Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Oct 06 2015

Food For The Extinct

The "monkey ball" fruit of the Osage Orange tree (photo from Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)

The “monkey ball” fruit of the Osage Orange tree (photo from Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)

Why is the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) “monkey ball” such a prolific fruit when almost nothing eats it?

Why is the avocado seed so large?  (Persea americana)

Open avocado showing huge seed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Open avocado showing huge seed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Why does the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) have huge thorns on its trunk?  And…

Honeylocust thorns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honeylocust thorns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… large seed pods that no one eats?

Honey locust seed pod (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honey locust seed pod (photo by Andrew Dunn from Wikimedia Commons)

These fruits are food for giants that are now extinct.

Just 13,000 years ago the Americas were inhabited by mammoths, horses and giant ground sloths whose diet included “monkey balls,” avocados and honey locust pods.  Only a giant could eat such large fruit in one gulp and pass the seeds through its digestive track.

The giant ground sloth (Megatherium) for instance weighed 4 tons (8,000 pounds) and could reach 20 feet up when he put his paw on a tree trunk and stood on his hind legs.  He could also damage the trees so the honey locust evolved big thorns for protection.

Megatherium, extinct ground sloth (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

Megatherium, extinct ground sloth (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

He’s been extinct for 10,000 years, but the tree remembers.


For a fun 5-minute video about the fruits that point to missing mammals, watch below.



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

Notes and links:

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Oct 02 2015

A Bird In Hand

Published by under Musings & News

Jonathan Nadle with bird in hand at Bird In Hand, PA (photo by Lori Nadle)

Jonathan Nadle with bird in hand (photo by Lori Nadle)

My Tuesday article about hand feeding chickadees (A Bird On The Hand) prompted my friend Jonathan Nadle to send me this photo.

He said it was difficult to find the bird at this location but he was determined not to miss the chance to hold this exceptional species.


(photo by L&J Nadle)

p.s. The man who invented the pink plastic flamingo died last June. Did you know that for 37 years he and his wife always wore matching outfits? Click here to read more.

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Sep 30 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)

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Sep 28 2015

In Case You Missed It: Tick Check!

Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from

Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from

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  Click on the map to see the large PDF version)

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Sep 22 2015

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.

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Jul 15 2015

Fossil at Ferncliff

Rock, path, with fossil at Ferncliff (photo by Kate St. John)

Rock with hashmark pattern across it (left to right) at Ferncliff, Ohiopyle (photo by Kate St. John)

Years ago when I first hiked the Ferncliff Trail at Ohiopyle I was puzzled by this pattern on the rock beneath my feet.

In those days there weren’t interpretive signs nearby so I tried to make sense of it as best I could.  I decided it was a motorcycle track, but I couldn’t figure out how the vehicle had gotten there and why it had run from the cliff into the river.

Duh!  Motorcycles don’t leave tracks in rock.  It’s a fossil.

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

This Lepidodendron is one of six kinds of fossils found along the river’s edge now listed on an interpretive sign as: Cordaites leaves, Lepidodendron scale, giant Calamites, Psaronius, a giant dragonfly and Sigillaria.

Though I’ve seen the other ones this is the fossil I like the best.

Lepidodendron was a tree-like plant with scales on its trunk that grew as high as 100 feet tall.

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikipedia)

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It lived and died in the Carboniferous (coal making) era.  If the tree had fallen in a swamp it would have become peat and then coal, but it happened to fall on sand so the patterns of its scaly trunk were preserved in rock.

Not far away is one of Lepidodendron’s last living relatives: Lycopodium or groundpine. Only 6-12 inches tall, its tiny trunks and branches provide a visual hint of its ancestor’s appearance.

Lycopodium (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tree Groundpine, Lycopodium dendroideum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The past and present are near each other at Ferncliff Peninsula.


(fossil photos by Kate St. John. Drawing of Lepidodendron and photo of Lycopodium from Wikimedia Commons; click the images see the originals)

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Apr 17 2015

A Happy Merger

Published by under Musings & News

Hoary redpoll and common redpoll at feeder in Alberta, Canada (photo by dfaulder via Wikimedia Commons)

In Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s eNews I encountered the only case of species “lumping” I’ve ever been glad to see.

Researchers from Cornell Lab’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program tested the DNA of 77 hoary and common redpolls and found that hoary redpolls and common redpolls have no differences at all across much of their genomes.  Just to make sure, Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor examined 235,000 regions of the genome, not just 11, and they tested DNA of the lesser redpoll of Eurasia.  The lesser redpoll is the same as well.

What we’ve been calling three species are merely variations in color and size.  Other species vary, too.  Humans, for instance.

Now that the weight of DNA evidence merges hoary, common and lesser redpolls into one species it’s only a matter of paperwork, review, and voting at the American Ornithologists’ Union to make this official.

I’ll be happy when its done.  I’ve seen common redpolls but not hoary ones, and now I won’t have to go out of my way to find a hoary redpoll unless I’d like to see his beautiful pale feathers.  This simplifies my winter travel plans considerably.

Read more here about the only redpoll in Cornell Lab’s All About Birds blog.


(photo of a (formerly) hoary redpoll at left and common redpoll at right by dfaulder via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 13 2015

Aren’t All Rails Invisible?

Published by under Musings & News

The Invisible Rail on an Indonesian postage stamp (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Invisible Rail on Indonesian postage stamp (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Most birds in the rail family (Rallidae) are extremely elusive.  They make noise during the breeding season but, except for coots and gallinules, they hide while they’re doing it. Two of the rails on my Life List are birds I heard but didn’t see.

So when I visited Wikipedia‘s website on April Fools Day I thought they were joking by featuring an article on the Invisible rail.  Really?  Aren’t all rails invisible?

However the invisible rail is real. Also called Wallace’s or the drummer rail (Habroptila wallacii) it cannot fly and lives in only one place on Earth — the impenetrable, thorny, sago swamps on the Indonesian island of HalmaheraThis quote from the Wikipedia article describes its habitat:

German ornithologist Gerd Heinrich, who prepared for his Halmahera trip by rolling in stinging nettles, wrote of the sago swamp habitat in the 1930s:

I am solidly confident no European has ever seen this rail alive, for that requires such a degree of toughening and such demands on oneself as I cannot so easily attribute to others. Habroptila is shielded by the awful thorns of the sago swamps… In this thorn wilderness, I walked barefoot and half-naked for weeks.

The invisible rail is so rarely seen that most of its online photos are of a single, recently dead bird.  The easiest way to get close to one is to buy its Indonesian commemorative postage stamp for 2,500 rupiah or about 19 cents.

Despite its protective habitat the rail is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because it’s a flightless island species, the sago swamps are being harvested and converted to farming, and locals eat the rail if they can trap it.

No one’s sure how many invisible rails exist.  If — or when — they go extinct they’ll become truly invisible.


(image of an Indonesian postage stamp featuring Habroptila wallacii, the Invisible Rail. Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 20 2015

Today, Stonehenge At Home

Stonehenge (photo from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) is a day late in honor of the Spring Equinox.

During today’s sun event there will be a Stonehenge effect in my neighborhood.

Click on the link to learn how the position of our houses causes Stonehenge At Home.


(photo of Stonehenge in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Feb 24 2015

What’s In A Name?

Published by under Musings & News,Quiz

James Bond (ornithologist) and screenshot from James Bond 007 Dr.No (images from Wikimedia Commons)

Question:  What do these two people have in common?  On the left, a real person. On the right, the symbol for a fictional one.

Answer:  They have the same name and there’s a bird connection.

Birders, did you know…?

The person on the left is ornithologist James Bond.  Born in Philadelphia in 1900 he was the curator of ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the preeminent authority on birds of the Caribbean.  His definitive field guide, Birds of the West Indies, was first published in 1936.  Updated over the years, it was the only field guide devoted to Caribbean birds until 1998.  Click here to read more about the real James Bond.

Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond 007 books, was an avid birder and writer who spent every January and February writing novels at his villa in Jamaica.  Of course he had a copy of James Bond’s field guide to help him identify local birds.  When he needed a name for his 007 hero he chose James Bond because it was “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine – just what I needed.”

Fleming received James Bonds’ permission to use his name and they later met in person.  Fleming also connected birds and Bond by placing many bird references in Dr. No  including a guano (bird poop) mine and a bird sanctuary for roseate spoonbills.  Click here to read about the 007 connection.

How did I find this out?  When I returned from my Caribbean trip last month, Tony Bledsoe told me about the two James Bonds.


Thanks to Wikipedia, the source of this information. Note the copyright information below:
* photo of James Bond the ornithologist in 1974 from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see the original.
* Screenshot from the Dr. No trailer, James Bond 007, from Wikimedia Commons. Click here to see the original and its rights information

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