Monthly Archives: December 2011

Green Aliens

It’s winter.  Mostly.  The plants are dormant but there’s no snow to brighten the ground.  With temperatures in the 40’s and overcast skies the landscape is brown in Pittsburgh.

But what is this?  A spot of green on this last day of 2011.  What plants are braving the cold in Schenley Park?

Two alien invasives:


… and Garlic mustard.

Perhaps it’s not wintry enough for them.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Purple and House

In the winter we’re sometimes presented with an identification challenge at the bird feeder.  Most of us see house finches on a regular basis because they’re resident throughout the U.S. but now we may see a similar northern visitor:  the purple finch.

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) breed in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northeastern U.S. and move south in winter, sometimes irrupting as far south as Florida.  Unfortunately they’re less common than they used to be.  In eastern North America their population declined from 1966 to 1994 as the house finch population moved west.  Partners In Flight estimates there are about 3 million purple finches in North America.

The house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) was originally from the western U.S. and Mexico but bird sellers illegally captured and sold them as “Hollywood Finches” in New York City.  In 1940, with law enforcement in pursuit, the dealers released their birds in Central Park.  Since then, the eastern population has expanded westward, out-competing purple finches as they go.  House finches are very successful birds.  Partners In Flight estimates there are about 16 million of them.

Purple and house finches look alike but they’re different.

For starters, purple finches are slightly misnamed.  Instead of dark purple the males look as if they were dipped headfirst in rose-colored berry juice (a description attributed to Roger Tory Petersen).  Their heads, necks, backs and wing coverts are rosy-over-brown, their rumps are pure rose-color and their breasts are striped and dotted with rose.

Male house finches are mostly brown with pale red or orange-red painted on their heads, breasts and rumps. Their backs are brown and though their chests are red at the top their flanks are striped with brown.  They look a bit daintier than purple finches with a thinner neck and smaller beak with curved culmen.  In my experience house finches have small beady eyes compared to purple finches, though this may be a regional trait in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Here are some comparison photos of male finches — purple on the left, house on the right.

From above:  The male purple finch on the left has a rosy back, head and neck.  The male house finch has red accents but is overall much browner with a brown back and neck.  NOTE!  If you see a male that’s orange-red, it’s a house finch.  The orange variant is very rare in purple finches.


From the front:  The male purple finch has a rosy breast and sides with rosy stripes or dots of color on his flanks.  The male house finch has brown stripes on his flanks.  The flanks are the clincher.


The females are a little harder to tell apart because they’re simply brown and white.  Again there’s a difference in body shape.  The purple finch has a chunkier neck, larger beak with straight culmen, longer wings. The main difference though is in their markings.

Here’s a comparison photo: female purple finch on the left, female house finch on the right.  The purple finch has white areas at her eyebrow and cheek and sharp brown lines or dots on her breast and flanks.  The house finch is gray-brown overall and blurry:  plain gray-brown head, blurry stripes on her chest and flanks.  NOTE: The colors appear very different in these photos mostly because the lighting was different.


So when you’re presented with purple and house, here’s what to remember.  For the males, look at their flanks. If the flank stripes/dots are rosy it’s a purple finch.  For the females, get an overall impression.  Is she blurry?  She’s probably a house finch.

(all photos by Marcy Cunkelman except the side views of the male and female purple finches are by Chuck Tague)

Unusual Time And Place

Here’s a bird that surprised everyone.

White ibises usually live along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from North Carolina through Florida, south to Central and South America.  They also breed in Louisiana and southern Arkansas but in winter they move further south.

Not all of them do.  This immature white ibis showed up at Kaercher Lake in Hamburg, Pennsylvania on November 11 and has spent the early winter there.

Though surprising, this out of range behavior is not unheard of.  Cornell’s Birds of North American Online says that white ibises are highly nomadic.  Their “postbreeding dispersals often take individuals outside normal nonbreeding range” as far north as New York, Vermont and Quebec, as far west as Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota.

Young birds are more likely to go north and inland.  Banded individuals have been found as much as 1,540 miles from home.  That’s the distance from Altoona, PA to Denver, CO.  These birds really travel!

Interestingly, white ibises don’t nest until they’re three years old so immature birds have a couple of years in which to wander.

Who knows where this ibis came from or where he’ll end up?  For now he’s unusual.  As of Tuesday (Dec 27) he’s still at Kaercher Creek Park.

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

Winter Trees: Tuliptree

The tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is easy to identify by its leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds but more of challenge when you’re limited to twigs and bark.

In early winter, look up and you’ll find the tree dotted with upright, drying fruits shaped like flowers.  Each one is a seed cluster of samaras attached at the base of the “flower.”


As time passes, the fruits dry and the samaras blow away from the tree or fall to the ground below.  They look like rounded skis with a lump at the toe.


In the absence of these clues examine the twigs, trunk and bark.

The reddish-brown twigs are less than 1/2 inch thick and have alternate leaf buds with a single large end bud shaped like a duck’s bill.  This shape is your big clue that it’s a tuliptree.  I’ve read that this bud encloses the nascent leaves until the frosts are past, then the leaves unfurl like wings.  Also notice the stipule scar that surrounds the twig where the leaf used to be.

I’ve seen both reddish-dark-gray and deep-red end buds in Schenley Park.  Dark gray is shown in the first photo, deep red below:


Identifying the tree by its bark is another story.  The best clue is the shape of the trunk.  It’s very straight and tall with no lower branches because these trees grow so fast.  Tuliptrees are shade intolerant and put all their energy into the trunk during their surge to the sun.  Along the way they drop their lower branches and leave a big upside down smile on the bark where the branch used to be.  This is noticeable on younger trees whose bark has flat-topped ridges with lighter furrows, shown here:


On older trees the ridges look less flat-topped, the furrows aren’t as light and the smiles are hard to find, though you will see horizontal line breaks in the bark:


When tuliptrees reach the top of the canopy, their crowns are shaped like candle flames which they resemble in late November.  At that point they retain just a few fluttering yellow leaves while the rest of the forest is brown and bare.

Perhaps this fluttering gave them the alternate name of yellow-poplar because they flutter like poplars.  But the tuliptree is not a poplar.  It’s in the magnolia family and will have beautiful flowers in the spring.

(Buds and older bark photos by Kate St. John.  Fruits, samaras and younger bark from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Wikimedia photos to see the originals.)

Being Pileated is a Saturnalian Tradition

During the December festival of Saturnalia, Romans threw their social norms out the window.  They partied, gave gifts, ate, drank and gambled.  They also engaged in role reversals in which masters served food to their slaves and the slaves could disregard their masters.

According to Wikipedia, “Romans of citizen status normally went about bare-headed, but for the Saturnalia donned the pileus, the conical felt cap that was the usual mark of a freedman. Slaves were not ordinarily entitled to wear the pileus, but they wore it as well.  Everyone was “pileated” without distinction.”

Just like this woodpecker.

(photo by Dick Martin)

The Holly and The Ivy

The Holly and The Ivy is one of my favorite Christmas tunes. This week the lyrics inspired me to learn more about holly.

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

Like mistletoe, holly is a European Christmas tradition that easily transferred to North America.  In Europe they decorate with Ilex aquifolium. When the colonists arrived in Virginia they found an abundance of the very similar Ilex opaca.

Since ancient times holly has been associated with the winter solstice because it remains green all year.  Each evergreen leaf with its sharp spiky edges remains on the tree for two to three years and only falls in the spring when a new bud forces it off the branch.

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower…

In Esther Allen’s photo you can see the holly’s white flowers which bloom in May and are pollinated by bees, wasps, ants and moths.  Hollies are dioecious — some trees are male, others are female.  Only the female trees bear fruit.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood…

Holly berries stay on the trees in winter and are often eaten by birds.  Esther’s photo shows that uneaten berries can persist into spring alongside the flowers.

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn…

The leaf edges are sharp.  No doubt about it.  I tested one with my finger.  Ow!

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall…

This, I did not test.  I’ll take their word for it.


The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

…a crown of thorns, greenery and red berries.  Very beautiful.


(photo by Esther Allen, remembered fondly this Christmas)

Mistletoe in the Wild

The Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe came to North America with European colonists. Back home they used Viscum album for this purpose.  Here they found a very similar native plant, Phoradendron leucarpum, that worked just as well.

Growing up in Pittsburgh I always thought of mistletoe as an exotic import that could only be bought in the store.  I never saw it in the wild because we’re just north of its range but it’s quite common in the south, noticeable as balls of greenery in bare trees at this time of year.

Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows on tree branches, sending its roots into the bark.  It is partly (hemi) parasitic because it produces its own food through photosynthesis but needs its host for water and minerals.  It doesn’t normally kill its host.  That would be suicidal.  It needs its host to survive.

Like many plants mistletoe relies on birds to spread its seeds but there’s a twist.  Birds like to eat mistletoe berries and they don’t digest the seeds but the seed must survive the bird’s gut and stick to a tree branch long enough to germinate.  To do this the seeds are coated in a very sticky substance.  Birds either avoid swallowing the seeds and wipe their sticky bills on a branch, or they swallow the seed and fly elsewhere to “deposit” it.  Favorite perching trees receive more deposits. That’s why you see a lot of mistletoe in some trees but not others.

Some birds are mistletoe specialists.  In the desert West, phainopeplas get their water and nutrition from desert mistletoe for much of the year.  A phainopepla can eat up to 1,100 mistletoe berries per day.

Though mistletoe’s parasitic nature gave it a bad name, recent studies have shown that animals, birds and habitat are more diverse where mistletoe thrives.  It apparently holds the ecosystem together … like a kiss joins a couple.

Have you hung a sprig of mistletoe this year?

(photo of mistletoe in Delaware by Charlie Hickey)

The Golden Hour

Today is the southern solstice, the day of shortest sunlight in the northern hemisphere and the longest golden hours.

In photography, the golden hour is the period just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky.  In that position it passes through more of the earth’s atmosphere so its light is reddish and diffuse and the shadows are long.

I learned about the golden hour when I looked up the time for sunrise and found additional information. Though there are many definitions for it the most common is that the golden hour ends when the sun is more than 6 degrees above the horizon.

Today in Pittsburgh the sun will rise at 7:40am and set at 4:57pm for 9 hours 17 minutes of daylight.  In the morning the sun will be low in the sky until 8:23am. In the afternoon it will reach the golden hour at 4:13pm for a total of 97 minutes of golden light.  This would be lovely but we’ll never see it.  The sky is overcast.

The golden hour is more pronounced the further north you go.

In Helsinki, Finland the sun rose at 9:24am and will set at 3:13pm for only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight.  Most of the time the sun will just skim the horizon producing two very long golden hours.  In fact they’ll have only 80 minutes of real “day” when the sun’s above 6o.

After the solstice the days will get longer and the golden hours shorter.

Don’t miss today’s golden light.  For the best photographic effects, try Helsinki.

(photo by Hansueli Krapf  on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)