Monthly Archives: September 2015

Tiny Autumn Orchid

Late Coralroot, flower close-up (photo by Kate St. John)
Late Coralroot, flower close-up, 14 Sep 2015, Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Monday I attended a botanical outing that promised fall orchids including this one: Late Coralroot.

Late or Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) is a tiny orchid that grows in eastern North America from Quebec to Texas.  Like Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) it’s a parasitic plant that feeds on fungi so it has neither chlorophyll nor leaves. Most of the year it lives underground.  Then in late summer it sends up one stem to produce tiny flowers only 1/5″ long which bloom from August to October.

The stems we found in Butler County, Pennsylvania were dark purple-brown, about 8 inches tall.  From above they looked like small useless sticks but as soon as we found them we realized how easy it would be to step on one unawares. Yow.

The plant’s color and size made it difficult to photograph. Nonetheless, here are some (poor) photos to give you an idea of the plant.  Here it is as seen from ground level, though not the entire plant.

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)
Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

This closeup shows the flower’s white un-notched lip with purple spots.  It also shows a strange characteristic: Some flowers are rotated sideways.

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)
Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

When the flowers go to seed they droop along the stem.

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)
Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Though abundant in the spot where we found it, this plant is listed as endangered in several states and “Exploitably Vulnerable” in New York … so I’m not revealing its location.


(photos by Kate St. John)

Bug Noise Continues

Common true katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)
Common true katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

During this week’s warm weather the bugs sang all night.

On Thursday evening I heard common true katydids (Pterophylla camellifolia) at the Fern Hollow Nature Center.

“chik-a-Chig, chik-a-Chig, chik-a-Chig.”  Click here to hear them.

Pittsburgh’s katydids are the slow-singing “Northeastern race” at the beginning of the recording.


(photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Like Plunging Arrows

18 September 2015

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.

(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

Which Weasel?

A stoat or short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 September 2015

“Best Mammal” on my trip to Maine was an animal with three or four names but I don’t know which ones until I identify him — and that’s mighty hard to do, even for professionals.

While puttering around the South Lubec sand flats looking for shorebirds, I noticed animal prints in the damp sand.  They were almost the size of cat prints but the toes showed claws and the prints weren’t using direct register (hind prints stepping into front prints).  They looked sort of like this:

Short-tailed weasel tracks via National Park Service, Yellowstone

I guessed weasel but not necessarily the short-tailed weasel illustrated here. It may have been a long-tailed weasel.  (Click here to see his prints.)

On my way out I saw a weasel cross the dirt track ahead of me and disappear into tall weeds.  He was a long russet-colored mammal about the size of a red squirrel with short round ears, stubby legs, and a long black-tipped tail. His tail was at least as long as his body.

“Size of red squirrel” says short-tailed weasel.  “Long-as-body tail” says long-tailed weasel, shown below(*).

Long-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With such a short glimpse I can identify him generally but not specifically. His genus is weasel (Mustela), his species is either short-tailed (Mustela erminea) or long-tailed (Mustela frenata).  The two are notoriously hard to tell apart.  I’ll never know for sure.

No matter what he is he will soon shed his brown fur and turn white to match the winter landscape. If he’s a short-tailed weasel (erminea) you’ll recognize him as the ermine or stoat that’s native to Eurasia and North America.  His long-tailed North American cousin is just larger.

I’d like to see this weasel in his winter clothes but I’m not going to Maine in winter to find him. 😉

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Weasel tracks linked from National Park Service Yellowstone.  Click on the image to see the original)

(* I didn’t take his picture — these photos are from Wikimedia Commons — so I had to rely on my memory.  Luckily least weasels don’t live in Maine so that narrows it to 2 possibilities.)

Extirpated From Pennsylvania?

Hobblebush with fruit, early Sept in Maine (photo by Kate St. John)
Hobblebush with fruit, early Sept in Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

15 September 2015

Here’s a plant that’s easy to find in Maine but is nearly gone from Pennsylvania even though our state is in the middle of its range.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is a shrub 6-12 feet high that grows in rich moist forests from Quebec to Georgia. Its arching branches hold pairs of leaves with delicate white flowers in the spring (click here to see) and abundant fruit in the fall that ripens from red to blue.  It’s called “hobble” bush because its long branches take root where the tips touch the ground, then hobble passersby.

Hobblebush is not extinct in Pennsylvania but it’s extremely hard to find and is extirpated from most counties.  In 20 years of Pennsylvania hiking I have seen it only once, growing on top of an isolated, sheer-sided, 15-foot high boulder near Cook Forest.

For plants, habitat loss is the usual cause of local extinction but hobblebush disappeared from Pennsylvania without the help of bulldozers.  The agent of change here is white-tailed deer.

Deer in western Pennsylvania, Fall 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Deer in western Pennsylvania, October 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Hobblebush is such a favorite deer food that the plant’s abundance is in inverse proportion to the deer population.  Where deer are in balance with their habitat, hobblebush thrives and they enjoy its flavor, but in Pennsylvania we have 30 deer per square mile (sometimes 70!) so our hobblebush was eaten to the ground long ago.

This situation is not new.  For more than half a century deer have been so abundant in Pennsylvania that they’re forced to consume everything edible from the ground to as high as they can reach.  Our forests have browse lines — shown below — and deer eat the hemlocks that shelter them in winter, a case of eating themselves out of house and home.  (Click here to read more.)

Browse line in Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)
Browse line (empty gap beneath trees) in Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

So that’s why seeing hobblebush in Maine is such a treat and why it’s found on top of high isolated boulders in Pennsylvania.  At that elevated location the deer can’t reach it.

Have you seen hobblebush in Pennsylvania?  Or is it extirpated from your area?

(photo of hobblebush at Acadia National Park and a browse line in Pennsylvania by Kate St. John,
photo of deer by Steve Gosser

In Powered Flight

Merlin, eastern US (photo by Wm.H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)
Merlin, eastern USA (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

This year in Maine I was lucky to see two merlins (Falco columbarius), each one a fleeting glance as the bird zoomed by on a mission.

The first one zipped past the Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch, pumping his wings the entire time.  We watchers had to think quickly.  His shape said “Falcon,” his size and dark color said “Not kestrel,” his powerful flapping said “Merlin!”  He was gone before we could say his name.

Merlins rarely pause and almost never soar.  Their flight style is a constant powerful flapping and they’re always very fast.  Compared to merlins, peregrines seem laid back and almost lazy.  Peregrines conserve energy for the split second when they need it.  Merlins burn energy all the time except for the moments they perch.

My second merlin offered a good comparison to a peregrine.  At low tide I visited the South Lubec sand flats to watch shorebirds.  A peregrine and merlin showed up to eat them.

The peregrine hazed the sand bar until all the flocks were airborne in tight evasive circles.  Then he flew through the flocks until he separated a bird alone and grabbed his dinner on the wing. He stopped to eat it on an island in the bay.

The merlin came out of nowhere.  Using the grass and goldenrods as a blind he pumped fast, low, and straight along the water’s edge.  The shorebirds were so surprised that most had no time to fly.  The merlin caught a slow bird and just kept going.  In powered flight, he didn’t stop to eat.


(photo by William H. Majoros, Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

This Tree Is Stepping Out

A white pine with a "knee" root (photo by Kate St. John)
White pine with an arched root (photo by Kate St. John)

While hiking the Asticou & Jordon Pond Path at Acadia National Park, my husband and I encountered an unusual tree.

This white pine used to grow on top of something that disappeared, perhaps a decaying log.  The main stem looks solid but I’m sure the tree needs the “h” for support.

Do you know the name of this root formation?


p.s.  I ask because I don’t know what to call it.  A “knee” is a root that emerges from the ground near the trunk but is not attached to it — as in cypress knees.  This root is different from a cypress knee.

(photo by Kate St. John)

The Haunting Call Of The Loon

11 September 2015

Every year my husband and I spend a relaxing two weeks at Acadia National Park where we enjoy spectacular scenery, wildlife, and hiking trails. Now that we’re heading home I’ll share some of the highlights.  The best is a sound that I will certainly miss in Pittsburgh — the haunting call of the loon (Gavia immer).

In September common loons migrate through Canada and Maine from interior lakes to the sea. Each one migrates alone, independent of its mate and offspring.

One particular loon, distinctive because he was molting into winter plumage, often spent his evenings at the harbor.  Every morning I heard him make the tremolo call at dawn (click here to hear) but last Wednesday, when the fog came up just after rain, he made a haunting wail call that echoed among the mountains.

Watch the video above to learn what the wail means.

I wish I’d heard a call in response.

(video on YouTube from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)