Jul 03 2015

Little Eats Big … Slowly

Harvestman with mites on its legs (photo by Kate St. John)

Harvestman with mites on its legs, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

We’re used to top predators eating small prey but the world is far more complicated than Big Eats Little.  Small things can weaken a predator or bring it down.

Harvestmen (Opiliones), also called daddy long-legs, are omnivorous ‘bugs’ distantly related to spiders.  They are harmless to humans but can be dangerous to small insects.  However they can be weakened by even tinier parasites.

See those two red dots on the harvestman’s legs?  They are parasitic mites sucking the harvestmen’s “blood.”  Bugguide.net identifies them as a species of Leptus (family Erythraeidae) whose larvae parasitize North American harvestmen.

Just two mites are probably not a problem but a large infestation on the body weakens the harvestman.  If seeing bugs-on-bugs doesn’t bother you, click here for an example.

Harvestmen clean their legs by drawing them through their jaws so it’s a wonder the mites remain in place.  Obviously there’s been a long mutual evolution of cleaning and clinging that brought these two species to where they are today.

No matter how small the predator, there’s always something smaller to oppress it.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 02 2015

What to Look For in Early July

Published by under Phenology

Common Milkweed close-up (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Common Milkweed (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What can we expect outdoors in early July?  Click here for my prediction, written in 2009:  Milkweed or What to Look for in Early July.

In 2009 I described how to find monarch butterfly eggs on milkweed leaves.  Sadly, monarchs have declined so precipitously in six years that they’re very hard to find today in western Pennsylvania.

 

(close-up of Common Milkweed by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jul 01 2015

Pitt Peregrine Fledgling Update from ARL

Published by under Peregrines

2015 Pitt peregrine fledgling checked by vet (photo courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

2015 Pitt peregrine fledgling checked by vet (photo courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

Peregrine Update from Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center, 1 July 2015, 11:40am via Facebook … for the bird known as “Silver”:

“Wildlife Center staff took the falcon to be examined by Dr. Robert Wagner yesterday evening. A complete physical examination was conducted. The formerly missing primary feathers are almost completely grown, but our licensed rehabilitators & the veterinarian agree that the bird displays neurological deficits. A blood sample was taken to gain insight on these inconsistencies. A test is also being conducted to rule out lead poisoning. Supportive care will continue as the test results are pending. The falcon will continue to be treated by Wildlife Center staff.”

 

(photo courtesy Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center Facebook page.  Click on the image to visit their Facebook page)

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Jul 01 2015

Mr. Mouse Went A-Courting

Published by under Mammals

House mouse (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

House mouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that male mice sing to attract the ladies?

We can’t hear their songs because they’re way too high for our audio range but each species has its own song and they vary the tunes to fit the social setting.

I learned about this in April’s Audubon news when they highlighted Duke University’s research into mouse songs.  The article included this video of two mouse songs with the audio track digitally lowered so we can hear it.

First a researcher places fresh female urine in the male’s enclosure. Mr. Mouse can smell her but can’t see her so he sings a loud and complex song.  Next they put a female in the male’s enclosure.  When he finds her (why does it take so long?) he snuggles up and sings a softer, simpler song.

What do the lady mice think?  When placed alone in an enclosure with a speaker playing male songs, most females stay close to the speaker when the complex songs play.  Perhaps those songs say “Come hither!”

Click here to read more in Audubon Magazine.

 

p.s. We can’t hear mice sing at 50 kHz, but cats can. 😉

(video from audubon.org’s Vimeo site. photo of a house mouse from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

The title is a reference to “Frog Went A-Courting” in which Frog sings to woo Miss Mouse.

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Jun 30 2015

Bald Bird Season

Published by under Songbirds

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

It’s that time of year again when some birds go bald.  Don’t worry. They won’t stay that way.

Bird bander Matt Webb explained why this happens when he posted his photo of a bald northern cardinal on Facebook:

“The loss of [head] feathers is due to feather mites. They are able to deal with the mites on the rest of their body, but end up breaking their feathers off their heads when they scratch at the mites. They will re-grow the feathers this fall. It’s actually a pretty common and normal occurrence with Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays, and seems to be prevalent at this time of year.”

Two weeks ago I saw a bald blue jay near Schenley Plaza.  He didn’t want me to take his picture so I had to keep my distance.  In this photo he almost looks normal …

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but when he turns his head he’s bald with an Elizabethan ruff around his neck.  😉

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

When birds are bald you can see that …

  • Their ears are holes below their eyes, though usually covered by feathers. Our ears are holes too, partly covered by a flap of skin.
  • Their eyes are large compared to the size of their heads.
  • The northern cardinal’s skin and the roots of his feathers are black.
  • The blue jay’s skin is dark but the roots of his feathers are not.

 

Have you seen any bald birds lately?

(Vultures don’t count! They’re always bald.)

 

(photo of bald northern cardinal photo by Matt Webb, photos of bald blue jay by Kate St. John)

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Jun 29 2015

Walks in Schenley Park: Yesterday + July through October

Participants in Sunday's walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)

Group photo: Sunday’s walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the cold, gray, and drizzle 12 people came out to walk in Schenley Park yesterday morning.

Our best birds were a Baltimore oriole with a fledgling, northern rough-winged swallows, a scarlet tanager, gray catbirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

We also observed that deer tried to eat the Black Cohosh flowers and rejected them (they smell bad), Bottlebrush Buckeye is in full bloom near Panther Hollow Lake, and a rose-breasted grosbeak jumped up to eat Pale Touch-me-not seeds.

Yesterday’s walk was the last one on the schedule but many of you asked for more so I’m pleased to announce 4 more monthly walks — late July through late October — that will take us up to winter.  (Most are the last Sunday of the month, but not in August.)

  • Sunday, July 26:  Meet at Bartlett Shelter. Let’s look at the park from a different angle and see what’s blooming in the meadow.
  • Sunday, August 23:  Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center.  What’s changed at the lake since June? Late summer flowers and a hint of fall.
  • Sunday September 27:  Meet at Bartlett Shelter.  It’s Great Race Day so we’ll avoid road closures and spend time at the quiet end of the park.
  • Sunday, October 25: Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center for the last walk before winter sets in.  Will the crows be back yet?

As always, the walks are 8:30am to 10:30am.  Dress for the weather, wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring binoculars if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates if a walk is canceled for bad weather.

See you then!

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 29 2015

She Took Off His Head

Published by under Peregrines

Storm attacks the banders, 22 June 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Storm attacks the banders, 22 June 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

A week ago two peregrine nestlings were banded at the Westinghouse Bridge.  This coming weekend we’ll hold a Fledge Watch. That’s how fast they mature and fly.

Banding Day, June 22, was the most excitement Pittsburgh Falconuts had seen for a very long time.  The mother peregrine, Storm, put on quite a show when the PA Game Commission’s Dan Brauning came to town to band her babies.

The only way to reach the nest was by using PennDOT’s bucket truck but that didn’t make it easy.  Storm lived up to her name by frequently attacking the three men in the bucket, screaming at them the entire time.

Storm hits a man in the bucket truck (photo by Thomas Moeller)

Storm hits a man in the bucket truck (photo by Thomas Moeller)

She was full of tricky maneuvers and soon made a direct hit on somebody’s helmet.  We gasped as it fell 240 feet to the ground.   My heavens, she knocked off his head!   Whew… not really.

Storm knocks off a man's helmet as the bucket approaches her nest, 22 June 2015 (photo by Thomas Moeller)

Storm knocks off a helmet as the bucket approaches her nest, 22 June 2015 (photo by Thomas Moeller)

The closer the bucket came, the harder she pushed.

PGC's Dan Brauning holds out his hand as Storm attacks (photo by Dana Nesiti)

PGC’s Dan Brauning holds out his hand to fend off Storm as she attacks (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Dan Brauning gave her something to hit — his hand.

Storm, the hand, the broom. Yikes! (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Storm, the hand, the broom. Yikes! (photo by Dana Nesiti)

She screamed non-stop for half an hour until the banding was done and the men climbed back into the bucket.  With her quiet at last on the catwalk railing, Dan Brauning took a moment to congratulate her.

Dan Brauning has a heart-to-heart talk with Storm (photo by Thomas Moeller)

After the chicks are banded, Dan Brauning has a heart-to-heart talk with Storm (photo by Thomas Moeller)

As the bucket left the scene, Dan held up two fingers.  V for victory?  No, he means “2 chicks in the nest.”   1 male, 1 female.

Victory over peregrine? No, he means there are two chicks (photo by Thomas Moeller)

Two chicks (photo by Thomas Moeller)

Applause, applause!  And we all went home.

Stay tuned for the Westinghouse Bridge Fledge Watch schedule this coming Fourth of July weekend.   –> I don’t have dates and times yet because Westinghouse site monitor John English broke a rib last Friday.  Oh no!  Get well soon, John!

UPDATE July 2, 2015:
Fledge Watch is canceled because Norfolk Southern Railroad doesn’t want us under the bridge. That area is their property.

 

(photos by Thomas J. Moeller and Dana Nesiti)

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Jun 28 2015

Deep Purple

Published by under Plants

Clemantis at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

Clemantis at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

I don’t usually write about cultivated flowers but these caught my eye at Phipps Conservatory’s Outdoor Garden .

A Google Image search matched my photo to Clematis jackmanii, a cultivar introduced in 1862 by George Jackman.  Phipps Conservatory was built in 1893 so the plant and the building would be close contemporaries.

The vine is thick with 5-7″ deep purple flowers.

Clemantis vine at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

Clemantis vine at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

It also has these unusual swirling structures.    Do you know what they are?

Clemantis vine at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

Clemantis vine at Phipps Outdoor Garden (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. If I’ve misidentified the vine, please let me know!

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Jun 27 2015

Red Admiral

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Red admiral butterfly in England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red admiral butterfly photographed in England (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Guess what I found sipping nectar last Sunday …

With my head so full of birds I couldn’t remember this butterfly’s name so I took a lot of bad cellphone photos (below) and looked it up when I got home.

Red admiral on bottlebrush butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

Red admiral on bottlebrush butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

This striking black butterfly is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), native to Central and North America, Europe, Northern Africa and Asia.  That’s why the beautiful photo above is from England.

The species is not winter-hardy so most of North America must be recolonized each spring by southern migrants, says butterfliesandmoths.org.   Monarchs aren’t the only butterflies who make long journeys.  Red Admirals migrate from South Texas and I’ve seen them fly north over Lake Erie to Canada.

The generation that migrates looks brown where this one is black so they don’t stand out as much.  Their underside is not as pretty either but provides camouflage (click here to see).

We don’t often see Red Admirals in flower gardens because they prefer to eat tree sap, fermenting fruit and bird droppings(!).   The females look for nettles where they lay their eggs on the tops of the leaves.  The caterpillars eat nettles to survive.

Take that, you stinging nettles!

 

(excellent photo of a red admiral butterfly in England by Zorba the Greek via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Poor quality photo of red admiral on bottlebrush buckeye by Kate St. John
)

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Jun 26 2015

Not Exactly Squirrel Proof

Published by under Bird Behavior,Mammals

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk at squirrel-proof bird feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk dining at a squirrel proof feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Jonathan Nadle’s neighbor has a squirrel proof bird feeder but it doesn’t keep out all the squirrels.

A small member of the Sciuridae (squirrel) family squeezes though the mesh and helps himself to seeds.

A lot of birds won’t visit while the chipmunk’s there — did you know chipmunks eat bird eggs? — but the red-bellied woodpecker has nothing to fear. His long sharp bill is a formidable weapon.

Red-bellied woodpecker and chipmunk coexist at the squirrel-proof bird feeder (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

(photo by Jonathan Nadle)

“Squirrel proof” might not work for chipmunks but at least it keeps out Pennsylvania’s largest member of the squirrel family –> groundhogs.

 

(photos by Jonathan Nadle)

p.s. Gray squirrels are in the Sciurinae (tree-based) subfamily. Groundhogs and chipmunks are both in the Xerinae (ground-based) subfamily and members of the Marmotini tribe (marmots!).

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