Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dorothy in Action

Do you miss watching the peregrine falconcams?  Are you going through withdrawal now that the nests are empty?

This may help.

Six weeks ago today Dorothy and E2’s chicks were banded at the Cathedral of Learning.  Among the attendees were Brian and Jacob Cohen.

Jacob comes to the bandings to gather raw material for his high school research project, Diet of Urban Peregrine Falcons, which he’s conducting through the National Aviary.  When Beth Fife cleans Dorothy’s nest Jacob gets the garbage and painstakingly identifies the feathers and bones of her prey.  How cool is that!

Brian, Jacob’s father, comes with his camera.  He’s a professional photographer — you see his work every week  in Pop City — and he likes to take pictures of our peregrines.

Brian got some great shots on Banding Day as Dorothy puffed up, wheeled, and dove to defend her babies from Beth Fife’s approach.  Watch the slideshow to see her in action.  Click on any image to open the slideshow in a lightbox.

Wow, she’s good!

I guarantee this will ease your withdrawal pains.

(photos by Brian Cohen,

Now Blooming: Sundrops

In western Pennsylvania wildflower season comes in waves.

The first crest is in April when the woodland flowers bloom.  There’s a pause in May then the next wave, the field flowers, begins in late June and lasts through September.  I’ll be blogging more about flowers during this long, beautiful wave. 

Last Sunday I encountered beauty that stopped me in my tracks.  While hiking in the Laurel Highlands I came upon a sunny meadow filled with daisies and bright yellow flowers on tall stems.  Sundrops!

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) flowers are 1″ to 2″ across, clustered at the top of their stems.  Each has a prominent cross-shaped stigma which the drone fly (who resembles a honeybee) is covering above, but he gives you a sense of scale.  These flowers are pretty big.

The stems are 1′ to 3′ tall and reddish, as shown below in two photos of a smaller look-alike, Oenothera perennis.

Sundrops open and close every day. They’re the daytime cousin of the common evening primrose whose flowers are very similar but the two are easy to tell apart.  Sundrops open in bright sunlight and close at night.  Evening primroses open at twilight.

It would be cool to do time lapse photography on a field containing both plants.  The flowers of the two species would wink open and shut like fireflies.

(sundrop with drone fly by Marcy Cunkelman, sundrops on stems by Dianne Machesney)

We Miss Her Already

Yesterday afternoon, Esther Gatewood Allen, naturalist, teacher, gardener and photographer passed away after suffering a stroke on June 13.

She took with her 93 years of experience outdoors, her great love of nature, her irrepressible curiosity and enthusiasm for plants, and her generosity in passing along her knowledge to everyone.

Active to the last, Esther had a “Keep going, Don’t stop” attitude that inspired everyone who knew her.  Perhaps she inherited it.  She grew up on a farm in Gallia County, Ohio, one of 11 children of Emma Rowena Gatewood who in 1955 at age 67 became famous as Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail alone.  By 1963 her mother had hiked the AT three times, the first person ever to do so.

Esther’s don’t-stop attitude gained her some fame including an interview with the Allegheny Front’s Justin Hopper and a chestnut tree planting on her 92nd birthday.  And she kept hiking too, though her goal was nature not mileage. Here she is chatting with George Bercik on an outing last summer.

Esther loved to teach.  I first met her in 1994 when I took her wildflower class at the Rachel Carson Institute.  I continued to learn from her by joining the Wissahickon Nature Club which she helped found in 1942 and where she taught at every meeting through her exhibits (pictured at top).

Esther knew everything about native plants — everything!  She was especially active in the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania whose members knew her better than I did.  Her home garden, which she tended by “letting it go,” was a joy and treasure trove to her fellow botanists.  If you needed to examine an unusual flower, chances are Esther could show it to you in her garden.  And any time we were stumped by a plant on an outing the cry went out, “Ask Esther!”

In the days before digital photography Esther took beautiful photographs which she used as slides while teaching and contributed as illustrations for the Botanical Society’s Wildflowers of Pennsylvania.  As in all things, Esther passed on this knowledge too.  Her photographic legacy is on this blog in beautiful photos by Dianne Machesney.

Esther leaves behind not only her family but a host of men and women she inspired with her enthusiasm for nature in western Pennsylvania.  We are Esther’s living, breathing legacy — people who love nature and want to pass it on.

I hope we can live up to her example.

We miss her already.

(Esther Allen teaching at a Wissahickon meeting, photo by Chuck Tague.  Esther chatting with George Bercik on a Wissahickon outing, June 2010, photo by Monica Miller)

Panther Hollow Watershed Meeting/Hike, June 30

Do you think the pond at Schenley Park is disgusting?  You’re not the only one.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is developing a restoration plan for the Panther Hollow watershed which will ultimately — and permanently — improve the pond.   They’re holding three community meetings to discuss the plans.  The first meeting was May 23rd.  The next one is a hike in the hollow this Thursday June 30 from 6:00-8:00pm.  Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center.

Click here for more information.

Addicted to the Sibley eGuide

Today’s blog is for “techno birders,” people like me who play with technology and go birding to get away from it all.  Or so I thought.

Until recently my birding was low-tech.  I’d go outdoors with only binoculars and my field book.  Then three months ago I bought the Sibley eGuide for my cellphone.  I thought I wouldn’t use it much.  Hah!  I love it!

First let me say that I come by technology honestly.  I’ve worked with computers since high school and my real job at WQED is Director of Information Technology (no, not “blogger”).   Even so, I’m conservative about gadgets and updates and am slow to adopt the latest technology.  I never have the newest stuff because I’ve seen too many new things crash and burn.

On the other hand, I have a Droid smartphone.  I don’t carry it to make phone calls.  Nooooooooo!  It’s my pocket computer and I use it everywhere.  I suffer withdrawal if I can’t get on the Internet.  Ask my husband how I react in a certain place in Maine that has no 4G network.

Being a slow adopter I am very cautious about downloading apps to my Droid.  My low-tech husband was the one who researched the Sibley eGuide for my birthday gift.  I downloaded it a few months early so I could use it during my trip to Nevada last April. (It cost $29.99 at the time.)

Since then I have become addicted.  The Sibley eGuide allows me to:

  • See Sibley’s great images and read detailed information about each species including range maps and behavior.
  • Zoom in on the images to see more details.
  • Use taxonomic or (my new favorite) alphabetic lists.
  • Narrow the scope of potential birds by choosing my state/province location.
  • Use the Smart Search function to further narrow the possibilities by size, color, body features (such as tail patches), etc.
  • Listen to the song to help my identification.  (No! No! No!  I do not play the songs so the birds can hear them.  I turn the volume very low and listen right next to my ear and play just a short bit to verify my audio guess.  Do not play the sounds for the birds!  Here’s why, from Sibley himself.)
  • Compare two species’ images side-by-side as I would in a book-based field guide.
  • Compare two songs side-by-side.  Can’t do that with my field book.
  • Record the bird’s date and location and email or export the list.

The Sibley eGuide [no longer] validates its license over the network every time you open it. It works just fine when you’re off the grid.  For me, it used to force-close at startup but that’s because I was being way too tech-y and killing it with my task killer instead of gracefully closing it like a normal person.

Since downloading the Sibley eGuide I’ve changed my birding habits.  Instead of thinking “I’m not carrying my field guide because it’s heavy and I won’t encounter a bird I don’t know,”  I now say to myself,  “I don’t need my book. I have my Droid.”

I never leave home without it.

(image from Sibley eGuides to Birds App webpage at Click on the image to read more about the app.  Get it at Android Market or at iTunes for iPhones or at Blackberry App World, depending on your cellphone model.)

As you can tell from the links in the photo credits, the Sibley eGuide also runs on the iPhone (its original platform) and the Blackberry.

It’s Best to Know What You’re Dealing With

In my neighborhood there’s a patch of flowering plants five to eight feet tall with pretty white umbels and lacey leaves.  The patch expanded this spring and is now surrounded by a carpet of tiny plants, just like the tall ones.

From a distance I thought this was a good thing.  The spot is a waste place that used to be ugly.

But now the patch annoys me.  I’ve identified the plants.  They aren’t carrots or Queen Anne’s lace.  They have purple spots on their stems.  I don’t want to touch them.  They’re poison hemlock.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a biennial that’s extremely toxic to humans and livestock.  If eaten it kills by blocking communication between the nerves and muscles.  Death starts by paralysis and ends by shutting down the lungs.   Poison hemlock’s most famous victim was Socrates who was put to death in Greece in 399BC when the plant was a capital punishment tool.

Poison hemlock came here from Europe and is now considered invasive in Pennsylvania and 11 other states.  At some point it was used as a sedative — perhaps that’s how it came here — but the difference between a therapeutic dose and a fatal one is so slight that it’s Russian Roulette to try it.

How do you get rid of it?  Very carefully. Once it’s gone to seed poison hemlock is difficult to eradicate since pulling and herbicide disperse the seeds.  Click here (and see the comments below) for tips on how to reduce small patches.  They often require annual management.  🙁

Fortunately, my aversion to touching poison hemlock is probably excessive.  According to the Medscape website, no one in the U.S. has died of hemlock poisoning during the last ten years (perhaps longer, but they only mention a decade).  Even so, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with.

Learn to identify poison hemlock with these photos of the plant and its purple-spotted stems.

The purple spots are a dead giveaway — pun intended!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Quiz: Be a Bird Sleuth

Today’s blog is an opportunity to improve your bird identification skills and it’s a challenge.

What bird is this?

To level the playing field, I’ve picked a bird I’ve never seen.

Let’s go through the normal identification clues in order of importance.  These are the questions I ask myself when birding.  Many of them will help here.  (Yes, the order of the clues really matters.)

  1. Where on earth is this bird?  Out-of-place birds are rare.  Narrow the possibilities by knowing which birds occur where you’re birding. 
  2. What habitat is the bird in?  Even on migration birds pick their preferred habitat if at all available.  Is the bird at the ocean?  a lake?  river? streamside? dense woods? open woods?  pines? oaks? a field? a swamp? a mudflat?
  3. What sound does it make?  If you can identify birds by song, this is useful in Spring through June.  (If you can identify call notes you’re such an expert that you know what bird this is.)
  4. What size is it?  The size of a goose?  Larger?  The size of a crow?  robin?  sparrow?  Smaller than a sparrow?
  5. What shape is it?  This is really important!  Check its beak:  long?  short?  thick?  thin?  big and fat?  thin and short?   Check its legs:  long? short? almost non-existent?  Check its neck: long? short? very short?  Check its tail:  long? short? fancy?  Does it have ear tufts?  Does it have a crest?
  6. What is it doing?  How does it perch?  (Does it perch at all?)  How does it fly?  (short bursts, darting, hovering, soaring)  What does it eat? Food is a major clue.
  7. What color is it?  Color is actually the last clue though our brains lock onto it first.  You can actually identify a bird in the field without knowing its color.  How many of you can identify a crow by hearing it caw? …and you don’t even need to see it!


Here are the clues applied to the bird in this picture.  In some cases I’ll tell you more than you could know from a random photo.

  1. Where on earth is this bird?  It was photographed in Brazil.
  2. What habitat is the bird in?  It’s perched on a branch without lots of leaves.  Wild guess: This bird is in open woods.
  3. What sound does it make?  We can’t tell in a photo.
  4. What size is it?  We can barely tell in a photo so I’ll have to say:  This bird is the size of a starling.
  5. What shape is it?  Great question!   
    • Look at that beak: long and thick and significantly large compared to its body length. 
    • Notice the whiskers.  Most birds with whiskers catch insects in flight — nighthawks and flycatchers, for instance.  If this bird resembles another whiskered bird, it could be a relative? 
    • Check its legs:  short.
    • Check its neck:  short.
    • Check its tail:  long!  about 1/3 of the bird’s length
  6. What is it doing? 
    • How does it perch?  It typically perches with its beak tilted up.  Its stance is like a hummingbird except that its beak and body are too large.
    • How does it fly?  We can’t tell in this photo.
    • What does it eat?  Whiskers indicate that it probably eats flying insects.
  7. What color is it?  Rufous and iridescent green.


This bird has a beak like a woodpecker (a distant relative) but its whiskers indicate it eats flying insects.  Those who have seen this bird in the wild have called it “a glittering hummingbird the size of a starling.”

Ready for the answer?  See the link in the photo credit.

(photo by Dario Sanches via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.  Click here for the answer to this quiz.)

Performing a Public Service

As disappointed as I am that the CMU red-tailed hawks have been raiding bird nests in Schenley Park, there’s another item on their menu that makes me happy to see them patrolling Oakland.

In early May, Lisa Zirngibl saw a red-tailed hawk eating breakfast on a ledge at Cyert Hall.   (This is the female of the pair; I can tell by her pale head.)

One glance at the tail of her prey tells me this bird is performing a public service.

Can you guess what she’s eating?

I hope she catches a lot of these!

(photo by Lisa Zirngibl)

Our Peregrines in Late June

For nearly two weeks it’s been hard to find more than one or two peregrines at the University of Pittsburgh.  Then on Tuesday and Wednesday Anne-Marie and Peter commented on a flurry of peregrine activity near campus.

Yesterday was particularly good.

In the morning Anne-Marie saw a juvenile fumble its breakfast near Craig Street.  Then at lunchtime I found both adults perched on the Cathedral of Learning in inaccessible nooks, both gazing toward the northeast.  Karen, Peter and I guessed the “kids” were over there but we couldn’t see them from the ground.

To prove it, just before 2:00pm E2 soared off the building and a juvenile flew in, begging loudly.  When E2 landed, Dorothy flew and two more juveniles arrived over the treetops to see if something good was about to happen. 

The excitement of seeing five peregrines at once was over soon.  The loud juvenile jumped down into the “dining” area and the rest of the family flew out of sight.  They’re way too hard to track now, they fly so well.

These incidents got me thinking:  Why didn’t the peregrines hang out at Webster Hall for the past two weeks like they did in prior years?

My theory is that Webster Hall was their focus for a bad reason.  In June 2009 and 2010 one (then two) of their young were trapped in the Webster Hall chimney.  Dorothy and E2 brought food to the Webster Hall roof in an attempt to entice their young out of the trap.  The rest of their “kids”  followed, hoping for a handout. 

This year, thankfully, there’s no compelling reason to be at Webster Hall.  The chimney is covered.  No one is trapped.

But late June is the time when Pittsburgh’s young peregrines are curious and unknowingly reckless.  They fly fast and test their limits.  If all goes well, they push the envelope and recover without harm. 

If not…

I’m bracing myself for tomorrow, the day each year when I hear bad news about a young peregrine if there’s any bad news to tell. 

Cross your fingers or say a little prayer for Pittsburgh’s peregrine “kids.”   May they learn safely and well!

(photo of E2 soaring by Peter Bell)