Category Archives: Series

Yellow Is A Sign of Spring

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Even before the buds burst and the flowers bloom, birds give us a hint that spring is coming.  Some of them turn yellow.

* White-throated sparrows have boring faces in the winter but their lores turn bright yellow ahead of the breeding season. They'll leave in March or early April for their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

* American goldfinches were brownish all winter but molt into yellow feathers in late winter. Even the females turn a subdued yellow as seen in the female on the left in Marcy's photo.

Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

* At this time of year European starlings become glossy and their beaks turn yellow.  The starling below is male because the base of his beak is blue (near his face).

European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

There are other birds whose yellow facial skin becomes brighter in the spring.  Can you think of who that might be?  ...

Yellow is a sign of spring.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Marcy Cunkelman and Chuck Tague. See credits in the captions)

Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don't migrate so they're a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a "kiss."

Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

 

Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn't far away.

 

(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away ... so it's always true that we'll have "six more weeks of winter."

Look For Aliens

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Late fall is the perfect time of year to look for alien plants in Pennsylvania.  Natives are brown or leafless but alien species are still cuing on the seasons back home.

How do you find aliens?  Notice patches of green in the brown landscape.  Here are three photos to give you some practice.

Aliens in the top photo are circled below.

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens while you're driving ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens on the ground ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

There's so much goutweed and garlic mustard in this last photo that it would be filled with red circles if I labeled all of it.   🙁

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

We Are Nature

We Are Nature, Living in the Anthropocene entry sign, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes it's hard to imagine that we humans are part of the natural world.  We think we are outside of Nature, instead we are intricately entwined. This special exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History shows how we affect Nature and are affected by it.

We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene tells many stories of our impact on Earth by focusing on five areas: pollution, extinction, PostNatural (intentionally altered organisms), climate change, and habitat alteration.

Some of our effects are so common we forget they wouldn't exist without us.  Dogs, for example.  They're in the PostNatural category.

We also tinker with wild things like wolves.  The plaque below this animal says:

"A Trickle-Down Effect (Trophic Cascade): Humans eliminated gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s. In 1995, 31 gray wolves were reintroduced to the park from Canada; the wolf population is now considered stable. While some ranchers may not agree, the return of wolves to Yellowstone, coupled with other ecological factors, has had positive effects on biodiversity and the health of the park."

Human tinkering with the wolf population trickles down to the entire ecosystem, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Human tinkering with the wolf population trickles down to the entire ecosystem, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

But most of our effects occur when we aren't paying attention.

Acid rain is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity.  We had no idea this made a difference until we noticed that our downwind lakes were becoming acidic.  More than a water problem, acid rain makes land snails scarce and causes declines in ovenbird breeding success.  An exhibit of tiger snails says:

Tiger Snail + Acid Rain:  Acid rain from human pollution harms some of Pennsylvania's smallest animals: tiger snails.  ... Museum scientist Tim Pearce found that before 2000, the tiger snail was found in 53 Pennsylvania counties.  After 2000, that number was cut by more than half.

Tiger snails, We Are Nature, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tiger snails, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

There's one object in the room that's the perfect emblem of our aimless effect on earth -- a shopping cart coated in zebra mussels.

Shopping cart coated in zebra mussels, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, We Are Nature exhibit, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Shopping cart coated in zebra mussels, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The shopping cart says, "Humans were here."

  • Humans manufactured something not found in nature.
  • The cart ended up in one of the Great Lakes through human negligence (it rolled) or purpose (dumped).
  • As it lay submerged zebra mussels attached themselves to the cart.  Zebra mussels are an invasive species accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1980s.  They got there on the bottoms of boats.

Without humans, nothing about this object would exist.

See more amazing stories of our impact at We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Click here for more information.

 

p.s. In the Post-Gazette I learned that this is the first exhibition about the Anthropocene in North America. (Go, Pittsburgh!) It will run for a year, include additional programming, and the museum plans to hire a curator of the Anthropocene in January.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Common Mullein: Wait Until Next Year

Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)
Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)

In July these green and yellow flower spikes tower along our roadsides and waste places.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a Eurasian native of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) that was introduced to North America.  Because it's biennial both forms are visible right now.

In its first year of life, the plant is a basal rosette of velvety blue-green leaves, 4-16 inches long.

In its second year the rosette sprouts a flower spike, blooms in the summer, sets seed, and then dies.

Here it is in the spring of its second year. The basal rosette is beginning to flower.

Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)
Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)

And here's a closeup of the flowers:

Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)
Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)

Though common mullein only reproduces by seed it's very good at doing it.  Each plant produces 100,000 to 180,000 seeds that are dispersed by wind or animals.  If the seeds don't land in a hospitable place, no problem.  They're viable for 100 years!

Consequently, common mullein is listed as invasive in 20 states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Because it only spreads by seed, this plant can be eradicated by hand pulling before the seed sets, then bagging it and disposing of it.  Unfortunately, it's too late in the season to do that now and other methods, such as poison, will only spread its seeds when the plant falls.

We'll just have to enjoy its flowers and wait until next year.

When it comes to weeds, I love procrastinating!

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

Spoonbills Here and There

Eurasian spoonbill (photo by Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net, via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian spoonbill in the Netherlands (photo by Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net, via Wikimedia Commons)

A bird this unusual must surely be from the tropics, but not this one.

The Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) is a large white wading bird with black legs and a spatulate bill that's black with a yellow tip.  In breeding plumage they have feather crests and yellow chins. Click here for another view.

Spoonbills live in fresh and saltwater wetlands where they hunt for prey by sweeping their long bills side to side below the surface, snapping them shut when they feel prey close by.

Amazingly this spoonbill nests in both temperate and tropical zones.  Though they're sparse in Europe, their range extends to Africa and wide swaths of Asia (see map).  Four hundred years ago Eurasian spoonbills disappeared from the British Isles. Happily, they returned to breed in the marshes of Norfolk County in 2010.

Breeding range of Eurasian spoonbill in Europe (map from Wikimedia Commons)
Breeding range of Eurasian spoonbill in Europe (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Of the six spoonbill species on Earth, all but one are white.  The pink one lives in our hemisphere, the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja).

Roseate Spoonbill (photo by Steve Gosser)
Roseate Spoonbill (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Click here to see the six species of spoonbills, Platalea.  Ours is the one with "A ha ha!" in his name:  Platalea ajaja!

 

(photo credits:
Eurasian spoonbill by Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net, via Wikimedia Commons
map of European breeding range from Wikimedia Commons; click on the map to see the original
Roseate spoonbill by Steve Gosser
)

Surprisingly Poisonous

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that your fingers will go numb or burn if you handle this bird?  You'll be lucky if that's all that happens.  This bird is poisonous!

Though it superficially resembles our orchard oriole the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is an Old World oriole that lives on the islands of New Guinea. Its skin and feathers are poisonous to touch though not as deadly as the golden poison frog of South America shown below.  Both animals exude batrachotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin that kills by paralysis and cardiac arrest.  The frog is 50 times more poisonous than the bird.  He contains enough poison to kill 10 men!

Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)
Golden poison frog, Columbia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

These animals are poisonous because they eat poisonous insects and yet they don't die!

Fascinated?

I learned this and more at The Power of Poison exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The exhibit explores our relationships with poison in nature including how we avoid it, work around it, use it to kill or use it to cure.  Throughout it all we are fascinated by its power.  Here are a few of the cool things you'll see:

  • A terrarium with live golden poison frogs!  (Find out why these particular frogs are harmless.)
  • Foods we eat that are/were partly poisonous. How about cashews?
  • The real poisons behind famous literary scenes in Macbeth's witches' brew, Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
  • What killed the Borgias' enemies? Cleopatra? Ponce de Leon?
  • Poisons that cure cancer and treat high blood pressure.

In the end you'll get to test your skills with solve-it-yourself poison mysteries.

Visit the Carnegie Museum's The Power of Poison exhibit, now through September 4, and find out what's surprisingly poisonous.

Make plans for your visit here.

 

p.s. By the way, poisons in nature aren't that unusual.  We have poisonous blister beetles, jimsonweed and poison ivy in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

(photo credits: bird and frog photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
'Poisons in Nature' banner from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
)

Nightshade in the Garden

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)
Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Anne Marie Bosnyak sent me a photo, below, of a plant that popped up in her garden.

It has purple flowers and tomato-like fruit. It's obviously growing in the wrong place.  Is it a weed?

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)
Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Well, yes.

It's bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a perennial from Eurasia that's considered invasive in Pennsylvania.

Did you know it's related to potatoes?  Don't eat it!  Read on.

Not Tomatoes

 

(flower photo by Chuck Tague, plant photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)