Aug 25 2016

On Their Way to Veracruz

Published by under Migration

Pair of Prothonotary Warblers courting (photo by Kim Steininger)

Pair of Prothonotary Warblers courting (photo by Kim Steininger)

On Throw Back Thursday:

It’s still summer but North America’s warblers are already on migration to their winter homes.

Beginning in August, prothonotary warblers (Protonotaria citrea) spend three months in transit. Read more about where they go and how they spend their time in this article from August 2009.

Leaving Now for Veracruz


(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Aug 24 2016

Which One of You Is Least?

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird, Morro Bay, CA via Wikimedia Commons)

Two “peeps” (photo by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons)

Which one of you is a least sandpiper?  That’s the question I ask all the “peeps” when I see them in the field.

This month I’ve been using the tips I wrote in Shorebird Practice on August 12 to find the answers. Here’s how:

  • Which small shorebirds are possible here and now? In western Pennsylvania in August the likely suspects are least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers, and at sandy shores, sanderlings.  At muddy locations you might encounter the relatively rare Baird’s sandpiper.  He’s longer-winged than the other three.
  • 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.


p.s. Here are two extensive resources on identifying peeps:  ABA’s in-depth identification of peeps and Peep identification at The Nutty Birder website.

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

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Aug 23 2016

Balm For A Horse?

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Horse balm in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Horse balm in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

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)

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.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 22 2016

Babies, It’s Hot Outside

Screenshot from Science video about zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)

Screenshot from Science Magazine video on zebra finch nest songs (Click on the image to see the video)

Bird news from last week, in case you missed it …

Many birds talk to their eggs and there’s evidence that the eggs hear and respond.  For instance, superb fairywrens sing to their eggs and before they hatch the babies sing back!

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)

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Aug 21 2016

Butterfly With a Birthday Cake

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Butterfly with a birthday cake (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Butterfly with a birthday cake (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Dana Nesiti (who usually takes photos of bald eagles) has been experimenting with insects.  This one caught my eye.

Is this butterfly celebrating its birthday with 16 candles?

Well, no.  The birthday cake is actually a black-eyed susan with stamens.

And the butterfly is a wild indigo duskywing.


Thanks to Dana Nesiti for the cool photo and butterfly identification.

(photo by Dana Nesiti)

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Aug 20 2016

Bird’s-Eye View

Published by under Plants

Orange jewelweed (photo by Kate St. John)

Orange jewelweed (photo by Kate St. John)

The color and shape of orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) are specially designed for hummingbird pollination.

“Hello, hummingbird,” says the flower. “Come on in!”


p.s. Curious about the design?  Click here to read more.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 19 2016

Follow The Sound And You Might Find …

This broad-winged hawk was hidden until the songbirds gave him away.

If you hear birds making a ruckus in late August and September, look for what’s upsetting them.  It might be a broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) stopping by on migration.


p.s. Broad-winged hawks are forest dwellers, the same bulky shape as red-tailed hawks but smaller and not often seen near people.

(video by caroltlw on YouTube)

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Aug 18 2016

Backyard Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk on Solomon's deck (photo by Michael Solomon)

Red-tailed Hawk on Solomon’s deck (photo by Michael Solomon)

On Throw Back Thursday:

If there’s a bulky hawk in your backyard that ignores you like this, I bet I can identify it without ever seeing it.  In western Pennsylvania, I’m 90% sure it’s a juvenile red-tailed hawk.

Young red-tailed hawks are so focused that they tune us out.  Read about this backyard bird in the 2009 article:


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Aug 17 2016

Only A Month Ago

Published by under Peregrines

C1 on Heinz Chapel steeple, 14 July 2016 (photo by Lori Maggio)

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 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)

C1 at Heinz Chapel steeple, 14 July 2016 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Shortly thereafter C1 left town to begin life on her own.

Since then the best place to watch the peregrines has been on the nestcams:  Cathedral of Learning and Gulf.


(photos by Lori Maggio)

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Aug 16 2016

Inside The Lanterns

Published by under Plants

Flower and fruit of Ground cherry (photo by Kate St. John)

Flower and fruit of Ground cherry (photo by Kate St. John)

“What is this?”

That’s what I said to myself when I saw this plant at Moraine State Park in early August.  The leaves resemble tomato or green pepper leaves but the lantern seed pods were new to me.

It looks festive, doesn’t it?

Smooth ground cherry plant (photo by Kate St. John)

Ground cherry plant (photo by Kate St. John)

It reminds me of Chinese lanterns.

Newcomb’s Wildlfower Guide keys this out to Ground Cherry (Physalis) with a choice of three species.   The leaf shape is wrong for clammy ground cherry and the stems and leaves aren’t downy so it must be smooth ground cherry (P. subglabrata, now P. longifolia).

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)

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.

The fruit looks like a tiny tomato.  (click here to see.)  Its close relative, P. philadelphica, is cultivated for tomatillos.

Perhaps I’ll go back this fall to see the tomatoes inside the lanterns.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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