Oct 30 2014

How To Open A Black Walnut

Published by under Mammals

Fox squirrel with partially open black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

There’s a bumper crop of black walnuts in my neighborhood this month, so many that they’ve stained the sidewalk black.  They’re good to eat but how do you open them?

If you’re a human, you put on rubber gloves and safety glasses and hit the nuts with a hammer.  The first whack cracks the greenish-yellow husk that stains everything black, hence the gloves.

The husk is the easy part.  The shells are very, very hard to crack.  Some people suggest using a vise instead of a hammer to open the nuts but no matter what you do pieces of shell go flying, hence the safety glasses.

If you’re a squirrel you don’t have tools but you do have teeth.

Donna Foyle watched a fox squirrel open a black walnut outside her window.  The squirrels open peanuts in a flash but this black walnut took a long time.

The squirrel began by gnawing a hole on the side of the nut.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

“He quickly gnawed the shell, turning it, gnawing many times, turning it, gnawing almost in continuous quick motion, turning it again.  He never deliberately stopped gnawing to spit out the shredded shell,”  wrote Donna.

You can see he made the “sawdust” fly.  No goggles for him!
Fox squirrel making the sawdust fly as he opens a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

After 40 minutes he’d made real headway.  The hole was a bowl from which he ate the nutmeat.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

Did he save the rest for later?

The squirrels in my neighborhood are eating fewer and saving more, burying them in everyone’s mulch.

 

 

(photos by Donna Foyle)

4 responses so far

Oct 29 2014

Mitten Leaves

Published by under Winter Weeds & Trees

Sassafras leaves in three shapes and two colors (photo by Kate St. John)

These very different leaves came from the same tree.

Sassafras turns red and yellow in the fall showing off its unlobed leaves, two-lobed “mittens” and three-lobed “paws.”  All three shapes grow on the same tree including both right and left-handed mittens (I checked).

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a medium-sized tree native to eastern North America from southern Maine to Florida to eastern Texas. In Pennsylvania it grows everywhere except on the central high plateau of the Northern Tier.

The tree’s roots, bark, shoots and fruit were used directly in many foods, drinks, perfumes and medicines (think “root beer”) until the essential oil, safrole, was discovered to be carcinogenic and outlawed by the FDA in 1960.  Sassafras by-products can still be used in food and cosmetics as long as they’re certified safrole-free.  Safrole is used in pesticides.

In Europe people plant sassafras as an ornamental for its aromatic scent and unusual leaves.

I found these in the wild in Harrison Hills County Park.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Oct 28 2014

From T-Rex To Hummingbirds

Chart of dinosaur-to-bird evolution (illustration by Steve Brusatte)

Ancient birds have a new family tree.

In a report last month in Current Biology researchers at University of Edinburgh and Swarthmore College analyzed 850 body features of 150 dinosaurs, then used statistical analysis to assemble a detailed family tree from dinosaurs to birds.

Interestingly, they found that the evolution of bird characteristics in dinosaurs was very gradual and non-linear.  Features like feathers, wings and wishbones appeared in many species over tens of millions of years so there is no “missing link” dinosaur line to the first bird.

“This process was so gradual that if you traveled back in time to the Jurassic, you’d find that the earliest birds looked indistinguishable from many other dinosaurs,” said Swarthmore statistician Stephen Wang.

And then, 150 million years ago the bird skeleton came together and bang! there was an explosion in species from the one-of-a-kind hoatzin to more than 350 species of hummingbirds.  According to Science Daily, this explosion “supports a controversial theory proposed in the 1940s that the emergence of new body shapes in groups of species could result in a surge in their evolution.”

Read more here in Science Daily about the family tree.

Most kids go through a dinosaur-loving phase.  Some of us fall in love with birds and never come out of it.  ;)

 

(diagram by Stephen L. Brusatte, University of Edinburgh. Click on the image to see the original.)

 

No responses yet

Oct 27 2014

Witch-hazel Blooming

Witch-hzel blooming in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Look for small yellow flowers clustered on the stems of a shrub or small tree.

Its four petals resemble lemon peel and are slightly hidden by the leaves right now but they’ll persist into November when they’ll be easier to see.

Witch-hazel blooming in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Witch-hazel is the only tree I know of that blooms in the fall, September to November.  It has other odd traits, too.

  • Though it blooms in the fall, it doesn’t set fruit until the following August, nearly a year later.
  • Just before it blooms the old fruit explodes, dispersing seeds up to 20 feet away.
  • Witch-hazel can find water. Its branches are used as divining rods.
  • It’s no coincidence that this plant has the same name as the astringent “witch hazel.”  The topical treatment is an extract of witch-hazel’s leaves and bark.

I found this one blooming in Schenley Park along the Lower Panther Hollow Trail.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Check the comments for Sally’s question about pollination and the fascinating answer.

3 responses so far

Oct 26 2014

Ugly But Beautiful

Published by under Beyond Bounds

King Vulture at  Weltvogelpark Walsrode, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

From a distance the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) of Central and South America looks simply black and white but up close his naked head is amazing.

That’s his skin that’s so colorful — yellow, orange, red, blue, gray and purple.

Ugly but beautiful.

 

(This featured photo on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license) was taken at Weltvogelpark Walsrode in Germany.  Click on the image to see the original)

No responses yet

Oct 25 2014

Moth Identity Challenges

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Moth found in Harrison Hills County Park, Allegheny County, 23 Oct 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I photographed this half-inch-long moth at Harrison Hills County Park near Natrona Heights.

This morning I tried to identify it at butterfliesandmoths.org using the online photos.  I was able to narrow my list to 20 possibilities out of more than 3,000 moths but none of them were correct when I compared closely.

Changing tactics I used the regional perspective:  Which of my 20 possibilities were on the Allegheny County moth checklist?  The checklist subtracted 10 and added four.  However, my faith in that checklist was shattered when I discovered it’s missing Malacosoma americanum, the eastern tentworm moth, that Tom Pawlesh photographed in Allegheny County and posted on the website.

Nonetheless the checklist gave me a hint.  Perhaps this is one of the owlet moths, Noctuidae.  It looks a bit like Eupsillia tristigmata.

Searching through Noctuidae at BugGuide.net I found one here that looks like mine but no one has identified it.

Yet.

Perhaps you can tell me what it is.  Please leave a comment with your answer.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Fascinating news on Monday Oct 27:  Owlet moths pollinate witch-hazel flowers at night!

No responses yet

Oct 24 2014

Move Along, Move Along!

Published by under Crows, Ravens

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about winter crows as I am.  If you walk or park your car beneath the roosts you’re surely disgusted by the mess they make.  What to do? Move the crows.

Central New York state has lots of experience with crow wrangling.  At times Auburn has had 70,000 winter crows, more than two and a half times their human population of 28,000.  Years of trial and error have shown that killing crows doesn’t work but moving them does.

So now, every fall Central New York gets ready to move the crows to locations that aren’t so bothersome.  This August 2012 video shows a seminar in Baldwinsville, 20 miles northeast of Auburn … as the crow flies.

Move along, crows. Move along!

 

(YouTube from Central New York, WSTM)

One response so far

Oct 23 2014

TBT: Monster Of The Ohio

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Sam Hall and "Wally" the walleye, Ohio River, Oct 11, 2008

Sam Hall and “Wally” the walleye, Ohio River, Oct 11, 2008

What can you catch in the river in October?  The Monster of the Ohio.

On Throw-Back Thursday (TBT), here’s a fish story from October 2008.

 

(photo from Sam Hall)

No responses yet

Oct 22 2014

An 80,000-Year-Old Tree

Published by under Plants

The world's oldest organism, Pando aspen (photo by USDA via Wikimedia Commons)

This may look like an aspen forest but it’s a single tree, 80,000 years old.

Last week at the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania we were wowed by the news that this stand of quaking aspen, covering 106 acres near Utah’s Fish Lake, is a single “tree.”  All the trunks are shoots from a single clonal root.

We learned this during Wil Taylor’s lecture on Jennings Prairie when he explained that aspen is threatening to take over Jennings.  DCNR burns or cuts the prairie to keep it open but aspen love that treatment.  They come back even stronger the next year with more shoots from the same root.  In fact, fire and low rainfall are probably the reason why this huge aspen is doing so well in Utah.

Discovered by Burton V. Barnes in 1968 and nicknamed The Trembling Giant, Barnes used morphological clues to determine this Populus tremuloides was from one clonal root.  In the 1990s Michael Grant studied it further and named it Pando.  DNA proves it to be one plant hosting 40,000 stems and weighing 13 million pounds.

Pando’s given age is 80,000 years but that’s the conservative estimate.  It may be as much as 1 million years old.  No one knows for sure.

 

(photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

3 responses so far

Oct 21 2014

Tuck Your Wings

Published by under Bird Behavior

Steppe eagle with backpack tracking device (photo by Graham Taylor, Creative Commons license)

Ever since we invented airplanes engineers have wondered how birds can withstand gusty turbulence that our light aircraft cannot.

To find out, researchers from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology fitted a captive steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) with a flight data recorder.   Steppe eagles are large, similar to our golden eagle, so the 75g black box was not a burden for ‘Cossack.’

As he flew at Brecon Beacons, Wales researchers filmed Cossack’s maneuvers, then tied the video to the recorded airspeed, acceleration, rotation rate, and GPS location.

Oxford reports, “An analysis of data from 45 flights revealed that in windy conditions the eagle would collapse its wings in response to particularly strong gusts rather than hold them out stiffly as an aircraft would. During these ‘wing tucks’, the bird’s wings were briefly (for around 0.35 seconds) folded beneath its body so that it was effectively ‘falling’. The results suggest that these ‘wing tucks’ may occur up to three times a minute in some conditions.”

Professor Graham Taylor said, “We think that, rather like the suspension on a car, birds use this technique to damp the potentially damaging jolting caused by turbulence.”

Have you seen large birds do this?  I have, but I didn’t realize what it was.  I know, for instance, that turkey vultures hate to flap but I’ve seen them crest a hill and suddenly tuck their wings.  Aha!  They probably encountered turbulence.

See raptors tuck their wings and, in November, golden eagles at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.  If you’d like a guided tour to the Allegheny Front sign up for the National Aviary’s November 1 bus trip.

For more on this study see the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

 

(photo of ‘Cossack’ by Graham Taylor, Creative Commons license.  Click on the image to see the original article and image at Science Daily)

No responses yet

Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ