Monthly Archives: May 2014


Starflower (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Here’s a flower that’s amazingly difficult to photograph.

Last weekend at Cape Cod I found many starflowers blooming in the woods.  They ought to be easy to photograph, right?  Wrong!  The flower’s whiteness engulfs its depth.  My photos made them look like two-dimensional blobs.  Thanks to Dianne Machesney we can see the details.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis) is a northeastern plant that ranges from Labrador to North Carolina. It prefers cooler climates so you’ll find it at higher elevations the further south you go.

It blooms at the end of May along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in Pennsylvania … and at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

Reminder: Gulf Fledge Watch This Weekend

Third peregrine chick about to take off, 6:30am May 30 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Join us at Flag Plaza above Downtown Pittsburgh to watch the Gulf Tower peregrines fledge.  We’ve added an hour this evening because we know that 3 of them have already fledged.  (The one that’s flapping took off just after this snapshot!)

  • TODAY May 30, 7:00pm-8:00pm.
  • Saturday May 31, noon to 4:00pm
  • Sunday June 1, noon to 4:00pm.

Click here for more information and directions.

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Neville Island Peregrine News

Male peregrine at Neville Island I-79 shouts as Dan Brauning takes his picture (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Frozen in time, the female peregrine at the Neville Island I-79 Bridge shouts at the PA Game Commission’s Tom Keller and Patti Barber as they arrive to band his nestling on Wednesday May 28.  Patti took his picture.  This male is banded!  We won’t know his identity until Patti’s photo tells the tale.

I was out of town Wednesday morning and missed the excitement.  Anne Marie Bosnyak, Peter Bell, and Laura Marshall observed the banding from nearby.  While we wait for official news from the Game Commission, here’s what we know so far.

Based on Anne Marie’s close observations, we think incubation began on April 1.  Hatching probably occurred on May 6 when Anne Marie watched the male bring food into the nest and then bring it back out when the female — still in the nest — told him “Not yet.”  On May 25 Anne Marie used her new camera (yay!) to confirm that the female is still Magnum, hatched in 2010 at Canton, Ohio.

Below, Magnum walks the girder to the nest hole on May 25.  The floor of the nest is that plate with many rivets.
Magnum walks the I-beam toward her nest, Neville I-79 Bridge (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Thanks to PennDOT’s assistance, Patti and Tom got access to the site on Wednesday at 9:00am.  To everyone’s surprise, Magnum stayed in the nest while the male flew around and shouted.  (Typically the female attacks while the male stays back.)  PGC found only one chick in the nest, a female, plus some unhatched eggs which they took for testing.

Here Tom Keller holds the chick for banding.

Tom Keller holds the female chick at Neville Island I-79 Bridge (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Congratulations to Magnum and her mate whose chick will fledge June 14-19.

Meanwhile we look forward to hearing of her father’s identity.


(photos by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Gulf Tower Fledgling Visits Liberty Center

@PondLadyDi had a visitor outside her office this afternoon! Here are two tweets I received with pictures of one of the Gulf Tower fledglings.

Liberty Center, at 1001 Liberty Avenue, is almost due north of the Gulf Tower with a clear view of the nest.

Peregrine fledgling at Liberty Center (photo and Tweet from @PondLadyDi)

Gulf Tower fledgling at Liberty Center (photo by @PondLadyDi)

He looks as if he landed in a puddle but he was able to navigate and leave the railing.

(photos snapped by D Schaub a.k.a. @PondLadyDi)


Whooo Is That?

Movie: "The Curious Owlet Dance"

Three eastern screech-owl chicks perch on a branch, curious about the world.  They’ve just emerged from their nest hole and flown for the first time.  Everything is new.

“What is that over there?”  They bob and weave to get a better look.

Pat Gaines watched this owl family nest and fledge along the Spring Creek trail in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Click on the links below to see more of his photos:

These owls live in a part of the country were both eastern and western screech-owls occur.  Cornell’s Birds of North America says the two species are so similar that they can only be distinguished from each other by bill color and voice.

Neither species migrates so ornithologists have been able to pinpoint their ranges.  In Colorado eastern screech-owls live east of the Rockies, western screech-owls live west.  Their ranges have a narrow contact zone in Colorado Springs but don’t overlap.

It’s a place where birders ask the screech-owls, “Whooo are you?”

(video by Pat Gaines)

Jack Explains Himself

Jack in the Pulpit, Schenley Park, 16 May 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I found this Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) blooming in Schenley Park, he begged for an opportunity to explain himself.

Go ahead, Jack.  What’s on your mind?

First off, I’m not always a guy.  I’m both male and female but not at the same time.  What you call “Jack” is my spadix whose base is covered in tiny male or female flowers.  I can turn them off and on depending on my age and environmental conditions.  Sometimes I’m male.  Sometimes I’m female. Call me Jack or Jill.

I’m pollinated by fungus flies so I smell like a mushroom.

My pulpit is called a spathe — rhymes with bathe.  My hood looks like a garden spade if you open it up.  Be careful if you do that.  Don’t hurt me.

Botanists cannot decide whether I am one species or three.  My photo, above, shows that I’m all green inside but some of us are striped.  Click here to see.

My trifoliate leaves start near the ground and sometimes look separate from me, but they’re mine.  Yes, they look like “leaves of three.” No, they’re not poison ivy.

When I’m female I’m quite pretty in the fall.  I drop my spathe and develop a cluster of bright red berries on my spadix.  Check back in a few months and you’ll be impressed.

And finally, don’t eat me.  I’m full of calcium oxalate. Native Americans had recipes for my use but you have to know their special preparations or you’re in for a nasty burning, possible sterility, or poisoning.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Move Along!

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, songbirds often harass predators during the nesting season.  I’ve seen chickadees harass blue jays and red-winged blackbirds dive-bomb red-tailed hawks but it’s a rare day that any bird takes on a cat.

In these two videos magpies triumph.

Above, a European magpie pushes the envelope with a flea-bitten cat. Fortunately he knows when to fly out of the way.  Notice that the cooing Eurasian collared dove and cheep-ing house sparrow in the background are not participating.  😉

In the silent video below, two black-billed magpies roust a Maine coon, the largest domestic cat.  The person who posted the video wrote:  “Our cat “Sweetie Pie” is a large Maine Coon cat that often catches birds, but this morning, two Magpies attacked her as she relaxed on the sidewalk. You can see the Magpies actually pecking at her fur!”  It was a minor victory considering how many birds the cat has probably killed.

My cat Emmalina would be disgusted if she could read this statement … but … I think magpies are smarter than cats.


p.s. Keep your cats indoors.  I do.

(videos from YouTube)

Proof Of Nesting

Ovenbird with nesting material, May 2014 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

The fact that it’s carrying dead grass tells us three things about this ovenbird:

  • It’s building a nest nearby,
  • It has a mate,
  • It’s female.

Back in 2004-2009 I participated in the second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas project in which we watched bird behavior and noted signs of breeding.   We learned that a bird is probably breeding if it’s holding territory, courting, or becoming agitated as we approach.  Its breeding is confirmed if the nest has eggs or young, or if we see an adult carrying food.  (Did you know that most birds don’t bother to carry food unless they’re feeding young? *)   The project was eye-opening because it forced us birders to slow down and observe what the birds are doing.

This ovenbird’s behavior — “Carrying Nest material (CN)” — is Confirmed or Probable nesting depending on the situation.  It’s true that an ovenbird carrying nesting material is a female and she already has a mate, but this is not true of all species.  In some, both sexes build the nest.  In others, such as the Carolina wren, the males build several “test” nests and the females choose.

Among ovenbirds only the female builds the nest and she doesn’t bother to do it unless she has a mate.  She chooses a depression of leaves on the ground and constructs a nest shaped like a beehive oven using grasses, plant fibers, weed stems, leaves, rootlets, mosses and bark.  When completed the nest is so well-hidden that it’s invisible from above.  Click here to see what the nest looks like with eggs inside.

Congratulations to Marcy Cunkelman on finding this ovenbird building a nest.  What a cool photograph.  I have never see this!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

(* There are notable exceptions to the “carrying food” rule… worth learning.)

Little Against Big

During the nesting season small songbirds chase large predators away from their eggs and young.  It’s a topsy-turvy time when the pecking order is reversed.

Sharon Leadbitter saw this in action last week at Allegheny Cemetery when a blue jay repeatedly bopped a red-tailed hawk on the head, trying to drive it away from his territory.

Eventually the blue jay was just too annoying ….

(video by Sharon Leadbitter)

Wild Sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla (photo by Dianne Machesney)

This plant is hard to look up if you say it the way I do:  sass-pa-rilla.   My pronunciation eliminates two critical letters at the beginning of the word.  Fortunately Google anticipated my mistake and offered sar-sa-pa-rilla when I spelled it without the additional “R” and “A.”

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is common in rich woods in northeastern North America. Even when it’s blooming you’ll notice its leaves first. They’re more than a foot tall and grow on a long stem that splits into three compound leaves.  (Click here to see.)

The flowers are arranged as an echo of the leaves but because the flower and leaf stems grow directly from the ground they appear to be unrelated plants.  Follow the stems and you’ll see.

In a typical year wild sarsaparilla would be blooming today but in this cold spring it’s probably delayed.  Look for it in the Laurel Highlands.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)