Many of you ask 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.
We don’t think of swallows as songbirds but indeed they do sing. Our largest swallow, the purple martin (Progne subis), has a unique sound that carries far. With practice, you can recognize their voices even when you can’t see them.
Purple martins nest communally so the best place to learn their song is near a purple martin colony.
In early summer near their nests, you’ll hear songs, creaky rattles and the sound of begging juveniles. (Purple martins vocalizing near their nest, including begging calls of young, from Xeno Canto XC139568 by Russ Wigh)
The throaty, gurgling chirps are unique to purple martins. When you hear it overhead, look for a nearby colony and go see the swallows sing.
At this time of year the weevils appear. I found one on black locust leaves in Schenley Park on Friday June 8.
At first, they hang out on plants but they can fly. In a “big year” they spread everywhere, landing on buildings and people and just about anything. By late June people are freaking out. They think they’re ticks.
But you won’t freak out. You’ll know what they are.
This is a yellow poplar weevil (Odontopus calceatus), a vegetarian that feasts on yellow poplars, tuliptrees, sassafras and cucumber magnolia trees. He’s usually kept in check by predatory insects but in “big years” there aren’t enough predators and his population goes wild.
The weevil’s body structure shows why he’s not a tick:
Ticks have 8 legs (they’re related to spiders). Weevils have 6.
Ticks don’t have wings. Weevils have wings under their elytra (wing covers). Though they don’t fly much you may see one raise his wing covers and zoom away.
Ticks do not have snouts. Weevils have snouts like inflexible elephants’ trunks and 2 antennas on the snout.
Ticks never swarm. Weevils swarm in June because they’re mating.
Later in June when the weevils swarm, amaze your friends . “Nope, it’s not a tick.”
Here’s a plant you don’t see every day in Pennsylvania.
False Indigo or Indigobush (Amorpha fruticosa) is a shrub-sized member of the legume family (Fabaceae) native to North America. It normally occurs from south central Canada to northern Mexico but it’s cultivated for gardens and has escaped to the wild in New England and the Pacific Northwest.
The escapees have caused problems. False indigo is easy to grow and it tends to form dense thickets. Since each plant is 4-18 feet tall and even wider than tall, it’s a problem where it’s unwanted. Connecticut and Washington state have listed it as invasive.
The flowers are unusual for the pea family. The plant’s 3-8 inch racemes are covered in small purple or dark blue flowers with yellow anthers sticking out. Unlike normal pea flowers false indigo’s have only one lip, hence the genus name for the plant: Amorpha, meaning formless or deformed.
Its common name is “false” indigo because it produces such a tiny amount of indigo pigment.