Our robins and cardinals are looking pretty ragged lately. The adults are molting.
Their feathers wear out so birds molt to replace them. Robins and cardinals do it once a year. Long distance migrants molt twice. American goldfinches molt their body feathers twice a year but their closest finch relatives don’t. Who knows why.
Birds replace their feathers in a pattern across their bodies. Most replace their center two tail feathers, then the two tail feathers next to those and so on until their entire tail has new feathers. Their wings molt the same one feather at the same time on both wings. This prevents flight impairment because their wings are still the same on both sides. Heavy birds, like ducks and geese, molt all at once and are flightless for a short time each year.
I suppose August is as a good time as any to replace their feathers. April won’t do because they have to look beautiful and sleek during courtship. Rule out May through July because breeding season is too intense to be hampered by missing feathers. Winter is too cold which eliminates November through February. In the other months they’re migrating. So August it is.
I’ll be glad when they look normal again.
(photo of a wet northern cardinal by Chuck Tague)
p.s. Have your goldfinches started to turn dull yellow again? Mine have.
Ragweed season officially begins every year on August 15.
Mercifully I have never been allergic to it but I’ve had my share of outdoor allergies. I know the agony of a sneezy, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes and the scratchy throat that itches all the way back into your ears. Misery! Once the itchy reaction starts it’s hard to stop.
Eventually, through sneezy experimentation, I figured out what causes my allergies — hay, cut grass, marigolds, cut ground ivy, privet flowers, chrysanthemums — and I learned not to sniff them deeply. It helps that I live in the city where there aren’t extensive lawns. And no, you can’t tell me that cut grass smells sweet. It smells like hayfever.
So ragweed sufferers, know thine enemy. The leaves are dark green and deeply cut. The flower is a pale green-yellow spike that it doesn’t look much like a flower at all.
Common ragweed’s flower is ugly because it isn’t trying to attract insects. This plant is pollinated by the wind so the flower spike stands like a flagpole with loads of pollen that “poof” easily into the air. That’s why it’s so good at making you sneeze.
To add insult to injury, its Latin name is Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Ambrosia?!
Good luck … and take an antihistamine before you go outdoors.
(photos by Chuck Tague)
p.s. Ragweed is native to North America but has been labeled it as a noxious weed in some U.S. states. I’ll bet the plant labelers have allergies.
Pittsburgh Pete, as he was nicknamed in Canada, has been through a lot in his three years. He was born at Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower in 2006 and flew to Burlington, Ontario where he nested successfully at the Lift Bridge in 2008. At the end of that nesting season he was gravely injured by a rival peregrine. He recovered from that injury but was attacked again, lost his nest site and nearly lost his life. He ended up in rehab last November at the aviary of Judy Bailey, an Animal Control Officer for the City of Hamilton, Ontario.
Though he’s received the best of medical care Pete has never fully recovered from his injuries. He has no detectable head or wing injury but he has seizures so he can’t be released into the wild.
As soon as his health improved Judy tried to find Pete a permanent home but it was hard to place him because of his seizures. His luck turned recently when Mountsberg Conservation in Campbellville, Ontario said they would take him for their Bird of Prey education program if he will sit quietly on the glove. All Pete has to do is learn a new skill and get clearance from Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
To be an educational bird Pete needs to accept human contact from his trainers and tolerate humans nearby, so Judy is teaching him how. She writes, “He took to being tethered remarkably well! The day after I jessed him, he walked about a foot to my glove, latched on with one foot and ate the quail. By the 3rd or 4th day he hopped onto the glove and ate. Within a few days I was able to pet his feet, legs and belly. He’s not thrilled but he tolerates it. He will still get a bit antsy, at times, when I get close to the perch/booth, however, he quickly settles and eyes the glove. He’ll get very vocal with me at times!! …Incidentally, I have not witnessed a seizure since he has been tethered!!”
This is great news because Pete’s future hangs on his ability learn these lessons. I think he can do it. Pete’s a very resilient bird.
(photo by Judy Bailey)
In my Joe-Pye weed post last week I said I had two favorite late summer flowers. Here’s the other one: Tall Ironweed (Vernonia altissima).
Deep magenta-purple flowers in a showy flat-topped cluster at the top of a 10-foot plant. The stem is so tough – like iron – that cattle won’t browse it in the fields so it stands as an ornament. It’s so large you can easily see it from the highway, so beautiful it’s worth stopping to take a look.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
The amazing thing about warblers is how short a time they’re with us.
These prothonotary warblers were courting and planning a family when Kim Steininger snapped their picture in the Cuyahoga Valley in May. Now they’ve finished breeding and are leaving for their wintering grounds somewhere between Veracruz and the coast of Venezuela.
So how short a time are prothonotary warblers here? Their year is almost evenly divided into three-month periods of activity:
- Northward migration from late February to early May,
- Breeding from May through July,
- Southward migration from August through October and
- On their wintering grounds from November through January.
If there’s any variation in the schedule it’s an increased time spent migrating and a reduced breeding period. Despite these time challenges prothonotary warblers in the southern U.S. raise two broods.
Now they’re on the move. Their southward migration normally peaks in Ohio from August 10th to 20th. By mid-September they’ll be in Veracruz, Mexico. Who knows how much farther these two will have to travel to get home.
(photo by Kim Steininger)
If snakes give you the creeps, don’t look at these pictures.
Yesterday was hot and humid so I made sure to get my hiking done early. I was out on the Youghiogeny River bike trail by 8:45am, not “early” for most of you but a feat for me. Bike trails are great in August because there’s usually a breeze and fewer mosquitoes. This proved to be the case. Still, it was hot.
Most of my hike was uneventful but when I got to Cedar Creek two cyclists said, “Watch out on the right. There’s a black snake on the bridge.”
The black rat snake was probably about three feet long but he was coiled up with his tail drooping off the bridge deck so I can’t be sure. He’d been in the middle of the bridge and the cyclists had shoved (or chased) him to the side so he wouldn’t get run over. They warned me he could bite but I knew he wouldn’t leap at me so I got close enough to take his picture.
On my return hike the snake was on the other side of the bridge contemplating another trip toward the middle of the deck. I urged him to get away from the bike traffic and he slid backwards into the void. Did he cling to the underside of the bridge? Black rat snakes can climb trees so maybe this guy climbed the bridge pillar.
I hiked the grassy edge on my way back to the car and halfway there I encountered another black rat snake. He too was contemplating a sprint across the bike path. (He’s the one on the right.) When he stuck out his tongue to smell me he decided not to proceed.
Black rat snakes are relatively harmless to humans. They are non-venomous constrictors who eat rats, mice, other snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, birds and bird eggs.
I saw a lot of birds on my hike so I hope these two snakes were hunting for rodents. Or perhaps they were sunning themselves.
The heat made it a snakey sort of day.
(photos by Kate St. John (using my cell phone). For more information on the bike trail, click here.)
If watching birds is called birding, what do you call watching flickers?
(photo by Cris Hamilton of a very splendid male northern flicker)
In late summer I have two favorite flowers. Here’s one of them: Sweet Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum also known as Eutrochium purpureum). As you can see, it’s a favorite with insects too.
The plant is huge – 10 feet tall – and the flowers, though individually small, are arranged in a large dome-shaped cluster 6 to 9 inches across. Its size is amazing when you consider it grew to this height since April. Click on the photo to see what the entire plant looks like.
Joe-Pye weed used to be considered a weed and was only found growing in the wild near creeks and damp roadside ditches. But now gardeners use native plants so you don’t have to leave town to see it. Stop in Schenley Park and look at the wildflowers across the street from the Westinghouse fountain. The Joe-Pye weed is spectacular.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
The peregrine nesting season is over in Pittsburgh but the babies have just fledged in Youngstown, Ohio.
The season is late for Youngstown’s peregrines because the parents had to pick a new site when they were blocked from using their longtime nest on the Stambaugh Building. They tried to nest on a bank building but the attempt failed. Finally they chose the fourth floor of the Mahoning County Courthouse and Stellar laid eggs on the 18th-20th of May. The young were banded on July 17th.
Ohio names their peregrines at banding and, in a tribute to their courthouse home, the three nestlings received “legal” names: Freedom, Justice and Tort. All three fledged last weekend.
I know all this because my friend Karen Lang keeps close track of them on the CMNH Falcon Forums. Stammy, the father bird, was born at the University of Pittsburgh and his fledglings are Dorothy’s “grandkids.” Sadly, Freedom was found dead on the Market Street Bridge last Sunday — hit by a car.
I checked the Youngstown Falcon Forum to find out more. The other two fledglings are fine and I found a bonus. Chad and Chris Saladin photographed “Tort” as she practiced flying and landing on the second floor balcony of the Courthouse. Back and forth she flew and hopped. Click on her picture to watch her practice.
What an intense look of concentration she has on her face!
(All photos by Chad and Chris Saladin. The slideshow loops, the action repeats.)
…but not time to migrate yet.
With their head feathers raised, these great blue heron chicks look quite alarmed. Were they begging for food? Worried about an intruder? Thinking of leaving the nest? They’re certainly old enough to do all three.
Great blue heron chicks fledge when they’re 11 to 12 weeks old. By this time of year they’ve left the nest and are independent of their parents. The juveniles disperse widely and may even move north beyond the great blues’ nesting range. They won’t fly south until September so you may see them in some unusual places at this point.
The juveniles are the same size as the adults so how do you tell the difference? Look at their heads. Juveniles have all black feathers on the tops of their heads, the adults have white feathers at the very top. Another hint is that juveniles have very stripey bellies. This field mark doesn’t always work because great blue herons take three years to mature. I’ll bet a two-year-old doesn’t look so stripey.
And I’ll bet a two-year-old doesn’t looks as “juvenile” as these guys.
(photo by Kim Steininger)