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)

What Peregrine Season Might Have Been

Return of the Peregrine Trailer from Brian McClatchy on Vimeo.

5 July 2020

Pittsburgh’s peregrine nesting season was disappointing this year, from the failed on-camera nest at the Cathedral of Learning, to the many un-monitored nests during the COVID-19 shutdown.

As compensation here’s the trailer for a beautiful 2013 video, The Return of the Peregrine, filmed in Germany.

This is what peregrine season might have been. Fingers crossed for next year!

(video embedded from Vimeo)

Seen This Week in Schenley Park

Cultivated St. Johnswort at Westinghouse Fountain, Schenley Park, 3 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

There was plenty to see this week in Schenley Park even though the weather was hot.

My best visit was on Thursday morning when my friend Andrea convinced me to come out at 7:30a. I’ve been missing a lot by sitting at my computer until 9am. Best Bird: Louisiana waterthrush! Waterthrushes don’t breed in the park but they stop by in transit before and after breeding.

Best flowers this week include the bright yellow flower (above) near the Westinghouse fountain, a cultivated variety of St. Johnswort (Hypericum).

Teasel (Dipsacus), an invasive alien, has not bloomed yet but the flower buds are visible between the spikes.

Teasel flower buds not yet open, Schenley Park, 2 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is in full bloom.

Yarrow in bloom, Schenley Park, 2 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) bloomed this week. On 30 June they were starting from the bottom.

By 3 July they had nearly made it to the top.

Stop by Panther Hollow Lake or the area across the road from the Westinghouse fountain to see the bottlebrush buckeyes.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Happy Fourth of July!

Fireworks Escape To The Wild

Backyard fireworks party, unknown location, Nov 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 July 2020

Municipal 4th of July fireworks celebrations are canceled in Pennsylvania because of COVID-19 but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any explosions. Amateurs have been setting them off in neighborhoods and fields ever since the weather turned warm. Complaints are blossoming as fireworks “escape to the wild.”

In 2018 a new Pennsylvania fireworks law permitted Class-C “consumer grade” aerial fireworks like those shown below. This released a firestorm of complaints from residents, local firefighters and police — and complaints this year from New York City.

The city ballpark in my Pittsburgh neighborhood has always been a magnet for amateur fireworks activity so we’ve learned to cope. Some call the police (who can’t do anything if the fireworks are legal). Meanwhile we wait for the noise to go away. The birds wait, too.

Find out how wild birds cope with fireworks in this vintage blog: What Do Birds Think of Fireworks.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

p.s. M-80s, cherry bombs and similar explosives are still illegal under federal law.

Not The Soap Opera We Thought

Ecco with Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest, 3 March 2020

2 July 2020

This spring the unresolved rivalry between two male peregrines — Terzo and Ecco — at the Cathedral of Learning made for a disappointing nesting season but generated a lot of speculation. Now that we know more about the Downtown peregrines we can lay one bit of speculation to rest.

Back on 15 March when Terzo and Ecco’s rivalry was spinning like a revolving door, I was surprised to see the Downtown female peregrine Dori appear on camera at Pitt. At the time I couldn’t help wondering, “Is the unbanded male Dori’s new mate who is shopping in Oakland because he doesn’t like the Downtown site?” … This led to speculation that Ecco was two-timing between the two nests. No, he is not.

Ecco has not been two-timing between Pitt and Downtown because (1) he’s not Dori’s mate and (2) he would have been way too busy Downtown to visit Morela at certain critical times.

Dori’s mate: On 28 June we learned from Lori Maggio’s photos that the Downtown male peregrine is banded. (Ecco is not banded.)

Adult male peregrine with silver colored right leg band, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Close-up of silver colored right leg band on Downtown Pittsburgh adult peregrine, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Critical timing: Here’s one example.

We learned on 28 June that the Downtown peregrine nest produced at least two young, probably more, who fledged approximately 25 to 30 June 2020. Parent peregrines are always extremely busy during the fledging period as they watch, feed and protect their naive young. During that period the Downtown adults had no time to make jaunts to other territories.

Meanwhile at Pitt, Ecco spent a busy day courting Morela multiple times on 25 June.

Morela and Ecco, 25 June 2020, 7:32am

Even if we didn’t know Dori’s real mate, this timing indicates Ecco has nothing to do with the Downtown nest.

So, Ecco isn’t two-timing. Frankly he’s having trouble being a successful one-timer.

My apologies for sending us all down this speculative rabbit hole. I should have brushed off Dori’s visit as curiosity on her part. I’ve seen other females visit the Pitt nest during turbulent times. Magnum visited twice in 2016 during Hope’s first turbulent year.

As much as I know peregrines I never learn that they’re surprising.

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

Loons Have Unexpected Relatives

Common loon family, 2009 (photo by Kim Steininger)

1 July 2020:

If like me you owned a field guide at the turn of the century you remember that loons were the first bird in the book. Ornithologists placed them there because they thought loons were the oldest evolved bird in North America but DNA sequencing changed all that. In 2020 loons are near the middle of the tree and they have unexpected relatives.

In this July 2019 phylogenetic supertree I’ve circled loons and their relatives in blue. Notice that they aren’t related to ducks at all. Ducks are related to chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest, circle and text added (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Here’s a closer look at the blue section showing that loons (Gaviiformes) stand alone after they split from a common ancestor of penguins, tubenoses, storks, cormorants and pelicans.

Here some of the loons’ unexpected relatives.

Penguins (Sphenisciformes) include king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus).

King penguins at Salisbury Plain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubenoses (Procellariiformes) include the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).

Storks (Ciconiiformes) include the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) that nests on roofs in Europe.

White storks on nest, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cormorants and allies (Suliformes) include the northern gannet (Morus bassanus) and the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Northern gannet, Bonaventure Island, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorants visit Pittsburgh in the non-breeding season.

A double-crested cormorant with ring-billed gulls, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh January 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Pelicans (Pelicaniformes) include the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) we see at the beach and in flight along the coast.

Brown pelicans, one with mouth open, North Carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Brown pelican in flight, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see a loon on a northern lake this summer, remember his unexpected relatives.

(photos by Kim Steininger, Jim McCollum and from Wikimedia Commons. Phylogentic supertree from MDPI, July 2019)

A Dose of Love

Barred owl chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know about you but I really need uplifting news today. Here’s a dose of motherly love and cuteness as two barred owl chicks (Strix varia) grow up.

Thanks to The Dodo and Cornell Lab of Ornithology for brightening our day.

Barred owl mother and chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Young Peregrines Are Fledging Downtown

Juvenile peregrine practicing for first flight, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

29 June 2020

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown there have been few eyes on the street in Downtown Pittsburgh so I was grateful when Point Park University police called me on Friday afternoon, 26 June 2020, with news of the Third Avenue peregrine nest. Unfortunately they had found a dead peregrine falcon fledgling. The good news is there are youngsters Downtown and they’re learning to fly. Maybe there are more. On Sunday morning 28 June Lori Maggio went Downtown to find out.

At 9:30am Lori texted me to report a youngster whining on the nest ledge and an adult watching from a gargoyle on Lawrence Hall.

Juvenile peregrine at the Third Avenue nest ledge, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Begging juvenile peregrine, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Begging at the Third Avenue nest ledge, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

The youngster was watching this adult who has a silver right leg band (color band is hidden from this view). This is not Dori. Her right leg band is pink. In addition, this bird doesn’t look like Dori and its plumage looks male to me — sharply contrasting head, tail, wings and pale back. If I’m right, the Downtown male is banded.

Adult peregrine with silver colored right leg band, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Adult peregrine, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Close-up of silver colored right leg band on Downtown Pittsburgh peregrine, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

As Lori watched, the youngster exercised her wings and made some practice flights along the ledge.

Juvenile peregrine wing-ercizing, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Wing-ercizing, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Pre-flight practice, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Hop, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Juvenile peregrine hops while testing his wings, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

At 2pm I joined Lori at Third Avenue and we walked around looking for peregrines. There was still one juvenile at the nest ledge plus an adult on top of Oxford Center.

Interestingly, the adult intently watched a spot we could not see in the vicinity of Forbes and Cherry Way, staring at it for at least half an hour before flying away. This sort of intense watching is usually a sign that the parent peregrine is watching a juvenile. If so, there were at least three young at the Downtown nest this year.

This morning Lori is at Third Avenue again, observing one adult plus the youngster on the nest ledge. I hope she can get a photo of the color band!

(photos by Lori Maggio)