Not Dead, Just Resting

Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) walk with a bumbling gait and have poor eyesight and hearing so when they finally notice danger it’s very close at hand.  They’ve evolved a pretty good solution to protect themselves.  Possums fall over and play dead.

Playing dead is triggered by extreme fear and it’s involuntary — like fainting.  The possum enters a near coma, lying on its side with its mouth and eyes open and tongue hanging out.  Meanwhile it exudes a putrid green fluid from its anus that’s unappetizing to predators.

The possum in this video was probably shocked when the big black dog showed up. Boom! He fell over.

But how to remove him?

Wait and he’ll wake up and walk away. Put the dog indoors and he’ll do it sooner.

He’s not dead. He’s just resting.

Who Eats Mayapples?

Ripe mayapple fruit (photos by Dianne Machesney)
Ripe mayapple fruit (photos by Dianne Machesney)

Remember mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), those umbrella-leaf woodland plants whose single drooping white flowers bloom in April or May?

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mayapple in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By August each fertilized flower has turned into a fruit, a mayapple.

The entire mayapple plant is poisonous but there’s a brief window in August when the fruit is ripe and safe to eat.  Chipmunks and deer know this, too, so if you want to risk tasting a ripe fruit, you’ll have to beat them to it.

On Throw Back Thursday, read about the right conditions for Eating Mayapples.

p.s. Be cautious. I have never eaten a mayapple and I don’t intend to start now.

(photo credits: mayapple fruit by Dianne Machesney, blooming mayapple plant from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Carnivorous Damsel

Damselfly with a mayfly lunch, La Manche Trail, NL, July 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)
Damselfly with lunch, La Manche Trail, NL, July 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)

Dragon or damsel? What’s in a name?

I know dragonflies are carnivorous but the name “damselfly” sounds too delicate for that.  Not so.

This damselfly in Newfoundland is eating a mayfly for lunch. 

The mayfly — not the damsel — is in distress.

Thanks to David Trently for showing us this wonder of nature and Bill Anderson for photographing it. 

(photo by Bill Anderson)


Non-Stop 2,500 Miles

Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every fall this bird performs an amazing feat of physical endurance.  It flies non-stop over the ocean for 2,500 miles.

The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is a long distance migrant that occurs on every continent except Antarctica because it breeds in the far north and winters in the southern hemisphere.

Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)

Most North American whimbrels spend the winter in coastal South America.  To get there, some travel the western route down the Pacific Ocean to Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Others take an eastern route, flying across northern Canada in mid-July to spend two weeks fattening up on the shores of the U.S. and Canada. Then they launch over the Atlantic and fly non-stop to Venezuela, the Guianas and Brazil.  What’s the air distance from Cape Cod to Venezuela?  2,500 miles.

We didn’t know the whimbrels’ route until the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite tagging them in 2008.  In August 2012 they made an astonishing discovery.  Three of their 20 satellite tagged whimbrels made a wide arc over the Atlantic, far out to sea, before heading for the coast of Brazil.  One of them (red line) traveled 4,355 miles non-stop before touching down. At 30 miles per hour, the trip took six days. Read more at the Center for Conservation Biology website.

Whimbrels' transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)
Whimbrels’ transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)

By now whimbrels have been on the move for several weeks.  When you see one you’ll know why he’s eating so much.  He has a big trip ahead of him.

(photo and map of the whimbrel’s range from Wikimedia Commons. Migration routes map from Center for Conservation Biology.  Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Berries For Birds

Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ripe elderberries (Sambucus genus) are hard to find this month. They’re so popular with birds that the ripe ones disappear immediately.

The cluster, above, was the only purple one I found last week. The rest were carefully picked over, leaving green berries and bare stems.

Elderberry stem, leaves, unripe fruit (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberry stem, leaves, unripe fruit, Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Other fruits await birds, too:  black raspberries (Rubus genus) in the thickets, hackberries (Celtis genus) in the trees, and porcelain berries (Ampelopsis glandulosa) on the vine.  Unfortunately, the porcelain berries are invasive.

Ripening black raspberries, June 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ripening hackberries, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ripening porcelain berries (photo by Kate St. John)

It won’t be long before the poke berries turn purple.

Green pokeberries, not ripe yet in early August (photo by Kate St. John)
Green pokeberries, not ripe yet in early August (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a colorful conspiracy to tempt birds to eat the fruit and disperse the seeds, perhaps far away on migration.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Camera Goes Off Aug 15

Hope visits the nestbox on 4 Aug 2018 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Hope on 4 Aug 2018, National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

August 12, 2018:  The Live Stream will stop but camera Snapshots will still be on.

Summer is a lazy time for peregrine falcons.  The adults are molting and the young have left home.

At the Univ. of Pittsburgh I usually find a peregrine snoozing in a nook on the north face of the Cathedral of Learning.  As expected the birds shun the nestbox except for a short spurt in late July.  So we won’t miss much when …

Ozolio’s six month contract for streaming the National Aviary‘s falconcams ends this week on August 15.

The Cathedral of Learning and Gulf Tower live streams will go dark but you can still see snapshots at the links below:

As you can see, there’s not much to watch …

Cathderal of Learning nestbox, 11 Aug 2018 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Cathedral of Learning nestbox, 11 Aug 2018 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Gulf Tower nestbox, 11 Aug 2018 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)
Gulf Tower nestbox, 11 Aug 2018 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower)

Streaming will resume in February 2019 in advance of the nesting season.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Cathedral of Learning and Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh, PA)

Flowers in a Purple Theme

Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow flowers are abundant in the summer while some of the rarest flowers are purple. Here are four rare plants I’ve never seen.

Dianne Machesney visited Lynx Prairie in Adams County, Ohio in late July to see scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa), above. It doesn’t occur in Pennsylvania though we have it’s cousin dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) at Jennings Prairie.  The two plants differ in this way: “Scaly” flowers are clustered at the tip, “dense” flowers coat the long spike.

Lynx Prairie is also famous for these rarities shown left-to-right below: American bluehearts (Buchnera americana), crane fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).

Lynx Prairie in Shawnee State Forest is a great place to find rare flowers in a purple theme.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

The Phantom

Phanthom crane fly in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)
Phanthom crane fly, Newfoundland, 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)

This phantom lives in freshwater wetlands from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. Gliding on the shady edge of dense vegetation he usually goes unseen.  It takes practice to notice a phantom crane fly.

I first learned about phantom crane flies (Bittacomorpha clavipes) in Newfoundland when our guide David Trently pointed one out. “There it is.”

I couldn’t see it. “Where is it? How big is it? What should I look for?”  I was so frustrated!  The bug was flying right in front of me but he was invisible.

The phantom landed and Bill Anderson took his picture. I followed Bill’s camera lens and found the fly.  Aha!

When the phantom took off, I followed him with my eyes as he floated among the shadows.  Here’s a video that shows what that’s like. (Note: If you don’t like snakes turn off the video before the 2:20 mark to avoid seeing one.)

Phantom crane flies can move like this because they’re very lightweight, their long legs are hollow, and their tarsomere (foot segments) are swollen and filled with air.  They spread their legs to catch the breeze and barely flap their wings.

Their long crane-like legs make them phantoms in the air.

Read more about phantom crane flies in this article by the BugLady at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

(photo by Bill Anderson; click on the caption to see the original. video by Chromatophone Productions on YouTube)

Forbidden Food

Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a recent trip past Exit 163 on Interstate 70, I was intrigued by the name Amaranth.    Two towns in Canada, one in Portugal, and one in Fulton County, Pennsylvania have that name.  What does it mean?

“Amaranth” is a flower that never fades, a reddish dye, or — primarily — a grain-like food native to the tropical Americas.  It was a staple of the Central American diet until the Spanish Conquistadors outlawed it when they conquered the Aztecs in 1521.

Back then the grain played a supporting role in religious human sacrifice. Eerily similar to the Eucharist in which Jesus told his disciplines to consume bread and wine symbolizing his body and blood, the Aztecs performed human sacrifices and ate cakes of amaranth mixed with real human blood.

The Spanish abolished all of that.  The penalty for growing amaranth was death. But the plant survived. It became a weed.

One of the weediest in the Amaranthus genus is red-rooted pigweed or green amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), a 1-6 foot annual whose flowers bloom in bristly spikes in August (photo at top).  This patch is in a German asparagus field.

Amaranth found as a weed in an asparagus field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in a field near Reilingen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think pigweed is ugly. However you can eat it, though it probably doesn’t taste as good as the cultivated species

Each tiny flower produces a seed topped by a tiny cap.  Pop the seed and eat the grain or grind it into flour for bread and cereal.

Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)
Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)

You can eat the leaves, too, but they contain a small amount of oxalic acid so they must be boiled and drained. In India, the leaves are the main ingredient in Kerala-style thoran.

Today many people plant amaranth varieties for their red flowers, the color of amaranth dye.

Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us don’t realize it was a forbidden food.

Read more about amaranth as food in the New York Times, Grain of the Future, October 1984 and Public Radio International, Return of an Ancient Grain, July 2013.

p.s. Did you know that quinoa is in the amaranth family?

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