Sep 17 2014

Lasting Impression

Published by under Plants

Stinging nettle closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle captured my imagination at the age of seven.

In Now We Are Six, Christopher Robin offers the Little Black Hen three things if she’ll lay him an egg for Easter Day.  Of the three, the only thing she cares to see is the nettle-place on his leg which she touches gently with her wing. “Nettles don’t hurt if you count to ten.”  This left a lasting impression on me.

For decades I thought stinging nettles were foreign, exotic and only grew in England so I was awed when shown a huge patch of them in Pennsylvania.  It was spring.  They smelled like cat pee.  I kept a wide berth and vowed to always wear long pants while hiking (which I do to this day).

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. The nominate subspecies dioica that Christopher Robin encountered is introduced.  Three to seven feet tall, stinging nettle is coated with hollow stinging hairs loaded with histamines and painful chemicals.  A gentle brush against the plant causes the hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

At very close quarters the plant looks bristly.  The close-up above is of the crown at the top of the plant.
Stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Even the tiny leaf-like structures have stinging hairs.
Closeup of stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Because of my cautionary introduction to nettles, it took me a long time to believe the plant is good to eat and has a wide variety of medicinal uses.  I was skeptical about the Nettle Soup recipe in my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 Quart young nettle tops.”  (Sure!  I’m going to eat that??)  But it’s true.  Nettles are eaten around the world.  Young leaves are best. Click these links for food and medicinal uses.

Some people take nettle eating to an extreme.  There’s an annual World Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset England which began on a dare in 1986. Beer is involved.

In September stinging nettles still have a frizz of whitish flowers dangling from their stems — or perhaps seeds, I did not get close! — as seen in the whole-plant photo below.  I’ve circled the crown area of the close-ups in red.
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)

 

So now you know what it looks like … in case you want to try.  ;)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 16 2014

Mirage On Cold Water

Published by under Weather & Sky

September mirage of distant islands near Great Wass, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

It was brilliantly sunny with a chilly east wind when I hiked at Schoodic Peninsula on the coast of Maine last Wednesday.  Little did I know the conditions were perfect for a superior mirage.

Schoodic is one of the endless procession of peninsulas and islands that reach into the Gulf of Maine east of Acadia National Park‘s Cadillac Mountain.  Though Schoodic is part of the park it takes an hour and a half to drive there around Frenchman Bay.

That day from the top of Schoodic Head the nearby islands and peninsulas were undistorted but on the horizon the land looked really odd.  One pink granite island was shaped like an hourglass and a peninsula looked sparsely tree-covered with a flat top.

This was a “superior mirage,” so called because the upside down images are above the real objects.  They are typical in cold water zones where the inversion of warm air above cold air distorts the light.  When very complex they’re called Fata Morgana, an Italian reference to the sorceress Morgan le Fay, because reality is distorted as if by magic.

Mirages are so common in the Arctic that explorers learned to be very careful before they labeled what they saw as solid land.  In 1818 Sir John Ross gave up pursuing the Northwest Passage when he saw mountains blocking Lancaster Sound.  He named them the Croker Mountains and headed back for England despite the protests of several officers including Edward Sabine (for whom the Sabine’s gull is named).  The mistake ruined Ross’ career. Eighty-eight years later Robert Peary thought he saw a distant land mass and named it Crocker Land.  It too was a mirage. Beware of naming anything in the Arctic with the letters C, R, O, K, E, R. It doesn’t turn out well.

Even spookier:  A re-examination of testimony surrounding the sinking of the Titanic indicates a mirage may have hidden the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookout and hidden the Titanic from the nearest rescue ship.  Click here for illustrations that show how this could happen.

Mirages change quickly so I was able to snap only one good image before it became less interesting. I was fascinated but not fooled.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 15 2014

In Steep Decline

Published by under Musings & News

Herring Gull (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last week I learned something new.  Did you know that herring gulls are in steep decline?

On Thursday Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology published the 2014 State of the Birds Report in honor of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon who died 100 years ago this month.  The report heralds the great conservation successes of the past 100 years — bald eagles, wood ducks, Kirtland’s warbler, brown pelicans — and warns of species currently in decline that need our attention.

Especially interesting is the list of 33 common birds in steep decline.  According to the report, “These birds have lost more than half their global population. All of these species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals over the past four decades.”  We know from the passenger pigeon’s experience that steep decline can quickly lead to extinction so these birds are the ones to help right now.

Many are those I’ve written about in the past — common nighthawks, snow buntings, rusty blackbirds, common grackles — but the herring gull was a real surprise.   How can this species be threatened when we see them everywhere at the shore and the mall?

It turns out that herring gulls nearly went extinct in the 1880′s because of market hunting but made a stunning comeback to 100,000 birds by the 1980′s, thanks in part to humans’ wasteful ways (coastal refuse dumps and fishing boat waste).  Then the tide started to turn.  78% of the herring gull population has disappeared in the last 40 years.  Who knew?

There are plenty of birds who need our help.  Click here for the full report.  We can do it!

And here’s the list of 33 Common Species in Steep Decline.  You’ll find some surprises.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins)

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S19786167#sthash.nJ6TklhP.dpuf

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Sep 14 2014

International Rock Flipping, Without A Flip

International Rock Flipping Day logo (from Wanderin' Weeta)

Today is International Rock Flipping Day and I’m participating for the sixth time in this Blog Carnival event.

But the truth is I did not flip a rock.

This year I finally realized that I don’t like to flip rocks.  I don’t want to be surprised by what’s underneath and the surprise is increased by having to stand close enough to photograph the critters.

Before this dawned on me I flipped two carefully chosen benign-looking rocks.  Predictably, there was nothing but dirt under them.  (Whew!)  Even so I followed Rock Flipping Protocol and replaced the rocks as I found them.

Then I remembered Mainly Mongoose’s 2010 blog post in which she pondered the hazards of flipping rocks in the lowveld of northeastern South Africa, a location filled with poisonous snakes. Luckily she found a rock monitor (lizard) poised in a rock crevice.  No flipping required!

So I switched strategies and photographed the most interesting crevices in the rock walls at Schenley Park.  This yielded three spider webs: a many-round-holed web, a hammock, and a funnel.  The spiders were quick to hide as I approached.

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Web between the rocks (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Hoping for more interesting creatures, I visited the groundhogs’ wall domain but no one was home until this little guy appeared, hidden behind the flowers.

Chipmunk in a rock crevice, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Not as good as a rock monitor but a chipmunk is a nice surprise.

Happy, International Rock Flipping Day.  Go out and flip a rock if you dare!  Remember to put it back the way you found it.

 

p.s. Watch this space for link(s) to the other rock-flipping bloggers around the world.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 13 2014

Isabella Scoffs At Winter

Isabella tiger moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I found this Isabella Tiger moth caterpillar in Schenley Park.  Does she have a prediction for the coming winter?

Legend has it that wide brown stripes on woolly bear caterpillars predict a mild winter; narrow brown stripes mean a harsh one.

In the 1950′s the former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History surveyed a very small sample of woolly bears and found that the caterpillars had an 80% accuracy rate.  However, no one’s been able to replicate Dr. C. H. Curran’s findings.  Instead a whole host of factors influence the stripes including species, diet and age.  Especially age.  The older instars are browner.

And frankly, this caterpillar doesn’t care how harsh the winter.  It can survive to -90 degrees F, hibernating as a caterpillar (not in a cocoon!) curled up in a ball under a rock or bark.  It freezes completely except for the innermost portions of its cells which are protected by naturally produced glycerol.  In the spring the caterpillar thaws and resumes eating before making a cocoon and becoming a moth.

Theoretically this particular caterpillar is saying “mild winter” but we know it ain’t so.

Isabella scoffs at winter.

Read more here about the woolly bear legend and amazing winter feats.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 12 2014

How Quickly Can You Pass These Tests?

This is a test.  For the next 3+ minutes wild New Caledonian crows will solve six physics problems in water displacement.

What will raise the floating treat?  If there are two treats which method is fastest?  The challenges are:

  1. Sand versus Water:  Will the crow know that there’s no point in dropping stones onto sand?
  2. Light versus Heavy objects:  Do heavy objects work better than light ones?
  3. Solid versus Hollow objects: Do solid objects work better than hollow ones even though the hollow objects weigh the same?
  4. Narrow water column versus Wide:  Which column takes longer to elevate?
  5. High versus Low water:  Is it faster to get the treat when the water is already close to the top?
  6. U-tube with a hidden connection:  Very hard! Will the crow figure out that one of the wide tubes governs the water level in the narrow one?

In the video the crows solve every problem but behind the scenes they faltered on the U-tube test so the scientists say they flunked it.

How quickly can you solve these physics problems?  Be quick on the U-tube test or else …

This experiment was tried with New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, and human children.  Read all about it here in PLOS One.

My favorite quote from the Discussion is: “The results from the current U-tube experiment suggest that New Caledonian crows are comparable to Eurasian jays, but differ from human children.”   ;)

 

(video from PLOS Media on YouTube)

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Sep 11 2014

TBT: A Sound Like Spring Peepers

Published by under Migration

Swainson's Thrush (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

This is the month: Listen before dawn on a calm or north-wind night and you’ll hear a sound like spring peepers passing overhead.  Swainson’s thrushes are calling to each other as they migrate in the dark!

Read more about their call in this blog post from September 2009.   Click here to listen.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 10 2014

Waves In The Sky

Published by under Weather & Sky

Cloud ripples 12 hours before the cold front (photo by Kate St. John)

What does it mean when there are waves in the sky?

These altocumulus undulatus clouds form at mid height at the spot where moisture meets wind shear.  Straight above my camera the wind abruptly changed direction and speed.  The long lines are perpendicular to the strongest wind, just like waves on a lake.

Altocumulus undulatus are typically only 300 feet wide so the wind shear here is a narrow zone.  If you flew through these clouds you’d probably feel a bump.

The waves might mean something big is about to happen … or not.  If they thicken over time, they indicate that moisture is building ahead of an approaching front 100 to 200 miles away.  If they cover only a small part of the sky, they merely mean that something’s going on right there.

Keep looking up.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 09 2014

Taking A ShortCut

Published by under Water and Shore

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

A rare gull showed up at the Pymatuning spillway last Friday in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.  Thanks to Mark Vass’s report and the gull’s three day stopover, many birders saw this beautiful Sabine’s gull.

Named for Edward Sabine(*) who first noted the bird in Greenland in 1818, adults in breeding plumage are easy to identify with dark gray hoods, yellow-tipped black bills, notched tails, and triangles of black-white-gray on their upper wings.  As you can see in Shawn Collins’ photos, this one is an adult.

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

What a cooperative bird!

Sabine's gull at Pymatuning Spillway, 5 Sep 2014 (photo by Shawn Collins)

Sabine’s gulls breed on the tundra at the top of the world in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia.  Their breeding and dietary habits are so unusual that they’re alone in their genus: Xema sabini.  They call, fly, and court like terns.  Their chicks fledge before fully feathered like terns, but are precocial like shorebirds.  In the Arctic, adults and juveniles feed on the mudflats like shorebirds yet they live on the open ocean most of their lives.

As soon as breeding is over Sabine’s gulls leave for the southern hemisphere, covering 7,500 to 9,000 miles as they make their way to coastal upwelling currents near South America and Southern Africa.  Most migrate offshore, especially the juveniles, but a few cross the continent.  In North America the western group winters at the Pacific’s Humboldt Current while those who breed in eastern Canada and Greenland cross the Atlantic to winter at the Benguela Current near the southern coast of Africa.

Though unusual, this bird was not off course.  He knows the Humboldt Current is due south of Hudson Bay.  He was taking a shortcut.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

* Sabine is pronounced “SAB ine” where SAB rhymes with “cab” and “ine” rhymes with “wine.” For a complete (and light-hearted) list of bird-name pronunciations see Kevin McGowan’s list here.

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Sep 08 2014

2,400

Published by under Books & Events

Mädchen mit Schiefertafel by Albert Anker (reproduction in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This morning my blog dashboard says I’ve published 2,400 articles.  Such a lot of writing!

In honor of that feat — and because I’m on vacation — I’m taking a one-day break and directing you to two vintage posts you’ll find of interest:

  • What’s that vine that blankets Pittsburgh’s hillsides and overgrows our parks?  It has a pretty porcelain berry.
  • How do some birders know in advance that there will be good birds on a September morning?  We watch fall migration on radar.

 

(Mädchen mit Schiefertafel (Girl With Blackboard) by Albert Anker, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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