Oct 22 2015

Duck, Duck, Goose?

Published by under Songbirds

Duck, duck, goose

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In the weeks ahead ducks and geese will migrate through Pennsylvania from the frozen north.

We intuitively separate ducks and geese into two classes of waterfowl — “This one’s a duck, that one’s a goose” — but how?

Three years ago I mused about this question and got a surprising answer when I asked “What’s the difference between a duck and a goose?”

Click here to find out.


(silhouette images: duck from Freedigitaldownloads, goose from Shutterstock)

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Oct 21 2015

A Starburst Of …

Published by under Plants,Quiz

What is this?

What is this?

Today, a quiz!  What is this?


  • Six of us found these unusual starbursts sticking out of the ground at Wolf Creek Narrows, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania on October 14.
  • The starburst measures 1.25 inches across.
  • The stalk stands a foot tall.
  • There are no leaves on the stalk nor at the base of the stalk.
  • Each tip ends in a shiny black bead. (Some of the beads fell off my specimen.)
  • A Google image search on this photo results in pictures of jewelry:-)

Bonus Question:  What U.S. city is named for this plant?

Leave a comment with your answer.  After you’ve had a chance to vote I’ll post the answer in the Comments.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 20 2015

These Aren’t Leaves

Published by under Plants

Liverwort ay Slippery Rock Gorge (photo by Kate St. John)

Liverwort (photo by Kate St. John)

Though these look like leaves, they aren’t.  They’re liverwort, a plant related to moss that often grows right next to it.

The flat green ribbons place this plant in the thallose liverwort group.  There are also leafy liverworts that look like moss, some so tiny that they require an expert with a magnifying glass to identify them.

Liverworts (Marchantiophyta) are ancient plants with these amazing characteristics:

  • They have no water transport system (i.e. non-vascular). Without internal pipes they’re at water’s mercy to come and go wherever it will. Thus they don’t grow tall.
  • They have no protection against water loss so liverworts have evolved the ability to dehydrate and recover in a technique similar to hibernation.
  • Liverworts’ cells contain only a single set of chromosomes (haploid). They produce diploid cells only for reproduction.  Animals and most plants are the opposite with double chromosomes in our normal cells and singles only for reproduction.
  • Liverworts have no roots.  Instead they have specialized cells on the underside called rhizoids that cling to the surface.  Each cell is holding on!

Look closely and you can see that the “leaf” is a mosaic of plates, each with a dot in the middle.  The dots look like stomata for regulating water loss but they’re actually air pockets.  (Click here for a schematic from the University of British Columbia.)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort, closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Liverwort got its name during the Doctrine of Signatures era when people believed that plants that resembled a body part treated diseases of that body part.  Since liverwort resembled animal livers people thought it must be a good treatment for liver disease.  Liver + wort is “liver-plant.”   In reality, liverworts have no medicinal use.

Because they’re at water’s mercy look for liverworts in cool, damp, shady places.  I found these on a north-facing cliff near Breakneck Falls at McConnell’s Mill State Park.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 19 2015

Male Or Female?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

You can’t tell the difference between male and female ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) unless they’re upset.  Only males have the ruby crown that gave the bird its name but they hide it unless they’re agitated.

Fortunately for us, ruby-crowned kinglets are feisty and will raise their head feathers as a challenge to each other and just about anyone else.

Watch for them migrating through western Pennsylvania this month.

Steve Gosser photographed this one at Shenango Lake, Mercer County.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 18 2015

Nature Events: Inside And Out

Published by under Books & Events

Nature Events: Inside and Out

Even though winter’s coming there are still many opportunities to participate in Nature events indoors and out.  Here’s a list of activities, plus an online resource for finding more.

Walk in Schenley Park, Sunday October 25, 8:30am

Meet me at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center on Sunday October 25 at 8:30am for my last guided walk in the park in 2015.

NOTE: Schenley Drive will be closed until 9:00am for CMU Buggy Practice so your best bet is to park at Anderson Playground and walk across the bridge to the Visitors Center. Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Click here for updates in case of cancellation or bad weather.

Wings and Wildlife Art Show at the National Aviary, November 7-8

The Wings and Wildlife Art Show returns to the National Aviary after a 10 year hiatus.  This juried art show and marketplace will include 46 locally and nationally known wildlife artists from 5 states working in paint, photography, jewelry, ceramics, wood, and more.  Click here for more information.

Nature Events year round. Find one near you!

Attend outings, indoor presentations and hands-on learning sessions throughout the year.  Find out what’s happening, where, and when at Adam Haritan’s Learn Your Land website.  Learn Your Land has easy searching tools to find an event near you.

Listen, Learn, Participate on the web

Every week WESA’s Allegheny Front presents environmental topics of interest in western Pennsylvania — from birds to kayaking, from air quality to Marcellus Shale’s impact.  Click here to hear.

iSeeChange.org is a community climate and weather journal where you can post your climate observations and questions.  Listen to The Allegheny Front for answers.

Yale Climate Connections compiles quick stories on people responding to our warming world. Their October 14 Weird Weather episode features my comments on changing weather patterns in Pittsburgh.  Click here to hear.


(photo by Kate St. John, poster from the National Aviary’s Wings and Wildlife Art Show)


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Oct 17 2015

Get Out To See Fall Colors, But Don’t Take The Bridge

Fall color (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are still colorful in Pittsburgh but frost is coming tonight.

Get outside today to take in Nature’s beauty … but don’t expect to cross the Greenfield Bridge into Schenley Park.

Greenfield Bridge as seen from the Parkway East (photo by Pat Hassett)

Greenfield Bridge as seen from the Parkway East July 2015 (photo by Pat Hassett)

The Greenfield Bridge is closed now for 18 months (probably 2 years!) while it’s dismantled, blown up and replaced.

Today, October 17, there’s a party on the bridge — Greenfield BridgeFest — from 4:00pm to midnight. Music headliner: Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. Win a chance to be the one to blow up the bridge.  Click here for more info.

Come on down!


(fall color photo by Kate St. John; Greenfield Bridge photo by Pat Hassett)

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Oct 16 2015

Young Eagles Eat Junk Food

Juvenile bald eagle hunting in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

Juvenile bald eagle hunting for fish (photo by Chuck Tague)

For juvenile bald eagles the first year of life is the hardest.  Fresh from the nest where their parents fed them, they’re off on their own hunting for food with almost no practical experience.  Every day is a new challenge.

The first order of business is Learn To Fish, but that’s easier said than done. Fortunately they have other options. They can munch down on carrion, grab food from others, or even eat junk food.

Junk food?

In the September issue of The Journal of Raptor Research the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) analyzed the daily movements of 64 satellite-tagged bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region with an eye on their use of landfills.  With five years of data and 72 landfills the study found some interesting stuff.

A flock "Down in the dumps" at a Florida landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

“Down in the dumps” at the landfill (photo by Chuck Tague)

For starters, 10% of the landfills were really popular and garnered 75% of the bald eagles’ use.  The landfills closest to eagle roosts were the favorites.  I imagine eagles like the convenience of a breakfast or bedtime snack.

Landfill use was much more common among the young.  Compared to adults, hatch year bald eagles visited 6 times as often, second year birds 4 times as often, and third/fourth year birds 3 times as often as adults.  Even so, there were individuals in various age groups who were obviously hooked.

It appears that bald eagles give up the landfill habit as they get better at fishing.

Junk food is for the young. 😉

Read more about the eagle study here at the Center for Conservation Biology.


(photos by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 15 2015

TBT: What To Look For in Late October

Published by under Phenology

Flowering dogwood in October, annotated (photo by Chuck Tague)

Flowering dogwood in October, annotated (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What should we expect outdoors in late October?

Colorful leaves, fruits on trees, the first frost … and more in this Throw Back Thursday article:
What To Look For in Late October.

This year Halloween is the last day of Daylight Saving Time.  On Halloween night we’ll turn our clocks back to Standard Time and the next day the sun will rise at 6:49 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and set at 5:17 p.m.  Rush hour in the dark!



(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Oct 14 2015

Math Comes In Handy

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Monk parakeets in a dispute (photo by Greg Matthews courtesy NIMbios press release)

Monk parakeets arguing (photo by Greg Matthews, courtesy NIMBios press release)

Imagine a group is thrown together in a new social setting and each member has to figure out where he stands.  You’ve experienced this.  Remember the first day of high school?

Humans work out their social hierarchy fairly quickly and quietly though, thinking back to high school, some people pick fights to establish dominance.

Like humans, monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) also maintain a social hierarchy.  Researchers at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) wondered how the birds figured out their pecking order so they threw together two new flocks and watched what happened.

At first the birds had no hierarchy and quietly assessed each others’ rank without fighting.  After about a week the major rankings had shaken out and some of them started to fight.

For 24 days the humans kept track of the parakeets’ interactions, carefully noting who fought and who won.  Interestingly, many birds didn’t fight and even those who did seemed to pick their battles.

Analysis of more than 2,300 interactions showed that the parakeets kept track of who won and lost and extrapolated the rankings to figure out their nearest competitors and those not worth challenging.  They only bothered to fight if they were close in rank and couldn’t determine it by extrapolation.  For example,

Able and Charlie know they’re both stronger than Baker (no fight necessary) so they must be roughly equal but don’t know who’s best unless they fight … except …

Dirk beat up Able yesterday and Charlie beat Dirk.  By inference, this makes Charlie better than Able.  After only two fights the pecking order is:  Charlie > Dirk > Able > Baker.

This kind extrapolation involves a lot of math (logic) and is much harder to do in large groups but the birds are so smart that they avoid fights by doing the math in their heads.

Math comes in handy, even in social settings. There’s a good reason it’s taught in high school.  😉


Read more here at Science Daily.

(photo by Greg Matthews, courtesy National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis press release)


p.s. For more information on why monk parakeets fight, see this blog from BrooklynParrots.com:  Why Exactly Do Monk Parakeets Fight

p.p.s. Monk parakeets (also called Quaker parakeets) are “agricultural pests” in many states.  In Pennsylvania they’re illegal to own and are removed when found in the wild.  This is not the case in New York where monk parakeets hang out near JFK Airport, as shown in Gintarus Baltusis’ photo below.

Monk parakeets near JFK airport (photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

Monk parakeets near JFK airport (photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

Can you see this group doing math?


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Oct 13 2015

A Reason For Variegated Leaves

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Evidence of Leaf Miners (photo by Kate St. John)

Evidence of Leaf Miners (photo by Kate St. John)

Have you seen leaves with unusual patterns like these?  Did you know they’re caused by an insect?

Leaf miners are the larvae of moths, sawflies or flies (and a few others) that eat leaf tissue within the leaf.

The process begins when an adult insect lays her eggs on the leaf.  When the larvae hatch they eat a tunnel between the top and bottom surfaces and the leaf turns white where it’s been mined.  The mining squiggles are so unique that entomologists can identify the insect species by the pattern it makes.

In 2009 botanists discovered a healthy plant in the Ecuadoran rain forest whose leaves appeared to have leaf miner damage but did not.  They wondered if the pattern was a signal so they painted similar white trails on green leaves and compared leaf miner damage on three kinds of leaves: green, naturally variegated, and fake-variegated.

The results showed that variegation is a mimicry defense against insect invaders.  When an adult leaf miner sees a leaf that looks eaten, she won’t lay her eggs on it.

So that’s a reason why plants have variegated leaves.  Cool!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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