Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

Jan 11 2016

Welcome To The Anthropocene

Published by under Musings & News

Ice at Bassin de la Villette, bottle of Badoit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Plastic bottle, ice, Bassin de la Villette (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Earth’s life history is in its rocks, layer upon layer, each one with a name.  Even if we can’t name all the geologic periods, we know at least one of them because of a movie — Jurassic Park.

Geoscientists identify epochs by the fossils and minerals they find in them.  Even the boundaries are interesting.  The Cretaceous period ends in a thin line, called the K-Pg (was K-T) boundary, that contains iridium from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. There, the Cretaceous period (K) ended, the Paleogene (Pg) began. Above the line are seven epochs including the Holocene, the most recent 11,700 years in which human population has expanded and thrived.

Now pretend you’re a geoscientist 10 million years in the future and you’re identifying epochs in the rocks.  You see the K-Pg line and the seven epochs, and then on top of them, everywhere around the globe in rocks and ice, you find a layer containing substances never before seen on Earth or in outer space:  aluminum, concrete, plastics, fly ash and nuclear fallout.

The substances are so unique that, as a geoscientist, you must define this layer as a new geologic epoch and name it for its distinctive feature. The substances were created by humans; the epoch is called the Anthropocene.

Since atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen first proposed the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch in 2000, the idea has taken hold in the scientific community. An international working group is studying the evidence to determine whether the epoch should be formally accepted into the geologic time scale by the International Union of Geological Sciences.  Their recommendation is due this year.

Meanwhile, the Anthropocene Working Group reported last week that the evidence is overwhelming.  Here’s their description of the epoch from an earlier report:

Members of the international working group formally analyzing the Anthropocene suggest that the key turning point happened in the mid-twentieth century. This was when humans did not just leave traces of their actions, but began to alter the whole Earth system. There was a ‘Great Acceleration’ of population, of carbon emissions, of species invasions and extinctions, of earth moving, of the production of concrete, plastics and metals.

Official or not, we’re certainly in it.

Welcome to the Anthropocene.


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

  • “anthropo-” = Greek for human,  “-cene” = “new” and is the ending applied to all the epochs in the current era, the Cenozoic.
  • The geologic terms epoch, period and era seem to be interchangeable but epochs are short time frames, periods are next in size, and eras are the longest.  Click here for definitions.

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Jan 07 2016

TBT: No, they won’t eat corn

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

Coopers hawk (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

When a Cooper’s hawk eats a bird at your feeder, it makes you think.

Click here for some thoughts on carnivorous birds — No, they won’t eat corn  — from 2008.


(photo by Chuck Tague)


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Jan 04 2016

The Chase!

Published by under Musings & News

Brambling in Medina County Ohio, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Brambling in Medina County Ohio, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

I usually don’t chase rare birds because it often ends in disappointment.  If I don’t find the bird, the trip was wasted.  If I do find it, it’s a let-down because the bird — or my view of it — is less exciting than I anticipated.

However, at dawn on New Years Day 11 of us piled into three cars and drove to Medina County, Ohio to chase the brambling.

If you’re new to birding, you may not have heard of this slightly eccentric activity. Chasing involves lots of hurry, planning, travel, high tech communication and patient waiting.  It does not mean we approach our object closely.  If the bird feels threatened it will fly away and no one will see it so those who approach too closely are told to back off.  Humans do freak out when we’ve spent time, money and anticipation on a spectacle that another human is about to wreck!

The rarer the bird, the more people chase it.  Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) are exceedingly rare in Ohio so this finch has attracted hundreds of people per day.

Common in Eurasia, bramblings nest from Norway to Siberia and spend the winter in a wide swath of Africa, Europe and Asia.  Sometimes one makes a wrong turn in the fall and migrates south through our continent. Solo bramblings usually end up in northern coastal or north central states.  This adult male is the first brambling in Ohio in 28 years.

And so we made the trip.

Our group arrived just after the brambling had visited the feeder and disappeared. The parking lot was emptying. We found good standing room in the viewing area.

Birders line up to see the brambling, 1 Jan 2016, just after he made an appearance (photo by Donna Foyle)

Birders line up to see the brambling just after he made an appearance, 1 Jan 2016. This is half the crowd that was there 10 minutes earlier. (photo by Donna Foyle)

And we waited.  The group swelled to about 60 people.

We’d heard that the bird appeared every 30 minutes.  Not so!  At just below freezing we were not dressed for a long wait but no one wanted to leave.  After two hours the bird appeared for three minutes.

My first view was similar to this photo by Donna Foyle.  That’s how I’ll remember the brambling.  I didn’t see the clear view Shawn Collins obtained above.

A brief glimpse of the brambling, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

A brief glimpse of the brambling, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

Through my scope I did see the bird’s back just before the flock scattered, as in Shawn’s photo below.  The brambling is very well camouflaged on the ground.

The brambling matches the ground when his back is turned, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

The brambling matches the ground when his back is turned, 1 Jan 2016 (photo by Shawn Collins)

And then the flock lifted off and he disappeared.

But I saw him!  Fortunately everyone else in our group did, too. Others who missed the bird stayed behind to wait, perhaps for another two hours.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of birders have seen the brambling in Medina County since he was announced on December 28. Read more about his fame and discovery at


(photos by Shawn Collins and Donna Foyle)

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Dec 31 2015

Open Tonight’s Wine Without A Corkscrew

Published by under Musings & News

A timely science lesson for New Year’s Eve.


p.s. Don’t try this with champagne!

p.p.s. Do you hear the bird singing at 20 seconds into the video? Sounds like a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).

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Dec 10 2015

The Acorn Plot

Published by under Mammals,Musings & News

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Acorn abundance varies every year.  Some years there are lots of acorns, other years not so many.  This variation is an oak survival mechanism that alternately floods and dries up the market to insure that some of their nuts survive hungry predation by squirrels, turkeys and deer.

Back in December 2008 there were so few acorns in the Washington, D.C. area that the situation made national news and people put out store-bought delicacies for squirrels.

Were the squirrels begging for attention? Click here to read this 2008 article: The Acorn Plot.


p.s. Pennsylvania’s squirrels have nothing to worry about this winter and next. The PA Game Commission says the acorn crop will be abundant this year and in 2016. Click here to read more.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Dec 08 2015

Invasive Species: Earthworms!

Robin feeding earthworm to its nestling (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

Robin feeding earthworm to nestling (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re all familiar with this sweet scene of a robin feeding earthworms to its young, but did you know this worm is non-native and invasive?

It’s true. 10,000 years ago the glaciers killed North America’s native earthworms.  Though there are still some natives in the south they work deeper underground than the European and Asian worms that arrived with immigrants in potted plants, root balls and dry ballast (soil).

Until quite recently I thought earthworms were native. All my life I’ve watched robins yank them out of the soil and seen them on the sidewalk after heavy rain.  Gardeners and composters are happy with them, too, but…

Lumbricus terrestris is an invasive earthworm in North America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Lumbricus terrestris is invasive in North America (photo by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, Belgium via Wikimedia Commons)

What’s good for the garden is lousy for North America’s forests. Earthworms churn the soil column and devour leaf litter, invertebrates and fungi that our northern forests rely on. The result is a lack of ground cover and poor regeneration of the trees.

The problems are especially acute at the edge of the earthworm advance around the 45th parallel, Minnesota for example.  Studies have shown this lowly garden friend is responsible for the decline of ovenbirds in northern Midwest forests and the decline of forest orchids. Oh my!

Like the emerald ash borer, we humans have accidentally introduced a species that’s bad for the forest.  The only way to stop it is for us to stop moving worms and soil.  Composters and gardeners take note!  If you’re on the edge of the earthworm advance — in Minnesota or Maine, for instance — don’t buy worms.  (Pittsburgh isn’t on that edge; earthworms have been here a very long time.)

Meanwhile, thank heaven that robins eat them!

Want to learn more? Watch this 10 minute video from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.


(robin photo by William Majoros via Wikimedia Commons. Earthworm photo by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, Belgium via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Nov 28 2015

Anyone Home?

Published by under Musings & News,Trees

Anyone home? (photo by Kate St. John)

Hole in a sugar maple in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

When I see a hole like this I wonder if an animal is inside.

In the winter it could be sheltering chickadees or tufted titmice.  If it’s big enough it may hold a squirrel … or something even better.

When you’re in the woods on a cold sunny afternoon, look for tree holes.  You might see an owl peeking out of one.

Anyone home?


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 06 2015

What Happens At A Clearcut?

Tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Before I retired from WQED in September 2014, this was the view outside my window … except there were trees.

Last month contractors removed all the trees on the hillside between CMU’s new Tepper Quad and Central Catholic’s football field.  By the time I saw it a week ago it looked like this.

Hillside denuded by tree removal project at Central Catholic, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To give you an idea of what it used to look like, here’s a view of the remaining trees behind WQED.

Trees remaining on hillside behind WQED, 30 Oct 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the grand scheme of things this was a small woodlot surrounded by parking lots and an astroturf field, host to many invasive species.

Does it matter that humans removed this small landscape?

It does to the animals who lived there.

In the remaining woodlot behind WQED two squirrels fought a territorial battle. The loud one said, “This is mine! You have to leave!” The other cowered but stayed nearby. Probably a refugee.

Winter or a predator will determine who survives.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Does anyone know whose project this is (CMU or Central Catholic?) and why it was done?

UPDATE:  I haven’t been back to the site for a week but friends confirm that this is a CMU project and that all the trees are gone now.  Every single one.

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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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