The Phantom

Phanthom crane fly in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)
Phanthom crane fly, Newfoundland, 2018 (photo by Bill Anderson)

This phantom lives in freshwater wetlands from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. Gliding on the shady edge of dense vegetation he usually goes unseen.  It takes practice to notice a phantom crane fly.

I first learned about phantom crane flies (Bittacomorpha clavipes) in Newfoundland when our guide David Trently pointed one out. “There it is.”

I couldn’t see it. “Where is it? How big is it? What should I look for?”  I was so frustrated!  The bug was flying right in front of me but he was invisible.

The phantom landed and Bill Anderson took his picture. I followed Bill’s camera lens and found the fly.  Aha!

When the phantom took off, I followed him with my eyes as he floated among the shadows.  Here’s a video that shows what that’s like. (Note: If you don’t like snakes turn off the video before the 2:20 mark to avoid seeing one.)

Phantom crane flies can move like this because they’re very lightweight, their long legs are hollow, and their tarsomere (foot segments) are swollen and filled with air.  They spread their legs to catch the breeze and barely flap their wings.

Their long crane-like legs make them phantoms in the air.

Read more about phantom crane flies in this article by the BugLady at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

(photo by Bill Anderson; click on the caption to see the original. video by Chromatophone Productions on YouTube)

Forbidden Food

Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a recent trip past Exit 163 on Interstate 70, I was intrigued by the name Amaranth.    Two towns in Canada, one in Portugal, and one in Fulton County, Pennsylvania have that name.  What does it mean?

“Amaranth” is a flower that never fades, a reddish dye, or — primarily — a grain-like food native to the tropical Americas.  It was a staple of the Central American diet until the Spanish Conquistadors outlawed it when they conquered the Aztecs in 1521.

Back then the grain played a supporting role in religious human sacrifice. Eerily similar to the Eucharist in which Jesus told his disciplines to consume bread and wine symbolizing his body and blood, the Aztecs performed human sacrifices and ate cakes of amaranth mixed with real human blood.

The Spanish abolished all of that.  The penalty for growing amaranth was death. But the plant survived. It became a weed.

One of the weediest in the Amaranthus genus is red-rooted pigweed or green amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), a 1-6 foot annual whose flowers bloom in bristly spikes in August (photo at top).  This patch is in a German asparagus field.

Amaranth found as a weed in an asparagus field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Amaranth in a field near Reilingen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think pigweed is ugly. However you can eat it, though it probably doesn’t taste as good as the cultivated species

Each tiny flower produces a seed topped by a tiny cap.  Pop the seed and eat the grain or grind it into flour for bread and cereal.

Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)
Fruit with seed; amaranth grain (photos from Wikimedia Commons: fruit, grain)

You can eat the leaves, too, but they contain a small amount of oxalic acid so they must be boiled and drained. In India, the leaves are the main ingredient in Kerala-style thoran.

Today many people plant amaranth varieties for their red flowers, the color of amaranth dye.

Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Red amaranth flowers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us don’t realize it was a forbidden food.

Read more about amaranth as food in the New York Times, Grain of the Future, October 1984 and Public Radio International, Return of an Ancient Grain, July 2013.

p.s. Did you know that quinoa is in the amaranth family?

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

Sugar Doesn’t Hurt Me

Hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Ruby-throated hummingbird at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

By August in Pennsylvania, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have finished breeding and all of them, young and old, are fattening up for their migration to Central America.  Many are visiting backyard feeders.

Last week on PABIRDS Rob Blye posted a collection of interesting questions about feeding hummingbirds, including someone’s concern about sugar. Here’s a summary of the feeder discussion with embedded links to the original text.

Do young hummingbirds imprint on feeders as a preferential food source and ignore natural food sources?

No.  Scott Weidensaul writes that as much as 40 percent of the hummingbirds’ diet is made up of insects and other small arthropods which they pursue while away from our feeders. There’s no need to worry that they’re getting an unbalanced diet.

Is sugar bad for hummingbirds?

Not at all. Sugar is bad for humans but fine for hummers. Scott Weidensaul writes: “Flower nectar and a white cane sugar/water mix are essentially identical sucrose fluids.  Four parts water and one part white sugar neatly replicates what they’re getting from flowers. “

Can we offer a different sweetener than sugar? What about honey?

Absolutely not!  Scott writes that “substitutions are dangerous. Organic/brown/turbinado sugar or molasses can pack fatally high levels of iron, to which hummers are exquisitely sensitive, while honey, once diluted, becomes a stew of dangerous bacteria and fungi.”

Is it OK to hang hummingbird feeders if you cannot clean them frequently?

No.  Spoiled food is dangerous for hummingbirds and it spoils daily in 90 degree weather. Clean your feeders thoroughly and regularly. Empty, clean and refill daily when it’s 90 degrees. You can extend this to every few days when the high is 60.  Click here for guidelines from Aududon.

Should we add something to the sugar-water to prevent spoilage?

No.  Scott writes, “avoid new products that claim to deter spoilage. Hummingbird experts are deeply suspicious about the safety of such additives.”

How do you attract hummingbirds if you can’t clean your feeders that often?

Ellen from Cumberland County had that problem so she planted salvia and other hummingbird favorites. The hummingbirds now “come back every year looking for their flowers and guard them zealously.”  Read her flower list on PABIRDS and/or this list of top 10 flowers for hummingbirds at The Spruce.

The bottom line is this:  Sugar doesn’t hurt hummingbirds, but spoiled food does.  Clean your feeders thoroughly and often, especially in August’s heat!

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Sinks And Traps

Sink hole in Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sink hole in a limestone region of Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s blog about sinks and traps is not about plumbing …

bathroom sink (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Michelle Kienholz noticed that the mockingbird family near her office was under predation pressure again. In June half the family was eaten by a red-tailed hawk. On Friday two flightless young were frightened to the ground.  Michelle put them in a thick bush and hoped for the best.  I thought to myself, “That place is a biological sink for mockingbirds.”

Like a sink hole, shown at top, a biological sink is where a species breeds but the habitat works against them so they always fail to produce enough young to replace themselves. The population sinks at that site.

A sink can be offset by a high quality habitat called a biological source where the population more than replaces itself.  If the sources equal the sinks the population remains stable.  If the sources outweigh the sinks the population grows.  This balancing act is called source-sink dynamics.

Sometimes a sink is so attractive to breeders that they’re drawn to it in large numbers even though they always fail.  These ecological traps cause localized population crashes.

A good example of an ecological trap is the effect that outdoor lights have on mayflies.

Mayflies lay their eggs on water, often at night.  To find water in the dark they look for the polarized light reflection of the moon on water. Unfortunately, our outdoor electric lights are like thousands of moons that reflect off artificial polarizing surfaces — asphalt, cars, windows, etc.  The mayflies mistake these false surfaces for huge bodies of water and land there to lay eggs.  The locations are both sinks and traps.  All the mayfly eggs are wasted.

Mayflies on a car at Catawba Island, Ohio (photo by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Mayflies on a car at Catawba Island, Ohio (photo by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The number of mayflies that fall for these traps can be astonishing.  In June 2015 in Wrightsville, PA on the Susquehanna River, there were so many mayflies on the Route 462 bridge that the surface became slippery with dead mayfly bodies.  They had to close the bridge.

I suspect that if they’d turned off the streetlights while the bridge was closed, the trap would have disappeared, the mayflies would have gone elsewhere, and there would have been less to clean up.

(credits: video from WGAL-TV via YouTube.  photo of car with mayflies by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr Creative Commons license. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Now Blooming at Jennings Prairie

Tall sunflower, Helianthus giganteus, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)
Tall sunflower, Helianthus giganteus, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday we saw these flowers and many more on the Wissahickon Nature Club outing at Jennings Prairie (Jennings Environmental Education Center) in Butler County, PA.

Swamp milkweed with a bee, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Swamp milkweed with a bee, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Thimbleweed after the petals fall, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Thimbleweed after the petals fall, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Oxeye or false sunflower, Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Oxeye or false sunflower, Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Joe-pye weed with tiger swallowtail, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Joe-pye weed with tiger swallowtail, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Swamp thistle, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)
Swamp thistle, Jennings (photo by Kate St. John)

If you haven’t been to Jennings yet, there’s still time to see these beautiful flowers.  Stop by in early August.  Click here for directions.

 

p.s. How tall is Tall Sunflower, Helianthus giganteus?  Jack Solomon shows us.

How tall is a Tall Sunflower? Jack Solomon shows us, Jennings, 4 August 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
How tall is a Tall Sunflower? Jack Solomon shows us, Jennings, 4 August 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Bug Eyes

  • Insect up close, Vermont (photo by Bob Kroeger)
    Insect up close, Vermont (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Birds are hard to find in summer’s heat so if you want to take nature photos in late July, what do you do?

Bob Kroeger, Dana Nesiti and Steve Gosser focused on insects.  Here are six of their amazing closeups.

Wow!  Bug eyes.

 

(photos by Bob Kroeger, Dana Nesiti and Steve Gosser)

 

Oh, The Opossum!

Virginia Opossum (photo by Chuck Tague)
Virginia Opossum (photo by Chuck Tague)

My blog about rabies prompted a comment from Joyce Peronne about the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Did you know that possums are resistant to rabies, though not immune?

On Throw Back Thursday, click the links to read more amazing facts about this underappreciated mammal.

Oh, the opossum!

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Lawn Chemicals Linked To Dog Cancer

Dogs ready to play (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Dogs ready to play (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This news is so old that I’m amazed I didn’t learn it until last month.

Weed killers save time but researchers have known for decades that their use is linked to cancer in dogs.

Spraying a dandelion with weed killer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Spraying a dandelion with weed killer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2,4-D is a widely used weed killer that’s been around since the 1940s.  It kills broadleaf weeds by causing uncontrolled growth in them, sort of like cancer in weeds.

Why study dog cancer?

Of course we love our dogs and want to know about their illnesses, but there’s an additional reason to study dog cancer.  Canine malignant lymphoma (CML) is so similar to non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) in humans that CML is used as a model for NHL.

Linking lawn chemicals to dog cancer:

  • A 2012 study showed a 70% higher risk of dog cancer (CML) in households that used professionally applied lawn chemicals. Fortunately, they found that flea and tick controls are unrelated to the risk of CML.  Click here for the study.
  • And a 2013 study found an increased risk of bladder cancer in dogs exposed to professionally applied lawn chemicals. Click here for the study.

There’s a growing body of evidence that lawn chemicals — especially 2,4-D — are bad for humans.  I didn’t realize that for 27 years we’ve known they’re bad for dogs.

 

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

p.s. In July 2017 California added glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) to their list of potentially cancerous chemicals.