Green herons (Butorides virescens) are shy waders in swampy thickets, preferring to fish in the shadows and nest alone. Because of their secretive nature it’s always surprising to find a nest.
When green herons return to Pennsylvania in the spring they’re already paired up for nesting. The male chooses the location, usually in a small tree over water, giving preference to last year’s site if it was successful. He starts to build the nest but as soon as his lady gets the hint his job is to bring the sticks as she places them. Then she lays 4-5 eggs.
With this dual building effort it’s amazing that the structure is sometimes so thin that you can see the eggs through it from below.
That is, if you can find the nest. Green herons don’t want you to. They fly away loudly if you come too close. Typically they sound like this (Xeno Canto 147343 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
… but if they’re really annoyed they are much louder (Xeno Canto 145806 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
Right now most of Pennsylvania’s green herons have young in the nest and the parents are busy bringing food. At 16-17 days old the chicks will climb out of the nest — or swim if they have to. They’ll fly at 21-22 days old.
Stay alert for the sight and sound green herons. You might find a nest over water.
Summer arrived before the solstice. It’s time to get outdoors!
Join me for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday, June 24, 8:30a – 10:30a.
Meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road. We’ll look in the meadow for birds and flowers, then explore the woodland trails. I’m sure we’ll see daisy fleabane. It’s blooming now.
Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.
Before you come, visit the Events page in case there are changes or cancellations. The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning.
Many of you have asked about the status of Dori and Louie’s peregrine chicks, taken from their Downtown Pittsburgh nest on 8 May 2018. I have no news of the chicks, but I do know the PA Game Commission planned to hack them at an undisclosed location. Based on the chicks’ age, I think this would have happened in early June.
What is peregrine hacking?
Hacking is a falconry term for the process of introducing captive chicks without parents to independent free flight. The Peregrine Recovery Program used this method to restore peregrines to the wild after they went extinct east of the Mississippi. Every wild peregrine in the eastern U.S. is descended from one or more hacked birds.
In the spring I often see large pleated leaves in the same damp places where skunk cabbage grows. For years I didn’t know what they were and I was lazy. I couldn’t see any flowers and I wouldn’t wade into the swamp to key it out with my Newcomb’s Guide.
This week Dianne Machesney put me straight. This is false hellebore (Veratrum viride).
False hellebore is blooming this month and now I know why I never saw the flowers from a distance. They’re completely green! Six hairy green tepals (petal-sepals) and six stamens with yellow anthers.
The leaves spiral up the stem. The entire plant, up to six feet tall, resembles hellebore so it’s called false hellebore.
Like all plants in the Veratrum genus viride is highly poisonous. Deer leave it alone but cattle are sometimes fooled.
Amazingly, some Native American tribes used it as an initiation test. Like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, candidates to be the next leader would ingest false hellebore. According to Wikipedia, the one to start vomiting last would become the new leader. (Ick!)
Look for false hellebore’s flowers from May to July. After it blooms, the leaves fade.
Here are two flowers that couldn’t be more different but they have the same common name: Goat’s Beard.
The Goat’s Beard flower above is Tragopogon dubius, introduced from Eurasia and named for its huge fluffy seed head. It loves full sun and thrives in poor, disturbed soil so I often see it in former waste places planted with wildflower seed mix. The flower above was at Lower Nine Mile Run on June 1.
The Goat’s Beard below, Aruncus dioicus, is a native of North America named for its fluffy male flowers. Four to six feet tall, it requires moist rich soil so I usually find it in the forest where a splash of sun breaks through. Dianne Machesney found this one last week.
The flower in her photo doesn’t look very fluffy. Here’s a possible explanation.
Aruncus dioicus is dioecius — some plants are male, others female. The male flowers are the showy ones. This showy flower from Wikimedia Commons may be male.
Be careful if you tell a butterfly enthusiast that you’ve found Goat’s Beard. The yellow-flowered Eurasian species is nothing to get excited about but Aruncus dioicus is the host plant for the rare Dusky Azure butterfly (Celastrina nigra).
Two “Goat’s Beards.” Perhaps even more.
yellow Goat’s Beard flower by Kate St. John
white Goat’s Beard flower by Dianne Machesney
fluffy white Goat’s Beard flower from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
Next week the last survey window opens for counting nightjars by the light of the moon. It’s a fun way to go birding on a moonlit night — June 20 to July 6, 2018.
Nightjars are a worldwide family of nocturnal/crepuscular birds that eat flying insects on the wing. They have long wings, short legs, short bills and very wide mouths. Two of these cryptically-colored species are found in Pennsylvania:
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), in flight above, breeds in cities and open habitat, grasslands, dunes.
Nightjar surveys are easy to perform and will not take more than two hours to complete. Volunteers conduct roadside counts at night, on scheduled bright moonlit nights, by driving and stopping at 10 points along a predetermined 9-mile route. At each point, the observer counts all Nightjars seen or heard during a 6-minute period.
A Virginia Rail out in the open. Why is it visible? (Mittry Lake, AZ, 23 April 2018. photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Shaking off water (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Gathering food (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Carrying food ... where? (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail feeding 2 chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks following parent (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Wait for us! (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
The further south you go, the earlier the birds nest. In late April we’re excited that Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) have just returned to Pennsylvania. In southern Arizona they already have families.
Steve Valasek found this out when he went looking for black rails (a very rare bird!) at Mittry Lake in Yuma County, Arizona on 23 April. He didn’t find a black rail but he did find tiny rails that were black.
When he spotted a Virginia rail out in the open he wondered, ” Why isn’t it hiding like they normally do?” In this slideshow of his photos you’ll find out why.
p.s. The Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania says the median egg date for Virginia rails in our state is 6 June. Since the eggs are incubated for 19 days and the chicks are precocial (they walk from the nest), the right time to see a Virginia Rail family in Pennsylvania would be early July. Good luck! They’re usually impossible to find.