Are you at a sandy beach? If not, rule out sanderlings. If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they’re noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated. Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
Legs: If you can see colors and the birds legs aren’t muddy you’ve hit the jackpot. Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs. If you cannot see leg color then …
Posture while feeding: Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes. They look hunched.
Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
(Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
Bills: All are black.
Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: “Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles).” They say that leasts like edges.
So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper? It’s a trick question. Both are. And yet they’re standing up to their bellies in water to confound the “leasts liked edges” statement. Notice their yellow legs.
Here’s a tall woodland plant that’s easy to overlook because its flowers aren’t big and beautiful.
Horse balm (Collinsonia canadensis) is a perennial mint that grows 1.75 to 5 feet tall in deep woods. Even in the middle of its blooming cycle it looks ragged with flowers in every stage of development from bud to bloom, from fade to seed.
Closeup of horse balm flowers (photo by Kate St. John)
At very close range the flowers are fancy tubes with lips and protruding stamens (click here to see). You’ll also notice that the plant smells like cheap lemon scent, giving it the alternate name cintronella horse balm.
The name “balm” comes from its medicinal properties described at eNature: “Tea can be brewed from the leaves, and the rhizome was formerly used as a diuretic, tonic, and astringent.”
But why is it horse balm?
I haven’t found horses mentioned anywhere in the literature about this plant.
Now scientists at Deakin University in Australia have discovered that in zebra finches what the eggs hear and how they respond is even more amazing than we knew.
In the last days of incubation, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) sing a special song to their eggs but only when it’s hot outside — greater than 26 degrees C (78.8 degrees F).
The eggs hear the song and it changes their lives.
After they hatch, babies who heard the “hot call” grow more slowly than those who didn’t. Not only are the “hot call” babies smaller as adults but they’re more successful breeders in a hot climate. Surprisingly, this effect extends into later generations.
Small bodies cope better with heat than large ones, so signalling for a smaller size is a great adaptation for a warming climate.
But how does the zebra finch song bring about this result?
Click here to watch the video and read about this amazing feat.
(screenshot from Science Magazine video about zebra finch vocalization. Click on the screenshot to see the video)
C1 on Heinz Chapel steeple, 14 July 2016 (photo by Lori Maggio)
August has been boring for watching Pittsburgh’s peregrines outdoors. It’s hot, the adults are molting and lethargic, and the youngsters have left town. Even when female ownership changes at Pitt we never see it happen.
A month ago outdoor watching was more interesting. On July 14 Lori Maggio photographed C1 perched on the Heinz Chapel steeple.
C1 on a gargoyle at Heinz Chapel steeple, 14 July 2016 (photo by Lori Maggio)
C1 at Heinz Chapel steeple, 14 July 2016 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Shortly thereafter C1 left town to begin life on her own.
Well, maybe. There are a lot of native ground cherries in the Americas — 46 species in Mexico alone. The extent of maroon inside the flower may give a hint. Physalis longifolia var. subglabrata is as close as I can get.
Inside the dangling Ground cherry flower (photo by Kate St. John)
What I do know is that when the paper lantern dries the fruit is edible, though everything else about the plant is poisonous including the paper husk.