Monthly Archives: July 2010

Summer Beauty: Dense Blazing Star

If you weren’t able to join the Wissahickon Nature Club on their walk at Jennings Prairie last Tuesday, here’s one flower you missed.

Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is a tall spike of fuzzy-looking purple blossoms so pretty that it’s become a popular garden flower.  Unlike most plants this one starts blooming at the top first, then works its way down, attracting butterflies as it goes.

Right now the flowers are carpeting the fields at Jennings Prairie.  It’s worth a visit if you haven’t been there yet this year.  Click here for information on how to get there.

(photo by Dianne Machesney, taken during the Wissahickon Nature Walk on July 27)

Anatomy: Auriculars

Now that we know where the birds’ ears are positioned, today’s lesson is easy to understand.

Auriculars is another name for cheek feathers (indicated by the red arrow), so-called because they cover the bird’s ears.

According to the Sibley Guide to Birds, auriculars are a “complex set of feathers that channel sound into the ear.  Feathers at the rear border are short, sturdy, and densely colored.  Feathers over the ear opening are lacy and unpatterned.”

On owls, these feathers create a pronounced facial disk that funnels the faint sounds of their prey into their ears.

Click here to see the facial disk — including the auriculars — on a great-horned owl.

(photos by Chuck Tague)


I know of four birds whose name begins with “house.”  This house finch is one of them.

Common at backyard bird feeders, the house finch didn’t live east of the Rockies until the illegal pet trade tried to sell them as “Hollywood finches” in 1940 in New York.  Just as the law was about to catch up with them, the traders released the birds on Long Island.  The “evidence” was gone but not forgotten.  The house finches set up housekeeping in the east and slowly expanded north, south and west.  They’ve now met their western relatives mid-continent and are found across the U.S.

House finches prefer edges, not too open, not too forested.  In the east they live in cities and suburbs and since they’re one of the few birds who feed their young only vegetables — not even insects — bird feeders are important to them. 

House finches resemble purple finches but are easy to tell apart if you know two things.  First, house finches are far more common near houses and feeders than the purple finch and, second, house finches have brown stripes on their flanks where purple finches have rosy stripes.  See how the stripes on this bird’s flanks are brown?  That’s how you know.  (Click here for an illustration that shows both birds; it’s a big photo so you’ll have to scroll.)

When a bird has “house” in its name that usually means it nests in a hole but house finches don’t always do that.  Their main site criteria is that the nest have an overhang.  It may be they got the name “house” because the other finches won’t use holes at all.

Can you name three more birds whose names begin with “house?”  Here are some hints:

  1. Two of them are common in North America and are well known for building their nests in holes.
  2. The third is a European bird.
  3. The European bird has a cousin with the same last name and the first name “purple,”  similar to “house finch” / “purple finch.”
  4. There was a 1980’s indie pop band with the same name as the European bird.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the rain (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

July 28, 2010:

What do birds do when it rains?

If it’s storming they take shelter but during showers — even heavy ones — they’re willing to get wet.

In the National Aviary’s Wetlands Room there are sprinklers near the roof that turn on to simulate a tropical downpour.  Have you ever been there when it “rains?”  The birds react instantly.  Most of them sing or shout, some fly through the water, others bathe.  The room is filled with sound while the birds obviously enjoy themselves.

This month we’ve had some weather that’s felt mighty tropical, complete with brief downpours.  During one of them Marcy Cunkelman photographed this rose-breasted grosbeak in her yard.

He doesn’t seem to mind the rain, does he?  That’s probably because he lives in the tropics most of the year.

My goodness it was pouring!


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Happy to see my favorite bird

The snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh peregrine nest isn’t broadcasting but it’s capturing motion detection images to confirm the male peregrine’s identity.  (Yes, we’ve confirmed he’s E2.)

The nest is usually vacant but Dorothy stopped by and fanned her feathers earlier this month.   The only excitement occurred last Wednesday when one of the youngsters showed up and begged loudly for food. The same thing happened on Friday at Gulf Tower. 

It must have been the week to stop by the old homestead and ask for a hand-out.  I know the begging youngsters weren’t White or Yellow, the rehab birds, because they haven’t been released yet.

In other news:

  • According to Steve Valasek it’s quiet at the Tarentum Bridge except for an adult peregrine who still shows up at dusk.
  • In Lancaster the nestlings are getting ready to fledge.  Meredith Lombard has new photos in the Peregrines folder at this link.
  • In Columbus Ohio, the resident female peregrine at the Rhodes State Office Building has changed three times since July 1.  Read about it here

Other than that, it’s quiet.  Dorothy spends time roosting in the shade near the top of the Cathedral of Learning.  

I’m always happy to see her, even if she isn’t doing anything. 

My favorite bird.

(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

Hairy Willow Herb

Here’s a beautiful flower that used to stump me every year when I found it near the bridge at Jennings Prairie.

This is Hairy Willow Herb (Epilobium hirsutum), a plant in the Evening Primrose family that stands two to six feet tall.  Like all Primroses, the flowers have a distinctive cross-shaped pistil.  This should have tipped me off.

Hairy Willow Herb can be invasive, though it was well behaved when I first found it years ago.  I wonder if it’s gone crazy now in the wetland under the bridge.

If you’d like to find out, join the Wissahickon Nature Club at Jennings Prairie tomorrow at 10:00am for a bird and wildflower outing lead by Esther Allen, Chuck Tague and Dianne Machesney.  For information and directions, click on the “Nature Walks” link here or call Susanne at 412-771-4737.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Double Names

On one of my many Googling trips across the Internet I learned the scientific name of the red-footed booby and it made me laugh.

Sula sula?  All I could think of was the Yale fight song whose second verse begins, Boola, Boola.

Are there many North American birds with double scientific names?   I searched my field guide and found about 20 birds, most of which also live in Europe where scientific naming began.

The names are sometimes fascinating:

  • Nycticorax nycticorax = Night raven, Night raven = Black-crowned night-heron
  • Anhinga anhinga = a Tupi (Brazilian Indian) name meaning Devil Bird = Anhinga
  • Histrionicus histrionicus = this bird is Theatrical, Theatrical = Harlequin duck
  • Tyrannus tyrannus = This Tyrant, Tyrant is very aggressive toward predators = Eastern kingbird
  • And, since first published in July 2010 this species has split!  A prehistoric cave dweller = Troglodytes trodlodytes = the Eurasian wren.  Our winter wren is now a different species without a double name: Troglodytes hiemalis.

And finally, Ajaja ajaja used to be my favorite scientific bird name, a fun word to say if you pronounce the J’s as H’s.  Alas, scientists renamed this bird to Platalea ajaja and took half the fun out of the Roseate spoonbill.


(photo of a Red-footed Booby by Deborah Acklin)

p.s. Here are two websites that describe the meanings of scientific bird names: Scientific bird names explained and Bird Names at

Pretty, but….

Deep purple and shaped like a shooting star, we’d cultivate this flower in our gardens if the rest of the plant was cooperative.  But it isn’t.

Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a woody perennial vine that drapes itself over nearby vegetation.  The plant looks scraggly and the flowers are small.

It’s blooming now in my neighborhood in untended plots and all the places we forgot to weed.  I can’t help but notice it though, because I like the color purple.

And that makes this plant is one of my recurring topics.  See my blog about its poisonous fruit.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Anatomy: Under the head feathers

I was going to talk about head feathers today but some of them are named for the body part they cover.  What are those feathers covering?  I asked two vultures to help me out.

Vultures don’t have head feathers because of their lifestyle:  they eat carrion and stick their heads into rotting carcasses.  Head feathers would get very dirty and are hard to clean so vultures just don’t have them.

Pictured here are a turkey vulture at left and a black vulture on the right.  Notice that you can see their ears!  (red arrows)  Birds’ ears are below their eyes on the edge of their cheeks.   On the turkey vulture you can see that the end of his smile comes pretty close to his ear.

These birds also give us a good view of their nares (yellow arrows) whose size is quite different between the two species.  Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, black vultures don’t.  The bird that relies on its sense of smell has large nares.

And finally, who can avoid noticing those wrinkles?  I’m glad most birds cover them.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

Another Quiz

Another mystery bird in a real life setting.  Just like real life this bird is far away and slightly backlit.

How to identify it?  Here are some things to notice:

  • Shape of head
  • Size and color of beak
  • Posture.  Notice how upright this bird is.
  • Color
  • Length of wings relative to the tail.

Any ideas on this one?  Can you tell it’s sex or age?

Let me know.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

p.s. The apparent dent in its chest is not significant for identification but it’s interesting.