Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

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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Jan 16 2015

Make The Best Suet

Published by under Musings & News

Blue jays and red-bellied woodpecker eat at the suet log (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Backyard birds need high-calorie food when the weather is harsh.  Did you know you can “cook” for the birds?

Marcy Cunkelman has a favorite No-melt Peanut Butter Suet recipe that’s a real bird-pleaser and well worth trying.

The recipe has a long and famous history in our area.  Scott Shalaway calls it The Best Suet recipe and has been telling folks about it on his radio show since 2005.  He credits Martha Sargent in Alabama for passing it along to him.  Julie Zickefoose, from southern Ohio, has a similar recipe called “Zick Dough” that omits the sugar and adds chick starter.

Marcy makes Scott’s version and loads it into holes drilled in old logs.  (The blue jays, above, are waiting for her to reload the holes.)  You can also offer it on trays or in suet cages. The secret is real lard — not substitutes.

No-melt Peanut Butter Suet Recipe (from Martha Sargent in Alabama)
Melt 1 cup of lard and 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter in microwave or over low heat in a kettle. Stir, then add:
2 cups of quick cook oats
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup of flour
1/3 cup of sugar

Pour into square containers and freeze for your suet holders or load into a suet log or even spread on a tree trunk.

Red-bellied woodpecker ready to eat Marcy's homemade suet that's rubbed on a tree trunk (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

We’re heading into a warming trend but winter is still with us so there’s plenty of time to “get cooking.”


Note this caveat from Julie Zickefoose:  Julie used to feed her birds Zick Dough all year long but the bluebirds got gout from it!  (Yes, even birds can get gout from a rich diet.)  The bluebirds recovered when she stopped feeding them suet in the non-winter months.  Here’s her recipe and warning at Birdwatcher’s Digest.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)


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Jan 09 2015

Rocks With Pizzazz

Published by under Musings & News

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite in normal light, Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To a novice like me, this rock is interesting because of its shape and color, but I would never have found its photo if it hadn’t had pizzazz.

It’s a rare and valuable specimen of Willemite, Franklinite and Rhodonite. Mineralogists can tell you that Franklinite pinpoints its origin right down to a single county — Sussex County, New Jersey — the only place on earth where Franklinite is found. This rock came from the Sterling Mine at Ogdensburg.

But that’s not what I mean about pizzazz.

Back in October at the Wissahickon Nature Club we learned about fluorescent minerals from Harlan Clare who showed us many samples under normal and “black” light.  What really impressed me is that a boring rock can display amazing colors if the mineral is fluorescent.

Expose this rock to ultraviolet light and it bursts into glowing green and orange!

Willemite-Franklinite-Rhodonite under ultraviolet light from the Sterling Mine, Ogdensburg, NJ (photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Most rocks look boring in normal light so how did people figure out that some of them glow?

At a rock mine the ore sits out in the sun for a while after it’s pulled from underground. If you take a fluorescent rock back into the dark mine, it glows because it was exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light.  Sir George Gabriel Stokes named this fluorescence in 1852 when he described why fluorite glows.

So now when you see a basket of boring rocks for sale, think of the possibilities.  When you know what you’re looking at you can find one with a hidden punch.  Harlan Clare carries a small UV flashlight so he can preview the rocks before he buys.

Some rocks are like willets.  They’re boring until they open their wings.


(photos of Willemite, Franklinite, Rhodonite from the Sterling Mine, Sterling Hill, Ogdensburg, New Jersey (George Elling Collection) by Rob Lavinsky, – CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Dec 30 2014

Champagne And Rain

Published by under Musings & News

Bubbles in a glass of champagne (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While toasting the holiday with a glass of champagne I wondered, Why do champagne bubbles rise from one point on the glass?

This led to the discovery that champagne and rain have something in common.  And it isn’t that they’re both wet.

Champagne is carefully fermented under pressure so that carbon dioxide is absorbed into the liquid.  When you open a bottle of champagne the CO2 is released.   This can be beautiful or boring depending on the glass you use.

The bubbles perform badly in a plastic ‘glass’ (they won’t rise off the sides) and best in a tall thin champagne flute because it concentrates them into less surface area.  They will rise from a single point where there’s a dust mote in the liquid or a tiny nick inside the glass.  For this reason some glass makers purposely put tiny scratches in the bottoms of their champagne glasses to make bubble patterns.

What do champagne and rain have in common?

Champagne bubbles form around dust motes or nicks in the glass.  Raindrops form when water vapor condenses around tiny dust motes in the cloud.

Champagne and rain both use a tiny “flaw” to get them going.


Click here to read more about the science of champagne at Deutsch Welle.  Click here to read more about how rain forms at the American Physical Society.

(photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons, enhanced to highlight the bubbles.)

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