimenting with these tiny drops Art Schiavo, an avid birder from Hershey, PA, was thinking about jewelweed too (amazing coincidence!) and sent me this message:

"I'm sure you know that jewelweed is in the Impatiens Genus.  I'm also fairly certain you know that its medicinal value is insect bite, stinging nettle exposure, and poison ivy relief, but did you know that the seeds are edible and taste similar to sunflower seeds?"

Wow.  I had no idea you could eat the seeds.  A little investigation uncovered this document that explains which parts of the plant are edible and how to cook them.  There's no need to cook the seeds but good luck catching them when the casing pops.

More experiments ahead!


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 07 2013

Positive Identification

Published by under Peregrines

Female peregrine, Blue, identified at Green Tree (photo by Shannon Thompson)

Exciting news at Green Tree!  Thanks to Shannon Thompson we now know the identity of the female peregrine at the water tower.

Shannon made it her goal this spring to read the female's bands.  It was a challenge!  After months of frustration she finally saw "Black/Green 74/AE" last Sunday and sent the numbers to Pennsylvania's Peregrine Coordinator, Art McMorris, who tells us ...

This is a bird we've met before.  She hatched and fledged at the Cathedral of Learning in 2011, a daughter of Dorothy and E2.  Back then she was nicknamed "Blue" because of the blue tape on her USFW band.

Blue barely left home, choosing to nest only 5.25 miles from her birthplace. Her mate is unbanded so we'll never know where he came from but we do know he was born in 2012 because of his juvenile plumage.

Blue was not one of the stars of the 2011 brood.  She kept a low profile while Henry ("Red") and his sister Yellow stole the show.  Henry is now famous in Shaker Heights, Ohio and Yellow died in a window kill.  Blue is making up for lost time by twice halting work at the water tower.

Blue and her mate raised a ruckus when major maintenance began this spring so work was halted to allow them to nest.  The nest was unsuccessful and the nesting season was over so the Game Commission told the water company they could resume work in July.  When they did, workers heard young peregrines calling from an unseen location on the tower.  Work halted again.  Now, three weeks later, no young peregrines have been seen at all and we're beginning to wonder.  Time will tell. (Later: see the comments for an update.)

Meanwhile I'm glad Blue finally allowed Shannon to read her bands.  It's great to know that another of Dorothy and E2's kids is doing well.

A very positive identification.  🙂

(photo by Shannon Thompson)

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Aug 06 2013

I Will Sing With You

Nightingale singing in Berlin ()photo by J. Dietrich via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday while on my way to somewhere else , I discovered a blog called Goldbird Variations that began when the author started playing music for birds.

Years ago Lisa Rest of Chicago took up the piano again and often played with her window open.  One day a mourning dove flew to the windowsill and sang along.  She didn't understand what it was doing until later, wanting to share her music with an audience, she rediscovered that the birds were listening outside her window and singing as she played.

Soon she began intentionally playing music for birds, recording their duets and writing about her encounters.  Now she's hooked on birds and blogging.  I know how that is!

Lisa has perfect pitch and can tell that the birds do too.  Listen to a cardinal sing with her in this post that explains why birds are attracted to music.

Which leads to the nightingale above...

Lisa points out she's not the only one to play music for birds.   In May 1927 the BBC recorded Beatrice Harrison playing Londonderry Air on her cello in her garden in Surrey as a nightingale sang along.  The bird waits for her phrases and blends in at appropriate times.  Amazing!  Click here to download and play the mp3 recording from the Music And Nature radio program.

I have neither perfect pitch nor musical skill but I've encountered birds' interest in music when I whistle while I hike.  I'm particularly fond of Bach and Beethoven and since I don't sing well I whistle my favorite tunes.

Their favorite of my repertoire seems to be the second movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony, Szene am Bach (Scene at the brook) from his Pastoral Symphony.

Of course the birds like that one!


(photo of a nightingale singing in Berlin.  Click on the image to see the original on Wikimedia Commons.  This post was inspired by the Goldbird Variations)

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Aug 05 2013

Every Dolphin Has A Name

Published by under Mammals

A Bottlenose Dolphin plays in a boat's wake (photo from NASA archive via Wikimedia Commons)

We're used to the notion that we name dolphins (remember Flipper?) but did you know that dolphins name themselves and call each other by name?

Last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland published a study of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that explains how dolphins communicate by name.

Using underwater microphones they recorded dolphins' voices and discovered that each one had his own unique whistle, a signature sound.  Having matched the signatures to individuals they then played back the sounds, one at a time.  The dolphin who "owned" the sound responded.

This is just like what humans do.  If you call out "Kate," I'll respond -- if I hear you.

Hearing is probably the reason why dolphins have named themselves.  They live in a world where it's hard to see but easy to hear (sound travels better in water than in air).  They also live in a social group that's always on the move.  When a friend has swum out of sight they call him and the friend answers.   This makes it easy for the group to stay together.

Researcher Vincent Janik points out that individual communication is also important for mothers and calves. Baby dolphins rely on their mothers' milk until they are three years old yet they're just as mobile as their mothers.  What an advantage that they can call each other by name!

Read more about the study and see a video of the research at this link at BBC News.


p.s.  This confirms my belief, garnered from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, that many animals have their own secret names.  We just don't know what they are.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 04 2013

Bird Story Wins Top Prize

Published by under Books & Events

Willie meeting Hannah, from Willie and Hannah by Haruka Doi

These bird illustrations by a seven year old are so beautiful that I had to share them with you. No wonder this book won first prize.

WQED's Education Department holds a Writers Contest every year for children in grades kindergarten through three.  After the judges pick local winners, our first place winners in each grade advance to the national PBS KIDS GO! Writers Contest.  This year two WQED kids won at the national level.  First place honors went to a gorgeous story about birds.

Second grader Haruka Doi, age 7 of Pittsburgh, submitted her story Willie and Hannah about an abandoned baby woodpecker who's helped by a red-tailed hawk.  Her story is unusual.  Her pictures took my breath away.

Haruka painstakingly constructed each illustration as a mosaic of colored paper scraps that create realistic portrayals of the birds. Above, Willie the woodpecker meets Hannah the red-tail for the first time.  Below, Willie is in his nest hole.  These photos can't do the pictures justice. They are so intricate you want to touch them.

Willie by Haruka Doi

To see what I mean, click here to see the book and hear Haruka read her story.

At such a young age Haruka is already familiar with the birds, their postures and attitudes. Besides being an author and artist, she may be a birder, too. 

Here she accepts her award in Pittsburgh.

Haruka D accepts her award at the 2013 Writers' Contest (photo courtesy of WQED)

Congratulations, Haruka!

Her birds are winners.


(photos courtesy of WQED)

p.s. Russell native, Cricket Branstrom, won national third place among first-graders for her story, Little Possom's Adventure.  Click here to see and hear her story.

2 responses so far

Aug 03 2013

Visiting Shorebirds

Marbled godwit at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio (photo by Steve Gosser)

Shorebirds are migrating but we're not likely to see them in Pittsburgh because we don't have a shore. However there's an excellent place north of us that does:  the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio.

Conneaut's harbor was formed where Conneaut Creek flows into Lake Erie.  The lake's waves can be rough so the harbor has been sheltered by two breakwaters.  These allowed the creek (and probably the harbor dredge) to deposit a sand spit and mud flat so extensive you can park on it.

Visiting shorebirds feed at the water's edge and rest on the sand.  Sometimes they're so close you have to back up to see them with binoculars!

The harbor is more than two hours away but the trip is well worth it.  Steve Gosser photographed this marbled godwit there in July.

Click here for a map and the harbor's eBird checklist.  The best place is called the "sand spit" on the map.

More shorebirds coming.  Visit them at Conneaut.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 02 2013

8 Minutes at the Yukon Delta

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Early this month Cornell Lab of Ornithology featured this gorgeous video in their eNewsletter.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the breeding ground for birds from every continent on earth and the only place where four threatened/endangered species breed.

Learn about the delta and see its beautiful birds in just eight minutes.

(video by Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

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