All posts by Kate St. John

A Sampling of The Longest Lived

Laysan albatross named Wisdom with egg, Dec 2018, approximate age 68-70+ (photo by Madalyn Riley / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

This morning I found a fascinating list of longest-lived organisms. Here’s a sampling, young to old.

The longest living bird on earth is Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross who was banded as an adult at Midway Atoll in 1956. Since her species cannot breed until it’s five years old and usually delays breeding until age seven or eight, Wisdom was at least 68 years old last November (maybe >70) when she returned to Midway to lay her annual egg, shown above. Like all of her species she spends most of her life at sea.

The longest-lived terrestrial animal is the Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. An individual named Adwaita lived to be 225 years old at the Kolkatta (Calcutta) Zoo. Unfortunately this species is vulnerable to extinction. It is sadly ironic that they outlive us but may not outlast us as a species.

Aldabra giant tortoise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The world’s oldest living clonal organism is a stand of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), nicknamed Pando, that covers 106 acres near Fish Lake, Utah. The stand is a single “tree” whose trunks are shoots from a single clonal root. Pando is thought to be 80,000 years old but that’s the conservative estimate.  It may be as much as 1 million years old.

Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspens 88,000 years old (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, for a really long life you can’t beat immortality. Hydras do not undergo aging so they’re considered biologically immortal. They can live forever, theoretically.

Image of a hydra, magnified (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My husband’s grandmother once said, “There’s such a thing as living too long.”

For a list of the longest-lived organisms, see this link at Wikipedia.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Story of a Starling

In the spring of 2015, Nature On The Go of Green Oak Twp, Michigan found a baby starling fallen from his nest. Since European starlings are invasive, no rehabber would raise the bird for release into the wild, so Nature On The Go decided to raise the starling as an educational ambassador.

As the starling matured he began to mimic phrases he heard from the people around him. For his role as an Animal Ambassador they taught him phrases that explain how starlings arrived in North America. After all, the starlings’ mimicry is an indirect reason why they were brought here.

Watch the video to hear this startling speak. He’s a “Shakespeare bird.”

(video by Nature On The Go, LLC on YouTube)

Don’t Stake That Tree

Tree staking damage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s tree-planting season and a good time to remember that trees can be damaged by our good intentions. In the old days we staked every newly planted tree but we’ve since learned that for most tree plantings, stakes are a bad idea.

Tree trunks become strong from the ground up by swaying in the wind. When a tree is staked, it “thinks” it already has strong roots where it’s staked so it puts effort into growing tall instead of establishing roots. The trunk becomes strong above the yoke and remains weak below it. In addition the yoke may damage the trunk, further weakening the tree as shown above.

If your new tree has a big root ball it probably doesn’t need to be staked, though there are exceptions quoted here from the Davey Tree blog. You should use stakes on …

  • Bare-root trees or trees with a small root ball.
  • Trees planted in areas with lots of foot traffic, like a sidewalk or street.
  • New trees that can’t stand on their own or those that begin to lean.
  • Eucalyptus trees, mesquite hybrid trees, oleander trees and acacia trees.
  • Tall, top-heavy trees with no lower branches.
  • Young trees if you live in a very windy area or if the soil is too wet or loose.”

If you use stakes make sure to remove them at the next growing season. If you don’t, the tree will grow around them like this one did at Schenley Park. See more photos at How Stakes Hurt Trees.

Tree stake was never removed so the tree grew over it, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Still have questions? Get expert advice at Davey Tree blog, Gardening Know-how, or Northern Woodlands.

(photo credits: Wikimedia Commons (click caption for the original), and Kate St. John)

Which Personality Survives Bad Storms?

Comb-footed spider in the Everglades (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Comb-footed spiders (Anelosimus studiosus) have a lot of personality. These social cobweb spiders live in colonies of 40-100 individuals, build their webs around branches, and hunt cooperatively to capture large prey.

The spiders exhibit either aggressive or docile personalities. If you know what to look for you can tell the difference. In the evening aggressive A.studiosus attack each other and then retire to opposite corners of the web; docile spiders rest side by side. Aggressive spiders come out to attack when their web is disturbed, the docile ones stay inside.

What happens to these spiders when they’re hit by a tropical storm or hurricane? Is there a difference in which spiders survive?

A 2018 study led by Jonathan Pruitt of U.C. Santa Barbara tracked 240 Anelosimus studiosus colonies in seven states including Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas. For baseline data they recorded the locations and personalities of the spider colonies. Later they searched for spider webs after a tropical storm or hurricane had passed.

You might think it’s futile to look for cobwebs after hurricanes, but individual spiders do survive, stay on their home territory, and rebuild. While humans are picking up the pieces, the spiders are too.

Damage from Hurricane Michael, 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The study found that the storms always wiped out the docile spiders but the aggressive ones survived.

The relentless pressure of weather and nature is changing the spider population. Among comb-footed spiders, only the strong personalities survive.

For more information see Science Magazine: “Tropical storms are making these spiders more aggressive” and “For spiders, it’s cruel to be kind

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Things Have Changed

Sunset on a hot day (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s October but you wouldn’t know it by stepping outdoors. We’re still running the air conditioner and wearing summer clothes. Today’s low temperature of 68oF is the normal high for October 1 in Pittsburgh. Our 90oF high will be 22 degrees above normal. It feels like August.

It didn’t used to be this way. Do you remember when you used to turn on the heat in September or suffer because you delayed to save money? Ten years ago our furnace broke and we were cold! I wrote this on 1 October 2009:

The weather has been getting colder every day for a week.  This morning it was in the upper 30s at dawn.  By now most of you have turned on your heat, but not us.  We’re toughing it out until we get a new furnace.  The old one won’t turn on and rather than pay to fix it I thought we could cope without it until the furnace man comes with a new one on Friday.

from “Huddle,” Outside My Window, 1 October 2009

Without a functioning furnace in late September 2009 we wore coats indoors and huddled under blankets at night. That was normal weather back then.

For the past ten years our climate has been changing, but so gradually that we only remark on the extremes: unbearable heat, super low cold, or incredibly wet weather. We humans accept the new normal so quickly that we lose sight of what’s happening.

It’s good to look back ten years and realize it was normal to wear coats on October 1.

Things have changed.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Invasive Northern Snakehead at Duck Hollow

Northern snakehead caught by Lance Mroz, Jr in Monongahela River, 26 Sep 2019 (photo courtesy of Lance E. Mroz, Jr.)

Lance Mroz knew this fish was trouble as soon as he pulled it from the river. Anglers had been warned for years to watch out for this invasive alien species but it had never been seen in western Pennsylvania waters — not until Lance caught it in the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow on 26 September 2019.

Northern snakeheads (Channa argus) are predatory fish native to China, Russia and the Koreas. They prefer shallow stagnant freshwater and can survive in low oxygen locations because they can breathe the air. In fact they can live out of water for days where it’s moist and cool and are known to wriggle overland from pond to pond, earning them the nickname “walking fish.”

This top-level predator eats crustaceans, amphibians and other fish and can double its population in only 15 months. If you find one, watch out! They look like this.

All Snakeheads are distinguished by their torpedo shaped body, long dorsal and anal fins without spines, and toothed jaws. Northern Snakeheads are typically distinguished by a flattened, pointy head with long lower jaws.

They have teeth …

… and they can get really big! According to Wikipedia, a record 19.9 pound northern snakehead was caught — actually shot at night with a bow and arrow — at Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland in May 2018.

How did they get here? People release them. They’ve been kept in aquariums or raised on fish farms in the past, but it’s illegal to keep a live one now in North America. Not everyone knows this.

The first encounter with northern snakeheads in the U.S. did not go well. A breeding population was found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland in 2002. Officials were so worried about this species that they drained the pond and poisoned three adjacent ponds to kill every fish. A man later admitted to releasing an adult pair in the original pond, but the fish was out of the bag. It already had spread in the watershed.

Since then northern snakeheads have been found in Virginia, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Arkansas, and B.C, Canada. New isolated discoveries always begin with someone releasing a fish. If the fish become established they spread throughout the watershed. When deemed appropriate, wildlife officials may poison newly infested ponds and kill all fish.

Fortunately Lance Mroz knew what to do. He identified the fish, killed it, froze it and reported it to the PA Fish and Boat Commission. If you ever catch one,

The PA Fish and Boat Commission confirmed today, 30 September, that it’s indeed a northern snakehead.

Thanks to Lance Mroz for posting his catch in the Duck Hollow Facebook group. Now we know what to look for and what to do when we find it.

(fish photo courtesy of Lance E. Mroz, Jr., teeth photo from USFW factsheet)

Additional resources:

Today in Schenley Park, Sep 29

Participants at Schenley Park outing on 29 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning 12 of us gathered at the Bartlett Shelter to kick off a bird walk in Schenley Park. The weather was very gray and cloudy, almost foggy, and we worked hard for every bird for more an hour and a half.

Then the sun came out at 10am and so did the birds. Our best sightings were in the last 15 minutes. We ran overtime to see them!

Our list below, 27 species, has my favorites in boldface type. There were so many birds in the last 15 minutes that I may have missed some. Here it is on eBird:

Mourning Dove 3
Chimney Swift 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 (First of fall)
Red-bellied Woodpecker 8
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 5
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Eastern Phoebe 1
Blue Jay 18
American Crow 1
Carolina Chickadee 2
Carolina Wren 3
European Starling 2
Gray Catbird 2
Brown Thrasher 1
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 16
House Finch 3
American Goldfinch 1
Song Sparrow 1
Common Grackle 100 (big flock flying over the golf course)
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 3
Northern Cardinal 6

Thanks to all for coming out today. Never expected it to be so great at the end!

p.s. Chipmunks did outnumber blue jays — barely — but common grackles beat them all.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Who Made These Holes?

Empty black walnut shell with holes (photos by Kate St. John)

This nutshell is empty and carved with large holes. Their shape and placement tell us who made them.

In the autumn black walnuts ripen and fall from the trees. They’re covered in yellow-green husks that exude a black stain when you open them.

Black walnut in husk, Schenley Park, 27 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Squirrels don’t care about the stain. They chew off the husk and gnaw the wooden shell.

Fox squirrel making the sawdust fly as he opens a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)
Fox squirrel chisels a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

They make four holes, two on each side of the shell. The side that opens quickly is gnawed into one large hole. By their shape you can tell that a squirrel ate the nutmeat.

This fox squirrel gnawed a black walnut in Donna Foyle’s backyard in 2014. Find out how long it took him in How To Open A Black Walnut.

(photos by Kate St. John and Donna Foyle, per the captions)

Confusing Fall Asters

Asters, Raccoon Creek State Park, Lake Trail, 27 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s late September and asters are blooming throughout western Pennsylvania. I found several patches of purple asters yesterday on the Lake Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park.

These two may be the same species. They have similar leaves and their colors matched in real life though the camera shows them differently. It’s a trick of the light. Cameras are notorious for distorting purple / blue.

Asters, Raccoon Creek State Park, Lake Trail, 27 Sep 2019, 12.18p

I haven’t identified these flowers. My Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide has 10 densely packed pages of asters and that’s not all possible species.

Do you think fall warblers are confusing? Asters (and goldenrods) are the last frontier!

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Whining Is Over

By the end of September the whining is over. Juvenile raptors, like this young red-tailed hawk, have left home to start life on their own. Now they hunt in silence. Loud begging scares their prey.

I miss the begging sounds of summer because they helped me find songbirds. The whining juvenile red-tailed hawk in the linked video below has attracted songbird attention.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk calling (click for the video by JustBirds)

How many songbirds can you identify in the background? (Hint: he was filmed in Michigan.)

(video from Cornell Lab Bird Cams, screenshot from JustBirds)