Oh No! Spotted Lanternfly in Beaver County

Adult spotted lanternfly, wings open and closed (photos by PA Dept of Agriculture via bugwood)

It was only a matter of time before the highly invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) made its way to western Pennsylvania but it’s disturbing to learn that it’s so close to Pittsburgh.

On 20 January 2020 the Columbus Dispatch reported that spotted lanternfly egg masses were found at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, PA. They probably arrived by train and are now less than 20 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh and even closer to Ohio.

At this time of year the adult bugs are not active so an egg mass, pictured below, is the only thing to be found. It’s bad news anyway. USDA says that spotted lanternflies are the worst invasive species we’ve seen in the United States for 150 years.

Learn how to identify them and see why they’re so awful in the video below.

Oh no!

(photo from )

Smaller is Normal

Song sparrow, western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

From their 29% population decline to the continued loss of federal protection the news about birds has not been good in recent months. When a December 2019 study from Chicago’s Field Museum found that North American birds have been shrinking since 1978 you may have wondered, “Is this bad news for birds?” Not exactly.

The study published in Ecology Letters measured 70,000 window-killed birds collected in Chicago since 1978. Analysis showed that the 52 species significantly declined in body size during the 40 year period (1978-2018). This mirrors a 2010 study conducted at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania which used 46 years of banding data (1961-2007) to analyze the body size of nearly 500,000 birds in 102 species. Powdermill also saw a decline in body size.

Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.

We should expect this.

There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.

Song sparrows in Carnegie Museum of Natural History collection, Alaska on top row, Pennsylvania on bottom row (photo by Kate St. John, Dec 2016)

Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):

  • On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
  • On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.

Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!

Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.

It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:

  1. Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
  2. Birds can evolve quickly when they have to.

Read about the Field Museum study at North American birds are shrinking. Read more about the Powdermill study at Birds are getting smaller.

p.s. This article was inspired by Andrew Nikiforuk’s As The Birds Vanish.

(top photo by Steve Gosser, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Quiz: What Are These?

Quiz #1 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today a Quiz. Here are two super sharp photos of plants from very different families. What are they?

Quiz #1: The top photo is a focus stack of 100 images. In real life the image would be 2mm wide so I think it’s been magnified about 80 times. (This one is hard to guess. It helps to squint your eyes to make it look small.)

Quiz #2: The photo below is a focus stack of 70 macro images. What it is?

Quiz #2 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re desperate for clues, click the links on the captions to view the photo descriptions. Here’s a clue for #2: It’s edible.

Have an idea? Leave a comment with your answer.

p.s. In case you’re curious … Focus stacking is a digital processing technique in which the photographer takes multiple images of the same object at different focal points, then digitally merges the photos to produce a completely in-focus image. The object has to hold still and so does the camera. It requires special software to merge the images.

This video shows how it works.

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

Peregrine Success Story, Feb 4

In case you missed it at Wissahickon Nature Club last month, here’s another opportunity to learn about peregrine falcons in western Pennsylvania.

Join me on Tuesday, 4 February 2020 at the Todd Bird Club in Indiana County, PA where I’ll present Peregrine Falcons: An Environmental Success Story.

From their extinction in eastern North America in the 1960s, to their recent removal from the Endangered Species list in Pennsylvania, the peregrine falcon’s success story is an inspiration to us all.

When: Tuesday, 4 February 2020, 7:00+pm. Arrive by 7:00 to socialize. Refreshments are provided.

Where: Blue Spruce Lodge in Blue Spruce County Park, located just off Route 110 east of the town of Ernest, PA.

This meeting is free and open to the public.

(peregrine photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

Ponds On The Ocean

Ponds on the Arctic Ocean (photo by NASA’s Kathryn Hanson via Wikimedia Commons)

Ice and snow are returning this weekend in Pittsburgh but they won’t look like this.

In July 2011 two men walked between the melt ponds on top of the ice on the Arctic Ocean. The patterns and texture resemble flocked fabric. Click here to see a fabric sample.

When the ice breaks the freshwater ponds will fall into the sea. Fortunately the two men will be back on their boat before that happens.

Find out why they’re there in the photo description at this link.

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

Seaside Nestcams To Watch This Winter

Here are two seaside bird cams to watch while we wait for Pittsburgh’s eagles and peregrines to lay eggs in the coming months.

Above, a northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) couple nests on camera at Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve in New Zealand. The pair have lots of combined experience — he’s 21 years old, she’s 25 — so they know their egg, laid in Nov 2019, is due to hatch at the end of this month (January 2020).

Since New Zealand is 18 hours ahead of Pittsburgh it’s best to watch from noon to midnight Eastern Time if you want to see the birds in daylight. This is a perfect schedule if want to kickback at the end of the day. See the northern royal albatrosses at their nest on Cornell Lab’s Royal Albatross bird cam.

Just one time zone ahead of Pittsburgh, the female Bermuda cahow (Pterodroma cahow) rejoined her mate at their nest on Nonesuch Island, Bermuda on 10 January 2020. Almost immediately she laid her single egg. Watch their reunion in this short video.

Bermuda cahows come to and fro at night so Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Petrels bird cam is best to watch at the end of the day .

In late February or early March the cahow’s egg is due to hatch. By then the Hays bald eagles will have eggs.

(videos from Cornell Lab bird cams)

Not With My Relatives

Two scythebill species: black-billed (left), red-billed (right) (from Wikimedia Commons)

When deforestation and climate change destroy swaths of habitat, some people assume that birds will be OK because, unlike mammals, they can fly to new locations.

However a 2012 study of two closely related scythebills discovered that the displaced birds don’t survive, even in habitat like the ones they left, because they’re out-competed by the locals.

On Throw Back Thursday, find out why these birds can’t survive near their relatives in this vintage blog: Why Don’t They Just Move?

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

Daily Visits to the Nest

Morela bows at the nest, hoping that Terzo will join her, 12 Jan 2020, 10:55a

Morela has made brief visits to the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest every day this week. Snapshots from the National Aviary’s falconcam show her bowing and calling to her mate Terzo. He hasn’t joined her yet but don’t worry, he’s around. I saw him kiting in the wind yesterday.

On Sunday 12 January 2020 Morela spent five minutes bowing and calling.

Morela at the nest, 12 Jan 2020, 1056a
Morela calls to Terzo, 12 Jan 2020, 1058a

When Terzo didn’t join her she stepped forward to look around, “Where is he?”

Morela looking around for Terzo, 12 Jan 2020, 11:00a

On Monday 13 January she had just finished eating when she stopped by for a visit. Notice the bulge in her crop as she bows and calls.

And yesterday, 14 January, she stopped by for only a minute.

The snapshots are tantalizing … and silent. I can hardly wait until the National Aviary starts streaming the falconcam in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for that happy day!

(snapshots from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

p.s. Here’s how I capture these photos. Warning it’s technical!

Instant photos are at this link on my blog’s Resources panel: FALCONCAM – CL Snapshots.

The top photo is a once-a-minute snapshot from the (soon to be) streaming camera. It shows what’s happening there right now. You have to refresh your browser to see if it changes.

When there’s a peregrine on camera I save the photo to my hard drive or cellphone. Then I refresh the browser.

In January the nest is usually empty but I know when a peregrine is there because I follow @pittpefaALERT on Twitter. Every tweet from @pittpefaALERT is a 15-second “change” image showing what’s different at the nest. Changed pixels are shown in red. Here’s what they look like and what they mean.

Tweets that don’t matter: At dawn and dusk and on partly cloudy days the change is just sun and shadow. Here are two sun and shadow changes — red images with straight edges.

Two tweets from @pittpefaALERT showing changes in light at the Pitt nest

When a peregrine shows up: The change image may look like a bird (left image below) and it certainly has curved lines (right). Here are two peregrine tweets.

When I see a tweet that looks like a peregrine I go to the FALCONCAM – CL Snapshots link. The snapshots refresh every 60 seconds. If I’m nimble I can capture the first one.

Good luck!

No Winter Fun

Snow shovel riding, Slovakia 1959 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that climate change has really settled in there are loads of free fun winter activities that we can’t do in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship was postponed last Saturday. Last year it was eventually canceled. As the Beaver County Times wrote last month:

The Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship returns in 2020. That comes with the major assumption that sufficient snow rests on the 165-foot hill at Old Economy Park, just off Route 989 in Economy, on Jan. 11 or the makeup date of Jan. 18.

Beaver County Times, Let it snow, if shovel riding championship is to return

Last Saturday, 11 January 2020, was so hot that it broke a 130-year record. At Pittsburgh International Airport, nine miles from that Beaver County hillside, it was 71 degrees F. Of course there was no snow.

Other winter fun we’re missing includes building snowmen, making snow angels, and cross country skiing. These still might happen for a day or two if we get one big snowfall.

Building a snowman at Lafayette Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Making a snow angel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Cross country skiing, Aroostook NWR, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But some winter fun is just plain dangerous in today’s world. Ice fishermen used to count on our frozen lakes but these days the ice is missing or very thin. Unsafe!

Ice fishing at Price Gallitzin State Park, PA, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To emphasize this dilemma, the Great Lakes were virtually ice free on January 12.

Ice coverage on Great Lakes, 12 Jan 2020 analysis (map from US National Ice Center)

No winter fun.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; map from U.S. National Ice Center; click on the captions to see the originals)

Leaf Buds For Dinner

Brussels sprouts, plucked and on the stalk (photo by Kate St. John)

When I bought this stalk of Brussels sprouts, I wondered about the wild plant it came from. Did you know that cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all the same species? Every one of them is a cultivar of Brassica oleracea, also called wild cabbage.

Wild cabbage is a biennial that grows naturally on limestone sea cliffs in Europe. In its first year it’s a rosette of leaves. In its second year it blooms. As you can see by the flowers, it’s a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae).

Wild cabbage plant and flowers (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Ten thousand years ago humans foraged for wild cabbage leaves. At the dawn of agriculture we began to cultivate them. One thing led to another, as described at Wikipedia:

  • Our preference for leaves led to kale and collard greens as cultivars.
  • We liked the tightly bunched leaves and the terminal leaf bud so we cultivated cabbage from the first-year rosette.
  • The Germans liked fatter cabbage stems so they cultivated kohlrabi. It’s not a root, it’s a bulbous stem.
  • People liked the tasty flower buds of the second-year plant so we cultivated cauliflower in the 1400s (flower is in its name) and then broccoli.
  • In Belgium they preferred the small leaf buds that grow in the leaf axils, so they bred Brussels sprouts in the 1700s.

While they’re growing, Brussels sprouts are nestled in the leaf axils like this.

As the stem gets taller the lower leaves turn yellow and fall off. Farmers and gardeners usually remove fallen leaves or prune them back.

Sometimes the weight of the plant bowls it over.

Brussels sprouts in a field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually the plant is harvested and we buy Brussels sprouts in the store. Mmmmm! Leaf buds for dinner!

p.s. Did you know that Brussels sprouts are sweeter if they’re harvested after frost? Alas, most are harvested before that.

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)