Not A Sparrow, Not A Thrush

American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American pipit, Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Not a sparrow, not a thrush, he's on his way to Georgia ... sort of.

American pipits (Anthus rubescens) nest in alpine and arctic tundra and winter in open country from the southern U.S. (including Georgia) to Guatemala.  Right now they're on the move through western Pennsylvania, but because our area lacks tundra the best place to find pipits is on mudflats.  And where are those?

Last Sunday a bunch of us stopped at Somerset "Not a Lake" in Somerset, PA to look for birds.  The lake was drained to repair the dam and out on the mud roamed killdeer, dunlin and other shorebirds.  Among them were two songbirds that pecked the mud, darted, zigzagged, ran and jumped. American pipits.

We could hear them, too.  Here's a loud pipit (with a soft longspur in the background):

On Throw Back Thursday this vintage article that lists why pipits aren't thrushes.  Back in 2010 it was posed as a quiz, but I've already told you the answer  😉    Quiz: Not A Thrush.

 

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

Small Ducks Stop By For a Visit

Bufflehead female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)
Buffleheads, female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)

It's early November, the wind's from the north, and it's time for waterfowl. Here are two small ducks who stop in southwestern Pennsylvania on their way south.

Buffleheads and ruddy ducks hang out together in the winter, perhaps because they dive for the same food:  aquatic insects and crustaceans (crabs, crayfish, etc).  Buffleheads add mollusks to their diet (small mussels, clams, etc).  Ruddy ducks add plants and zooplankton.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are black and white with compact bodies and stubby bills.  Only 13.5 inches long, they fly fast and land abruptly.  They're actually the same size as a pied-billed grebe(*) but bufflehead males look larger because their round white-topped heads stand out.

Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)

Identifying female buffleheads is tricky, though, because their black heads have a white splash on the cheek that resembles -- at long distance -- a male hooded merganser or a female ruddy duck.

The best clue to a female bufflehead is that she's close to the males, as you can see in Steve Gosser's photo at top.

While buffleheads look like large ducklings, ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are shaped like bathtub toys(*).  At only 15 inches long they have big heads, thick necks and large slightly upturned bills.  Just like rubber duckies they often cock their tails, especially when asleep.

Ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck swimming (photo by Steve Gosser)

In November ruddies are less "ruddy" than in the breeding season but the male retains his white cheek.

Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)

Females and juveniles have off white cheeks with a faint brown line.

Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Though buffleheads winter as close to us as Ohio, neither species stays in Pittsburgh for the season.  Stop by our rivers and lakes to see these ducks before they leave.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)
(*) Descriptions adapted from Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, an excellent resource for birding.

10th Anniversary!

Put on Your Party Hats, this blog is 10 Years Old!

Usually a crow provides bird-thday entertainment, but this year two Venezuelan troupials won the honor of singing "Happy Birthday To You."  This is definitely competitive singing!

Thanks to all of you, my readers,  who have kept me blogging about birds, nature and peregrine falcons since November 2007.  I couldn't have done it without your enthusiasm.

And thank you to all the great photographers who let me use their photos.  See who they are here.

Woo Hoo!  Happy Bird-thday!

 

p.s. Venezuelan troupials are the national bird of Venezuela and are in the Blackbird family (Icterid).

(photo credit: Click here to see the original photo of the crow on a spire by Ian Shane via Wikimedia Commons; party hat was added by Kate St. John)

We Are Nature

We Are Nature, Living in the Anthropocene entry sign, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes it's hard to imagine that we humans are part of the natural world.  We think we are outside of Nature, instead we are intricately entwined. This special exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History shows how we affect Nature and are affected by it.

We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene tells many stories of our impact on Earth by focusing on five areas: pollution, extinction, PostNatural (intentionally altered organisms), climate change, and habitat alteration.

Some of our effects are so common we forget they wouldn't exist without us.  Dogs, for example.  They're in the PostNatural category.

We also tinker with wild things like wolves.  The plaque below this animal says:

"A Trickle-Down Effect (Trophic Cascade): Humans eliminated gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s. In 1995, 31 gray wolves were reintroduced to the park from Canada; the wolf population is now considered stable. While some ranchers may not agree, the return of wolves to Yellowstone, coupled with other ecological factors, has had positive effects on biodiversity and the health of the park."

Human tinkering with the wolf population trickles down to the entire ecosystem, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Human tinkering with the wolf population trickles down to the entire ecosystem, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

 

But most of our effects occur when we aren't paying attention.

Acid rain is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity.  We had no idea this made a difference until we noticed that our downwind lakes were becoming acidic.  More than a water problem, acid rain makes land snails scarce and causes declines in ovenbird breeding success.  An exhibit of tiger snails says:

Tiger Snail + Acid Rain:  Acid rain from human pollution harms some of Pennsylvania's smallest animals: tiger snails.  ... Museum scientist Tim Pearce found that before 2000, the tiger snail was found in 53 Pennsylvania counties.  After 2000, that number was cut by more than half.

Tiger snails, We Are Nature, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tiger snails, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

There's one object in the room that's the perfect emblem of our aimless effect on earth -- a shopping cart coated in zebra mussels.

Shopping cart coated in zebra mussels, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, We Are Nature exhibit, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Shopping cart coated in zebra mussels, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The shopping cart says, "Humans were here."

  • Humans manufactured something not found in nature.
  • The cart ended up in one of the Great Lakes through human negligence (it rolled) or purpose (dumped).
  • As it lay submerged zebra mussels attached themselves to the cart.  Zebra mussels are an invasive species accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1980s.  They got there on the bottoms of boats.

Without humans, nothing about this object would exist.

See more amazing stories of our impact at We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Click here for more information.

 

p.s. In the Post-Gazette I learned that this is the first exhibition about the Anthropocene in North America. (Go, Pittsburgh!) It will run for a year, include additional programming, and the museum plans to hire a curator of the Anthropocene in January.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Hope For What We’ve Lost

Fall colors of white ash, 26 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Fall colors of white ash, 26 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Two weeks ago I lamented that fall color is disappointing this year but I should have waited.  The trees in Schenley Park looked better last week with red maples, yellow hickories, and this small tree reminding me of what we've lost.

Those pale green, yellow, orange and violet leaves are on a small ash tree whose trunk diameter is too small to be plagued by emerald ash borer ... and now I've found out why.

Before the emerald ash borer (EAB) invasion, mature ash trees added pastel violet to the splash of color on our hillsides but now only the saplings are left.

Just across the trail from the ash sapling stands a mature ash that's alive, though struggling.  Some upper branches have died back and there are sucker branches below them.  An old emerald ash borer hole shows what the mature tree was dealing with.

White ash tree with emerald ash borer hole in bark (photo by Kate St. John)
White ash tree with emerald ash borer hole in bark (photo by Kate St. John)

The old tree is alive because it received insecticide treatments during the height of the EAB invasion from a program of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh.   Beginning in 2011, 158 specimen ash trees were treated in the city parks.  This one is #76 according to the metal tag.

White ash tree with tag indicating it is treated for emerald ash borer (photo by Kate St. John)
White ash tree with tag indicating it is treated with insecticide for emerald ash borer (photo by Kate St. John)

Years later it appears that emerald ash borer numbers have dropped and it wasn't because we used insecticides.

Scientists working on EAB biological control in Michigan found that many factors contributed to the emerald ash borer population collapse there.

"Woodpeckers, native and introduced parasitoids, intraspecific competition, disease, innate tree defenses, and reduced ash abundance contributed to the collapse of EAB populations."

Notice that woodpeckers are at the top of the list!

Second on the list are four tiny parasitic insects that kill emerald ash borer larvae.  Two native insects target emerald ash borers through the thin bark of saplings and at Michigan study sites scientists introduced two more parasitic insects from China, the emerald ash borer's homeland, to get through the bark of mature ash trees.

Thanks to the hard work of scientists and arborists we may hope that our ash saplings will grow into mature ash trees.

Read more about ash tree biological controls at this U.S. Forest Service webpage.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

An Insect Surrounded

Gall on black walnut leaf, 2 Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Gall on black walnut leaf, 2 Nov 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

When an insect laid its egg on this black walnut leaf, the leaf responded by surrounding it to wall it off.

That's exactly what the insect had in mind.  The wall makes it safe.

Now that the leaf has fallen from the tree, I wonder what will happen to the insect.

p.s. I have no idea which gall this is.  Do you know?

 

(photo by Kate St.John)

At Last It Rained and …

After weeks of dry weather it finally rained in late October and ... wow!   Local wild food enthusiast and mushroom hunter, Adam Haritan, found a mother lode of giant puffball mushrooms in western Pennsylvania's woods.

Join in his enthusiasm and learn about these edible mushrooms in his Learn Your Land video above. Subscribe to his YouTube channel to get periodic updates on mushrooms and edible plants.

And this weekend you'll have an opportunity to learn from Adam Haritan in person when he presents "Late Autumn Foraging For Edible Wild Plants & Mushrooms" at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Sunday, November 5th, 2-4pm.  This free event is hosted by the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy.  ( Map and info here.)

 

(video at Learn Your Land on YouTube)

The Wax Eaters Are Back In Town

Yellow-rumped warbler in autumn (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Yellow-rumped warbler in autumn (photo by Cris Hamilton)

After most warblers have left for the winter, the yellow-rumped warblers come back to town.

Breeding across Canada and the northern U.S., yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) spend the winter in North America as close to us as Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, though not usually in our area.  In late fall they stop by in Pittsburgh.

Yellow-rumps don't have to leave for Central or South America because they have a unique talent. Their bodies can digest wax.  In winter they eat the waxy fruits of bayberry and juniper.  Since bayberry is also called wax myrtle, it gave our common subspecies its name:  the myrtle warbler.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how yellow-rumped warblers get nutrition from wax in this vintage article:  Anatomy: Wax Eaters.

 

p.s. Notice that the warbler in the Wax Eaters article is wearing bright breeding plumage in black, white and yellow . Autumn yellow-rumps are dull brown with a faint vest and a broken white eye ring. The best clue to their identity is their yellow rump.

Yellow-rumped warbler showing its yellow rump (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Yellow-rumped warbler showing its yellow rump (photo by Cris Hamilton)

(photos by Cris Hamilton)

Sexing Spicebush

Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush fruit, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

How do you tell the sex of a spicebush?  In autumn the females have bright red fruit.

Flowering plants (angiosperms) have different ways of reproducing:

  • 90% of species have "perfect" flowers containing both male and female parts -- stamens and pistils.  "Perfect" flowers are bisexual or hermaphrodites.
  • Monoecious species have separate male and female flowers on the same plant.  Did you know that corn (maize) is monoecious?  The tassle on top is the male flower; the corncob grows from the female flower.
  • Dioecious species have male and female flowers on separate plants.  Only 6% of flowering plants are dioecious, mostly woody species.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is dioecious but I didn't know that when I encountered this explosion of spicebush berries in the Laurel Highlands.

Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Profusion of spicebush berries, Laurel Highlands, Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Right next to the fruit-laden bush was another one with no fruit at all -- just tiny green knobs, the buds for next spring.  Why?

Aha!  This plant is male.

Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush without fruit, just buds, Fall 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you know what to look for you can sex spicebush at any time of year but autumn is the easiest. In spring the spicebush flowers are so small that you'll want a magnifying glass to see their tiny structures.

For closeups of male and female spicebush flowers click here at the New Jersey Plant Society's webpage on Lindera benzoin.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Birds With Masks

Masked boobies, Howland Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Masked boobies, Howland Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Halloween, birds with masks are here to celebrate.

Masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) breed on tropical islands around the world except in the eastern Atlantic (near Africa).  In September Hurricane Jose blew an exhausted masked booby all the way to Cape Cod.  It was rescued but died.

Masked ducks (Nomonyx dominicus) are found at ponds and small lakes from Mexico to South America and in the Caribbean.  These elusive birds are sometimes in south Texas where I missed my chance to see one.

Masked duck, Nomonyx dominicus (phot from Wikimedia Commons)
Masked duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Laughing falcons (Herpetotheres cachinnans) wear a broken mask.  I heard them laugh in Costa Rica.

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)
Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica (photo by Bert Dudley)

 

Male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) are easy to identify by their masks but the females and juveniles don't wear one.  The unmasked birds are so confusing.

Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common yellowthroat (photo by Steve Gosser)

In late October cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are still here in Pittsburgh though in smaller numbers.  Their faces are ready for the masquerade ball.

Cedar waxwing (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Cedar waxwing (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Can you think of other masked birds?

Happy Halloween!

 

(photo credits: Masked boobies and masked duck from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Laughing falcon by Bert Dudley. Common yellowthroat by Steve Gosser. Cedar waxwing by Cris Hamilton.)