Monthly Archives: July 2016

Today’s Walk at Duck Hollow & Nine Mile Run

Outing to Duck Hollow and Nine Mile Run Trail, 31 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Outing to Duck Hollow and Nine Mile Run Trail, 31 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning was foggy and cooler (yay!) when eight of us walked the Lower Nine Mile Run Trail.

We started at Duck Hollow but the river was very high after heavy rains -- 0.82 inches on Saturday -- and there were few birds there. Our walk along the Nine Mile Run Trail was more productive.

Best Birds were lots of indigo buntings and American goldfinches, a big flock of mourning doves, an American kestrel, and an immature red-tailed hawk.  Two male indigo buntings chased near us.  So blue!

Best Animal was found by our youngest participant -- a land snail.  Look at his tiny antennae next to her fingertip.

Tiny land snail, Nine Mile Run Trail, 31 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tiny land snail, Nine Mile Run Trail, 31 July 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Thanks to all for coming and for being such good spotters of birds and wildlife.

My next walk will be August 28 at Schenley Park; meet at the Visitors Center.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Coralroot With Many Names

Striped or summer coralroot (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Spotted coralroot blooming, July 2016 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Now blooming in western Pennsylvania, Corallrhiza maculata is an orchid with many common names:
Spotted coralroot, Speckled coral root, Summer coralroot, Large coralroot, Many-flowered coralroot, and Western coralroot.

The names describe the plant:

  • Its flower lip is spotted or speckled
  • It blooms in the summer, July and August
  • It's large compared to other coralroots: 8-20 inches high with flowers 1/2 to 3/4 inches long
  • It has many flowers, up to 40 per plant, and ...
  • It has a wide distribution that includes the U.S. West.

You'll notice that none of the names include a color.  That's because this leafless plant can be brown, purplish, reddish or yellow.  The flower lip is always white but the yellowish plants have no spots.

Wildflowers Of Pennsylvania by Mary Joy Haywood and Phyllis Testal Monk says, "This plant, which goes dormant for years, grows in shady deciduous or coniferous forests, and is found throughout Pennsylvania."

But finding it is difficult. Like the other coralroots it matches its habitat and to find it you have to go out in July's heat.

Dianne and Bob Machesney found this one on a very hot day in Butler County.

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Summer Pair Bonds

Dori and Louie bow at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 30 July 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)
Dori and Louie bow at the Gulf Tower nest before dawn, 30 July 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

In late July, the nesting season is over but Pittsburgh's adult peregrines still see each other every day and sometimes visit the nest to bow and cement their pair bonds.

The Downtown pair, Dori and Louie, are especially early risers.  Here they are this morning, Saturday July 30 at 5:53am.  In the distance you can see the sky lighting up in the east and the silhouette of the Cathedral of Learning.  The sun rose at 6:16am.  (They also visited before dawn on July 24.)

The Cathedral of Learning peregrines aren't such early birds but they're bowing too.  Sometimes Hope is impatient for Terzo to join her at the nest.  Below, she shouts, "Come here!" on 25 July at 8am.

Hope shouts, "Come here!" to Terzo, 25 July 2016 (phto from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Hope shouts to Terzo, "Come here!", 25 July 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Yesterday they bowed twice -- at 4:11pm and 6:22pm, July 29.  Here's their second session.

Tezro and Hope bow at the Pitt peregrine nest, 29 July 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Tezro and Hope bow at the Pitt peregrine nest, 29 July 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Now that the "kids" have grown and flown, the adults spend time with each other.

 

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

Urban Birds Have It All

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning, Feb 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)
Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, at the Cathedral of Learning in February 2011 (photo by Patricia Szczepanski)

Twenty-five years ago peregrine falcons moved into the City of Pittsburgh.  Since then lots of cool raptors have come here, too, including red-tailed hawks, Coopers hawks, turkey vultures and, most recently, bald eagles.

City living provides food and protection from predators but birds face new challenges by living near humans.  Jean-Nicolas Audet of McGill University wondered if these challenges put city birds at a disadvantage compared to their country cousins so he designed some tests to answer these questions:  Which group is better at problem solving? Which group is more immune to disease?  And since both traits require lots of energy, is there a trade-off such that smarter birds have lower immunity?

The Caribbean island of Barbados has both city and country habitats and an endemic species that lives in both places, the Barbados bullfinch (Loxigilla barbadensis).  Audet tested the bullfinches and the results were surprising.

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” says Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biology and first author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology in 2016.

As earth's human population grows and more habitat is converted to cities, more birds may have to choose the urban environment.  If they can adapt, it will be a smart move.  As Audet says, "Urban birds have it all."

 

Read more about the 2016 study and find links here to "The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization".

(photo of Dorothy in 2011 by Patricia Szczepanski. video from McGill University on YouTube)

Drinking Techniques

Italian Sparrows in Bolzano, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sparrows take a sip in Bolzano, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Like us birds drink more water in the summer heat.  Have you noticed they use different drinking techniques?  Some drink with faces down, others tilt their faces up.

These house sparrows appear to be using the face-down technique on a martini.  But wait!  The glass held ice cream and they're picking at the remains.   So what do they really do?

Find out how birds drink in this vintage article from 2010:

How Birds Drink

 

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

Alien On The Loose

Asian longhorned beetle animation linked from USDA website
Asian longhorned beetle animation linked from USDA website.

Eeeeewww!  It's an alien!

I'm not kidding.  This bug is an alien invader from China that hitchhikes as larvae in wooden packing material.  When it gets here it eats trees ... lots of them!  If it shows up in your neighborhood it has to be eradicated.  Otherwise your town is doomed.

The Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis (Motschulsky, 1853)), or ALB, is a very large wood-eating beetle native to China and the Korean peninsula.  Its white-spotted black body is an inch long with antennae 1.5 to 2 times longer than its body.  The antennae are unique, banded black and white.

Because it arrives in infected wood, ALB's first location in North America is a warehouse. From there it spreads unpredictably, depending on the shipment.  It's been found in suburbs and cities in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Ontario.  Click here for the map as of July 2015.

When the beetle gets loose it's not picky.  Its eats maples, elms, birches, willows, poplars, ashes, hackberries, horsechestnuts, London planetrees ... just about anything ... but it takes 3-4 years to notice it.  The adults are active late spring until fall so July is a good time of year to see its damage or the bug itself.

And this bug is noticeable. Big and showy, even its larvae (at left) are huge.

Larva and adut Asian longhorned beetle (photos by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)
Larva and adult Asian longhorned beetle (photos by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

If you don't see the bug you may see its evidence.

This unusual leaf damage is a hallmark of ALB. They eat the ribs of leaves, not the papery part.

Leaf damage from Asian longhorned beetle (photo byPennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry , Bugwood.org)
Leaf damage from Asian longhorned beetle (photo by PA DCNR, Forestry at Bugwood.org)

Its entrance and exit holes are unique, too.

The female excavates a niche in the bark and lays her eggs in the hole.  Each roughly chewed egg niche is half the size of a dime.

Two egg niches drilled by Asian longhorned beetles (photo by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)
Two egg niches drilled by Asian longhorned beetles (photo by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

To get out of the tree, the beetle chews a perfect-circle hole as big as a pencil!

Asian longhorned beetle exit holes (photos by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut and Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)
Asian longhorned beetle exit holes (photos by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut and Joe Boggs, Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

We can stop ALB if he's confined to cities but if he gets loose in our forests all bets are off.

So if you see an Asian longhorned beetle or its damage, report it.  There are some look alikes, but USDA wants us to be better safe than sorry.  Call them at 1-866-702-9938 or click here for details.

Report this invader!  Don't let him take hold!

Adult Asian longhorned beetle in someone's hand (photo by Michael Bohne, Bugwood.org)
Adult Asian longhorned beetle in hand (photo by Michael Bohne, Bugwood.org)

 

Read more about Asian longhorned beetles at USDA's beetlebusters.info website.

(beetle animation linked from USDA's website, photos from Bugwood.org)

The Largest Crop in America

Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Irrigating the largest crop in America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you think about it, a lot of us are farmers.  We devote our small acreage to a crop that we fertilize, water and harvest.  Then we throw away the harvest or grind it up to re-fertilize the crop.  We never eat it and we don't feed it to our animals.

Grass.  In Pennsylvania we devote 1.8 million acres to lawns.  Our next largest crop uses 1.6 million acres. (*See table below.)

The amazing dominance of the lawn is true everywhere in the continental the U.S. except in the Central West -- Montana to Nevada to Kansas -- where hay, corn and soybeans take up more space.  Click here and scroll down for the map.

This isn't really news.  A 2005 study by Cristina Melisi used satellite data to show that lawns are the largest crop in America and the most irrigated by acreage.  This is no surprise in Florida and the West where lawns have built-in irrigation systems, but do we irrigate in the Northeast?  You bet!  The sprinklers are running this month.

Some homeowners break the mold by making meadows or growing vegetables but they often have to explain it to their neighbors.  The two-year-old Beacon-Bartlett meadow in Schenley Park has educational signs explaining "This is intentional."

If I was a gardener I'd convert my tiny backyard lawn but I'm not even a participant.  I am, at best, an observer using my Newcomb's Guide to identify what comes up.  I never water, weed or seed it. When it grows, it gets cut. It's not growing right now.

 

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

(*) TEXT UPDATED July 26, 9:30pm:  The original text was wildly incorrect!  Thank you Mary Ann Pike for providing a correction with this link at USDA.  Here's a table combining lawn and USDA statistics for Pennsylvania:

Cultivation/ Crop Acreage in PA
Lawns 1.8 million
Hay and Haylage 1.6 million
Corn for grain/silage 1.3 million
Soybeans 0.9 million
Wheat 0.1 million

This means that lawns are about 30% of Pennsylvania's cultivated lands.

The Harriers of Piney Tract

Male northern harrier nesting at Piney Tract, summer 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male northern harrier at Piney Tract, summer 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)

This summer Steve Gosser spent a lot of time at Piney Tract in Clarion County photographing a family of northern harriers.  The harriers nested there because it's one of their preferred habitats and one of the few grasslands in western Pennsylvania.

Though they're birds of prey, northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) nest on the ground.  The male harrier usually does all the hunting, then transfers the food to his mate in an aerial prey exchange.  The female takes the prey to the nest and feeds the young but she's sneaky about it so she doesn't give away the nest location.

Throughout their nesting season Steve was able to photograph them from his car window without disturbing them.  He captured their prey exchanges and aerial maneuvers though he never saw the nest.  Later he learned that they fledged three chicks.

Read about the harriers and see Steve's beautiful photos at his blog post: A Summer Watching the Harriers at Piney Tract.

See all of Steve's work at his new website, gosserphotos.com

 

A note to my European readers: The northern harrier is the same species as the hen harrier in Europe.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Reminder: Duck Hollow Walk, July 31

Killdeer (photo by Chuck Tague) Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday, July 31, 8:30am - 10:30am, at Duck Hollow and the south end of Frick Park's Nine Mile Run Trail.

Meet at the Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road.

Dress for the weather. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates in case the walk is canceled for bad weather.

If the river isn't too high we'll see killdeer on the Nine Mile Run delta.

See you soon.

(photo of killdeer by Chuck Tague)

Bladder Campion

Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bladder campion, 17 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This unusual flower with a swollen calyx is blooming now in western Pennsylvania.  Though the plant stands two feet tall its bladder-like flowers weigh down the branches when it's in full bloom.

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) is a member of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae) native to Eurasia.  It prefers to grow in waste places or sandy soil and is found as far north as Greenland and Alaska.  Some people call it a weed.

Why is it here?  Perhaps because its leaves and young shoots are eaten in some Mediterranean dishes.  Or because it's pretty.

I found this one blooming by the side of the road at the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.

 

p.s.  Sometimes the swollen calyx is pink as shown in this article from 2011 entitled Balloons.

(photo by Kate St. John)