Archive for September, 2013

Sep 21 2013

Spanish Needles

Published by under Plants

Spanish needles in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

These small yellow flowers look innocent, but after they're fertilized the central disk grows longer and develops into hard, brown seeds.


The seeds splay out as they dry. Each one is topped by a tiny pitchfork of two to four spikes with downward-facing barbs.

Sanish needles gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

The needle-like seeds detach easily from the plant...


... and stick to my sweater.

Spanish needles on my sweater (photo by Kate St. John)

That's when I noticed the plant.


The Spanish Needles plant (Bidens bipinnata) is so annoying I was sure it was an alien invasive.  Not!  It's a native annual that's very adaptable, willing to grow in disturbed soil in vacant lots.  These seeds grabbed me on Winthrop Street in Oakland.

Bidens bipinnata has many hitchhiker relatives in the Bidens genus.  I identified this one by its lobed leaves and needle-like seeds.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 20 2013

What’s All the Shouting About?

On vacation in Maine I saw a lot of gulls flying, posturing, and calling.

What was all the shouting about?

This video, filmed at Appledore Island, explains it all.

I wish I'd known this two weeks ago.  😉

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, featured in their September 2013 eNewsletter)


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Sep 19 2013

Fancy Feet

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Quiz

Snowy egret feet (photo by Chuck Tague)

Monday's blog about identifying white wading birds got me thinking about snowy egrets' black legs and fancy yellow feet.  Wow!

Are there other birds in North America whose legs and feet are different colors?

The immature blackpoll warbler has them.  Adult blackpolls have bright orange-yellow legs and feet but the youngsters have black legs.  Their contrasting feet are a good identification tip during fall migration.  This one is wearing orange slippers.
Immature Blackpoll warbler (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Beyond the blackpoll I was stumped.  I searched my field guide page by page and discovered that golden-crowned kinglets have dark legs and pale yellow feet.  Who knew?  I never looked at their feet before.
Golden-crowned kinglet (photo by Shawn Collins)


Do any other North American birds have fancy feet?  I don't think so, but maybe you know of one.

In the meantime I'll leave you with this thought ...

Have you ever seen a Eurasian Coot?
Eurasian coot (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


(photo credits:  Snowy egret feet by Chuck Tague, immature blackpoll warbler by Marcy Cunkelman, golden-crowned kinglet by Shawn Collins, Eurasian coot from Wikimedia Commons)

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Sep 18 2013


Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Pickerel frog (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I can tell the habitat is clean in Maine (no acid mine drainage!) because I saw a lot of frogs while hiking there on vacation.

Here's one that surprised me by the intricate pattern on his brown back. (not my own photo)

Unlike northern leopard frogs which have circular spots on a green background, pickerel frogs have blob-like rectangles.

It's useful to know the difference because frightened pickerel frogs excrete a substance from their skin that's toxic to other frogs and mildly irritating to human skin.  Snakes won't eat them.

No frogs' legs on the menu with these!


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

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Sep 17 2013

Cucumbers: Wild And Bur

Published by under Plants

Wild Cucumber (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Pumpkins, zucchini, yellow squash, gourds, the members of the Cucurbitaceae family are ripe and ready to eat in North America.

In Pennsylvania's moist thickets you'll also find wild and bur cucumbers ... but don't eat them!

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is an annual vine that can be unruly at this time of year. After a summer of growing, climbing and blooming it has thrown its tendrils around trees and over bushes.  Its spiny cucumber fruits hang at intervals along the vine waiting to dry out and explode the seeds in all directions.

The seeds take up a big part of the fruit as you can see from this sliced one.   I wonder if any animals eat this...
Wild cucumber, opened (photo by Dianne Machesney)


A look-alike plant with even smaller, spikier fruits is the Bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus).  Its clustered "cucumbers" aren't edible and frankly look dangerous because the ratio of spines to fruit is a lot higher.
Bur Cucumber (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide separates these plants by their flower parts but there are other hints as well:

  • Wild cucumber has six petals, Bur has five.
  • Wild has smooth stems. Bur has sticky hairs on its stem.
  • Wild has deeply lobed leaves. Bur has broad, heart-shaped leaves.
  • Wild's fruits hang separately. Bur's fruits are in clusters.
  • Wild's fruits are about the size of the leaves (can be 2"). Bur's fruits are small.

Dianne and Bob Machesney found the wild ones at the Butler-Freeport Trail and burs at Green Cove in Washington County.

If you want to eat a cucumber, go for the real thing in the garden or grocery store.  It's been cultivated for 3,000 years.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Sep 16 2013

Little Blues

Published by under Water and Shore

Little blue heron (photo by Shawn Collins)

Just when you thought you'd mastered white wading birds, a wildcard shows up!

It's the time of year for white little blue herons.  I was reminded of this when I visited Scarborough Marsh last week and encountered great egrets, snowy egrets and little blue herons, all of which were white.  Great and snowy egrets are always white, but little blues are blue ... except when they're young.

Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) don't breed in western Pennsylvania but juvenile birds disperse widely -- they even fly north! -- so it's possible to find them outside their normal range in August and September.  Because they're very rare in Pittsburgh I was surprised to find three at Scarborough Marsh but I should have checked the range map.  They breed in southern Maine.

With so many white wading birds how did I figure them out?  Beaks and legs!

  • Great egret:  yellow beak, black legs.  Large.
  • Snowy egret:  black beak with yellow face, black legs with yellow feet
  • Cattle egret:  yellow beak and dull yellow or dark legs. Small with short, chunky neck.
  • Immature little blue heron:  gray beak (tipped in black), yellow legs.
  • Not in Maine and Pennsylvania: the white morph of the Reddish egret: pink-and-black beak and dark legs (see photo at end).

First row of photos: Great egret + Snowy egret.
Second row: Cattle egret + immature Little blue heron.
Comparison of great egret and snowy egret (photos by Shawn Collins)

Comparison of catlle egret and little blue heron (photos by Shawn Collins)

Only the snowy egret has a black beak.   (Notice his fancy yellow feet).

The little blue is the only one with a gray beak(*), a hint that he'll turn blue.  We won't see him do this in western Pennsylvania because the juveniles fly south before winter.

When he's halfway blue he'll look very motley and match the marsh, like this one Shawn found in Texas.

Immature little blue heron with mottled blue and white (photo by Shawn Collins)


When he grows up you'll never mistake him for an egret.

Little blue heron adult (photo by Shawn Collins)

He'll be a little blue. 😉


(all photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s. (*) Jim Valimont points out that along the southern, Gulf, Caribbean and Pacific coasts the white morph of the Reddish Egret adds to the confusion.  Its beak resembles the immature little blue heron's except that it's two-tone pink and black.  It's not found in Maine and Pennsylvania.

p.p.s  Steve Gosser contributed this photo of a white-morph reddish egret. Compare it to the first photo at top. Confusing? Yes!  But his legs are black and he only visits saltwater.
Reddish egret, white morph (photo by Steve Gosser)


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Sep 15 2013

Lettuce or Rattlesnake

Published by under Plants

Tall White Lettuce, from the top (photo by Kate St. John)

Though I know this plant grows in western Pennsylvania and have seen its mysterious leaves in Spring, the only place I've seen it produce this many flowers is in Maine.

Tall White Lettuce (Prenanthes altissima) is sometimes called Tall Rattlesnakeroot.  It has such variable leaves and flowers that Newcomb's Wildflower Guide keys it out with both five and six repeating parts.

The one distinguishing feature is drooping greenish flowers whose stamens hang below the petals.  I can't think of any other plant that looks like this.

flowers_tallwhitelettuce_maine2012_1398b_kmsTall White Lettuce flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Descriptions of Tall White Lettuce say it tastes bitter, so why is it called ""lettuce"?

Better yet, why "rattlesnake root"?


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 14 2013

Where Are The White Petals?

Published by under Plants

Gardeners in Maine have told me this flower is a real pain.  It's a perennial that's hard to get rid of if it's in your yard.

Originally from Eurasia, Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) looks like a daisy without any white petals.  It was brought to North America as a medicinal herb but it grows too well in Maine's coastal climate.

I often see it by the side of the road and wonder ... where are the white petals?

(photo by Pauline Eccles via Wikimedia Commons)

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Sep 13 2013

Red Legs

Black guillemot in breeding plumage at Metinic Island, Maine (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

About the size of a pigeon, this northern alcid comes south to Maine for the winter.

I've seen black guillemots fishing close to rocky shores.  Some are still in their black-and-white breeding plumage (above). Most have changed to mottled white for winter.

Black guillemot in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In either case they have bright red legs that match the insides of their mouths.

I can see their red legs through the water.

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

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Sep 12 2013

No Food, No Water

Mount Desert Rock (photo by krzdweasel, Creative Commons license)

Twenty miles off the coast of Mount Desert Island is a tiny granite outcrop called Mount Desert Rock.  On a clear day you can see it with binoculars from the mountains of Acadia National Park. It looks like an improbable ship, taller than it is long.

Only 3.5 acres in size, Mount Desert Rock holds three buildings and a lighthouse just 17 feet above sea level. During winter storms and hurricanes the ocean washes over the island and punishes the buildings. The boathouse was swept away during Hurricane Bill in 2009. Isolated and exposed the Rock stands alone. Click here to see how small it is.

Map showing location of Mount Desert Rock (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Whale watching tours from Bar Harbor sometimes circle the Rock.  That's how I've come close but never landed.  The Rock has no harbor so even those authorized to land can only do so when the sea is calm.

Lighthouse keepers and their families used to live year-round on the island, sheltering in the lighthouse during storms.  Since 1998 the College of the Atlantic has had whale and seal study crews posted there on temporary assignment, but they leave before a storm.

No matter who is stationed there, they must survive on food and water shipped from the mainland.  Rainwater is collected in a cistern under the keepers' house but it's undrinkable.  Nothing can grow there because the ocean washes away the topsoil in every storm.  And there is noise: The foghorn blares every 30 seconds.

When the weather is right, songbirds take a shortcut across the Gulf of Maine during fall migration from Nova Scotia to Maine.  From the whale watch boat I've seen ruby-throated hummingbirds and robins pumping their way past the Rock to Mt. Desert Island 20 miles away.  It's scary to think they are over open water, sometimes fighting the wind, spending themselves to make landfall on the shores of Acadia -- or else they will die.

Fly safe, little birds.  The Rock is no place to rest.  No food.  No water.

(photo by "krzdweasel" via Flickr, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original. Map from Wikipedia.)

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