Archive for the 'Series' Category

Mar 11 2017

Coltsfoot Bloomed Last Wednesday

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 8 Mar 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 8 Mar 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In another landmark of spring I found coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park last Wednesday, March 8.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is an early-blooming Eurasian plant whose flower resembles a dandelion except that it blooms when it has no leaves. The leaves, which are shaped like a colt’s footprint, come out after the flower is gone.

This morning it’s 14oF so the flowers are closed tight against the cold.  Coltsfoot will survive but I’m not so sure about my daffodils.

Looking back, I’m wistful.  It was only three days ago that the temperature was 60oF and these hazelnut catkins blew in the wind along Schenley Park’s Lower Trail.

Catkins blow in the wind along Schenley Park's Lower Trail, 8 Mar 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Catkins blow in the wind along Schenley Park’s Lower Trail, 8 Mar 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

(The logs in the photo are an old ash, killed by emerald ash borer.)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Mar 05 2017

The Spring Report

Published by under Phenology

Status of Spring: Leaf Index Anomaly, 1 March 2017 (map from USA National Phenology Network, usanpn.org)

Status of Spring: Leaf Index Anomaly, 1 March 2017 (map from USA National Phenology Network, usanpn.org)

Uh oh! What’s that deep red color covering the U.S. from the Gulf Coast to Pittsburgh?

It’s the track of our too-early Spring.

This March 1 map from the National Phenology Network (usanpn.org) shows the status of leaf-out in the United States.  It is darkest red is where leaf buds burst 20+ days ahead of schedule.  It’s blue where spring is late.

Where is it blue?  Click on the map to see a larger version and find the few places in Washington, California and Arizona where the leaves came out late.

We knew southwestern Pennsylvania was ahead of schedule.  We just didn’t have the numbers.

Click here to read more about this map and the Spring Report.

 

p.s. NPN’s map is similar to Journey North‘s projects that track the arrival of rufous and ruby-throated hummingbirds and monarch butterflies.  The plants are early this year but what about the birds and butterflies that rely on them?  Uh oh!  When they arrive “on time” they’ll be too late.

(map from the USA National Phenology Network, usanpn.org)

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Mar 04 2017

It Was June In February

Published by under Phenology

Ornamental crabapple with old fruit and new leaves, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Ornamental crabapple with old fruit and new leaves, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

It’s been another week of yo-yo weather.   We had normal temperatures last weekend, then 18 degrees above normal midweek and 10 degrees below normal yesterday.

A cold front blew in on March 1 but during the sunny gap between thunderstorms it was so warm that I took off my jacket and sweater while looking for signs of spring.

The leaves were out on an ornamental crabapple, above, and the crocuses were in full bloom.

Crocuses blooming, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Crocuses blooming, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The honeysuckle leaves, an invasive species, had grown considerably.

Honeysuckle leaves, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Honeysuckle leaves, 1 March 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you’d forgotten, the buds were just opening on 14 February.  Here’s the same plant, before and after, 15 days apart.

Honeysuckle leaves: 14 Feb 2017 and 1 March 2017 (photos by Kate St. John)

Honeysuckle leaves: 14 Feb 2017 and 1 March 2017 (photos by Kate St. John)

 

We had June in February.  It’s January in March this morning.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

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Feb 25 2017

A Bad Month For Maple Syrup

Published by under Phenology,Trees

Maple trees with sugar pails (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Maple trees with sugar pails (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s snow in this picture but there hasn’t been snow in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands for half of this month.

March is supposed to be the best month for tapping sugar maples to collect sap for maple syrup.  The sap runs best with daytime temperatures above freezing and nights below freezing.  When the nights don’t freeze the sap stops running and the season is over.

This year Somerset County’s maple season was hampered by bursts of extremely warm weather in January and summer-like temperatures this month.  The thermometer hasn’t dipped below freezing since February 17 and some days have been more than 20oF above normal.  Maple sugaring stopped before it should have reached its best.

This trend isn’t unique to southwestern Pennsylvania.  The maple syrup industry tracks what’s happening to maple farmers from Virginia to Maine. Since 1970 they’ve noticed that the seasons have become shorter and the sap is less sweet so it takes more sap to make the same amount of syrup.

No matter where you stand on climate change the people whose livelihoods depend on cold winters (maple sugar farmers and ski operators) can tell you this:  Whacky climate ruins their business.

Read more here in a 2014 article from the Allegheny Front.

 

(*) Today the weather is yo-yoing again.  Meyersdale, PA will dip below freezing tonight (25 Feb) for two nights, then run up again to a 48oF low on Tuesday 28 Feb.

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

UPDATE on 7 March 2017: Here’s more on this year’s maple sugar season from the Allegheny Front, WESA-FM.

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Feb 21 2017

Museum Full Of Wonders

Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows the the Wandering Albatross at Carnegie Museum (photo by Donna Foyle)

Collection Manager Steve Rogers displays wandering albatrosses in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Carnegie Museum is full of wonders.

Last Saturday about 50 of us went behind the scenes in the Section of Birds where we learned that…

  • The albatross cabinet smells fishy because the albatrosses’ bodies smell like fish.  Collection Manager Steve Rogers shows us the wandering albatross above.
  • A brown-headed cowbird’s egg is really much larger than a red-eyed vireo’s.  Here’s a clutch of vireo eggs parasitized by a cowbird.
Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Red-eyed vireo clutch with brown-headed cowbird egg in the Carnegie Museum collection (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

  • Females in the genus Cotinga, native to Central and South America, look very different from their mates.  Below, female spangled cotingas are dull brown while the males are iridescent turquoise with purple throats.
Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Spangled cotingas in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

  • The spotted sandpiper lays eggs that are larger than her head!  Here I’m looking at her egg through a magnifying glass. Oh my! How does she do it?
Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Kate St. John examines the spotted sandpiper egg (photo by Donna Foyle)

Her sex life is even stranger than her large egg shown below. Pat McShea explained that spotted sandpipers are polyandrous.  The female lays a clutch of four eggs but hardly incubates them if other males are available.  Instead her mate handles incubation as she leaves him for another male, mates with him and lays another clutch of four. She can do this up to three times in one season!  Her job is to lay those enormous eggs.

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum's collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Spotted sandpiper and egg in Carnegie Museum’s collection (photo by Donna Foyle)

Thank you to Steve Rogers, Pat McShea and all the folks at Carnegie Museum who showed us the Collection’s wonderful birds.

This is the last article in my Carnegie Museum series but it’s not the last of the museum.  You can visit Carnegie Museum of Natural History any time, except on Tuesdays when they’re closed.  Make plans for your visit here.

 

(photos by Donna Foyle and Doug Cunzolo)

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Feb 18 2017

Spring Before Its Time

Published by under Phenology

Amur honeysuckle buds opening, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Amur honeysuckle buds opening, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our weather has been running hot and cold.  When it’s hot, the buds burst. When it’s cold, it snows.

On February 9 we had four inches of snow.

Four inches of snow in my backyard, 9 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Four inches of snow in my backyard, 9 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Then on Saturday February 11 it melted in one day and warmed to nearly 60oF.

Five days later, on Valentine’s Day, the honeysuckle buds were open (above) and my daffodils were coming up.  This is at least a month ahead of schedule.

Daffodils emerging in my garden, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Daffodils emerging in my garden, 14 Feb 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s high will be 59oF but I’m sure we’ll have another cold snap and the early plants will suffer.

It’s Spring before its time.

 

p.s.  How are your plants doing?  What’s showing up early in your yard?

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 14 2017

Ornate From Head To Toe

Ornate hawk-eagle legs, Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Legs of the ornate hawk-eagle, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St. John)

Museums inspire me.

The first time I saw the ornate hawk-eagle specimen at Carnegie Museum I didn’t even know the bird existed.  Its beauty impressed me (ornate legs shown above) and that was before I learned what he can do with his head feathers!  (photo below from Wikimedia Commons)

I hoped to see this bird in the wild some day, but I never expected it would happen.

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ornate hawk-eagles (Spizaetus ornatus) live in the rainforest from southeastern Mexico to Colombia but are rarely seen.  Their numbers are declining because of deforestation, so it was quite a thrill when our Road Scholar birding group saw one at San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica on 4 February 2017.  We learned afterward that none had been seen in the area since a flyover two years before and prior to that 10 years.  We were very lucky.

This video tribute to Dr. Alexander Skutch displays the beauty of these majestic birds as they nest in Costa Rica.  The video text is in Spanish. Thank you to our guide, Roger Melendez, for assisting with the English translation below.

Notes:

Ornate hawk-eagle voices are similar to those of bald eagles and ospreys.  The chick in the video, like other raptor fledglings, begs with the familiar open-wing-whining stance.

Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary is a 192 acre reserve in Costa Rica that once served as the home and outdoor laboratory of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch.

Translation of Spanish text in the video:

  • “Rapaces …”   Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica: For Knowledge and Conservation of Birds of Prey
  • “Así …”   So, when the coffin [of Dr. Skutch] approached Los Cusingos, on the branch of a tree at the side of the road was a most beautiful hawk [an ornate hawk-eagle] with outstretched wings.
  • “Ave muy …”  [This] bird is very difficult to see in this area, for which Dr. Alexander felt a particular affection.  — Luko Hilge, 2004, regarding the death of Alexander F. Skutch (“Farewell of birds”), from Alexander Skutch, The Last Great Naturalist?
  • “Dia” means Day.   Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 … since the egg was laid.
  • “Compartimos … ”  We share with you a fragment of the life of the ornate hawk-eagle, from its incubation to its first adventures around the nest, always with the hope of passing on to the viewer that “spark” of appreciation and conservation of our wonderful birds of prey.
  • Raptors Foundation of Costa Rica.
    • Video and Editing — Chris Jiménez
    • Collaboration — Pablo Comacho

 

(video by Chris Jiménez on YouTube)

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Feb 07 2017

Behind The Scenes at Carnegie Museum, Feb 18

Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St.John)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Section of Birds, held by Collection Manager Steve Rogers, Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Let’s go birding indoors!

Come to Carnegie Museum’s Section of Birds on Saturday, February 18 for a behind the scenes tour led by Collection Manager Stephen Rogers and other bird specialists (including myself).

Stephen manages both the Birds and Amphibians & Reptiles collections at the Carnegie, both ranked in the top ten collections in the North America. The Bird collection contains almost 190,000 specimens, most of which are preserved as study skins, but also includes skeletons, eggs, fluid specimens, mounts and other preparations. Steve is also a skilled scientific preparator and taxidermist who has prepared roughly 15,000 birds for the collection.

When:  Saturday February 18.  Walk-ins welcome 10:30am to 12:30pm at the Section of Birds office.

Where:  Carnegie Museum of Natural History
4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
*** Come to the Section of Birds Office, midway along Bird Hallway on the 3rd floor. ***

Who:  Anyone can walk in.  (Please leave a comment below if you plan to attend so we can get a crowd estimate.)

Cost:  There is no extra fee for this tour but there is an admission fee for the museum.
Free to museum members. Non-member rates are: Adults $19.95,  Seniors (65+) $14.95,  Students with ID and children 3-18 $11.95.  Click here for details.

For directions and information about Carnegie Museum, see their website at www.carnegiemnh.org.

Hope to see you there!

 

p.s. The ivory-billed woodpecker pictured above is just one of the many specimens in the Section of Birds.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jan 31 2017

Not Always Blue

This beautiful bird is a male red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) in breeding plumage in Costa Rica.  He’s not the same subspecies as those found in Espírito Santo (ES), Brazil.  (Alas, the beautiful video filmed at that location was deleted by the user.)

In southeastern Brazil the red-legged honeycreepers are members of the subspecies holti.  Their “type specimen,” the bird that defines them, is in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Back in 1940 when E. G. and M. L. Holt collected this bird in Espírito Santo, he wasn’t considered a separate subspecies.  Then in 1977, Kenneth Parkes determined that he is indeed unique and named him Cyanerpes cyaneus holti.   Field guides for southeastern Brazil refer back to this exact specimen at Carnegie Museum, placed here on his page in the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Red-legged honeycreepers are common in Costa Rica, too, (subspecies carneipes) so I was looking forward to seeing this stunning blue bird while I’m here. However, I’d read on the same page (above) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World that Costa Rican males molt from blue to green right after the breeding season:

“In Costa Rica, male acquires eclipse plumage mostly between about Jul and Oct, and for the last few months of year almost all adult males are in eclipse; males in some stage of greenish “transition” plumage present in every month except Mar–May, when breeding.”

Oh no! Not always blue? What if they are all green like this?

Fortunately the males are very blue right now. Whew!

 

(video by Fabricio Vasconcelos Costa on YouTube. Type specimen photo by Kate St. John)

Day 5: Esquinas Rainforest Reserve

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Jan 24 2017

A Good Long Look

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Red-breasted merganser specimen, Carnegie Museum Bird Hall (photo by Kate St.John)

Birds are often hard to see in the field and we usually miss the details.  In museums we can take a good long look.  Here are three examples.

Did you know that mergansers have “toothed” bills?  The projections aren’t really teeth. They’re the plates or lamellae that all ducks have, but modified for catching and holding fish.  You can see the “teeth” on the red-breasted merganser, above, at Bird Hall in Carnegie Museum.  Another cool thing:  You can see through the merganser’s nostrils.

American coots swim so much that we rarely see their feet.  This specimen shows they have unusually long toes that perform like snowshoes when coots walk on floating vegetation.

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation -- like snowshoes (photo by Kate St. John)

The American coot has long toes for walking on floating vegetation (photo by Kate St. John)

A closer look reveals two more features.  Coots feet aren’t webbed for swimming.  Instead they have lobed toes.  And how about those claws!

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Close up of feet on an American coot, Bird Hall Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Western grebes have lobed toes, too …

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

Western grebe specimen, Bird Hall at Carnegie Museum (photo by Kate St.John)

… and necks structurally similar to herons and anhingas.  With needle-like bills they could stab fish if they wanted to.

Western grebe's sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Western grebe’s sharp bill, Carnegie Musuem specimen (photo by Kate St. John)

Experts can tell the sex of this bird by the size of its bill.  Female western grebes have shorter, thinner bills.  Do you think this one is male?

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

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