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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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)

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Sep 29 2015

A Bird On The Hand

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Early this month Debbie Kalbfleisch told us of a magical place loaded with migrating warblers where the chickadees eat out of your hand. The only rules were: Bring black sunflower seed, Never feed the chickadees near the road, Leave no seed behind (or they will learn to eat from the ground, not your hand).

Our birding email group, fittingly called “The Chickadees,” could not resist these enticements so Debbie led us there last Saturday.  Above, she demonstrates that it really works.

Naturally the rest of us had to try.  Below, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and I hold out our hands while Donna Foyle takes our picture.

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

As the chickadees became accustomed to our large group of 12 they came to our hands more often, taking turns and flying off to cache the seeds.

Then the warblers showed up.  (I’d forgotten that migrating warblers forage near chickadees.)  We put the seed in our pockets and raised our binoculars but the chickadees followed, still expecting to eat.  Fortunately one of us always had a hand out.

I missed a few warblers because I love the chickadees so much.

He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)

He’s on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)


You can train your own backyard chickadees to eat from your hand.  All it takes is cold weather and a lot of patience.  Here’s how –> Seeing Eye To Eye With Birds

Balck-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

Black-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)


A bird on the hand is worth two in the bush.


(photos by Donna Foyle)

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Sep 28 2015

In Case You Missed It: Tick Check!

Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from CDC.gov)

Lyme Disease incidence in U.S. 2014 (map from CDC.gov)

In case you missed it on the radio …

Oh no!  That dark blue spot on the map is bad news.  Each microscopic dot represents an incident of Lyme disease in 2014.  Look at western Pennsylvania!

This year Lyme disease came closer to home than ever before. Several friends of mine caught it this summer in Allegheny County, in suburban Pittsburgh.

Do these anecdotes represent a real increase in local Lyme disease?  If yes, what is causing it?  And does it have anything to do with our weather or climate change?

I posted my question on the iSeeChange website (here) and The Allegheny Front‘s Kara Holsopple investigated.  She found out that Lyme disease is increasing in western Pennsylvania and there’s more than one reason for it.  Warmer winters (climate change) do play a part.

Read and hear the story here at:  Tick Check: Why Lyme Disease is on the Rise in Pennsylvania.


(Lyme disease incidence map from CDC.gov.  Click on the map to see the large PDF version)

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Sep 27 2015

Two Gentians

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Closed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Bottle Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Autumn would not be complete without a look at two gentians that bloom in western Pennsylvania from late August to October.

Bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is relatively common, especially in damp shaded soil at Moraine State Park.  When the flowers bloom they remain so tightly closed that only bumblebees can force their way in and pollinate the plant.  Other insects cheat, however, and pierce the flower to reach the nectar.

Fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is such a rare plant that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired and preserved the Fringed Gentian Fen in Lawrence County to protect it.

Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Fringed Gentian (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Fens are open wetlands dominated by grasses and sedges that have pH neutral or alkaline water with lots of dissolved minerals.  Fens seem useless to humans because they’re so soggy but they’re exactly where fringed gentians love to grow.

Visit damp places in September and October to find these two gentians.


(photos by Dianne Machesney)

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Sep 26 2015

Bronze Copper

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Bronze Copper Butterfly (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Bronze Copper Butterfly (photo by Dianne Machesney)

The season is almost over for butterflies but there are still some great ones out there.

Dianne and Bob Machesney found this Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus) a week ago in a damp area of Moraine State Park.  She and Bob usually see American Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) because those butterflies prefer plants that grow in disturbed soil.  Bronze Coppers prefer plants in bogs, marshes and wet meadows so they’re much harder to find.

I love the yellow tips on its striped antennae.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Sep 25 2015

Bald Eagle Takes Selfie on Stolen Camera

Bald eagle screenshot from Mason Colby's video on YouTube

More than a year ago Mason Colby decided to film bald eagles in Craig, Alaska by setting up his Go Pro camera next to some salmon heads.

Things were going well until an immature bald eagle stole the camera!  Mason wrote on YouTube:

Set up my go pro next to some salmon heads from the days catch to film the eagles eating and next thing I know, one of them swoops down and snags the camera right off the ground. It carried it up to a mile away and I lost sight of it. For four hours we searched in the rain until I finally found it and the camera was still intact. So glad I got the footage!

Click on the screenshot to see what happened.


(screenshot from Mason Colby on YouTube. This video was featured by JunkinVideo on 3 Sept 2015)

p.s. Bald eagles are more plentiful and gregarious in Alaska than in Pennsylvania except for this once-a-year exception: They congregate at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna in November, just south of PA in Maryland.

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