Williamsport Peregrine: Happy News

Rehabbed juvenile peregrine released in Lebanon County, PA (screenshot from video)

Though peregrines have spent the winter in Williamsport, PA for more than a decade, none nested there until a pair claimed the Market Street Bridge in 2013. This year’s nest produced one chick with an unusual condition called angel wing. It would have died if it hadn’t been rescued. Fortunately the young bird fully recovered at Red Creek Wildlife Center and was released on Monday, 12 August 2019 at Middle Creek WMA.

Most of the story is told in this video on Red Creek Wildlife Center’s Facebook page. Here’s a little more information from PA Game Commission Peregrine Coordinator Art McMorris who took the video.

“The peregrine nest on the Market St. Bridge in Williamsport is in a location that’s very difficult to see. Members of the Lycoming Audubon Society monitor the nest and on June 9 they saw a nestling, the first evidence that the peregrines were even nesting this year.

“On June 15 Bobby Brown got a photo of the nestling, near fledging age; the photo showed defective feather development on its left wing. This couldn’t be seen when looking at the bird with binoculars or scope. In that condition, if it tried to fledge, we feared it would spiral like a maple seed and end up in the river, so a rescue mission was hastily organized.

“PennDOT District 3 provided a snooper crane, and on June 19, with a storm rapidly blowing in, PGC’s Dan Brauning, Sean Murphy and Mario Giazzon rescued the bird from the bridge and took it to Red Creek Wildlife Center.

“On the video, Peggy Hentz of Red Creek describes the bird’s condition, prognosis and treatment with the help of Radnor Veterinary Hospital. In early August the bird was ready for release so on Monday August 12, Peggy brought it to Middle Creek, Patti Barber banded it and attached a Motus nanotag, and we released her. A great success story all around!”

Click here to watch the video on Red Creek Wildlife Center’s Facebook page. (You don’t have to be on Facebook to see it.)

p.s. You may be wondering: What is angel wing?

As Peggy Hentz explains in the video, angel wing is a syndrome normally seen only in ducks and geese, especially those fed a poor diet. (Bread is the usual cause of angel wing.)

The syndrome is acquired in young birds while forming their wing feathers and can be treated in rehab if caught early. It’s incurable in adults.

In the photo below, this muscovy duck has angel wing. The last joint on both wings is twisted and the deformed feathers point out instead of lying flat against the body. Like all birds with angel wing, this duck cannot fly. It will lead to his early death.

Muscovy duck with angel wing syndrome (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(screenshot from video at Red Creek Wildlife Center Facebook page; angel wing photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

5 Years Ago Today

Comet C/2014 Q2, Lovejoy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Five years ago today on 17 August 2014 Terry Lovejoy scanned the heavens from his home near Brisbane, Australia and found a new long-period comet.

Originating from the Oort Cloud, Comet C/2014 Q2 was in the southern constellation Puppis when Lovejoy first saw it. It wasn’t very bright at the time (apparent magnitude 15) but by mid-December it became so bright that you could see it naked-eye in a dark sky if you knew where to look. In January 2015 it crossed the celestial equator and became brighter still, soon passing close to the sun. Diminished by the sun’s power it won’t return for another 8,000 years.

C/2014 Q2 was the fifth comet Terry Lovejoy discovered and not even the most spectacular. His best was a Kreutz sungrazer found in December 2011. Click here to see it from the International Space Station.

As of this writing Lovejoy has discovered six comets. Find out how he does it in this article at Space.com.

96 Million Shade Balls

Early this week YouTube said to me, “Here’s a video you might like.” Maybe you will too.

Crazy as it looks, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is happy with the results since they covered their reservoir with 96 million black balls.

LADWP calls them “shade balls” but they used to be called “bird balls.” Yet there’s not a bird in sight. This 12-minute video from Veritasium explains it.

I’ve never seen shade balls in Pittsburgh but I can think of several reasons why:

  • We have much less sun. (fewer sun-induced chemical reactions)
  • Our climate is humid. (less evaporation)
  • Bromates are not the big problem here. (Alas, in Pittsburgh our problem is lead.)

But perhaps I’m missing something. Have you seen shade balls in Pittsburgh? Let me know.

(video from Veritasium on YouTube)

Is This Bug True?

Here’s lookin’ at ya! Deceased annual cicada, Neotibicen sp. (photo by Kate St. John)

All bugs are insects but not all insects are true bugs. Is this cicada a true bug? The answer is complicated.

According to Ask A Biologist, true bugs are insects with:

  • A long slender beak-shaped mouth part (proboscis) for sucking liquid food.
  • A partially hardened pair of front wings with clear tips and completely clear rear wings shorter than the front ones.
  • Few joints in the antennae and feet: antennae about five joints, feet usually no more than three.

Cicadas have these characteristics so they and 50,000 to 80,000 other insects are in the “true bug” Order Hempitera. This tiny green flatid planthopper is too.

Flatid planthopper hiding on a bottlebrush buckeye stem in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

But their status is more complicated. These two are true bugs but not true “True Bugs.”

Within Hempitera there’s a suborder of really True Bugs called Heteroptera. Cicadas, planthoppers, spittlebugs, aphids, and adelgids aren’t in this suborder. (See taxonomic chart from bugguide.net below.)

BugGuide’s taxonomy for the order Hempitera (screenshot from bugguide.net)

Encyclopedia Britannica says you can recognize Heteroptera by the X shaped design on their backs. Here are three true True Bugs I’ve seen in Pittsburgh this month.

This green and brown shield bug (probably Elasmostethus artricornis) is native to North America. I found several perched on American spikenard in Schenley Park.

A true bug, probably a shield bug (photo by Kate St. John)

The invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs are mating this month. I found this pair at Washington’s Landing.

Brown marmorated stinkbugs mating (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, I think this is a leaf-footed bug because of the swollen leaf-like segments on his hind legs.

Probably a leaf-footed bug (photo by Kate St. John)

Wondering if a bug is true? It’s a safe bet that it isn’t. Most insects are not, including dragonflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, flies and fleas.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Beaks Built For Fighting

Lesser violetear (green) confronts a sparkling violetear (photo by Julian Londono via Wikimedia Commons)

For centuries scientists have assumed that hummingbird beaks are always shaped for the flowers they feed on, but a recent study of their nectar-feeding mechanisms produced a surprising result. Some male hummingbirds have beaks that are inefficient for feeding but great for fighting.

Alejandro Rico-Guevara, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley, assembled a team to study the biomechanics of nectar drinking. Using high-speed cameras they watched the entire feeding apparatus including bill shape, tongue shape, fluid trapping and elastic pumping.

Surprisingly, they found that male beak shapes in several South American species make it harder for males to draw in nectar. The females have nectar beaks but the males have straight dagger beaks or backwards facing teeth and hooked tips. You can see some of these features on the male tooth-billed hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis) below.

Tooth-billed hummingbird (photo by Andres M. Cuervo via Wikimedia Commons)

Among these species the females don’t fight much but the males are extremely belligerent. Examples include the tooth-billed hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis) above, and the sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) and saw-billed hermit (Ramphodon naevius) below.

Sparkling violetear looks threatening (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saw-billed hermit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This video from the UC Berkeley study shows what those beaks are really used for!

For more details see this article at Gizmodo and the study itself at Oxford Academic.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video from UC Berkeley Research)

Captive-Raised Monarchs Fail To Migrate

Monarch butterfly on zinnia at Phipps Butterfly Forest, Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you missed it, a monarch butterfly migration study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2019 has troubling news for those who rear monarchs indoors.

Eastern monarch butterflies, famous for their autumn migration from North America to Mexico, have declined 80-90% in the last 20 years. To help the butterflies many people collect eggs and caterpillars in the wild and captive-raise them to increase their chances of survival. Unfortunately this well-meaning act can damage the insect’s ability to migrate.

Researcher Ayse Tenger-Trolander at Univ. of Chicago stumbled upon this when she purchased captive-bred butterflies for her monarch migration study. To measure their autumn migratory drive she placed them in a flight simulator and noted the dominant direction they wanted to fly. Wild migratory monarchs orient South. The captive-bred monarchs chose random directions, unlikely to migrate.

To further test the butterflies, Tenger-Trolander collected wild monarchs and raised a new generation indoors, mimicking outdoor autumn conditions. Here’s what she found.

Furthermore, rearing wild-caught monarchs in an indoor environment mimicking natural migration-inducing conditions failed to elicit southward flight orientation. In fact, merely eclosing(*) indoors after an otherwise complete lifecycle outdoors was enough to disrupt southern orientation.

Contemporary loss of migration in monarch butterflies, PNAS

Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, pointed out on NPR that some captive-bred monarchs do make it to Mexico, but added that “The real reason for raising monarch butterflies is for the enjoyment, the education. [T]he idea of individuals saving caterpillars as “monarch rescue” is misguided. “That’s simply not going to work as a way to boost the population,” says Taylor. “What we really need to do is to improve the habitat.”

We’re learning that monarch migration is complex and very fragile. It’s easy to break it in a single generation.

(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) “eclosing” means emerging from the chrysalis.

What Do These Have In Common?

Easy Wave Red petunia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What do red petunias and lemons have in common?

Lemons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They share a cell mechanism that regulates acid.

Ronald Koes at Univ. of Amsterdam discovered that red petunias have a vacuole proton pump that concentrates acid in their flower cells. Without the acid, those petunias would be blue.

He then examined DNA in a variety of citrus fruits, from sweet to very sour, and found that the sour ones have the same cell mechanism.

This discovery gives fruit and flower breeders a DNA marker for achieving desired colors and flavors.

Are red petunia flowers sour? … I’m not going to taste them to find out.

Read more about this discovery in Science Magazine.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Have You Ever Seen…

Fallstreak hole over Big Island Wildlife Area Ohio, March 2019 (photo by Monica Miller)

Have you ever seen a fallstreak hole?

Fallstreak holes or cavum (the formal name) are circular or elliptical holes in a blanket of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds. They occur when super-cooled moisture in the cloud starts to form ice crystals. In rare instances this sets off a chain reaction that causes nearby water droplets to evaporate while the ice crystals fall out of the hole. As they fall the crystals melt and evaporate.

Monica Miller and Don Weiss were at Big Island Wildlife Area, Ohio in March when this one appeared above their heads. Monica wrote, “We kept expecting the hand of God or the mothership to come down.”

Fallstreak holes are always amazing, some more stunning than others. Here are a few photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Fallstreak, Italy, Borso del Grappa, March 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Airplanes can create elongated fallstreaks when they pass through the cloud layer. This cavum has an added bonus. There’s a sundog inside it.

Cavum are particularly dramatic near sunset.

Fallstreak hole, August 2008, Linz, Austria

Click here to see an amazing fallstreak hole over Niederlenz, Switzerland. There are birds in the photo! Probably common swifts or alpine swifts.

I don’t remember ever seeing a fallstreak hole. I can hardly wait!

(top photo by Monica Miller, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)