Monthly Archives: June 2016

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)
Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.

In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.

His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds.  He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note.  The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.

Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality.  It sounds like this:

“Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius meruloides)” from xeno-canto by Richard E. Webster. Genre: Turdidae.

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.

(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

See It Before It Melts

Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)
Saint Mary Lake at Glacier National Park (photo by NPS via Wikimedia Commons)

Many National Parks are named for their defining feature.  One has a Grand Canyon, another has Great Smoky Mountains, and yet another has Glaciers.  The canyon and the mountains won’t disappear but the glaciers are melting so I’m at Glacier National Park this week to see them.

Glacier National Park was the brainchild of George Bird Grinnell who fell in love with the place on his first visit in 1885.  Over the next 25 years he returned several times and advocated for the land to become a national park. His dream was realized on May 11, 1910.

The scenery here is breathtaking — a 1,583 square mile wilderness of majestic mountains, U-shaped valleys, gorgeous lakes and (for me) many Life Birds.

In the early 1900’s there were more glaciers than there are today.  According to Wikipedia:  “Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid-19th century, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Scientists studying the glaciers in the park have estimated that all may disappear by 2030 if the current climate patterns persist.”

The glacier named for Grinnell himself is melting, too.  In 1850 it filled the entire valley. By 2009 most of the valley contained an iceberg lake.  And now …

Grinnell Glacier, before and after, 1981 and 2009 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)
Grinnell Glacier retreat: 1981 and 2009 with notes extending back to 1850 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

See it before it melts.


(photos of Glacier National Park from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s.  Click here for more about the disappearing glaciers.

Daisy Fleabane

Fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Daisy fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

You’ve probably seen these small, thin-petaled “daisies” just about everywhere.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is a native plant with a long blooming period — May to October — so you’ll see these flowers for months to come.

Click here to read about fleabane’s daily exercise program (I’m not kidding!) at The Bane of Fleas.


(photo by Kate St. John)

David Sibley Coming to Pittsburgh, July 14

David Sibley and his newest book (photo by Richard Pasley via Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures)
David Sibley and his newest book (photo by Richard Pasley via Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures)

If you’re a birder you’ve probably heard of David Sibley whose excellent field guides are illustrated with his own art work.  I’m particularly fond of his Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley Guide to Trees, and the Sibley Birds app on my cellphone.  (Can you tell I’m addicted?)

We’ll get a chance to meet David Sibley when he comes to Pittsburgh for two events on July 14:  a dinner hosted by Audubon of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP) and his lecture at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures.

Attend only the dinner or both dinner+lecture by signing up at the ASWP website:

Member Banquet and an Evening with David Sibley, July 14 starting at 5 pm.  Click here to attend.

Dinner and the awards presentation will be held at St. Nicholas Church in Oakland and David Sibley will speak at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, right across the street. The event starts at 5 pm with dinner served at 5:30 pm. Tickets are $50 each and include a copy of Sibley’s newest book.

Attend only the lecture by signing up at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures:

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh present David Sibley
Thursday, July 14, 2016, 7 pm at Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, 15213

Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased online, over the phone at 412.622.8866, or at the door starting at 6 pm on the evening of the event. Tickets include a copy of David’s newest book The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.

Don’t miss it.


(photo of David Sibley by Richard Pasley and cover of Sibley’s latest book via Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures website)

Who’s In Charge Here?

Hope (black/green bands) at the nest, 24 June 2016

Yesterday there were new developments in the peregrine saga at the Cathedral of Learning.

I thought that the new female, Magnum, had claimed the site this week but…

Megan Briody is keeping a close watch on the falconcam and reports that Hope came back to the nest on Friday June 24 around 6:30pm. The snapshot above shows Hope’s black/green bands as she’s leaving. (Both Magnum and Terzo have black/red bands.)

Observers on the ground saw three peregrines flying near the Cathedral of Learning but could not tell if all three were adults — Terzo, Hope and Magnum — or if one was C1.

Meanwhile, C1 is doing just fine. She’s spending lots of time at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a few blocks away from the nest, where she’s taking her many meals. Terzo is making sure she’s well fed.

Apparently site ownership is still up for grabs between Hope and Magnum. It’s hard to tell who’s in charge here.


(photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Sneaky Orchids

Most flowers offer food to attract pollinators.  Trumpet vine, for instance, provides nectar for hummingbirds who incidentally pick up pollen and transport it to the next flower.

But some orchids have no food to offer.  Instead they look and smell like sexy female insects so the males will attempt to mate with them.  In doing so the orchids’ pollen clumps (pollinia) become stuck to the male insects and are taken to the next flower.

Watch the video above from BBCWorldwide to see how it’s done.

Sneaky orchids!


Thanks to Bonnie Isaac, President of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, for pointing out this cool video in the Society’s second quarter bulletin.

(video from BBCWorldwide on Youtube)

Magnum Claims The Cathedral

Now that the Pitt peregrine nest is empty, most of us aren’t watching the falconcam so I was surprised when Megan Briody posted this comment on my blog yesterday:

Kate, did you see that Terzo has a new “visitor” at the nest?  I saw her on the camera today (6/22) at 3:58 PM.  At first, I thought it was Terzo because she also has a black/red band, but the band numbers didn’t seem familiar so I checked the video archives later.  The bands are black/red, 62/H on her left leg and purple on her right leg.  Your peregrine history pdf says that this is Magnum from the Neville Island Bridge!  Later at 4:40 PM, Terzo was in the nest, he called her in, and they bowed and chirped at each other.   I went back farther in the archives, and she was on camera last night (6/21) at 18:58.  If you have any thoughts on this development, we’d love to hear them!  It seems strange that Terzo would be courting a new female so soon after C1 fledged, but after this year, I guess we should expect the unexpected!

Wow!  Good job, Megan!

Here’s a closeup of Magnum’s bands.:  Right leg = black/red 62/H.  Left leg has a purple band .

Magnum at the Cathedral of Learning (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Magnum’s bands seen at the Cathedral of Learning, 22 June 2016 (snapshot from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Indeed Magnum, hatched in Canton, Ohio in 2010, raised up to four nestlings per year at the Neville Island I-79 Bridge since 2013.  This spring site monitors reported two fledglings at the bridge but weren’t able to confirm the pair’s identity because the nest was moved out of sight.

We don’t know if Magnum nested, but we do know that Hope was challenged by two females: On April 8 by an immature unbanded female, and on April 23 by a banded adult female with black/red on her left leg and a purple band on her right leg.  Perhaps that adult was Magnum, waiting her chance take the Cathedral.

Was there a fight?  Not that we know of.  Many watchers are scanning the sky for a glimpse of C1 and none of them reported a fight.

Meanwhile Peter Bell’s @PittPeregrines video (above) indicates that Terzo and Magnum are already establishing their pair bond so that means Hope is gone.

Why did this happen now?  A prime nest site like the Cathedral of Learning can change hands at any time.

Fortunately Hope was able to keep the site while C1 was still in the nest and still primarily her responsibility.  At this point in C1’s life, her welfare is Terzo’s job.

So the peregrine drama continues.

Thank you, Megan Briody, for letting us know it happened!


(video by Peter Bell (@PittPeregrines) from the archives of the National Aviary falconcam at University of PPittsburgh)

Spots Under The Leaf

Sporogenesis under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)
Sporogenesis under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

Ferns look simple.  They don’t have flowers so they must be boring, right?  Not!

Look under the leaves(*) in June and you’ll see spots, called sporangia, that are creating spores for the next generation.  Here’s another example.

Sporangia under fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)
Sporangia under the fern leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

The spores are single haploid cells with only one set of chromosomes, just like the sperm and eggs of mammals. But the spores don’t “mate” with anything.  Instead the next generation grows directly from the spore.  It’s a small heart-shaped green thing called a prothallus and it’s also haploid.  The prothallus eventually produces sperm and eggs that unite in water to become the next generation, the leafy fronds.

The frond phase is diploid with two sets of chromosomes.  In time, the plant produces sporangia and the process repeats.

Because of this fern “parents” and “kids” look nothing like each other: prothallia, leaves, prothallia, leaves … on and on and on.

Confused? Here’s a video that explains it better than I can.


(*) Some ferns, such as sensitive fern, produce spores on parts of the plant that have no leaves. Others, such as hay-scented fern, don’t display their sporangia as openly as those pictured above.  Read more about ferns here.

(photos by Kate St. John, video posted by Gabe Fierro on YouTube)