Monthly Archives: August 2013

Beauty Shot

Birdsfoot trefoil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Native to Europe, Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is blooming now in North America.  You can tell it doesn’t belong here because its bright yellow flowers seem out of place along the roads.

It’s a very pretty member of the Pea family with leaves shaped like birds’ feet.  Here you can see it looks like yellow crown vetch when you aren’t standing so close.

Fortunately in Pennsylvania it’s not as invasive as crown vetch, so I don’t feel bad displaying this beauty shot.

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

Head-to-Head in Elk County

Bull elk sparring (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Looking for some excitement?  Want to see large animals go head to head this fall?

This week Paul Staniszewski of Elk County reminded me that the elk rut has begun.  He wrote:

Labor Day usually marks the end of summer. For the Pennsylvania elk herd the shortening length of daylight hours each day triggers an annual event known as the “rut”. The rut usually lasts from late August until mid-October.  … A lot of sparring between bulls takes place that makes for dramatic photographing opportunities.

Male elk bugle and spar to establish dominance in the mating hierarchy.  They’re so preoccupied that Paul has captured some great photos, especially near the Visitor Center on Winslow Hill Rd in Benezette.

Benezette is a 2.65-hour drive from Pittsburgh so you might want to make a weekend of it.  Plan your trip and learn more about the elk here.

(bull elk sparring by Paul Staniszewski)

Earthflight Begins Sept. 4

Snow geese migrate through Monument Valley, Utah (photo courtesy of John Downer Productions, PBS Nature, WNET)

Next month the six-part BBC series Earthflight will come to PBS Nature starting September 4.

The series by John Downer Productions follows birds in flight on six continents using camera techniques and close ups reminiscent of the 2001 film Winged Migration.

I previewed the “North America” segment and like Earthflight better, not only because the camera technology has improved and miniaturized, but because Downer’s producers let the birds lead us to natural phenomena from the birds’ perspective.  Brown pelicans over Baja California show us the amazing water dance of “devil” stingrays.  Great egrets in South Carolina reveal where dolphins purposely beach themselves to herd fish.

The series took four years to produce, in part because key birds in the film were imprinted from birth on humans and raised to be comfortable with cameras, ultralights and microlights.  John Downer himself became an accidental “mother” to a duck whose egg he was delivering to a cameraman. The egg hatched in transit and the duckling immediately assumed Downer was its mother. She followed him everywhere for almost a year.  “It was a total commitment,” Downer said, “but one that rewarded me with one of the best moments of my life as it flew alongside me in a parascender.”

The episodes are packed with birds and wonders:

  • North America, Sept 4, stars snow geese, bald eagles, brown pelicans, whales and the “devil” rays.
  • Africa, Sept 11, follows vultures, cape gannets, flamingos and the great migrations of wildebeest and sardines (chaos in the ocean; a sky full of diving gannets).
  • Europe, Sept 18, features white storks, cranes, sand martins (watch them drink and bathe while flying), and — bonus for Peregrine Fans — 20 million starlings trying to out-fly the peregrines in Rome.
  • South America, Sept 25, follows condors, swifts, hummingbirds and scarlet macaws.  See the Nazca lines with the birds.
  • Asia and Australia, Oct 2, stars demoiselle cranes, bar-headed geese (at 27,000 feet over the Himalayas), pigeons, rainbow lorikeets and Japanese cranes dancing in the snow.
  • Flying High, Oct 9, shows how the series was made, the birds who starred in the show, and unexpected mishaps including the time when the camera crew lost snow geese (temporarily) in Brooklyn, NY.

Watch Earthflight on PBS Nature beginning September 4 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.


(photo courtesy of John Downer Productions, PBS Nature, WNET)

This Makes It 2,000

Fireworks (photo by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons)

Riffing on the number 2,000… yesterday I wrote about a hummingbird drawing 2,000 years old.  Today…  Ta dah!  This is my 2,000th blog post!

Almost six years ago I began blogging every other day.  By now I write daily posts and more when there’s breaking peregrine news.  My husband notes that this sustained effort is roughly equivalent in length to War and Peace.

That’s a heck of a lot of writing, so for today I’m going to take a break and encourage you to do two things using the panel on the left:

1.  Try the search box.  Find something interesting in my other 1,999 entries.  Search for anything — a noun, a verb, an adjective.  Below you can see that I searched for the word “intriguing.”  Scroll down to read older posts you may have missed.

2.  Donate to the blog.  My blog is hosted at WQED Pittsburgh, where I work as Director of Information Technology for both TV and radio.  Like all public broadcasting stations we rely on donations to keep us going.  If you like this blog, make a donation of any size to show your support.  Click on the hummingbird graphic.


p.s. The screenshot below shows you what to do.

Screenshot from Outsdie My Window: How to celebrate the 2000th


(photo of fireworks in the public domain from via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

2000-Year-Old Drawing of…

Retouched photo of Nazca hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a 2000-year-old drawing of a very cool bird.  Can you tell which one it is?  (For a better view, click on the image to see the larger original.)

While researching hummingbirds I learned about this geoglyph, one of the many Nazca lines found on the dry landscape of southwestern Peru near the towns of Nazca and Palpa.  From the air the land looks like a giant sketchpad with hundreds of geometric figures, humans and animals.  There are even erasures and newer drawings superimposed on top of old ones.

The Nazca people created these lines when their culture thrived here between 200 BC and 600 AD.  The figures were community projects created by removing the top layer of dark reddish pebbles to reveal the light-colored soil beneath.   This desert is one of the driest places on earth and so stable — no wind, rain or vegetation — that the lines have endured to this day. They were protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The geoglyphs are as large as 660 feet across, some drawn on hillsides like murals, others in the valley.  The hummingbird is 310 feet long and is a single line that can be walked without crossing itself.  Archaeologists believe these walks were ceremonial, possibly done as a group or community.

I’m impressed that people can create a shape on this scale.  The artist has to spatially translate a small drawing into landscape size.  I can do this for easy things such as “walk in a circle in the living room” but nothing like this!   (In Pittsburgh we’ve done this like flash mobs that spell Google or make the shape of a Pitt Panther.)

Line-making in the Peruvian desert ended after 800 years because of local climate change.  The Nazcas’ only water came from horizontal wells and intermittent rivers fed by rain on the western slopes of the Andes.  When that rain ceased to fall, the wells and rivers went dry and that was that.

See more of the drawings in this six minute slideshow.

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

A Beautiful Name

Snowberry clearwing (photo by Steve Gosser)

While looking for hummingbirds you might find a moth that resembles them.

The hummingbird moth and the hummingbird are examples of convergent evolution.  Both sip nectar from tubular flowers using similar feeding techniques. Their bodies have independently evolved to support their lifestyles and this makes them look alike.  Both have body and wing ratios that allow them to hover, and both have long feeding tubes — the bird’s beak, the moth’s proboscis.

Though we call this a hummingbird moth its real name is beautifully descriptive: Snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis).  As caterpillars they feed on snowberries (among other things).  As adults they have clear wings.

Steve Gosser found this snowberry clearwing at Marcy Cunkelman’s last weekend.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

House Sparrows Bulk Up

House sparrow molting, Sept 2008 (photo by Remi Jouan via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you noticed that a lot of birds are molting now?  On the extreme side I’ve seen a bald male cardinal and Mary DeVaughn reported a bald blue jay, both of whom shed all their head feathers at once.

Less extreme-looking but still ragged are the house sparrows.  Ten or more of them line up at my bird bath to splash wildly and loosen their old feathers.

Birds must molt to replace worn feathers but house sparrows, who don’t migrate in North America, have an additional reason.  In August they put on heavier plumage that will keep them warm over the winter.

According to Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, the plumage on house sparrows weighs 0.9 grams in August.  By the end of September they’re wearing 1.5 grams of feathers.

Our house sparrows are bulking up.

(credits: photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 154 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

Now Blooming: White Wood Aster

White wood aster in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

If you wait long enough mysteries reveal themselves.

In April 2012 I displayed this photo of squawroot and asked readers the identity of the green leaf on the left side of the picture.  I thought it might be an invasive species.

Squawroot in Schenley Park, 2 April 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mark Bowers and Loree Speedy answered it was probably White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) which grows in large patches and therefore might look invasive, though it’s not.

Last week I finally put the lonely leaf and its flower together when I found the asters blooming in the same place where the leaves appear in the spring.

And yes it was in patches, small and large.  Small above, large below, in Schenley Park.

Patch of White wood aster in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Mystery solved.   …Unless I was fooled again.


(photos by Kate St. John)