Oct 09 2015

So Many Birds

Published by under Migration

Tree swallows have left western Pennsylvania for the south but their migration lingers on the Atlantic Coast.

On October 1 Mike Lanzone filmed a huge flock at Cape May, New Jersey.  (Click on the word “vimeo” to see the video in full screen.)

There are so many birds on the East Coast in October that Cape May Bird Observatory holds a fall birding festival.  This year it’s October 22-25 with the title “So. Many. Birds.”  You can see why.


(video by Mike Lanzone)

No responses yet

Oct 08 2015

Purple Finches This Winter?

Published by under Migration

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Will this winter bring unusual northern birds to our feeders?

Yes, probably purple finches. Maybe redpolls.  I know this because I read the Winter Finch Forecast.

Every fall Ron Pittaway produces a Winter Finch Forecast for Canada that predicts the travels of seed eating birds and three other species that often irrupt when finches do.  When he says a species will leave Ontario, it will probably come to Pennsylvania.

To make his prediction Pittaway looks at Canada’s forests from a seed eater’s perspective.  This year purple finch foods are in low supply on Canada’s trees so he predicts that “Many (not all) should migrate south out of Ontario this fall.”

Get ready for purple finches by offering sunflower seeds at your feeders.

And learn to tell the difference between house finches (already at your feeders) and purple finches (who aren’t here yet).  Click here for comparison photos and a discussion of Purple versus House.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
Year round resident throughout PA A northern finch, not common in southern PA
Male (red and brown): Basically a brown bird with red or orange accents, especially on his head. Male (rosy): Head, back, breast are rosy as if the bird was dipped head first in berry juice.
Male (red and brown): Has brown stripes on flanks. Male (rosy): Has rosy stripes on flanks.
Female (brown): Looks gray-brown overall. Has muted, blurry stripes on breast and flanks. Female (brown): Has dark brown flecked stripes on breast and flanks.
May have squared off tail Always has notched tail


The bird pictured above has rosy stripes on his flanks.  Guess who!

Read Ron Pittaway’s 2015-2016 Winter Finch Forecast for news of redpolls, grosbeaks, blue jays and more.


(photo by Brian Herman)

2 responses so far

Oct 07 2015

Through the Storm

Whimbrel (nicknamed Upinraaq) at the MacKenzie River, Canada. She winters in Brazil.

What happens to birds who migrate over the ocean during hurricane season?  Do they run into major storms?

Indeed they do.  Since 2007 when the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite-tracking whimbrels they’ve seen 9 of them fly through hurricanes or tropical storms.  All 9 birds survived!

This year when Upinraaq (above) launched from Newfoundland on her transoceanic journey, she had no idea she’d encounter Tropical Storm Erika.  By the time she hit Erika’s 46 mile per hour winds she’d already been flying non-stop for three days. Nonetheless she flew straight through the storm and made landfall at Suriname.

However, her destination is Brazil and she faces a big challenge in Suriname before she gets home.  Click here to read about her land-side challenge and the amazing feats of migrating whimbrels (one flew through Hurricane Irene!) at the CCB’s blog: Whimbrel Tracked Into Tropical Storm Erika.


(photo by Fletcher Smith linked from the Center for Conservation Biology. Click on the image to see the photo and read the story of Upinraaq.)

No responses yet

Oct 06 2015

Food For The Extinct

The "monkey ball" fruit of the Osage Orange tree (photo from Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)

The “monkey ball” fruit of the Osage Orange tree (photo from Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)

Why is the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) “monkey ball” such a prolific fruit when almost nothing eats it?

Why is the avocado seed so large?  (Persea americana)

Open avocado showing huge seed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Open avocado showing huge seed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Why does the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) have huge thorns on its trunk?  And…

Honeylocust thorns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honeylocust thorns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… large seed pods that no one eats?

Honey locust seed pod (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Honey locust seed pod (photo by Andrew Dunn from Wikimedia Commons)

These fruits are food for giants that are now extinct.

Just 13,000 years ago the Americas were inhabited by mammoths, horses and giant ground sloths whose diet included “monkey balls,” avocados and honey locust pods.  Only a giant could eat such large fruit in one gulp and pass the seeds through its digestive track.

The giant ground sloth (Megatherium) for instance weighed 4 tons (8,000 pounds) and could reach 20 feet up when he put his paw on a tree trunk and stood on his hind legs.  He could also damage the trees so the honey locust evolved big thorns for protection.

Megatherium, extinct ground sloth (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

Megatherium, extinct ground sloth (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

He’s been extinct for 10,000 years, but the tree remembers.


For a fun 5-minute video about the fruits that point to missing mammals, watch below.



(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on each image to see its original)

Notes and links:

2 responses so far

Oct 05 2015

Don’t Touch!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


This caterpillar is almost as cute as the Woolly Bear (Isabella tiger moth) with fluffy white fur, a black dash down his back, and a little black face, but…

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


Don’t touch him!

This is a hickory tussock moth caterpillar and those long white hairs contain allergens that will make you sting and itch as if you’d touched stinging nettle.

The hairs are actually hollow spines, the perfect delivery system for chemicals that prevent him from being eaten.  Even a clueless young animal will only mouth this caterpillar once.  Inquisitive humans who’ve touched him will tell you the spines can stay in your skin and make you miserable for weeks.

And don’t touch his cocoon either.  It’s covered with the same nasty hairs.   Click here to see his cocoon.

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are easy to find right now because they’re preparing to spin the cocoons where they’ll overwinter.

Here’s another view so you can memorize his appearance.

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)


Follow this simple rule about caterpillars and you can’t go wrong:  Look but don’t touch!


(photos by Kate St.John)

p.s. Read more about hickory tussock moths in this entertaining article by the Bug Lady at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

10 responses so far

Oct 04 2015

Two Orchids: Common and Rare

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Yellow ladies tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Winter’s not here yet so there’s still time to see fall orchids blooming in western Pennsylvania.

Yellow Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca) are relatively common.  Standing 4 to 21 inches tall, they grow in dry open habitats such as open woods, thickets or meadows and even by side of the road.  Dianne Machesney photographed the one above at Moraine State Park.

October Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), below, are so rare that they’re listed as endangered in Pennsylvania. Their USDA Pennsylvania map shows them occurring only in Lancaster County.

Lesser or October Ladies' Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

October Ladies’ Tresses (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Despite this status, Dianne and Bob Machesney found them blooming at both McConnells Mill and Moraine State Parks on September 19.

You can find October Ladies’ Tresses this month in moist, shady woods or thickets, or along the edges of marshes.  Keep your eyes peeled for a flower that’s 2 to 15 inches tall.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

2 responses so far

Oct 03 2015

Correcting My Punctuation

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Question Mark butterfly, topside (photo by Kate St. John)

The butterfly in question, topside (photo by Kate St. John)

Let me begin by saying I am not a butterfly expert.  I can recognize 10 butterflies, yes only 10, and I regularly misname three of those.

On Thursday at Raccoon Creek State Park I saw lots of Comma(*) butterflies so I took some pictures.  Sorting my photos this morning, I looked for this one showing the comma on the underwing.

The Question Mark on the underwing (photo by Kate St. John)

The Question Mark on the underwing (photo by Kate St. John)

Uh oh!  That white mark is not a Comma.  That line has a gap!  This butterfly is a Question Mark and it’s likely the others were, too.

Commas and Question Marks look similar because they’re closely related, but I could have identified them without a photo if I’d learned these field marks:

Comma (Polygonia comma) Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
Less common Common
Smaller wingspan 1.75″ to 2.5″ Larger wingspan 2.25″ to 3.0″
Forewing Topside: 3 post-median spots Forewing Topside: 4 post-median spots
Hindwing ragged edge Hindwing rather straight edge
Hindwing Underside: Comma is white, large, hooked on one end, continuous, bulging at both ends Hindwing Underside: Question Mark is white, curved, broken in two pieces, one large & one small piece


Here’s an illustration of the Question Mark’s 4 post-median spots, circled in blue with a yellow arrow pointing to dash/spot #4.  Click here to see 3 spots on a Comma.

Question Mark butterfly, topside annotated (photo by Kate St. John)

Question Mark butterfly, highlighting 4 post-median spots (photo by Kate St. John)


Both butterflies are active this month so I’ll get another chance to try my ID skills before they overwinter.

I hope I’ve finally corrected my punctuation.


(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) No, not Commas. Question marks.

One response so far

Oct 02 2015

A Bird In Hand

Published by under Musings & News

Jonathan Nadle with bird in hand at Bird In Hand, PA (photo by Lori Nadle)

Jonathan Nadle with bird in hand (photo by Lori Nadle)

My Tuesday article about hand feeding chickadees (A Bird On The Hand) prompted my friend Jonathan Nadle to send me this photo.

He said it was difficult to find the bird at this location but he was determined not to miss the chance to hold this exceptional species.


(photo by L&J Nadle)

p.s. The man who invented the pink plastic flamingo died last June. Did you know that for 37 years he and his wife always wore matching outfits? Click here to read more.

No responses yet

Oct 01 2015

Don’t Clear Your Garden

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Milkweed pods in winter (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Milkweed pods (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

October’s here, the growing season is over, and soon you’ll clear your garden.

This year, don’t do it.  Save yourself the labor and increase bird activity in your yard.  Here’s why from Marcy Cunkelman in this 2010 Throw Back Thursday article:  Why Not to Clear Your Garden.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

No responses yet

Sep 30 2015

Pay Attention To What I Eat

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the story of a great idea that went sour really fast because people didn’t observe bird behavior.

During the 1800’s many Britons emigrated to New Zealand and began farming. As the settlers cleared the forest, New Zealand’s native birds (which are flightless) retreated or became extinct.

Soon insect pests proliferated and the farmers clamored for a solution.  Someone had a bright idea, “I know! Birds eat bugs. Let’s import a bird.”

The Acclimatisation Societies decided to import the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), a sparrow-like Eurasian bird famous for his pretty song.  They lined up dealers in Britain who captured local yellowhammers and shipped them overseas.  New Zealand’s farmers welcomed them with open arms.

It didn’t take long to find out this was a terrible mistake.  The birds ate the crops, not the insects.

Look at his conical bill and you can tell the yellowhammer eats seeds all year long.  In fact, he only supplements his diet with insects during the breeding season.

Soon New Zealanders hated the yellowhammers.  In 1880, only 15 years after the first birds arrived, the last shipment was turned away and sent to Australia.  Farmers hunted, poisoned and raided yellowhammer nests, trying to rid the country of this once welcomed bird but it was too late.  Yellowhammers were firmly established in New Zealand and are widespread today.

They’d have saved a lot of trouble if someone had paid attention to what yellowhammers eat.

Read the full story here at Science Daily.


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

No responses yet

Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ