Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Value of Species

turtle_woodturtle_rsz2_wikiWood Turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend two pieces of a puzzle came together for me.  I saw an endangered turtle and I read a thoughtful book, The Value of Species, that describes how our values shape his plight.

The wood turtle is approaching extinction because of bulldozers and collectors — habitat loss and the pet trade.  He’s one of many species in this human-induced predicament.  In fact so many species are declining now that scientists say we’re heading into a great extinction, perhaps on the scale of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.

Our actions cause decline and extinction yet we continue to do them.  We’ve saved some species like the peregrine falcon with spectacular results but our overall track record is poor.  New problems arise faster than we can stop them.  Why?

In The Value of Species, Edward L. McCord explains that our values get in the way.

  • Human population growth is crowding out other species but we avoid thinking about our role in this problem.
  • We gladly protect an individual animal from harm but find it hard to protect an entire species.
  • We understand the monetary value of species but not their intrinsic value.
  • It’s hard for us to connect the need to save habitat (land) in order to save species.
  • Protections on land owned by the state for the common good can be trumped at the state level.  (The book discusses mineral leases on national land in Mongolia.  Marcellus leases in Pennsylvania’s State Forests is an example close to home.)
  • The common good erodes easily when people don’t trust that others will obey the rules.  When a society lacks trust species are vulnerable.

Chapter Three, The Fate of Life on Earth Hinges on Property Values, is especially apt this week.  On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District made it harder for the common good of living things to compete with property values.

The short time span of property ownership is microscopic when weighed against species who’ve been on earth for two million years and could disappear in a matter of decades.  “Still, many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if only for a week.”(1)

McCord describes a new and deeper way to see the intrinsic value of all species. When we do, we can change the trajectory of extinction by “drawing a line in the sand, something we do all the time to protect important values.”(2)

What will be the fate of the wood turtle?  The Florida grasshopper sparrow?  The red-breasted goose?

Ed McCord’s The Value of Species shows us the way to a brighter mutual future.


(photo of a wood turtle from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes from The Value of Species (1)page 51, (2)page xvii
Edward McCord is the Director of Programming and Special Projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College

p.s. Ed McCord gave a talk about the book at the University of Wyoming in April 2014.  Click here for the video.

Why Here?

Peregrine about to land on the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Sean Dicer)

Why do peregrines nest on buildings and bridges instead of cliffs?

“Raptors imprint on their natal nest sites.  Consequently, they choose a similar situation several years later when they reach maturity.”(1)

This explains why they’ve chosen to nest at the Tarentum Bridge, pictured above.  The adult female, nicknamed Hope, was born on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in Hopewell, Virginia.  That bridge is such a dangerous place to fledge that Hope was hacked in the Shenandoah Mountains, but she remembered where she was born and picked a bridge when she chose a place to nest.

There are exceptions to the natal imprint rule.  Though Dorothy’s daughter Maddy was born on the Cathedral of Learning, a 40-story Late-Gothic Revival building, she chose the I-480 Bridge in Valley View, Ohio.  I can’t think of anything less like the Cathedral of Learning than this.  (The nest is at a broken patch of concrete on the bridge support.)

Maddy's nest at the I-480 Bridge, Valley View (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

The exceptions have saved at least one species from extinction.

Mauritius kestrels used to nest in tree cavities but monkeys were introduced to the island and ate the eggs and young. By the 1960’s the kestrels were down to two pairs — almost extinct — when one of the pairs decided to nest on a cliff ledge where the monkeys couldn’t reach them. That nest was successful, their youngsters nested on cliffs, and the species rebounded.

The exceptions benefit the rule.


(photo of Hope at the Tarentum Bridge (blue structure) by Sean Dicer.  Photo of Maddy’s nest site at the I-480 Bridge at Valley View (busy highway) by Chad+Chris Saladin.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by and includes a quote(1) from page 444 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

Foam on Plants? Spittlebugs

Spittle bugs in Schenley Park, 15 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Have you seen these foamy spots on plants?  I found some last week in Schenley Park.

These are the hiding places of nymphal froghoppers, also called spittlebugs, tiny insects who suck the juice out of plants and excrete it as sticky foam to protect themselves from temperature extremes, dessication and predators.

With over 3,000 species of spittlebugs worldwide you’re likely to have some nearby.  They’re very small and hard to photograph but Rod Innes of British Columbia was able to video them and show what they’re doing much better than I could.  See below.

What a strange way for a bug to live.


(photo by Kate St. John)

I’m On A Tight Schedule

Island Girl, 2009 (photo by Bud Anderson from the Southern Cross Research Project)

Late June is an intensely busy time for peregrine parents in North America’s mid latitudes. If their nests were successful they have young about to fledge or already on the wing who must become independent in just four to eight weeks.

If you think that’s fast, consider the life of an arctic peregrine.

Island Girl, pictured above, is an arctic peregrine tagged with a satellite transmitter in southern Chile in 2009 by the Falcon Research Group. They’ve tracked her migrations every year in amazing detail, able to determine latitude, longitude and altitude of her roosts and see the neighborhood where she chooses to sleep via Google Earth.

Island Girl nests on Baffin Island, Canada and spends November to April on the coast of southern Chile. To do this she travels nearly 17,000 miles per year.  This spring she left Chile on April 17 and arrived at her eyrie in Canada on June 3, covering 8,868 miles in only 48 days. She got home early.

Here’s a screenshot of her trip.  (Click on it to see the real map.)  This is the feat of an athlete!
Screen shot of Island Girl's migration tracking map, Spring 2013 (from Southern Cross Peregrine Project)

Now that she’s on her breeding grounds Island Girl has a very compressed schedule. She arrived on June 3 (the day Silver Boy fledged) and absolutely must leave in late September.  Winter comes quickly on Baffin Island so Island Girl always leaves between September 20 and 24.  Always.

This gives her about 111 days to court, lay eggs, incubate, raise nestlings, and teach fledglings.

Her schedule probably looks like this:

  • Courtship and egg laying:  14-18 days, June 3 to June 19.  This is the most optimistic schedule, assuming an established mate, an established territory and no intruders.
  • Incubation: about 32 days, June 19 to July 22
  • Nestling phase: 39 to 45 days, July 22 to September 3
  • Fledged young dependent on parents: 4-8 weeks,  September 3 to October 1 or October 29.

There’s barely time to fledge young and begin to teach them before she has to leave for Chile. In fact her kids might leave with her and learn to hunt while traveling.

Arctic peregrines are certainly on a tight schedule!


(Island Girl photo by Bud Anderson and Spring 2013 migration tracking map from the Southern Cross Peregrine Project, Falcon Research Group Click on the images to see the originals)

They’re Off the Clock

Svalbard reindeer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last Friday the solstice set our annual biological clocks.  Every day the sun triggers our circadian rhythm. But what if we lived where the sun never sets?  How would we synchronize our daily internal clocks?

In the arctic where day and night last for months a circadian rhythm would be annoying if not a handicap.  Since “day” has no meaning, arctic reindeer solved the problem by turning off their internal 24-hour clocks.

In mammals the circadian rhythm causes melatonin levels to rise at night and fall during the day.  This happens whether or not the sun gives us a cue.

Scientists studying reindeer in Norway (Rangifer tarandus, the same species as caribou) found that they have no rhythmic melatonin cycle.  Instead their melatonin rises or falls abruptly in response to light.  On or off.  No daily clock.

Reindeer need to know the time of year so they can synchronize migration and breeding, but this is easy to do at the equinox when the sun rises and sets.

On Svalbard where this reindeer lives, the sun rose on April 16 and won’t set until August 27.

No wonder he doesn’t care what time it is.  Some days I wish I didn’t care either.

Read more about this study in Science Daily, March 2010.


(photo of a Svalbard reindeer, a subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

Perhaps The Only One I’ll Ever See

Wood turtle in the wild, 23 June 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

It was hot on Sunday when I decided to hike in Butler County and I wanted to travel light.  I debated taking the camera because I can only photograph close, stationary objects (plants) and it would be a burden but I carried it anyway.  I’m glad I did.

It was a big day for turtles.  I drove down a dirt road and twice had to swerve around large snapping turtles.  (Have you ever noticed they have tails like stegosauruses?)

During my hike I found this 8-inch turtle eating a leaf.  I didn’t know what it was so I took its picture and emailed Chuck Tague.  His answer:  Wood Turtle.  Good find.

A wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is a very good find.  It’s native from Pennsylvania to Nova Scotia and west to Wisconsin but it’s endangered due to habitat loss (suburban development, agriculture, logging) and collecting for the illegal pet trade.  Wood turtles are omnivorous on land and water, have homing instincts and can live 40 years.  In good habitat they live in colonies where they develop social hierarchies.  Sadly they are scarcer every year.

Since I don’t search for turtles and this species is declining rapidly, it’s likely this is the only wood turtle I’ll ever see.

I’m glad I took his picture.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Widow Skimmer

Widow skimmer dragonfly (photo by Charlie Hickey)

When I first saw this cool photo of a dragonfly I thought, “I know the name of that bug.”   No.  I did not.

I confess I don’t pay much attention to insects unless they’re big and beautiful.  Dragonflies fall into that category but I don’t know many names.  The strikingly white tail on mature male Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) caught my attention years ago.  They have black and clear wings so I made a connection but…

This is a Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), a different genus but in the same family (Libellulidae).  If I’d paid attention I would have noticed that the Widow Skimmer’s wing pattern is black-white-clear while the male Whitetail’s is clear-black-clear.   Click here for a look at the Whitetail.

Dragonfly season is upon us.  Now I have something new to study in July.


(photo by Charlie Hickey)

p.s. Charlie tamed the wind to get this exceptionally sharp photo.  Click on the image to read how he did it.

Wild Hyacinth

Camassias scilliodes (photo by Dianne Machesney)

I missed the opportunity to show you this flower in late May while it was still blooming, but it’s worth a look.

This is a Wild Hyacyinth (Camassia scilliodes) also called Atlantic camas, an uncommon flower in western Pennsylvania.

From afar its long thin leaves are a tangle at the base of the plant, its light blue flowers stand up on a 1.5 to 2 foot stalk.  The stalk blooms bottom to top. Up close you can see the flower’s yellow central disk and stamens.

Camassias scilliodes from afar (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Dianne Machesney photographed these on a Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania outing to Lawrence County on May 25.

Check out the Botanical Society’s website for information on their free outings which are open to the public.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)