Monthly Archives: November 2013

Late November Signs Of Life

Witch hazel blooming in Schenley Park, 28 Nov 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though it’s been cold and snowy I found signs of life in Schenley Park on Thanksgiving Day.

Above, witch hazel is blooming along the Lower Trail.  The yellow flowers don’t stand out but once you notice them you’ll see several trees sporting lemon-peel petals.

Below, bush honeysuckle stands out green against the snow.  This out of synch condition reminds us that this plant is from another country.

nvasive plant out of sync with our seasons (photo by Kate St. John)

When you see green deciduous plants in the snow, check them out.  They’re often imports.


(photos by Kate St. John)

Happy Birthday, Surtsey (Belated)

Island of Surtsey, 1999 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years and fifteen days ago, the island of Surtsey emerged from the sea off the southern coast of Iceland.

On November 14, 1963 the cook on the trawler Ísleifur II saw smoke on the water.  The captain motored over to see if it was a ship on fire or a volcano (in Iceland you know to include “volcano” on your list) and yes, it was a volcano.

From a spot of smoke it grew quickly into an island.  Here it is erupting in 1963.

Island of Surtsey erupting (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Named for a Norse fire giant, Surtsey continued to erupt for the next three and a half years until it grew even larger than it is today.  The island is literally losing ground.  It was 1 square mile at its maximum; now it’s only half.   The ocean immediately took away the loose rocks leaving behind hard volcanic cliffs.  They will eventually erode as well, it’ll just take longer.

For now Surtsey has settled down to a bland, quiet existence as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most studied places on earth.  What began as barren hot rock now hosts at least 69 plant species and 15 species of nesting birds (nice cliffs!).  Even spiders have drifted in and set up housekeeping.

Two unexpected plants arrived with human visitors and had to be eradicated lest they became invasive.  A tomato plant grew from a seed deposited by diarrhea (yes, it happens) and some boys planted potatoes.  Wrong!  Those had to go.

Right now Surtsey is probably under snow as in this photo from January 2009.
Surtsey Island, Jan 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Very quiet, but she has an amazing history.  See great photos of her fiery birth and read more of her history, including the bizarre French territorial dispute, at the VolcanoCafé blog.


(photos of Surtsey from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)

Band Of Brothers

Two male wild turkeys chase a police car in Moorhead, MN (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chances are these turkeys are brothers, working together to chase the police out of their territory.

Wild turkeys are very social birds whose flocks are often composed of siblings.  This habit starts young when they’re all poults together and continues as adults.

Each sex within the flock develops a pecking order.  Literally.  Who has the right to peck someone else?  The ladies figure out the hierarchy and tend to leave it at that without a lot of jostling.  The guys, on the other hand, are always stirring things up.  Which of them is most dominant?  They fight about it.  In this case they’re fighting a police car.

Turkeys are brothers in love and war.  Groups of male turkeys strutting and displaying together are usually brothers, collaborating to attract the opposite sex.  One of them is dominant and he’ll get to mate with the ladies.  His brothers display but they don’t become fathers.

But don’t feel sorry for the lesser guys. Soon enough they’ll fight about it and a different male may achieve dominance in the band of brothers.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons of two male wild turkeys chasing a police car in Moorhead, Minnesota on April 29, 2013. Click on the image to see the original.  Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 338 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

Unnatural Shape

Canned cranberry sauce (photo from Flickr by busybeytheelder)

I happen to like jellied cranberry sauce with Thanksgiving turkey.  How does a native North American fruit end up like this?

It begins with this flower, the Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).
Large Cranberry (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The plants are grown commercially in bogs completely surrounded by dikes.  When the flower becomes a ripened fruit…

fruit_cranberry_plant_rsz2_wikiRipened cranberries on the plant (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

…the field is flooded for harvesting.  Harvesting machines, nicknamed “eggbeaters,” knock the berries off the plants. The floating berries are corralled to a conveyor belt.  (This Good Morning, America video shows the cranberry harvest on Cape Cod.)

Cranberry harvest in New Jersey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


After the harvest the berries look like this…

Cranberries (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They have enough natural pectin that their juice jells on its own if it’s boiled with sugar.

So you could boil them in sugar, strain out the solids, pour the juice in a mold, chill it and voilà.  You have the same jellied cranberry sauce but it doesn’t look like a can.

But really.  I like the magic of a jiggling food shaped exactly like the can it slid from.

A natural fruit in an unnatural shape.


(photo of canned cranberry sauce by busbeytheelder, Creative Commons license. photo of cranberry flower by Dianne Machesney. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see their originals)

Look Who Came To Visit!

Peregrine at the Gulf Tower nest, 16 Nov 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

At this time of year I often forget to retrieve snapshots from the peregrine falconcams because so little is going on.  When I finally did so this month I found a surprise at the Gulf Tower.

For two years the Downtown peregrines have shunned the Gulf Tower nest.  In the early days Louie visited alone but Dori stayed away. The nest had been so inactive that I forgot the camera was still running.

But look who came to visit on November 16!


The visitor puttered at the nest for about two minutes — a fairly long time for a peregrine in November.  Here are two more snapshots.

Peregrine visiting the Gulf Tower nest, 16 Nov  2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)


Peregrines at the Gulf Tower nest, 16 Nov 2013 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Assuming this is one of the resident Downtown peregrines, which bird is it?  Dori or Louie?  Here are links to other Gulf nest snapshots for comparison:

What do you think?  Is this Dori?


(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at the Gulf Tower, Pittsburgh)


Cloud heat misconception (illustration from Dan Stterfield's Wild Wild Science Journal)

This morning it was extra cold (15 degrees F!).  It would have been cold anyway because an arctic air mass arrived over the weekend, but it was extra cold because the sky was mostly clear last night.  If we’d had lots of cloud cover we’d have been a little warmer.

The reason for this is not what you’d expect.  Traditionally we’ve heard that cloud cover acts like a blanket to hold the heat in.  The illustration above plays to that notion by showing heat arrows bouncing off the clouds.  But it ain’t exactly so.  Believe it or not this illustration is wrong.

The truth is that we’re warmer under cloud cover because the clouds radiate their own heat which warms the air below them.  You’ve seen this principle in action if you’ve parked your car under a leafy tree on a frosty night and found your windshield frost-free the next morning though the open ground has frost.  The tree radiated heat to keep your car just a little warmer than the open air.

I learned this from Dan Satterfield’s blog, Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal, where I found this illustration.  In “Scientific Facts That Aren’t True” Dan writes:

The clouds do not “hold the heat in”. They absorb the heat, and radiate their own heat in all directions.  …If you’re camping, and you sleep under a tree, you will escape most of the dew compared to your buddies, who slept right out under the stars. The tree did not catch the dew, it just radiated energy to the ground around you, and kept it warmer. Warmer ground, less dew!

Click on the image to read more of Dan’s Scientific Facts That Aren’t True.

Clouds may blanket us but they aren’t blankets.


(traditional image of heat bouncing off clouds from Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal: Scientific Facts That Aren’t True by Dan Satterfield)

The Falcon That Laughs

Laughing Falcon (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Snakes seem to be a subtext on my blog lately.  Snakes caused the extirpation of the Guam rail, they’re one of many foods eaten by secretary birds, and now I’ve learned there’s a falcon in Central and South America that eats poisonous snakes and laughs.

The laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) is named for his two most obvious traits.  Herpetotheres roughly means to “mow down snakes,” cachinnans means to “laugh immoderately.”

He captures snakes by watching from a perch, then pouncing to break their necks or behead them.  And he really does laugh.  Listen to this recording of a pair “singing” a duet.

Laughing falcons are about the size of peregrines and are often pictured with their head feathers raised, a pose that makes them resemble ospreys not falcons.  When they lower their head feathers, as in this photo on Wikimedia Commons, you can see their falcon family resemblance.

I first heard of this species when Charlie Hickey posted photos from his trip this month to Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  (Click here for Charlie’s photos.)  I wonder if it was hard to find this bird in Costa Rica.  According to BirdLife International the laughing falcon has declined drastically in some locations but has such a wide range that it has not yet been listed as “vulnerable.”


(photo by Charlie Hickey)


First snow in Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

As of this writing we know that very cold weather is on its way (18o Sunday night!) but the question of snowfall is still up in the air.  How much will actually stick?

On November 12 the first snow of the season was quite beautiful in Schenley Park.

By now all the leaves have fallen.  Even with snow, this scene would look different if photographed today.


(photo by Kate St. John)


The Key To A Long Life

Peregrine falcon, Dorothy (photo by Peter Bell)

Though juvenile mortality is high, birds are amazingly long-lived if they survive to adulthood. What’s the key to their longevity?

In 2011 scientists at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC crunched 27 years of data on more than 1,200 birds to examine mate selection, fertility and aging.  They used the rich data set on blue tits, a bird similar to our chickadees, studied on the island of Corsica since the late 1970’s.  Aging was easiest to see among female blue tits because their fertility dropped if they lived long enough.  They laid fewer eggs and laid them later in the season than females in their prime.

Interestingly the study found that females remained in their prime longer if they had good mates.  Their fertility did not wane so soon, they aged more slowly.  This was especially true for the ladies whose mates became fathers at an early age.

The good males were better helpers during the nesting season.  They shared parenting duties and were solicitous for the females’ well-being.  They brought food to their ladies and eased the burden of nest building, incubation and child rearing.  The team’s scientists conjectured that the males who became fathers at an early age were not only more experienced at this but were also healthier.

The good mate scenario sounds a lot like Dorothy and E2’s relationship.  Every nesting season we see E2 on camera bringing food to Dorothy and the kids, begging to take over incubation duties, and sometimes refusing to give them up.  Even in the off season, those of us who watch this peregrine pair see E2 bring food to Dorothy throughout the year.  What a guy!

The key to a long life is a good mate.

Dorothy says, “Thank you, E2.”


(photo of Dorothy by Peter Bell. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 510 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

p.s.  A study published this year showed this principle is true for humans, too.  Happily married couples live longer, healthier lives than their single counterparts.  Thank you to my husband on our anniversary.

Driving The Sparrows Wild

Song Sparrow (photo by Bobby Greene)

I love classical music and often whistle the tunes, especially when I’m happy.  Last Saturday afternoon was one of those days.

The weather was warm and overcast as I walked up Nine Mile Run from Duck Hollow to Frick Park.  I was hoping to find a fox sparrow — no luck — but was pleased to see a beautiful male American kestrel and a flock of 40 robins.  I found only three song sparrows on my way north.

When I reached the hillside grassland on my way back I remembered the Adagio from Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and started whistling the piano solo.

Suddenly song sparrows came out of the underbrush.  They flew through the weeds making little “bep” calls.  I stopped walking and continued whistling.  The sparrows kept coming, flying into the weed tufts.  “Bep bep bep.”

I was making good progress through the piano solo though a little squeaky on the high notes because the piano has a wide range and I do not.   Pretty soon seven song sparrows were perched on a sapling in front of me, five more on the weeds nearby and several more flying in to join them.  This was in an area where I’d seen no sparrows on my way north.

At their peak I counted 15.  The sparrows insisted on perching in front of me. All of them made warning calls. They seemed to be saying “Shut up!”

Perhaps they’d heard this good performance of the second movement and knew I was murdering the solo that begins at 0:40 in the video at this link.

I thought I did pretty well with a complex piece but I drove the sparrows wild!


(photo of a song sparrow by Bobby Greene.
music by Derek Han, Piano, Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser.  Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 40, Felix Mendelssohn