Monthly Archives: September 2015

Pay Attention To What I Eat

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here's the story of a great idea that went sour really fast because people didn't observe bird behavior.

During the 1800's many Britons emigrated to New Zealand and began farming. As the settlers cleared the forest, New Zealand's native birds (which are flightless) retreated or became extinct.

Soon insect pests proliferated and the farmers clamored for a solution.  Someone had a bright idea, "I know! Birds eat bugs. Let's import a bird."

The Acclimatisation Societies decided to import the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), a sparrow-like Eurasian bird famous for his pretty song.  They lined up dealers in Britain who captured local yellowhammers and shipped them overseas.  New Zealand's farmers welcomed them with open arms.

It didn't take long to find out this was a terrible mistake.  The birds ate the crops, not the insects.

Look at his conical bill and you can tell the yellowhammer eats seeds all year long.  In fact, he only supplements his diet with insects during the breeding season.

Soon New Zealanders hated the yellowhammers.  In 1880, only 15 years after the first birds arrived, the last shipment was turned away and sent to Australia.  Farmers hunted, poisoned and raided yellowhammer nests, trying to rid the country of this once welcomed bird but it was too late.  Yellowhammers were firmly established in New Zealand and are widespread today.

They'd have saved a lot of trouble if someone had paid attention to what yellowhammers eat.

Read the full story here at Science Daily.

 

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

A Bird On The Hand

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)
Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Early this month Debbie Kalbfleisch told us of a magical place loaded with migrating warblers where the chickadees eat out of your hand. The only rules were: Bring black sunflower seed, Never feed the chickadees near the road, Leave no seed behind (or they will learn to eat from the ground, not your hand).

Our birding email group, fittingly called "The Chickadees," could not resist these enticements so Debbie led us there last Saturday.  Above, she demonstrates that it really works.

Naturally the rest of us had to try.  Below, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and I hold out our hands while Donna Foyle takes our picture.

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)
Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

As the chickadees became accustomed to our large group of 12 they came to our hands more often, taking turns and flying off to cache the seeds.

Then the warblers showed up.  (I'd forgotten that migrating warblers forage near chickadees.)  We put the seed in our pockets and raised our binoculars but the chickadees followed, still expecting to eat.  Fortunately one of us always had a hand out.

I missed a few warblers because I love the chickadees so much.

He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)
He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

You can train your own backyard chickadees to eat from your hand.  All it takes is cold weather and a lot of patience.  Here's how --> Seeing Eye To Eye With Birds

Balck-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)
Black-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

A bird on the hand is worth two in the bush.

 

(photos by Donna Foyle)

In Case You Missed It: Tick Check!

Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from CDC.gov)
Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from CDC.gov)

In case you missed it on the radio ...

Oh no!  That dark blue spot on the map is bad news.  Each microscopic dot represents an incident of Lyme disease in 2014.  Look at western Pennsylvania!

This year Lyme disease came closer to home than ever before. Several friends of mine caught it this summer in Allegheny County, in suburban Pittsburgh.

Do these anecdotes represent a real increase in local Lyme disease?  If yes, what is causing it?  And does it have anything to do with our weather or climate change?

I posted my question on the iSeeChange website (here) and The Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple investigated.  She found out that Lyme disease is increasing in western Pennsylvania and there's more than one reason for it.  Warmer winters (climate change) do play a part.

Read and hear the story here at:  Tick Check: Why Lyme Disease is on the Rise in Pennsylvania.

 

(Lyme disease incidence map from CDC.gov.  Click on the map to see the large PDF version)

Two Gentians

Closed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Bottle Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Autumn would not be complete without a look at two gentians that bloom in western Pennsylvania from late August to October.

Bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is relatively common, especially in damp shaded soil at Moraine State Park.  When the flowers bloom they remain so tightly closed that only bumblebees can force their way in and pollinate the plant.  Other insects cheat, however, and pierce the flower to reach the nectar.

Fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is such a rare plant that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired and preserved the Fringed Gentian Fen in Lawrence County to protect it.

Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Fens are open wetlands dominated by grasses and sedges that have pH neutral or alkaline water with lots of dissolved minerals.  Fens seem useless to humans because they're so soggy but they're exactly where fringed gentians love to grow.

Visit damp places in September and October to find these two gentians.

 

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Bronze Copper

Bronze Copper Butterfly (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Bronze Copper Butterfly (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The season is almost over for butterflies but there are still some great ones out there.

Dianne and Bob Machesney found this Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus) a week ago in a damp area of Moraine State Park.  She and Bob usually see American Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) because those butterflies prefer plants that grow in disturbed soil.  Bronze Coppers prefer plants in bogs, marshes and wet meadows so they're much harder to find.

I love the yellow tips on its striped antennae.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Bald Eagle Takes Selfie on Stolen Camera

Bald eagle screenshot from Mason Colby's video on YouTube

More than a year ago Mason Colby decided to film bald eagles in Craig, Alaska by setting up his Go Pro camera next to some salmon heads.

Things were going well until an immature bald eagle stole the camera!  Mason wrote on YouTube:

Set up my go pro next to some salmon heads from the days catch to film the eagles eating and next thing I know, one of them swoops down and snags the camera right off the ground. It carried it up to a mile away and I lost sight of it. For four hours we searched in the rain until I finally found it and the camera was still intact. So glad I got the footage!

Click on the screenshot to see what happened.

 

(screenshot from Mason Colby on YouTube. This video was featured by JunkinVideo on 3 Sept 2015)

p.s. Bald eagles are more plentiful and gregarious in Alaska than in Pennsylvania except for this once-a-year exception: They congregate at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna in November, just south of PA in Maryland.

Just Plain Ornery

Sharp-shinned hawk atCrooked Creek, October 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Sharp-shinned hawk at Crooked Creek, fall 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Broad-winged hawk migration is about to peak in Pennsylvania. Perhaps it already has.

Next on the Hawk Watch docket will be lots of sharp-shinned hawks, showing off their attitude as they fly.  The peaceful camaraderie of the broad-winged kettle is not for them.  Sharpies are just plain ornery!

Read about their attitude in this September 2008 article -->  Ornery

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Tock Tock Tock

Here's a hollow sound you often hear in the woods but you rarely see who's making it.

Tock Tock Tock Tock, the sound travels and is echoed by additional singers.  Who's making this sound and what does it mean?

The knocking is a chipmunk warning call that means "Danger From The Air!"  One chipmunk has seen an aerial predator and has frozen in position to warn everyone they'd better watch out.  The other chipmunks freeze, too, and echo the call until it's impossible to tell where the warning began.

The video below shows the sound as we usually encounter it -- a disembodied knocking.  In this case it's louder than thunder.

 

If I'd known the sound's meaning I would have looked for a raptor during my walk in the woods.

 

(videos by Mark Czerniec and MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)

Undrinkable in Pennsylvania

Undrinkable: acid mine drainage (photo by Kate St. John)
Acid mine drainage in well water (photo by Kate St. John)

Two weeks in Maine where the water is clean re-opened my eyes to something I take for granted in Pennsylvania: some places have orange water.

Perhaps you've been to this restroom at the Route 528 boat launch in Moraine State Park.  The restroom is clean but the water is not.  "Notice. Non-potable water. Not for Drinking."   The metallic smell and orange-stained sinks and toilets make you wonder, "If the water's that bad, should I use it to wash my hands?"

Coal mining contaminated the ground water here(*).  The orange water is acid mine drainage.  When the coal was removed it exposed pyrite which, when exposed to water, turns into sulfuric acid and iron.  Bad water from old surface and underground mines flows into streams and wells in Pennsylvania's coal regions.

95% of the acid mine drainage in the U.S. is right in here in western PA, West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and far western Maryland.  Visitors are shocked by the orange water we've come to take for granted.  Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 miles of these polluted streams, a problem too huge for individuals to solve.

The good news is that Pennsylvania stepped in with coal mining laws in the 1960's that prevent new water contamination and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can require clean up when an old mine is reopened.  Slowly, the worst water is being treated and improved.

That's how part of the Conemaugh River turned from orange to clear in Somerset County in 2013.  See before and after pictures and read about the impressive change here on the Allegheny Front.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) There are other ways to expose pyrite.  During construction of Interstate-99, excavation and rock-handling on Bald Eagle Ridge exposed pyrite that polluted nearby ground water and Buffalo Run, a high quality stream.  Though the pyrite was known to be there, construction plans ignored it.  It took two years and $83 million to fix the mistake.

White Snakeroot + Schenley Walk Reminder

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)
White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Walk:
Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday September 27, 8:30am - 10:30am.

This time we'll meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road.  This is not the usual meeting place at the Visitor's Center.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk must be canceled for bad weather.

White Snakeroot:
On the August walk we saw white snakeroot and we're sure to see it this month, too.  At the time I called it tall boneset, a confusing alternate name.  What was I thinking?!  I should have used its most common name.

White snakeroot grows 1 - 5 feet tall with opposite, toothed, egg-shaped leaves and branching clusters of bright white flowers.  Each flower head is a cluster of very tiny flowers, shown above.

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant is similar enough to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) that it used to be in the same genus, but it's been reclassified to Ageratina altissima.   To avoid confusion with unrelated boneset I'll call it "white snakeroot" from now on.

Unfortunately "snakeroot" is confusing, too.  White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is not related to black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa, black cohosh).  Arg!

In any case, we'll see it next Sunday.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE: 27 September 2015:  We were a small group but we saw some cool things including this Best Bird:  A red-tailed hawk hovered above Panther Hollow and then screamed in (silently!) with talons extended to catch something on the ground! But he missed it.  We weren't in the line of fire but we were certainly impressed!

Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)