Seen Downtown

15 July 2020

The Downtown peregrine falcon youngsters are growing up though few of us are there to see them. Downtown feels empty because the COVID-19 crisis has most people working from home. Fortunately, Ann Hohn was in her Gulf Tower office at Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia on 13 July when two peregrines stopped by. She sent me this photo and wrote:

We  spotted this youngster outside the office. There was an adult with it but it flew and was circling. Is it one of the youngsters from our falcon pair who have been nesting elsewhere in town? It’s definitely a young one.

Yes! This is one of the Downtown youngsters. Too bad the adult flew away before Ann could get a picture.

I’m glad the peregrines still visit the Gulf Tower though they haven’t nested there for many years. The nestbox was removed in January 2019 when the building began critical masonry and roof repairs. I hope the repairs are finished in time to re-install the nestbox for the 2021 nesting season.

Thank you, Ann Hohn, for this happy news.

(photo by Ann Hohn)

Two Crows Save The Day

Two American crows look intently at… (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 July 2020

Crows remember the faces of people who pay attention to them and are kind (or mean) to them. They also watch out for those they know. So it’s not too surprising that …

Last Sunday two crows saved a toddler in Vancouver, BC from running into traffic.

The toddler’s mother, Arley Cruthers of Vancouver, BC writes:

I usually am in peak helicopter mom mode but today she went from “trying to turn on a water fountain while I sat on a bench” to “running towards traffic” in 1 second flat.

I am not fast so I was chasing after her as she ran towards the road. Suddenly two crows swooped down to the fence and started yelling at her. She stopped, went over to the fence and talked to them. The crows kept up yelling at her and she just stood there, chatting with them.

I caught up, and stood between her and the road, and watched their interaction. After a few minutes, the crows gave me a sharp caw and flew away. Everyone in the playground was like “those crows came over to save your kid.” I made sure to thank them!

— tweets by Arley Cruthers (McNeney)

Crows save the day!

Click here for the complete thread.

p.s. The Twitter thread includes this heartwarming story by June Hunter of how crows helped rescue a lost dog: A Christmas Miracle — with Crows!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original; embedded tweet from Arley McNeney Cruthers)

Pair Bonding With Ecco

Ecco and Morela touch beaks at the Pitt peregrine nest, 11 July 2020, 5:45am

13 July 2020

It’s almost mid-July yet two peregrine falcons, Ecco and Morela, are pair bonding at the Pitt peregrine nest in a very serious way. On Saturday 11 July they courted twice and touched beaks in a close bond before dawn.

For five months Morela has had two suitors, Terzo and Ecco. In early June Terzo was a constant presence, then Ecco reappeared on 16 June and both males courted her twice on 25 June. After that Terzo faded away and Morela was alone until Ecco reappeared on 9 July.

I should have seen him coming. My first hint was when Morela spent five hours roosting at the nest rail on the night of 8-9 July from 9p to 2a. Female peregrines usually don’t roost at the nest outside the breeding season. Here she is on the 8 July 2020 “Night in a Minute” video.

The next morning, Morela and Ecco courted for almost four minutes.

The 10th of July was quiet but they returned before dawn on 11 July, courting for three minutes and touching beaks. Beak-touching is more intimate than merely bowing. These two are hitting it off as a couple.

Less than three hours later, at 8:27a, Morela returned with a full crop and courted with Ecco for another three minutes.

I don’t put a lot of stock in the permanence of Morela’s bond with Ecco since he and Terzo trade places so often. However, it’s intriguing to see that she’s so close to Ecco.

Meanwhile, here’s something to ponder …

Why does Morela have a flipped primary feather?

Female peregrines usually molt their primaries during incubation (April/May) so I was surprised to see one of Morela’s primaries is flipped on her right wing. The feather was normal until the morning of 27 June when Morela returned to the nest rail. She preened and stayed there for five hours as shown in the Day in a Minute video .

So far the flipped feather has stayed in that position for 16 days. If it had flipped due to molting, the new feather would have pushed it out by now. So I wonder, was Morela in an aerial battle on 27 June? Even if we knew the answer, we’ll never know who her adversary was.

(photos and video from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Insects Seen and Unseen

Aphids on Helianthus, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 July 2020

It’s easy to find insects in July.

Aphids in Schenley Park are expanding from plant to plant along the gravel trails, sucking the juice out of Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus).

Yellow hawkweeds (Pilosella caespitosa) are attracting bee-like insects.

Wasp or bee on hawkweed, Schenley Park, 6 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And some insects are unseen but have left evidence behind. Can you see two kinds of insect evidence on this crabapple tree?

Insect evidence on crabapple, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Two Kinds of Bottlebrush

Eastern bottlebrush grass, Schenley Park, 8 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 July 2020

This week I found two bottlebrushes in Schenley Park.

Eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) is a native perennial bunchgrass that grows in partial shade, often at the edge of forests. This one was exactly where we should expect it, glowing in the sun by the Bridle Trail.

Meanwhile the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) by Panther Hollow Lake showed off in a last hurrah. They were spectacular from a distance on 9 July but up close the lowest flowers on each spike were faded and brown. Their show is about to end.

Bottlebrush buckeyes at their peak, Schenley Park, 9 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Squirrel Proof Feeder?

Squirrel on the bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Are you frustrated with squirrels at your bird feeder? Are they getting into squirrel-proof locations?

Not quite squirrel-proof (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

You’re not alone.

This spring Mark Rober was frustrated that squirrels were getting into his new bird feeder so he bought a better one, and then an even better one, and they still got in. So he decided to build a squirrel obstacle course to see just how agile these critters are. In the process he actually got to know each squirrel. And he made a video.

Watch as the squirrels are foiled and challenged and then …. well, you’ll just have to watch. The video lasts 20 minutes. If you don’t have that much time watch the first 3 minutes. I bet you’ll be hooked. 😉

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Embedded video by Mark Rober)

Some Of Us Sleep During the Day

Lapland longspur, Alaska, Oct 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

During Arctic summertime the sun stays up for 24 hours. One day lasts many weeks. How do birds cope with 24-hour daylight?

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus), pictured above, rigorously adhere to their own internal clock. “If it ought to be night right now, we’re going to sleep.” They sleep during the day.

Other species have different strategies. Some have no clock at all. Others vary their clocks based on sex, male or female.

Red phalarope male in May (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out how four species cope with 24-hour daylight in this vintage blog: Arctic Summer Bird Activities.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tough Little Water Bears

8 July 2020

With COVID-19 raging around the world, we humans feel a little less invincible that we did a few months ago. Despite our own fragility there’s a tiny creature, less than 1mm long, that has survived all five mass extinctions. The tardigrade or water bear is practically indestructible.

Tardigrades have a second nickname — moss piglets — because moss and lichen are their favored habitat. Tardigrades don’t care how cold it is. They live in glacier mice and …

… a lot of harsh locations as shown in the video below.

Tardigrades’ only weakness seems to be prolonged heat, so climate change may be bad for them in some places on Earth. However, they’re so versatile and widespread I think most will survive. They are tough little water bears.

p.s. If you missed the blog post on glacier mice, click here to catch up.

(water bear screenshot from the Dodo video above; glacier mouse by cariberry via Flickr)

Piping Plovers Dance For Love

Piping plover at West Meadow Beach, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 July 2020

For such a tiny shorebird, male piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) have an elaborate courtship dance. The best part of it — the “tattoo” — was tweeted last Friday by the Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program.

There’s more to the dance than that. In the run-up to copulation the male

  • Calls to his mate while scraping a nest in the sand, tossing away twigs and debris.
  • Approaches her in a low gliding crouch with his head below the horizontal.
  • Pauses near her, raises his head up high and beats a tattoo with his feet, faster and faster, closer and closer.
  • When he’s ready he mounts, still moving his feet up and down while on her back. He may stay in this position without copulating for more than a minute.
  • After or during copulation he may grab her by the nape of the neck. Though this looks vicious she doesn’t seem to mind.
  • And then they walk away and preen.

You can see all of these behaviors in this longer video from Montrose Beach, Illinois.

If all goes well, the dance results in some very cute baby birds.

Piping plover chick at West Meadow Beach, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Bananas Are Berries

Banana photo from Wikimedia Commons

Of course bananas are fruits but did you know they are technically berries? Here’s what a berry is:

In botany, a berry is a fleshy fruit without a stone (pit) produced from a single flower containing one ovary

Berry (botany) entry on Wikipedia

Blueberries and strawberries easily fit the definition. You can see their fruits forming from the flowers’ ovaries.

Blueberry and strawberry flowers (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Banana flowers, yellow in the photo below, grow in bunches that bloom as the inflorescence opens.

Each flower becomes a fruit in the bunch.

Bananas photo by Augustus Binu via Wikimedia Commons

The lack of a stone — such as a peach pit — does not mean true berries have no seeds. In fact their seeds are often numerous.

Wild bananas have numerous seeds.

Wild bananas have lots of seeds (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But grocery store bananas do not. They were originally cultivated from two naturally occurring seedless species – Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.

Longitudinal slice of a banana (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our grocery store bananas come from Central America but that’s not where they really come from. The two seedless species are from Indomalaya, first cultivated in Papua New Guinea in 10,000 to 6500 BC.

Original native ranges of the two ancestors of edible bananas (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn more cool facts about bananas as berries at Wikipedia: Banana.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)