What is a -Wort?

Purple milkwort, Sewickley Heights Park, 8 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 September 2023

Why do some plants have the suffix “-wort” in their names?

The suffix “-wort” simply means “plant.” In earlier centuries, plant common names often referred to physical characteristics, resemblance, or recommended medicinal uses.

Univ of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum: Gardening with Native Plants: Worts and Weeds, pt. 1

Here are some recently blooming “-worts.”

Purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), above, is native to North America. “The genus name Polygala comes from the ancient Greek “much milk”, as the plant was thought to increase milk yields in cattle.” I have no idea if this works.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), related to ragweed, is used in cooking and has been used medicinally. It has a bitter flavor. Why “mug”? I don’t know.

Mugwort leaves are white underneath (photo by Kate St. John)
Mugwort leaves are white underneath (photo by Kate St. John)
Mugwort flowers are brown in September, Schenley Park, 23 Sept 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is a member of the Aster family that grows easily in disturbed soil. Quirky Science says the “reported uses include the treating of hemorrhage, dysentery, skin diseases, and cholera. It is a purgative and emetic. The name suggests it is good in treating piles (hemorrhoids).”

Pilewort, Pittsburgh East End, 28 Aug 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort flower heads and seeds, Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum), imported from Europe, is so-named because it blooms in June and was traditionally harvested on St. John’s Day, June 24, to adorn homes and ward off evil. It is an herbal treatment for depression and has been planted nearly worldwide.

St. Johns wort, South Side of Pittsburgh, July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Bluest Thrush

Grandala near Dzongla (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 September 2023

While on the way to somewhere else I found … the bluest thrush.

According to Birds of the World, the grandala (Grandala coelicolor) is a gregarious thrush that makes a vertical migration in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau(*) from barren alpine breeding grounds at 3900–5500 m (12,800-18,000 ft) to rocky mountainside valleys and ridges at 3000–4300 m (9,800-14,000 ft), sometimes as low as 2000 m (6,500 ft).

To put this in perspective, if grandalas lived in the U.S they could only breed on Denali (20,000 ft) or the highest Rocky Mountains. Some of them never come down as low as the highest point the Rockies, the peak of Mount Elder.

Range map of grandala, embedded from Birds of the World

Grandalas are the same size as wood thrushes and like the wood thrush are the only species in their genus, but there the similarity ends. For instance, grandalas are sexually dimorphic with royal blue males and brownish-gray females.

Five male and one female grandala (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grandalas have versatile diets tuned to their cold climate lives. They eat insects in summer and fruit in fall and winter.

Like cedar waxwings grandalas travel in huge flocks in fall and winter. When they perch they flick their wings and tails.

Watch the bluest thrush in this 4:45 minute video by RoundGlass Sustain.

video from RoundGlass Sustain on YouTube

(*) Grandalas occur at high altitudes in these countries/territories: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, northern Myanmar.

(credits are in the captions)

Dragonflies Are Migrating

  • Common green darner, Virginia (photo from Wikimedia)

10 September 2023

On the evening of Friday 8 September, Marianne Atkinson noticed hundreds of dragonflies patrolling a field near her house in Dubois, PA. Other folks as much as 20 miles away were commenting on the same thing and posting videos online. What were these bugs up to? Marianne sent me her video …

video by Marianne Atkinson

… and this Facebook post from the McKean County Conservation District explaining the phenomenon. Dragonflies are migrating.

The green darner is the most common migratory dragonfly in Pennsylvania but is only one of 16 migratory species in North America. The five main migrants are pictured in the slideshow at top and listed below from Donna L Long’s website.

Green darners have a multi-generational migration. The individuals we see flying south right now will not return but will be the grandparents of those who journey north next spring.

Recent research has indicated that the annual life cycle of green darner (Anax junius) is likely composed of at least three different generations. The first generation emerges in the southern end of its range in early spring and migrates northwards through spring and summer. The second generation emerges in the northern end of its range in summer and migrates southwards in fall. The third generation occurs in the south during the winter and does not migrate. 

Wikipedia: Green Darner

When dragonflies migrate during the day in Pennsylvania they follow the same flight paths and fly on the same prime migration days as the hawks. I often see dragonflies at hawk watches where I’m glad they’re eating mosquitos and flying ants on the wing.

Green darners seem to go far but for real long distance the global skimmer wins the prize, migrating from India to Africa across the Indian Ocean! It also occurs in North America.

(video from RoundGlass Sustain on YouTube)

p.s. There are 7,000 species of dragonflies on Earth. Only 25-50 species migrate, making this a very unusual feat.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video by Marianne Atkinson and an embed from Youtube)

Seen This Week

Turtleheads blooming in Schenley Park, 3 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 September 2023

Seen this week:

Turtleheads and late boneset flowers at Schenley Park. Do you see the honeybee?

Honeybee flies to late boneset, Schenley Park, 4 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A rainbow with crows over Oakland.

Fiery sunset on 7 September.

Six deer in Schenley Park — only 5 made it into the photo.

But there’s a photo of deer I wish I’d been able to take: Friday morning 8 September along 5th Ave between the Cathedral of Learning and Clapp Hall I saw 3 deer — 2 does and 1 fawn — standing on the pavement at Clapp Hall. They were close to the curb of 5th Ave at Tennyson as they tried to figure out how to cross 5th Ave during rush hour.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Right now there are 2 flamingos in PA in Franklin County east of Chambersburg.

What If The Stars Stood Still?

Milky Way at Bontecou Lake, Duchess County, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 September 2023

When we watch the sky at night, we see the stars and planets wheel above us as they rise and set.

But what if we were standing among the stars? What if the stars stood still and we could tell that the Earth was moving?

Astrophotographer Bartosz Wojczynski set up his camera on a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount that automatically canceled out the Earth’s rotation. In his video the stars stand still.

video from AmazeLab on YouTube

Are you dizzy yet?

(credits are in the captions)

Be Careful Out There! Deer in the Road

Deer sprinting across a road (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 September 2023

A year ago I learned that deer are really easy to find and photograph in Schenley Park in August but suddenly much harder to find in September. As their breeding season, called the rut, approaches its November peak deer become secretive in the woods(*). However, the rut prompts them to move around a lot so they sprint across the road. Their behavior in past six days has borne that out already.

On a walk in Schenley Park on 1 September I saw four bucks resting in their usual spot near the Upper Trail. One buck had just shed velvet from his 9-point antlers which were bloody from the missing velvet. With him were one 8-point and two 4-point bucks. Shedding velvet is the first obvious sign of the rut and the biggest buck was ready.

Two days later, on 3 September, only one 4-point buck remained in that resting place. The others were somewhere secret and moving around. That night I heard two reports of deer collisions in the city. These don’t end up in the deer-killed-by-cars statistics if the deer are only stunned:

  • Mary at 8:15pm posted a comment on my blog: “Off-topic but I wanted to let you know that a deer and car collided this evening around 730 pm on Schenley Drive near the library. Deer sat on the side of the road for a while. Then stood up as people gathered around.”
  • Dylan @DylPar252 tweeted from Pittsburgh on 3 Sep at 9:49pm: “I literally just watched one get hit by a car in front of my house on a busy inner city street. The deer do indeed need managed (she kept on moving btw)”

In the city, deer have to cross roads to get anywhere especially in Schenley Park. The deer pictured below are on a virtual traffic island — Flagstaff Hill — surrounded by cars. When I took this picture in April they weren’t charged up with breeding hormones so they ambled or trotted across the road instead of sprinting.

They had to cross a road to get here! 3 deer on Flagstaff Hill, April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

But now we can expect a lot more accidents in the months ahead. Collisions don’t end well for deer.

Deer deer on Circuit Road, Schenley Park, Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And they don’t end well for cars.

Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)
Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman’s car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)

So be careful out there! Watch out for deer in the road.

Learn more about cars and deer in this vintage article.

p.s. Yesterday City Council approved two bills that will begin deer management in the City of Pittsburgh. When the bills were introduced last week the public made comments on hunt vs no-hunt yet no matter where someone stood on that spectrum everyone agreed there are too many deer in Pittsburgh.

The first step in City Deer Management will be a pilot program bow hunt in Frick and Riverview this fall. It will not solve the deer overpopulation problem but is the first step in deer management and is required by the PA Game Commission.

Here are three of the many news articles about City Deer Management in Pittsburgh. Please don’t ask me how the hunt will be conducted. I don’t know that answer.

(credits are in the captions)

p.s. Deer are secretive in autumn in Schenley Park except … There’s a place where someone puts out food. Six were feeding there on Sunday 4 Sept.

Thousands Glide To Africa

White stork in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 September 2023

The migration spectacle at the Strait of Gibraltar is still underway as thousands of birds stretch their wings and fly to Africa. They can see their goal from the European side but sometimes the wind is a brutal wall that prevents their crossing. On 4 September the wind was right and they didn’t have to flap. Thousands glided south to Morocco.

Among the flocks were hundreds of white storks (Ciconia ciconia), seen in this tweet from Inglorious Bustards.

The storks making the crossing had nested in Western Europe and are heading for Sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.

Range map and flyways of the white stork (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years ago white storks were extinct in most of Western Europe and this spectacle at the Straits died with the absent birds. Reintroduction programs in the late 20th century brought them back to a growing population of now 224,000 to 247,000 European white storks.

For those who lived through the lean years, their tears at the Straits are tears of joy.

(credits are in the captions including links to the sources)

Invasive Beefsteak

Beefsteak plant, Lancaster County, September 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a pretty plant, an invasive alien, that I’ve not seen in Pittsburgh but is easy to find in Lancaster County, PA where I took this picture.

Beefsteak plant (Perilla frutescens) is a member of the mint family native to Southeast Asia and the Indian highlands and is grown as a crop for Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisine. Its common names include shiso and Korean perilla. The “beefsteak” name was coined because the darkest varieties have leaves as red as meat. The wild plants I saw in Lancaster County had green leaves and dark red stems.

Perilla frutescens is widely cultivated in Asia as an edible plant but it has downsides including contact dermatitis from touching the leaves and anaphylaxis after consuming a large amount of seeds. Those who cultivate it know what to do but the rest of us should be cautious.

Brought to the U.S. as an ornamental beefsteak plant escaped to the wild and is now invasive in six states from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. The plant is always toxic to cattle, horses and other ruminants including white-tailed deer.

States listing Perilla frutescens as invasive (map from invasiveplantatlas.org)

Since deer don’t eat it, it may have been touted as a “deer resistant” plant at the nursery but don’t buy it! This plant spreads way too easily.

(credits are in the captions with links where applicable)

The Original Drone

Homing pigeon in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 September 2023, Labor Day

On Labor Day, when I honor working birds, homing pigeons come to mind because they’re willing to try almost anything their keepers invent.

For centuries homing pigeons made themselves extremely useful by carrying messages, especially during wartime. The messages were carried in a pack strapped to the bird’s chest or inserted in a message tube strapped to the bird’s leg.

Homing pigeon with message tube on its leg (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Then in 1907, German apothecary Julius Neubronner, who used pigeons to deliver medications, decided to try aerial pigeon photography. He designed an aluminum breast harness and a lightweight time-delayed miniature camera to fit on a homing pigeon. It worked so well with his own pigeons that he applied for a German patent.

Homing pigeon carrying a camera, 1926 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But, as Wikipedia explains, the patent office rejected his claim until he sent them pigeon-made aerial photos. They granted his patent in December 1908.

Aerial photos taken by homing pigeons (photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Pigeon photography held great promise for World War I but was overshadowed by the invention of portable dovecoats to improve messaging and airplanes from which humans could do their own surveillance. So the fleets of camera-carrying pigeons just didn’t take off.

Three homing pigeons with cameras (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II the CIA briefly flirted with the idea of pigeon photography but it, too, went nowhere. Now they have drones.

Recreational drone, July 2016 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I wonder if people realize that pigeons were the original drones.

Read more about Pigeon photography at Wikipedia. Happy Labor Day.

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

Flamingos Have Been Popping Up All Over

3 September 2023

Except for a few rare sightings in Florida, flamingos seen in the U.S. are not from the wild, they’re escapees from a zoo. Then suddenly last week, after Hurricane Idalia, flamingos have been popping up all over.

At top, 16 flamingos visited Fred Howard County Park near Tarpon Springs, FL. Below, 6 flamingos stopped by St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of Tallahassee.

The groups have often been a mix of pink adults and gray youngsters.

As of Saturday evening the totals were:

  • 100+ in Florida
  • 11 at Pea Island, North Carolina
  • 2 in South Carolina
  • 2 in Virginia
  • 3 in Alabama
  • 5 in Tennessee
  • UPDATE on 4 Sep 2023: 1 in Kentucky
  • and 2 in OHIO! at Caesar Creek State Park. These were seen for only a day and then gone.
  • UPDATE on 7 Sept 2023: 2 flamingos in Franklin County, PA pictured below: First reported on eBird on 7 Sept but apparently present for 2 days prior as well.

American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) are native to the northern shore of South America, the Caribbean islands, Cuba, and the Yucatan in Mexico. Hurricane Idalia plowed through a few of those locations.

Range map of American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) from Wikipedia

This WKRG video on 27 August shows Hurricane Idalia gaining strength as it spans the Caribbean, overlaying part of the Yucatan and all of Cuba. The flamingos would have felt it coming and flown north and northeast to get out of its way. Notice the lower speed winds (shades of green) on the edge of the weather map. The green wind track is where most of the flamingos have been found.

video from WKRG News on YouTube

Considering the storm track, the flamingos are probably from Cuba and the Yucatan including at least one banded bird.

Given all the discussion about the flamingos now appearing all over Florida (and farther north), this eBird list from Amy Grimm is especially relevant. This afternoon, Grimm documented 8 flamingos at Marathon, in the Florida Keys, and noted that “One has large yellow band on the right leg code DXCL, small silver band on left leg.” Do the bands mean it’s escaped from captivity? No. This combination — yellow PVC band on one leg with 4-letter code in black letters, ordinary band on other leg — has been used for years in the ongoing project to band American Flamingos in the big colony at Rio Lagartos, on the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Kenn Kaufman at ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook Group

Flamingo sightings will end as the birds head home. For now, enjoy them in videos.

video from Tampa Bay Times on YouTube
video embedded from @10TampaBay on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)