Monthly Archives: October 2015

Spooky Time

Yellow and purple puppets looking frightened and surprised, Vienna (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What are these puppets frightened of?

When they came back from Trick or Treating their clocks looked like this!

Clock turned back (photo by Kate St. John)

Spooky!

Happy Halloween and don't forget to turn your clocks back tonight.¬† ūüėČ

 

(photo of frightened and surprised puppets in a Vienna park from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Photo of clock turned back by Kate St. John)

Bald Eagle Rendezvous

If you're a fan of bald eagles, here's a site to put on your travel plans for next month.

Every November bald eagles congregate on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam just south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland.  Eagles like the area because the fish are easy to catch after they pass through the dam's gateway.  We like the area because there are so many bald eagles and it's only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

As you can see from the video above, it's a popular place for photography.

If you don't mind crowds and want to see a wide selection of raptors, visit on Saturday November 14, 2015 for Conowingo's Bald Eagle Day.

Here's a video from last year's event.  Yes, there are crowds but you'll see cool birds, too.

For more information, follow Conowingo Bald Eagles on Facebook and click here for event information.

 

(videos from YouTube)

Yes, They’re At Home

E2: hoping Dorothy will take the hint, 24 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)
E2 at the nest perch, 24 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday Barbara Hancey asked if Dorothy and E2 are still at home at the Cathedral of Learning.

Yes, they are.

On campus my friend Karen Lang and I have seen at least one peregrine, sometimes both, several times a week. The birds are much less active than they are in the spring and they have very little interest in visiting the nest.

Like all birds peregrine falcons are sensitive to seasonal light changes.  As the days get shorter their reproductive hormones cease and their interest in breeding -- and in the nest -- ceases, too.

The snapshots above (E2) and below (Dorothy) show they currently visit about once a week.  This frequency will drop even further and won't ramp up again until February.

Dorothy makes a quick visit to the nest,19 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Dorothy makes a quick visit to the nest,19 Oct 2015 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

 

(photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh)

p.s. This is not an egg.  It's a reddish hole-punch that blew into the nest on the windy day, Oct 29.

Reddish hole-punch that blew into the Pitt peregrine nest on Oct 29, 2015
Reddish hole-punch that blew into the Pitt peregrine nest on Oct 29, 2015

I Yam Not A Yam

Sweet potatoes or yams (photo by J√©r√īme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)
Yams a.k.a. sweet potatoes (photo by J√©r√īme Sautret via Wikimedia Commons)

The other day I was eating a yam and wondered where the name "yam" came from.  The Oxford English Dictionary said the word is from West Africa and it's not the name of the plant I was eating.

True yams are in the Dioscoreaceae family. Native to Africa and Asia, there are many cultivated varieties. Our yams were named by African slaves who saw the resemblance to their yams back home.  A true yam (African type) looks like this.

True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
True yams in Brixton market (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

North America does have native members of the Dioscoreaceae family but we don't eat them.  Have you ever seen these leaves in the woods, often in a whorl?  Wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) is common in western Pennsylvania.

Wild yam leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)
Wild yamroot leaves (photo by Tim McCormack from Wikimedia Commons)

The yams we eat are Ipomoea batatas.  They're labeled Yams in the grocery store because of USDA rules.  White inside = "sweet potato." Orange inside = "yam."  They're the same plant.

Should we call them sweet potatoes instead?  Well, that's not accurate either.  They're not in the same family as potatoes (Solanaceae family).

The Ipomoea batatas flower gives us a clue to its identity.  What family does this look like?

Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Ipomoea batatas flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, our sweet-potato-yam is a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.

Whatever.

I'll call it a yam so I can find it in the grocery store.

 

Read more here at the Huffington Post: What's the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

October (and November) Hummingbirds

Rufous hummingbird, female, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)
Female rufous hummingbird, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Do you still have red flowers in your garden?  Are your hummingbird feeders filled and hanging?  If so you might attract a rare bird.

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have left for the tropics but a few hardy northwesterners visit Pennsylvania in the fall.  They're the Selasphorus hummingbirds.

The most likely visitors are rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) that breed in the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Alaska.  They're used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat.  During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.

Solo birds can show up anywhere.  Last year Hannah Floyd found one inside Phipps Conservatory during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  Unseen when she entered Phipps through an open window, the bird spent a good part of the winter at the red powderpuff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) in the Stove Room.

Selasphorus hummingbirds are so rare in Pennsylvania that ornithologists work hard to band every one that's found.  Usually they're identified as rufous hummingbirds but the species is so similar to the even-rarer-in-Pennsylvania Allen's hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) that the bird usually has to be in hand to tell.

If you see a hummingbird in your garden at this point, it's rare!  Call the National Aviary's ornithologist Bob Mulvihill right away at 412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell).  Or email him at robert.mulvihill@aviary.org. He'll stop by to capture and band it and you'll get a chance to see it up close. He banded the female rufous pictured above in Carrolton, Pennsylvania on October 19.

To learn more about rare fall hummingbirds in western Pennsylvania, click here at the National Aviary's website.

 

p.s. While you're waiting for a rarity, watch hummingbirds spending the winter in West Texas on Cornell Lab's West Texas Hummingbird Cam.

(photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Up Close With Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)
Northern Saw-whet Owl at Project OwlNet Banding, 21 Oct 2015 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Did you know that tiny owls are passing through Pittsburgh right now?

Northern saw-whet owls are 7-8" long, weigh little more than a robin, and have big yellow eyes.  They live in wooded habitats where they're fierce predators of white-footed and deer mice.  Though small (and cute) they have "attitude."

Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)
Close up of northern saw-whet owl (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

From mid October to December saw-whet owls migrate at night from their breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. to points south.  Each one travels alone but not very fast.  Individual owls average 10km (6.2 miles) per night and tend to reuse the same route year after year.  Every four years the species irrupts in large numbers.

We know this because of Project Owlnet, a continental network of researchers investigating owl migration, founded by owl researcher David Brinker in 1994.  In 2011 Brinker analyzed 10 years of fall banding data (81,584 owls banded!) and published his findings in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.   Click here to read the fascinating results.

Pittsburgh joined Project Owlnet in Fall 2013 thanks to ornithologist Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary.  Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night from mid October to early December -- weather permitting -- Bob and his volunteers set up mist nets and play the owl's call from dusk to midnight at Sewickley Heights Borough Park.

Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)
Bob Mulvihill holds a saw-whet owl for banding (photo by June Bernard)

Pittsburgh's not a main migration corridor so there are nights when no owls show up but it's exciting when they do.  Thursday October 21 was quite a success as Bob wrote on Facebook,

Our second night of owl banding produced our second owl of the season! And lots of folks on hand to be delighted by it! A few Orionid shooting stars, a continually calling Barred Owl, and a couple of coyotes howling in the distance made for another "Who knew urban ecology could be so wild!?" kind of night.

You're welcome to attend Pittsburgh's Project Owlnet. Dress warmly (bring a blanket!) and show up any time.  Be sure to read more here before you go!

Now's the time to see saw-whet owls up close.

 

p.s. If you can't make it out to the park you can still support the project by "adopting" a saw-whet owl on the National Aviary website.  Click here to read more.

(photo of owl in hand by Doug Cunzolo, photo of owl face by Bob Mulvihill, photo of Bob Mulvihill with owl by June Bernard)

Giant Puffball

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No, that's not a soccer ball in the woods.  It's a giant puffball mushroom.

Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) grow within a few weeks to become 4" to 28" in diameter.  Really giant ones can be 59 inches across and weigh 44 pounds.

They're edible while young (white inside), not edible when mature (anything but white inside; turns yellow then greenish-brown), and then they decompose. 

Don't rush out there and eat one unless you know what you're doing.  Here's a video that describes how to identify and cook them.

Notice this mushroom's size compared to the oak leaves.  I wonder how much larger it will grow.

Giant puffball mushroom in Schenley Park, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Giant puffball mushroom, 18 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Close by was an open one, perhaps broken by an animal.  It was still white inside.

Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)
Giant puffball, broken open (photo by Kate St. John)

I'd never seen giant puffballs in the city before but spied these during a long walk in my neighborhood last Sunday.

I left them where I found them.  I'm not so fond of mushrooms that I'd pick and eat wild ones on my own.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Waiting For Snowbirds But Not For Snow

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

In the normal progression of fall migration, October is when northern sparrows arrive in the Pittsburgh area.

I've already seen my first white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, but I haven't seen a dark-eyed junco yet.

Some people call juncoes "snowbirds" because they arrive with the first snow.  Fortunately our juncoes get here before that happens.

I'm waiting for snowbirds, but not for snow.

 

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

UPDATE: First junco in my yard this fall appeared on Oct 29 after the rain. Then a pause and today (Oct 31) I have 2 juncoes.

Here Today, Asleep Tomorrow

A chipmunk looks out from his burrow (photo by Chuck Tague)
A chipmunk looks out from his burrow (photo by Chuck Tague)

Every autumn I miss the moment when the chipmunks disappear.

For weeks they're vocal and active while they gather food to store in their underground burrows for the winter.  Then one day they stay underground and go to sleep.  Days or weeks later it dawns on me, "I haven't seen a chipmunk in a while."

Chipmunks (Tamias (Tamias) striatus) are not true hibernators. Instead they go into periodic bouts of torpor in which they lower their body temperature and sleep deeply, then wake up to eat and defecate. On warm winter days we see them out foraging.

Ironically an unusually warm winter is fatal to chipmunks.  A study by Craig Frank at Fordham University found that chipmunks are less likely to enter torpor when the weather's warm.  Those who do enter torpor have an 90% winter survival rate.  If they stay awake in warm weather, they die.  (90% mortality. Yow! Climate change is bad for chipmunks. Click here to read more.)

Some day soon the chipmunks will go underground, enter torpor, and not resurface until a warm winter day.  Will we notice their absence?

Here today, asleep tomorrow.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Duck, Duck, Goose?

Duck, duck, goose

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In the weeks ahead ducks and geese will migrate through Pennsylvania from the frozen north.

We intuitively separate ducks and geese into two classes of waterfowl -- "This one's a duck, that one's a goose" -- but how?

Three years ago I mused about this question and got a surprising answer when I asked "What's the difference between a duck and a goose?"

Click here to find out.

 

(silhouette images: duck from Freedigitaldownloads, goose from Shutterstock)