Monthly Archives: December 2015

Drunk On Climate Change

Ornamental fruit in December after a couple of frosts (photo by Kate St.John)
Ornamental fruit in December, after a couple of frosts (photo by Kate St.John)

Freeze. Thaw. Freeze. Thaw.  In this non-winter of 2015 we've had days and weeks of warmth punctuated by occasional frosts.  Eventually the freeze-thaw cycle produces fermented fruit and that leads to drunken birds.

Fruit ferments outdoors when freezing temperatures break down the hard starches into sugars and then a thaw allows yeast to get into the softened fruit and begin the fermentation process.

The sweet, soft fruit is particularly tempting to birds.  After a good frost the ornamental trees in my neighborhood, like the one above, are swamped with hungry starlings and robins.  When they swallow a fermented berry it has a fizzy zing, but so what?  It tastes good.

But some birds don't know when to stop.  They eat so much fermented fruit that they walk with a wobble and can't fly straight.  When they're falling-down drunk, they end up in "detox" at a wildlife center until they sleep it off.  Bohemian waxwings are famous for this.

Back in 2014 National Geographic reported on an incident in Whitehorse, Yukon when a bumper crop of fermented rowan (mountain ash) berries were the waxwings' undoing.  The birds were in such bad shape that they ended up in Meghan Larivee's "drunk tank" at Environment Yukon.

It turns out climate change is increasing the likelihood of these episodes up north.  National Geographic explains:

Larivee's recent waxwing patients were admitted to her Yukon animal unit following several frosts and thaws due to warmer temperatures. ... While fermentation is most pronounced in winter, "we also likely have longer autumns, which gives more time for berries to ferment, but still have early frost that allow sugars to be produced in berries early in the fall," she said.

The waxwings were drunk on climate change.

 

Read more here in National Geographic.

(photo by Kate St. John)

It’s Time To Pick Up The Pieces

Greenfield Bridge as seen from the air, 24 December 2015 (photo from Pat Hassett)
Greenfield Bridge as seen from the air, 24 December 2015 (photo from Pat Hassett)

I don't usually write about bridges, but there was big excitement only 1,200 feet from my house yesterday when contractors blew up the Greenfield Bridge.  As you can see from the photo above, it connected my neighborhood to Schenley Park (right of photo) over the Parkway East I-376.  I haven't been able to walk into this part of Schenley since the bridge closed on October 17.

Even if you don't live in Pittsburgh, the implosion made national news so you probably saw videos on TV.  Here are some photos of the event, a bit of the birds' perspective, and links to my favorite implosion videos.

Above, a birds-eye view of the bridge on Christmas Eve.  Below, the bridge is wrapped, charged and waiting on Monday morning, December 28.

The Greenfield Bridge, just before it blows (photo by Geoff Campbell)
The Greenfield Bridge, just before it blows (photo by Geoff Campbell)

The implosion required a lot of warning, coordination, street blocking and police patrols.  The map below shows the exclusion zone.

Folks could stay home if their house was inside the circle but they had to stay inside and away from windows.  If you live that close to something this exciting, you either left home to watch nearby or you saw the best view of all on TV.

Map of the Exclusion Zone around the implosion (distributed by City of Pittsburgh)
Map of the Exclusion Zone around the implosion (distributed by City of Pittsburgh)

My house is outside the circle but I watched from one of the red roads closed to traffic. Those roads have good views but were open only to pedestrians to prevent gawkers' cars from causing traffic and parking problems.  It was fun watching with the neighbors.  We were all in a party mood.

Starting an hour+ before the blast an infrared sensing helicopter circled overhead to make sure no one was outdoors within the exclusion zone.  One guy snuck into the woods and had to be rousted out.  We never saw him but he delayed the blast 20 minutes.

Back in October the neighborhood held a party and raffled off a chance to push the plunger and blow up the bridge.  Sally Scheidlmeier, pictured below, won that honor.  Here she is with the plunger ("Let's Do It") and the plunger's victim in the distance, only minutes before the blast.  She pushed the plunger ...

Sally Scheidlmeier just before she pushed down the plunger to blow up the bridge (photo by Geoff Campbell)
Sally Scheidlmeier just before she pushed down the plunger to blow up the bridge (photo by Geoff Campbell)

... and then ...

Thar she blows! (photo from Pat Hassett)
Thar she blows! (photo from Pat Hassett)

Here's my favorite video of the blast from the Post-Gazette.  Watch for the guy in the hard hat and orange-yellow vest who runs into the picture and down the road.  That's a man who loves his job!

 

Down in The Run (the neighborhood in the valley on the left side of the exclusion zone), Trinidad Regaspi took a video with her cellphone.  Do you see that bird-like dot to the right of the telephone pole?  It's one of four wild turkeys that flew across the valley to escape the noise.  They sure had a story for their friends last night!

Four wild turkeys escape the blasts (screenshot from video by Trinidad Regaspi's Facebook video)
Four wild turkeys escape the blasts (screenshot from video by Trinidad Regaspi's Facebook video)

... and then the bridge was gone.

The Bridge is gone! (photo by Geoff Campbell)
The Bridge is gone! (photo by Geoff Campbell)

It didn't take long before the contractors were down on the Parkway picking up the pieces.  Six pillars on the Schenley side didn't fall during the blast but they came down shortly after I took this photo at noon.  Alas, I missed it.

Six pillars still stand, but not for long, noon on 28 Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Six leaning pillars still stand on the Schenley side, but not for long. At noon on 28 Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

At road level there's a lot of debris.

Picking up the pieces (photo from Pat Hassett)
Picking up the pieces in the rain (photo from Pat Hassett)

The contractors are out there picking up the pieces all day and all night (we can hear them).  They have to work fast because they only have permission to keep the interstate closed for 5 days after the blast.

I-376 is slated to reopen on January 1 at 6:00am.  The new bridge will take 18+ months to build.

Read more and see additional videos here at the Post-Gazette.

 

(photos from Pat Hassett, Geoff Campbell, Trinidad Regaspi and Kate St. John)

UPDATE DECEMBER 31, 2015:  The cleanup finished ahead of schedule!  The Parkway East opened INBOUND today at 2:00pm.  OUTBOUND will reopen between 10:00pm and midnight because of another project down the road at the Birmingham Bridge.

Parkway East is all cleaned up after the Greenfield Bridge blast, 31 Dec 2015, 8:30am (photo by Pat Hassett)
Parkway East is all cleaned up, 31 Dec 2015, 8:30am (photo by Pat Hassett)

In The Beavers’ County

Chopped! Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Chopped! at the Wetlands Trail, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month I hiked the Wetlands Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County where I found many small trees chopped down next to Traverse Creek lake.  Across the water, cut treetops and shrubs lay in a messy half-submerged brush pile against the opposite shore.

The stumps don't show the straight-edge cut of human activity.  If you look closely you see tooth marks.  Big incisors were at work.

Beavers!

The remains of a stand of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
The remains of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are obviously here now, but that wasn't always the case.

When Beaver County was named for the Beaver River in 1800, their namesake was already hard to find.  The North American beaver population was 100 to 400 million before Europeans arrived to trap them but 300 years of over-hunting took its toll.  According to the PA Game Commission, "the last few beavers known to naturally exist in Pennsylvania were killed in Elk, Cameron, and Centre counties between 1850 and 1865."

Game laws and reintroduction programs have brought beavers back to 10% of their former population. Today there are 10 to 15 million beavers in North America.

In Pennsylvania one indication of the beavers' success is the number of complaints they generate, mostly about flooding including plugged culverts and flooded roads.  A lot of complaints often means there are a lot of beavers.

Where were the most complaints in 2008 in southwestern Pennsylvania?

In Beaver County.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Galling

Oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Back in November I found these round hairy growths on the backs of many oak leaves at Hillman State Park in Washington County, PA.

From above they look furry but up close I can see that they're fibrous.

Close-up of oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Close-up of oak gall, Washington County, PA, November 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No doubt these are galls, structures grown by the tree itself in response to chemicals deposited by a tiny insect that laid eggs on the underside of the leaf.  The insects are usually gall wasps (Cynipidae) whose larvae are protected by the gall.

There are 750 species of Cynipidae in North America, best identified by the characteristics of the gall and the plant it's growing on.  What does the gall look like?  What species is it growing on?  Where is the plant located (geographically)?  What part of the plant is the gall growing on?  If on a leaf, is it on the upper or under side?  Is it on a twig?  A bud?  Etc. etc.

Extensive searches of bugguide.net produced similar photos but no final identification.  The closest was this one:  A gall wasp (Cynipidae) in the genus Acraspis, photographed in Guelph, Ontario.

So I'm back where I started.  I know the name of the wasp (as far as I care to know) but what is the name of the gall?

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

From A Different Angle

Bare trees from a new angle (photo by Kate St. John)
Bare trees from a different angle (photo by Kate St. John)

When my camera couldn't capture this horizontally, I turned it sideways to photograph the trees.

I like them this way better than in the "normal"orientation.

Put your left ear on your left shoulder to see what I mean.

 

p.s. I took this photo four years ago but didn't label it.  Based on their bark I think these are sugar maples ... but their branches don't look right.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Snowy winter scene in western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)
Snowy winter scene in western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

This year's El Niño has made it too warm for snow on Christmas.  Way too warm!

Today's forecast high of 65o F is almost 30 degrees above normal.

In Pittsburgh it's going to feel like Christmas in Florida without the palm trees. Florida will be hotter than normal, too.

 

High Temperatures Forecast for contiguous U.S., 24 Dec 2015 (map from National Weather Service)
Daytime High Forecast, 24 Dec 2015 (map from National Weather Service)

No snow, no skiing east of the Mississippi.

We'll just have to dream ...

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Two Oceans, Four Hemispheres

Male red-necked phalarope in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male red-necked phalarope in July, molting out of breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here's a bird whose migration takes him through four hemispheres and two oceans.

Thanks to a tiny tracking device placed on 10 male red-necked phalaropes on Fetlar Island, Scotland in 2012, the RSPB learned that these North Atlantic birds fly west and south to spend the winter in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and Peru.

Their amazing route starts in the Northern and Eastern hemispheres and ends in the Southern and Western hemispheres.  They spend the winter at sea in the plankton-rich Humboldt Current.

Red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) are small birds with a circumpolar distribution.  The European group is thought to winter at the Arabian Sea but the Fetlar Island birds follow the same southward migration route as those from eastern North America, so it's likely the Scottish phalaropes are related to that population.

Read more and see a video about their long migration here at BBC News.

And if you want to see a red-necked phalarope, your best chance is in the Bay of Fundy during spring or fall migration.  Two million have been counted there in the months of May and August(*).

 

(photo of male red-necked phalarope in San Jose, CA in the month of July from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)