Aug 28 2015

Virtual Lobster For Lunch

Belted Kingfisher (screenshot from YouTube video)

Did you know that belted kingfishers eat crayfish as well as fish?

In this YouTube video a female belted kingfisher hunts from a perch and returns with a crayfish.

The crayfish is so large, compared to the bird, that it looks like she’s caught a lobster.  How will she eat it?

Click on the screenshot to watch.


(screenshot from YouTube video by Mark J. Thomas)

2 responses so far

Aug 27 2015

TBT: Dust Baths

Published by under Bird Behavior

House Sparrow taking a dust bath (photo by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

House Sparrow taking a dust bath (photo by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Have you noticed house sparrows playing in “puddles” of dust?

Here’s what they’re doing in this article from August 2009:  Why Do Birds Take Dust Baths?


(photo by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

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Aug 26 2015

Bees Can Monitor Air Pollution

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain vai Wikimedia Commons)

Honeybee at a flower (photo in the public domain vai Wikimedia Commons)

We all know that pollen sticks to bees but did you know that air pollution particles stick, too?  A recent study shows that honey bees can be excellent monitors of local air quality.

Bees have so much static electricity on their bodies that airborne particles stick to their heads, wings and legs as they fly. This includes airborne pollen, salt spray from the sea, soil dust, and industrial pollution.  If you identify the particles, you can identify the pollution source and that’s important if you need to clean it up.

In the study, scientists from the Natural History Museum in London placed eleven beehives near Iglesias, Sardinia, a location known for its legacy pollution of exposed tailings piles from lead-zinc mines in the 19th century.  There are also industries five miles away at the coast: an aluminum smelter, a lead-zinc smelter, and coal-fired and oil-fired power plants.  At a site like this how can you know where the particules comes from?

Scientists captured 10 honey bees at a control site in rural Italy and 20 bees at the Sardinian site, then analyzed the particulate found on their bodies.  The control bees carried natural particles including dust from the local soil.  The Sardinian bees carried sea salt (good) as well as industrial pollution and dust from the lead-zinc mine tailings (bad).

Thanks to the honey bees, the people of Iglesias know more about their air quality.  Honey bees could monitor our quality, too.

Read more here at The Telegraph or the original paper here at PLOS ONE.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 25 2015

How Fast Do Antlers Grow?

Published by under Mammals

Bull elk with large velvet antlers, late July (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Bull elk with large antlers in velvet, 22 July 2015 (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

When you see elk antlers and realize they’re shed and regrown every year, it makes you wonder, “How fast do these antlers grow?”

Antlers are a key component of the elk’s (Cervus canadensis) reproductive cycle.  Only males have them and they use them to fight over mating rights.  Sometimes a bull’s body and antler size are enough to intimidate a smaller male but if no one backs down they fight head to head — and can be seriously injured in the contest.

Bulls shed their antlers in early winter so every male starts with a bare head in the spring and grows a complete set by mid August when the rut begins.

Here’s a typical bull on May 30 with short antlers in thick velvet, photographed by Paul Staniszewski in Elk County, Pennsylvania.  The velvet is a soft layer of highly vascularised skin that protects the growing bone.

Bull elk with velvet antlers, 30 May (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Bull elk with growing antlers, 30 May 2015 (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Only 53 days later, on July 22, the antlers are still in velvet but nearly done growing as shown at the top of this article.

Just before the rut begins the antlers stop growing and the males rub off the velvet against shrubs and trees to shed the dead skin.  Below, a bull has shed all his velvet except for a bit hanging from the tip.

Velvet is nearly gone, 22 August 2015 (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

His antler velvet is nearly gone as this bull elk reaches to eat a pear, 22 August 2015 (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

When complete the rack weighs 25 to 40 pounds and can be 3.9 feet long with a span 5 feet wide.  To reach this size the bone grows nearly an inch a day!

And now, in mid-August, the rut begins.

Bull elk sparring (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Two bull elk sparring (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

If you’d like to see elk sparring visit Elk County, PA from mid-August to October.  Learn more here at the Elk Country Visitors’ Center website.


(photos by Paul Staniszewski)

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Aug 24 2015

On Time For Jewelweed

Ruby-throated hummingbird in Schenley Park, August 2015 (photo by Soji Yamakawa)

Ruby-throated hummingbird in Schenley Park, August 2015 (photo by Soji Yamakawa)
Click on this photo to see a slideshow.

Though many people have hummingbird feeders they aren’t enough to support the birds on migration.  What do ruby-throated hummingbirds eat on their way south?

A study by R.I. Bertin in 1982 found that their primary food source is orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) shown in the photo above.  Birds of North America online says:

“Overland migration in North America is nearly synchronous with peak flowering of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), suggesting this flower is an important nectar source during this time and may influence the timing of migration.”

This month orange jewelweed is thriving by the creek and wetland in Schenley Park.  That’s where I found Soji Yamakawa with his camera last week, spending many hours photographing hummingbirds before his work resumes at Carnegie-Mellon’s Mechanical Engineering Department this fall.   Click on the photo above to see a slideshow of his favorite shots.

Soji and I chatted about the birds and noted there were no adult males in the group. Most adult males have left our area by the second week of August but look closely at the throats of these birds and you’ll see faint stippling or a small patch of red feathers.  They’re immature males, just hatched this spring.

If you want to see hummingbirds in the wild this month, stake out a patch of orange jewelweed and watch for movement among the flowers.  You’ll get a bonus, too.  Rose-breasted grosbeaks forage among the stems, eating the jewelweed seeds.


p.s.  That white patch just above the hummingbird’s bill is jewelweed pollen.

(photos by Soji Yamakawa)

11 responses so far

Aug 23 2015

The Tuliptrees Respond

Published by under Trees

Tuliptree responds to anthracnose by growing new leaves, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tuliptree responds to anthracnose by growing new leaves, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In June’s wet weather, Pittsburgh’s tuliptrees were attacked by anthracnose, a fungus that turned most of their leaves brown.  Click here to see.

July and August were very dry so the fungus died.

The tuliptrees responded.  They’ve grown new leaves!  It doesn’t matter that August is so close to autumn.  They need leaves to make food.

Photosynthesis is restored.


p.s.  The first time I saw trees grow new leaves in the fall was after Hurricane Bob stripped the leaves from the trees on Cape Cod on August 19, 1991.  It was very odd to see spring-like trees on the Cape in early October.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 22 2015

Confused About The Season

Published by under Phenology

Crabapple tree blooming in Frick park in August (photo by Kate St. John)

Ornamental tree in bloom at Frick Park, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Sunday I found several ornamental trees blooming at Frick Park near the Blue Slide playground.

The branches held both flowers and green, unripe fruits.

I don’t know why they’re blooming.

Have you seen trees this month that are confused about the season?


(photos by Kate St. John)

One response so far

Aug 21 2015

Beautiful Places For Your Wish List

Published by under Beyond Bounds

This week Libby Strizzi sent me a link to this beautiful video of Richard Sidey’s expedition photography.

From Antarctica to Greenland, the Falklands to Svalbard, Namibia to Tonga, the next six minutes are filled with restful music, stunning scenery and beautiful birds.

Watch the video in full screen –> here.

It will add new places to your travel Wish List.

Happy Friday!


(video by Richard Sidey on Vimeo)

3 responses so far

Aug 20 2015

TBT: Acrobatic Goldfinches

Published by under Bird Behavior

American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT)

My upside-down feeder made the goldfinches try new acrobatics in this post from August 2008:  Acrobatic Goldfinches


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 19 2015

It Grows a Mile a Minute

Published by under Plants

Mile-a-minute weed (photo by Kate St. John)

Mile-a-minute weed (photo by Kate St. John)

If you ever see this plant, eradicate it!

My first encounter with Mile-a-minute weed was a decade ago in the Laurel Highlands when a small patch of leaves caught my eye.  Such perfect triangles! I didn’t know the plant but if I had I would have uprooted it.

Mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata) is an annual, trailing vine, that thrives in sunlight and can grow 6 inches a day(!).  It has triangular leaves and perfoliate cups at the stem joints, called ocreae, where it produces flowers and fruit.  (Click here to see the fruit.)  Notice the recurved thorns on the stems and on the underside of the leaf veins that give it this alternate name: Devil’s tear-thumb.

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Persicaria perfoliata tried to invade North America several times but didn’t take hold until the late 1930s when it charmed a nurseryman in York County, Pennsylvania. He received it unintentionally in a shipment of seeds, was fascinated and allowed it to grow. By the time he realized his mistake it was too late.  Birds and animals love the fruit and spread the plant.  Mile-a-minute now swamps southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic and New England.  It has spread more than 300 miles since it left York.  Click here for the map.

If you think you’ve found Mile-a-minute weed, check a few things before you pull.  Does it have perfect-triangle leaves?  Does it have thorns?  If so, you’ve found the bad stuff.  Does it have fruit?  Put on your long pants, long sleeves and gloves and pull — and try not to spread the fruit!

I found this fruitless specimen dying in Frick Park last weekend.  I had noticed it in July and was finally returning to pull it but, thankfully, park stewards had already dosed the area with therapeutic defoliant.  Good!  I administered the final blow and pulled it out.


(photos by Kate St. John)

6 responses so far

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