Monthly Archives: September 2009

Woolly Bear Time or What to look for in October

Wooly Bear caterpillar is the Isabella Tiger Moth (photos by Chuck Tague)
Today Chuck Tague reminded me it’s time for an October phenology.  Yikes!  I wrote September’s “What to Look For” only three days ago and included some early October predictions.  Is there any more to say?

I read Chuck’s list and right off the bat his is better than mine.  Did you know that October is a good month to find Wooly Bear caterpillars?  Did you know the Wooly Bear is the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth?  I didn’t.

So rather than bore you with my own paltry list I urge you to read Chuck’s at Asters, Wooly Bears and Sweaters: A phenological perspective for October.

p.s.  News!  Three (or more) of Chuck Tague’s bird photos will be part of the OnQ show I blogged about yesterday.  Watch for his scarlet tanager, indigo bunting and mourning dove in the Birding for Everyone segment on Monday, 5 October 2009 at 7:30pm on WQED.

(Wooly Bear composite photo by Chuck Tague)

Birding For Everyone

Birding For Everyone by John C. Robinson (photo courtesy of John C. Robinson)Last June I was privileged to go birding with John C. Robinson as he taught five children about birds.  The occasion for our outing was an OnQ segment about his book Birding For Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.

Some of you may know John – he grew up in Pittsburgh.  He’s an excellent birder, has a natural ear for bird song and can identify all our birds by sound.  He’s also a great teacher and it shows when he’s with kids.

John stands out in the birding community for another reason and it began to trouble him.  John is African-American and is usually the only person of color he encounters while birding.  Why are there so few minorities involved in birding?  Why hasn’t this changed in the last 40 years when African-American and Hispanic involvement in other areas has increased?  Even more troubling, in a few decades this gap will affect U.S. attitudes toward the environment.  Minorities are a growing percentage of the U.S. population and the greater the percentage of people who know nothing about birds, the less care will be shown to them.

A few years ago John decided to do something about this.  More people needed to understand this gap as a problem, more people needed to encourage minorities to go birding, and young birders, no matter what their background, needed mentors.  And so John wrote Birding For Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers to urge us all to get involved.

Next week you can meet John Robinson and learn about his passion for birds and bird watching on OnQ, Monday October 5 at 7:30pm.  And you can buy his book here at ShopWQED.

(cover of Birding For Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers, courtesy, John C. Robinson)

Not Tomatoes!

Fruits of the Deadly Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

No, these aren’t tomatoes.  They’re related to tomatoes, but don’t eat them.  They’re poisonous.

These are the fruits of Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a common weed in North America that’s native to Europe and Asia.  Click on the photo to see its flowers.

Until I did the research for this blog, I called this plant Deadly Nightshade but that’s the common name for a completely different and far more deadly plant, Atropa Belladonna.  Belladonna is so poisonous that 2-5 of its deep blue berries can kill a child, 10-20 berries or a single leaf can kill an adult. In Ancient Rome the aristrocracy found it quite effective for killing their rivals.

Both plants are in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) which includes a wide variety of edible and poisonous species.  The edible plants are so tasty that humans went to the trouble of cultivating them: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, chili peppers and paprika.  The toxic plants are beautiful but dangerous: Deadly Nightshade, Bittersweet Nightshade, Mandrake and Jimson Weed (Datura), to name a few.

Somewhere in humanity’s past, people had to figure out which plants were good to eat and which weren’t.   What a risky business!  I’m glad that job is done and we’re able to pass on the knowledge.

Meanwhile, don’t worry that you’ll mistake these berries for tomatoes.  Bittersweet Nightshade berries are tiny and the plant smells bad.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Asters or What to look for in September/October

Asters - maybe Calico - in my backyard (photo by Kate St. John)

September 27, 2009:

Here’s a backward glance at what we missed in early September and a look ahead to October.  At this time of year we can expect to see:

  • The nighthawks left by early September.  Chimney swifts are gone by early October.
  • Warblers and thrushes pass through in September.  Look for duck migration in October.
  • Watch for an increase in the number of crows and starlings.
  • The most numerous species at hawk watches changes from broad-winged hawks in September to sharp-shins and red-tails in October.
  • Asters and goldenrod are still in bloom.  These asters in my back yard don’t fully bloom until October 1.
  • “Hitch hiker” seeds are everywhere.  Burdock, beggar tickseed and tick trefoil grab onto pants and socks.
  • In September, even before the trees and shrubs begin to change color, they lose some leaves and the canopy thins out.
  • Watch for maximum fall color around Columbus Day.

For more details, read Chuck Tague’s early and late September phenologies for western Pennsylvania and the almanacs on his blog.


(photo of asters in my backyard … blurry, but you get the idea.)

Weight Conversions

By weight, five of these House sparrow (photo by Chuck Tague)  equal one of these Common Grackle (photo by Chuck Tague)

How do I know?

When five house sparrows perch on my squirrel proof bird feeder, the lid tips and the feeder closes.  That’s exactly what happens when one common grackle lands there. Four house sparrows aren’t enough.  It has to be five.

Does your feeder do weight conversions?

Post a comment and let me know.


(photos by Chuck Tague)

Will Travel For Food

Blue jay (photo by Chuck Tague)
Are you seeing a lot of blue jays lately?  I am. 

I used to think blue jays didn’t migrate because their range map shows them as year round in North America.  Because I see them all year, I assumed I was observing the same individuals.

That was until one May morning at Lake Erie when I saw a long line of jays flying northeast along the shore.  Chuck Tague told me they were flying to Canada but the lake was a big barrier.

As we watched, the jays turned north over the lake and hit a wall of air none of us could see.   One by one they battled the invisible barrier.  Finally they broke formation and flew back over land where they regrouped and again proceeded in a line, following the shore.

Other than similar observations at migration hot spots, blue jay migration is subtle if it occurs at all.  Blue jays don’t have to leave home if they can store enough food for the winter.  When they do decide to migrate, they travel during the day in small groups of 10 to 30 birds.  It often doesn’t look like they’re migrating because the jays fly one at a time from tree to tree, a behavior that resembles foraging.

This fall blue jays are leaving Canada in droves because their winter food supply is low – too few acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts.

I’m sure they’ll enjoy their time Pittsburgh.  We have a bumper crop of acorns.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Today, I wish I was a bird

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy, defends her territory, May 25, 2004 (photo by Jack Rowley)
Today the fences are up, Schenley Park is barricaded and the black helicopters are circling overhead.  Traveling around town is a challenge.

Welcome to the first morning of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh.  The heads of state and advisors of the 20 most economically powerful countries will be here for two days.  Plus 3,000 journalists.  Plus who-knows-how-many protesters.

Since the 1999 riots in Seattle, these meetings are always heavily guarded against violent protest.  Most of Downtown Pittsburgh is closed to vehicles.  Pedestrians near the Convention Center must pass through checkpoints.  Schenley Park is closed because of tonight’s reception and dinner at Phipps Conservatory.  The National Guard is at the ready (hence, the black helicopters) and police are stationed everywherePittsburgh “welcomes” the world.

After the traffic barriers were announced in August, the schools and a lot of businesses gave up and decided to close for these two days, but WQED’s OnQ is producing shows about the G-20 Summit so I must be at work.

Now that I live in a city under seige, I have no interest in these goings on, nor do I want to be near them.  Just for today I wish I was a bird.  I could avoid the traffic, the barriers, the annoyances.  If I was a bird I could fly over all this trouble just as Dorothy flies over Oakland.

But I’m not.  I’m just a pedestrian who will see less of Pittsburgh than you’ll see on the news.  Sadly the news is looking for – dare I say hoping for – conflict and that’s not the Pittsburgh I live in.

The headline in last Sunday’s Post-Gazette was “Why Pittsburgh?”  My question exactly!

(photo by Jack Rowley of peregrine falcon, Dorothy, flying over Oakland at the University of Pittsburgh, May 25, 2004)

p.s. Click on the photo above to see how Carnegie Museum is protecting their statues against G-20 vandals.  Plus a few sites that describe/show other scenes: A video of downtown, a description of Schenley’s barriers.

Rain At Last!

Adult Coopers Hawk (photo by Cris Hamilton)

At last!  After weeks of no rain we’ve had a serious soaking today.  The grass was brown and dormant but today it revived and is showing a bit of green.   

The birds are happy about the rain too.  This morning while I walked to work I saw:

  • An adult red-tailed hawk perched on the antenna of Carnegie-Mellon’s Warner Hall.  The red-tail spread its wings in an arc and held its head up as the rain ran down its wings and back.  He was enjoying every minute of his long-awaited bath.
  • A flock of house sparrows bathed in a puddle on the sidewalk.  Very splashy and cute!
  • Two Cooper’s hawks – an adult and a juvenile – perched next to each other on the fence at our neighborhood ball field.  Cooper’s hawks are notoriously solitary so I assume these two were related.  I thought they were enjoying the rain until I noticed their attention was focused on a flock of five crows walking on the field.  A sixth crow raided the garbage cans below them.  The crows silently eyed the hawks.  The juvenile “Coop” broke the tension by making a low swooping pass at the crows.  The adult Cooper’s hawk waited a bit, then made the same swooping pass.  Then both hawks flew away.  The crows were unfazed and returned to their watery games and garbage feast.

(photo of an adult Coopers hawk by Cris Hamilton)

This Land is Your Land

Friends of Acadia volunteers build a trail bridge (photo courtesy Friends of Acadia)

In America, everyone owns some of the most beautiful land this country has to offer.  It’s ours to enjoy at any time, without fences, without No Trespassing signs.  That land is in our national parks whose story will air on PBS beginning this Sunday, September 27 at 8:00pm in Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Having just spent two weeks at Acadia National Park, I agree it’s one of America’s best.  I’m thankful that so much coastal property is open to everyone and that it retains its natural habitat and scenic beauty to this day. 

It might not have been that way.  Acadia was private land in 1901 when George B. Dorr and Charles W. Eliot were inspired to preserve it.  They and others formed the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations who assembled the land from private landholders big and small.  Soon it became clear that the only way to permanently protect the land was through national park status. George Dorr championed the cause and in 1916 presented 5,000 acres as a monument to the nation.  In 1919 it became our first national park east of the Mississippi.

Today Acadia covers 48,000 acres.  Though protected by law, the work is never done. If no one had followed in George Dorr’s footsteps Acadia would be in sad shape today, plagued by traffic jams, unusable trails and swaths of development on formerly scenic sites.  Fortunately, as Ken Burns points out, people are still “willing to devote themselves to save some precious portion of the land they love.”

Friends of Acadia (FOA) is one such group.  Formed in 1986 their mission today is to preserve, protect and promote stewardship of the park and its surrounding communities.  FOA has restored trails (shown here), worked with L.L. Bean to provide buses that reduce traffic congestion, provided education and stewardship programs and preserved land threatened by development.  My husband and I are so impressed by their work that we became Friends of Acadia members several years ago.

Throughout America people are devoting their time and energy to the national parks they love.  This land is your land, too.  Find out more on Sunday at 8:00pm.

(photo of Friends of Acadia trail crew building a bridge, courtesy Ian Marquis, Friends of Acadia)

Nothing. Sort of.

IRFD Before and After (photos from Kate St. John's cell phone)

As promised I participated in International Rock Flipping Day (IRFD) today.

Yesterday I tried to get a head start by flipping a few rocks in a stream in Schenley Park but there was nothing under them except smaller rocks.  Today in Butler County I turned over a big rock in Portersville.  Nothing but dead leaves underneath.

Back home at Schenley Park I hunted for a likely candidate and finally found a winner, the rock pictured above.  There was an earthworm and a millipede underneath but you can’t see them in my lousy cell phone photo.  They were trying to burrow underground but it’s drought-y here so the ground is too dry for them.

The biggest thing I learned is that southwestern Pennsylvania is just not a rocky place.  I had no trouble finding rocks everywhere when I was in Maine early this month but around here the only real rocks we have are those used in landscaping.  I think we have to import them.

No wonder I came up with nothing.  Sort of.

For more IRFD results see Wanderin’ Weeta’s blog.

p.s.  IRFD rules include putting the rock back the way you found it without harming what’s underneath – which I did, though not pictured here.

(photos from my cell phone)

p.p.s.  Look how many bloggers participated in International Rock Flipping Day!