Monthly Archives: July 2012

Tarentum Season Wrap-Up

Yesterday the Valley News-Dispatch ran another nice story about the Tarentum Bridge peregrines.

In it Mary Ann Thomas wraps up the nesting season with news of recent peregrine observations, information on the juveniles’ next plans, and what we can expect from their parents in the months ahead.

Bonus!  The article is illustrated with more of Steve Gosser’s fine photos.

Click here or on Steve’s photo above to read the article.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

Have You Seen Me Lately?

It’s easy to notice when a new bird arrives in town, much harder to notice when a resident leaves.  This month the new arrivals are shorebirds.  Has any nesting bird departed yet?

Here’s a tale of two breeders who may have left — or soon will leave — our area.

Baltimore orioles nested in Schenley Park this year as they always do. (I have photographic evidence.)  They arrived in late April, quickly set up shop, and fledged young by mid-June.  In July they virtually disappeared.  The last time I saw an oriole in the park was in June.  The last time I heard one was July 12.

Orioles can afford to leave their breeding grounds early because they raise only one brood per year and their young are soon independent after fledging.  Mother orioles leave the family in late June.  The fathers leave a few days later.  Sometimes the young gather in juvenile flocks in August but the adults tend to be solitary and quiet.  That’s probably why they seem to be missing.

Dickcissels are another story.  They’re so unusual in Pennsylvania that many birders know exactly when they arrived and many will notice when they leave.  Every few days there’s a new report on the presence or absence of dickcissels.

Quite soon breeding will be over and the dickcissels will form flocks to head to their wintering grounds in Venezuela.  Since they’re not in a rush they often spend August and September in the grain fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.  Notice the word “August.”   That’s only two days from now.

I expect the dickcissels will leave our grasslands soon.  Schenley Park’s orioles appear to be gone.

Have you seen either of them lately?

(Baltimore oriole photo by Steve Gosser, Dickcissel photo by Bobby Greene)

They’re Singing Again

I don’t know about your neighborhood but where I live we had very little insect song during the hottest, driest parts of June and July.  I was starting to get worried.  I missed the happy sound of field crickets.

This has been a confusing year for insects.  Many of them emerged in March when temperatures were 20o-30o above normal.  I heard a couple of field crickets that month.

I also heard a few begin to sing on a normal schedule in early summer but they soon fell silent.  June and July were very hot, very dry, and a little spooky without insect sounds.  I wondered if the crickets were alive.

Probably not.  Field crickets (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) eat mostly plants including crabgrass, English plantain, switchgrass, common ragweed and chicory.  The plants were suffering.  So were the crickets.

Ten days ago it began to rain in Pittsburgh.  Thanks to almost daily thunderstorms our 2012 rainfall deficit turned into a 1/2″ surplus yesterday.

We have chicory.  We have mud!  And though there aren’t as many as usual, I now hear the happy sound of field crickets.

Sing on!

(photo of an adult male field cricket by Joseph Berger,

My Root

Pictured above is shrubby St John’s wort, one of the many plants that share my last name. 🙂

Most St John’s worts are in the Hypericum genus, the most common being Hypericum perforatum.  Originally from Europe, Common St John’s wort got its name because it’s harvested for folklore and medicinal reasons on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24.  My husband’s family was undoubtedly named for St. John as well.

Where did ‘wort’ come from?  It’s an Old English word of Germanic origin that means “root.”  Similar sounding words for root existed in Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse and Gothic.

It’s no surprise then that many European plants have wort in their English names.  For instance: bellwort, bladderwort, golden ragwort, hogwort (yes, it’s a plant) and miterwort.   Plants are often named for their medicinal uses so you’ll find names like toothwort and liverwort.  But this can be misleading.  Were they named because they were good for treating toothache or liver trouble?  Or because their leaves looked like teeth or liver spots?

As time passed wort fell out of use and the “St John’s wort” name spread to plants outside the Hypericum genus.  In North America, Marsh St Johns wort (Triadenum virginicum), pictured below,  is not a Hypericum and is not even yellow so I’m not sure how it got its common name.

It’s pretty and pink.

But since it’s a St John’s wort I can call it “my root” too.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Merely Funny

Today, we’ll have some fun with this video starring meerkats.  But first, just one educational paragraph.

Meerkats are a small type of mongoose that live in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa.  Their bodies are about a foot long, their tails even longer, and they weigh 1.6 pounds.  Meerkats live in social groups of 20-30 individuals most of whom are siblings, offspring of the alpha pair who make sure they’re the only ones in the troupe allowed to breed successfully.

Other than the serious business of foraging and competition, meerkats are pretty funny.  For instance, they fall asleep.

This video combines some of the funniest clips from four documentaries on meerkats with the Overture to Carmen by Georges Bizet.

Have a laugh.  Happy Friday.  🙂

(video by MeerkatGal  from YouTube)

Migration Has Already Begun

It’s still summer — especially today with a forecast heat index of 100oF — but fall migration has already begun.

Shorebirds are on the move and this year we may see some rarities in land-locked western Pennsylvania because the drought has lowered water levels and exposed many mud flats.

Last Sunday Shawn Collins saw sanderlings at Tamarack Lake in Crawford County and on Tuesday five American avocets were a one-day-wonder at Yellow Creek State Park in Indiana County.

Check the edges of local lakes and you’ll likely find killdeer, sandpiper “peeps,” spotted sandpipers, solitary sandpipers, and lesser yellowlegs.  If you’re lucky you’ll find a surpise like the avocet pictured above.

And if thunderstorms or heat force you indoors, stop by Steve Gosser’s exhibit at Penn State’s New Kensington campus to see beautiful photographs of birds.

Steve’s one-man show, My Feathered Friends – Bird Portraits, runs through Friday, July 27.  This is your last chance to see it.   Click here for directions.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

In Free Fall

Last Sunday the Orlando Sentinel reported the grim news that the population of this bird, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, has plunged so far and so fast that it may go extinct in as little as three years.

Florida grasshopper sparrows are a unique non-migratory subspecies of the grasshopper sparrow that live their entire life in Florida’s dry prairie habitat.  Their loyalty to this habitat has made them endangered.

90% of the prairie is gone, converted to cattle ranches, farms, and development in the past 150 years.   By 1986 the Florida grasshopper sparrow was placed on the Endangered Species List.  The birds held their own in three remaining prairie preserves until recent population surveys found less than 200 individuals left.  It is now the most endangered bird in the continental U.S.

Loss of habitat obviously caused this bird’s decline but scientists say other factors have sent it over the cliff.  One factor is fire ants, accidentally imported from South America in the 1930’s.  Florida grasshopper sparrows nest on the ground.  The fire ants overwhelm their nests and eat the baby birds so there are no young sparrows to reach maturity in the next generation.

If this trend continues Florida grasshopper sparrows will go extinct when the last adults die.  Meanwhile U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other members of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group consider this a wildlife emergency and are focusing intensive efforts to save the bird.

Back in January 2008, Dan Irizarry visited a banding station at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve where he photographed this bird.  Little did he know… little did we know… that this may be one of the last living Florida grasshopper sparrows on earth.

If you’ve seen a Florida grasshopper sparrow you are lucky indeed.

(photo by Dan Irizarry. Click on the image to see Dan’s Flickr set from Kissimmee.)


Drought As A Technical Term

A week ago it was clear that the western edge of Pennsylvania was in a drought and it was likely to get worse.

On Thursday July 19, NOAA released its weekly Drought Monitor map and Pennsylvania DEP declared a Drought Watch for 15 western counties including Beaver County where the 90-day rainfall deficit was 5.5″ and Lawrence and Mercer where it was 4.9″.  On that day in Pittsburgh our deficit for the past 49 days (June 1) was 3.62″.

The Drought Watch called for a voluntary 5% reduction in water use and puts large water users (industry and water companies) on notice that they should plan for reduced water intake.

The situation was bad.

And then it rained — hard — three days in a row.   Almost 2″ of rain fell near the airport July 18-20, probably more than that in the city.  The streams in Schenley Park were flowing, the grass turned green, and the ground was muddy.  Ah, rain!

But we shouldn’t get too cocky.  Technically speaking, we are still under a Drought Watch and there’s reason to keep it that way.  Three days of rain may have been a temporary respite.

Last Thursday NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center also released the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for July 19 through October 31, predicting where drought would persist, develop or improve.   All of western Pennsylvania and half of West Virginia are slated to become drier in the next three months as shown on the map below.

The scary part, as Georgia, Indiana, western Kentucky and the western U.S. know, is that drought breeds drought.  When the soil and plants are very dry, there is very little evaporation and transpiration and the dry air “tends to inhibit widespread development of or weaken existing thunderstorm complexes” so the thunderstorms pass us by.   According to NOAA’s forecast discussion, “It would require a dramatic shift in the weather pattern to provide significant relief to this drought, and most tools and models do not forecast this.”

So we hope for the best and look for this week’s revised outlook on Thursday.

Meanwhile, when I look at the maps I almost feel survivors’ guilt for having had some rain last week while other parts of the U.S. are suffering.


(images from National Drought Mitigation Center and the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center.  Click on the images to see their source)

July 24, 1:30pm: Two downpours today! When I write about drought it rains.



Less than a month later, August 16, 2012: The revised drought forecast takes Pennsylvania out of the drought zone.  See below.

Trees Are For Birds … And People Too

If you love birds, you can’t help but love trees.

Trees provide many birds with food, shelter, and a great place to perch.  In southwestern Pennsylvania most of our birds are found in trees.  We even have ducks that nest in hollow trees.  (Wood ducks)

Trees are good for people too.  Did you know …

  • Trees make the air cleaner by filtering airborne pollutants, absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.
  • Just three strategically placed trees can decrease your utility bills by 50%.
  • Trees reduce noise pollution by absorbing sounds.
  • Hospital patients who can see a tree outside their windows have almost one full day less recovery time and need fewer painkillers.
  • Trees around your home can increase its property value by 15% or more.

Sadly many places in cities and suburbs lack trees and miss out on these benefits.  In Pennsylvania there’s a statewide program called Treevitalize that works to change that.

Treevitalize helps people plant and maintain trees along neighborhood streets, in business districts, in parks, and along degraded streams.  In my area the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Tree Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and DCNR joined together to form Treevitalize Pittsburgh and carry out the work here.  Their goal is 20,000 new trees!

The fall planting season is fast approaching so now’s the time to prepare.  You can learn how to help plant and maintain trees for your own neighborhood at Tree Pittsburgh’s Tree Tender workshops.

  • There’s a workshop this Saturday, July 28, 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Millvale Community Center, 416 Lincoln Avenue in Millvale.
  • Or attend the next one on Saturday September 15, 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s offices, 800 Waterfront Drive on Washington’s Landing.

Register online at or call 412-362-6360.

It’s a great opportunity to help neighborhood birds, and people too.

And remember the next time you complain that a tree is messy or inconvenient, look up in that tree.  I bet you’ll find a bird.  🙂

(Tree facts from TreeVitalize Pittsburgh. Photo by Kate St. John)