Monthly Archives: October 2011

Witchy Things

Happy Halloween!   Here’s a selection of witchy things to celebrate the day.

Witches hat mushroom (Hygrophorus conicus) is common in the forest at this time of year. (photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, from


Witch-hazel blooming in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Witch-hazel trees are blooming now in Schenley Park. (photo by Kate St. John)


The gelatinous fruiting body of Witches Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) feels greasy or slimy when damp.  Eeeewwwww!  (photo by Gerald Holmes, Valent USA Corporation,


Witches brooms in hackberry trees are ugly but don’t kill the tree.  They’re so common in hackberries that I use them as a clue to identify the tree in winter.  (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,


(photo credits embedded above)

Forest Canary

Here’s a beautiful little bird from southern Africa.

The forest canary (Serinus scotops) is a seed eater who can be attracted to backyard bird feeders.

Right now it’s spring where he lives. Time to lay eggs.

After yesterday’s snow it’s hard to imagine this is possible — even on the other side of the world.

(photo by Alan Manson from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

Nature’s Velcro

Last Saturday my husband and I participated in our neighborhood fall cleanup.  At Magee Field this involved a lot of clambering on the hillsides to collect beer cans and water bottles that people had “thrown away” in the woods.  Volunteers collected 14 large bags of garbage.

After the cleanup I threw our clothes in the wash but when I pulled them from the dryer I found an unwelcome surprise.  My socks had collected burdock and the laundry had broken it up and redistributed it as tiny hooks on the bath towels.  I spent half an hour pulling the hooks off one by one.

Lesser burdock (Arctium minus) is a biennial plant in the Aster family.  Native to Europe, it’s now invasive in North America and so successful that USDA lists it as invasive in Greenland.

Burdock spreads easily by hitchhiking on mammals.  Its purple flowers bloom in late summer inside bracts covered with tiny hooks.   In the fall the flowers dry and the bracts tighten around the seeds (shown above).  Now the ball is ready to grab fur, skin or clothing and transport the seeds to a new location.

The hooks are so fascinating that they led to the invention of Velcro.

In 1941 Swiss inventor George de Mestral went out hunting with his dog and they both came back with burdock stuck to them.  De Mestral studied the hooks and saw the possibilities for a reusable fastener.  He experimented with various materials and found nylon and polyester to be the best.  His invention was patented in 1955 and ultimately grew into Velcro USA Inc, based in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Velcro didn’t catch on at first because it seemed stiff and unwieldy on clothing, but after NASA used it on astronauts’ space suits, skiers saw its value and now the rest of us use it too.

It pays to observe nature.  In de Mestral’s case it led to great things.  As he once told Velcro executives, “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Ducks from a Distance, Part 1 — Dabblers

Ducks are migrating through Pennsylvania right now so I’ve been brushing up on my identification skills.

Because I don’t own a scope, I have to identify ducks from a distance using 8- or 10-power binoculars.  They always look small and their colors are muted but I’m able to do it by looking at their behavior, relative size, body shapes and color patterns.

Here are quick some tips I use to identify distant ducks.  Perhaps they’ll work for you.  (Some of you are already experts at this.  Let us know your tips by leaving a comment.)

First, get to know a common duck really well.  I suggest studying mallards because they’re everywhere and easy to watch.  What do they look like?  Study males and females near, far and very far away.  Use them as your point of reference.

Second, watch duck behavior.  How do they feed?  Do they dabble or dive?

Dabblers eat shallow food they pick from the water’s surface or pull from the bottom by tipping their butts in the air and reaching underwater with their heads and necks.  They don’t submerge.  Dabblers leap into flight directly from the water.

Divers completely submerge and swim underwater to get their food.

Below I’ve listed only dabblers (there are too many ducks for one blog!) and to save space I’ve abbreviated:    “=M” is same size as mallard,   “<M” smaller than mallard,  “HFAM” means “Hope For A Male” because the females are hard to identify.  (Yes, I’ll admit I sometimes ignore the females too hard to identify from afar.)

  • Mallard:  This is your reference duck.  23″ long.  Male has green head, brown chest, whitish belly & back. Female is speckled brown and boring.  Females of some other species resemble her.
  • Wood duck:  <M.  Short neck.  Distinctive head feathers drape over back of neck like long hair.  Males colorful but if too distant to see color, look at the “hair.”  Females gray, have shorter “hair,” and big white area around their eyes.
  • American Black Duck: =M. Like a dark female mallard. Hope it flies & shows its white underwings.
  • Gadwall:  =M.  Shape is ‘mallard’ with rounder head.  Male is bland, brownish-gray with a black butt.  HFAM.
  • American wigeon:  slightly <M.  Males have white forehead on gray head with green accent.  Sides are rusty. Butt is white-that-ends-in-black.  Female’s rusty sides, white belly make her more colorful than female mallard.
  • Northern pintail:  =M.  Long thin neck.  Elegant in every way.  Males have chocolate brown head, white neck stripe, gray body, long tail —  and they happen to have a white-then-black butt but the “pintail” is the big clue.  Female is elegant mallard.
  • Northern shoveler:  =M.  Very long wide bill is the “shovel.”  Nearly neckless, sits low in the water.  Males have dark green head, rust on sides, white chest.  Females are boring brown but the bill is the big clue.
  • Green-winged teal:  Small duck, noticeably <M.  Nicknamed “butter butt” because it has a creamy yellow butt.  Male has dark head with teal-green accent.  HFAM if there are blue-winged teal in the flock.
  • Blue-winged teal:  Small duck, noticeably <M. Male has white crescent moon on his face.  HFAM if there are green-winged teal present.
  • NOT A DUCK but is a dabbler –> American coot:  all black with small head, white bill and forehead shield.  Hangs out in big flocks, clucking, whining, chattering.  Runs on the water to take off.

Do you think you can identify the ducks in the photo now?

(photo by Steve Gosser, March 2011)

Stinkbomb Tree

Fruit of ginkgo tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While perusing the Sibley Guide to Trees (which I quote below) I ran across an amazing name for ginkgos:  Stinkbomb Tree.

The name is new to me but I know how they got it.  In autumn the ginkgo’s fleshy, ripe fruit falls from the female trees and is easily crushed underfoot.  If you step on it you’re sorry.  It’s slippery and smells like vomit.

Ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba) are living fossils from the Triassic, the only plant in their division to survive into the modern age.  Though classified as trees, ginkgos have a lot in common with ferns.  Their fan-shaped leaves have a fern-like vein system.  Each tree is either male or female and the seeds are “fertilized by motile sperm as in cycads, ferns, mosses and algae.”

There are probably no wild ginkgos left on earth but they survived and re-naturalized in Asia because humans cultivated them for their religious and medicinal significance, especially in China.

Ginkgos cope well with pollution and confined root systems so they’re often planted in cities.   How hardy are they?  Six ginkgo trees were the only living things to survive within a 1-2 km radius of the 1945 Hiroshima atomic blast.

Of course that wasn’t known when they were chosen to beautify Pittsburgh during our Smoky City days.  Both male and female trees were planted in our city parks in the late 1800s.  Nowadays female ginkgos are often banned because of their “stinkbombs” but we have some on Schenley Drive near Phipps Conservatory and on Highland Drive near Highland Park.

Very soon our ginkgos will turn a beautiful bright yellow and their leaves will fall all at once.  If you time it right, you can stand below a yellow ginkgo on a windless day and the leaves will drop around you like snow.   But watch where you step…

(photo by Aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free license. Click on the caption to see the original.)

Counting Crows

The crows are back in town.

Following their pattern of prior years they’ve begun their winter roost in Oakland and will slowly adjust its location until by December they’ll gather west of Polish Hill and roost in the Strip.

Or maybe not.  It remains to be seen.

Right now they fly over Peter Bell’s apartment every night.  On Sunday he shot this video of them flying southwest and pausing on the trees nearby.

Peter wrote on YouTube, “Every fall thousands of crows gather in Pittsburgh. I was lucky enough to be in a spot they all decided to pass over as they decided on a place to roost for the evening.  On this night, it took about 40 minutes from the first few I noticed until most had passed by.  This night they weren’t being too noisy, so most of the recorded audio was buses and other traffic, so I swapped it out.  Music: Schubert’s Serenade (Lied from Schwanengesang D.957) recorded by Anne Gastinel”

Inevitably a flock this large makes us wonder:  How many crows are there?  How do you even estimate their number?  Here’s how.

  1. Note the starting time.  (For example:  5:45pm)
  2. Pick a reference point in the scenery.
  3. Use a timer and count the number of crows passing the reference point for 1 minute or 3 minutes, whichever is most useful.  Make several of these timed counts so you can get a decent average of crows per minute.
  4. Now relax and watch the crows passing by.  If their concentration increases or decreases noticeably, redo the timed counts.
  5. When the crows taper or stop coming, note the ending time.  (For example:  6:30pm)
  6. For how many minutes did the crows pass the reference point?
  7. Use some easy algebra:  minutes * crows/minute = crows.

Ta dah!

You can try this while watching Peter’s video.  Count the number of crows exiting the frame, then multiply by 40 minutes.

How many did you count?

(video by Peter Bell)


p.s.  Dedicated crow watchers (like me) have been noticing the crows for a couple of weeks.  I predict that everyone else will notice them for the first time on November 7.  Why?  Because we’ll change the clocks (“fall back”) on November 6 and suddenly, on Monday November 7, the crows’ rush hour will coincide with ours.


With berries this beautiful no wonder this plant was imported.

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is native to China, Korea, Japan and far eastern Russia.  Brought to the U.S. as an ornamental in the 1870’s it grows so well that it’s now invasive in Pennsylvania.  You can find it easily in Pittsburgh, draped over hillsides and all the trees in its path.

Porcelainberry resembles grapevine except that its stem pith is white, its bark doesn’t peel, and its berries are stunningly beautiful in turquoise, blue and pink.  Birds eat the berries and give the seeds a free ride.

Do nothing and you’ll soon have porcelainberry in your garden.

Want to see it up close?  Visit Schenley, Frick or Riverview Parks.

The berries are worth it, though the vine is not.


(photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Unusual … For Here

After Scott Kinsey reported an American white pelican at Pymatuning last Monday, curious birders have made the trip to see it.

If you who live in Florida or west of the Mississippi this may seem strange.  What’s the big deal about a pelican?  To Pittsburghers, pelicans are rare.

American white pelicans are inland birds who breed at brackish or freshwater lakes in western North America and winter on the Gulf and Pacific coasts.  Even in winter they avoid the open ocean.  Their migration route takes them through the Great Plains and intermountain West but their range map indicates no overland path to Florida.

How do they get there?

On very rare occasions they fly over southwestern Pennsylvania.

My only sighting in Pittsburgh occurred in June 2003.  While looking for the Pitt peregrines I saw a dot in the sky heading south.  It was a very large white bird with black primaries and a pale point where its head should be.  PABIRDS helped me with the identification:  American white pelican.

What was that pale point where its head should have been?  Pelicans fly with their heads tucked in (shown above).  All I could see from the ground was its beak!

Moral of the story:  Keep looking up.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Songbirds decline in Wyoming gas fields

Jonah gas field, Wyoming, May 2006 (photo by Bruce Gordon from

First the game birds declined.  Now the songbirds.

A study led by Anna Chalfoun of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at University of Wyoming has shown that the oil and gas boom in southwestern Wyoming has altered the landscape so much that even songbirds have declined where sagebrush once ruled.

In 1998 the Bureau of Land Management opened the Jonah gas field to intensive natural gas development.  The result is that the Upper Green River Valley changed dramatically from a sagebrush wilderness to a fragmented evenly-spaced industrial zone.

Those who love Wyoming saw an immediate change in the land and wildlife and petitioned BLM to revise their well-spacing rules.  In 2003 Skytruth collected satellite images and aerial photographs illustrating the oil and gas footprint and testified to the Committee on Resources of the U.S. House of Representatives, again petitioning for a change in well drilling techniques.

Skytruth’s famous 2006 aerial photo of the Jonah gas field (taken by EcoFlight’s Bruce Gordon) is shown above.

Alas, policies didn’t improve and the Upper Green River Valley has become a living experiment in intensive natural gas development.  What happens to the land, air, water and wildlife in the presence of this industrial activity?

According to Chalfoun’s study, some birds appear to be unaffected but Brewer’s, sage and vesper sparrows declined in direct proportion to the amount of wells, roads and human activity.  This is especially significant because BLM classes Brewer’s and sage sparrows as sensitive species.

Pennsylvania is conducting its own living experiment in the Marcellus shale. What happens to our forests during Marcellus industrial activity?

Listen to this report from The Allegheny Front, The Gas Boom Comes to the Forest, to find out what Pennsylvania scientists have learned so far.

(photo of Wyoming’s Jonah gas field, May 2006, by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight for Skytruth)