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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Sep 24 2015

Just Plain Ornery

Sharp-shinned hawk atCrooked Creek, October 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Sharp-shinned hawk at Crooked Creek, fall 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Broad-winged hawk migration is about to peak in Pennsylvania. Perhaps it already has.

Next on the Hawk Watch docket will be lots of sharp-shinned hawks, showing off their attitude as they fly.  The peaceful camaraderie of the broad-winged kettle is not for them.  Sharpies are just plain ornery!

Read about their attitude in this September 2008 article –>  Ornery


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 23 2015

Tock Tock Tock

Published by under Mammals

Here’s a hollow sound you often hear in the woods but you rarely see who’s making it.

Tock Tock Tock Tock, the sound travels and is echoed by additional singers.  Who’s making this sound and what does it mean?

The knocking is a chipmunk warning call that means “Danger From The Air!”  One chipmunk has seen an aerial predator and has frozen in position to warn everyone they’d better watch out.  The other chipmunks freeze, too, and echo the call until it’s impossible to tell where the warning began.

The video below shows the sound as we usually encounter it — a disembodied knocking.  In this case it’s louder than thunder.


If I’d known the sound’s meaning I would have looked for a raptor during my walk in the woods.


(videos by Mark Czerniec and MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)

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Sep 22 2015

Undrinkable in Pennsylvania

Undrinkable: acid mine drainage (photo by Kate St. John)

Acid mine drainage in well water (photo by Kate St. John)

Two weeks in Maine where the water is clean re-opened my eyes to something I take for granted in Pennsylvania: some places have orange water.

Perhaps you’ve been to this restroom at the Route 528 boat launch in Moraine State Park.  The restroom is clean but the water is not.  “Notice. Non-potable water. Not for Drinking.”   The metallic smell and orange-stained sinks and toilets make you wonder, “If the water’s that bad, should I use it to wash my hands?”

Coal mining contaminated the ground water here(*).  The orange water is acid mine drainage.  When the coal was removed it exposed pyrite which, when exposed to water, turns into sulfuric acid and iron.  Bad water from old surface and underground mines flows into streams and wells in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.

95% of the acid mine drainage in the U.S. is right in here in western PA, West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and far western Maryland.  Visitors are shocked by the orange water we’ve come to take for granted.  Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 miles of these polluted streams, a problem too huge for individuals to solve.

The good news is that Pennsylvania stepped in with coal mining laws in the 1960’s that prevent new water contamination and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can require clean up when an old mine is reopened.  Slowly, the worst water is being treated and improved.

That’s how part of the Conemaugh River turned from orange to clear in Somerset County in 2013.  See before and after pictures and read about the impressive change here on the Allegheny Front.


(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) There are other ways to expose pyrite.  During construction of Interstate-99, excavation and rock-handling on Bald Eagle Ridge exposed pyrite that polluted nearby ground water and Buffalo Run, a high quality stream.  Though the pyrite was known to be there, construction plans ignored it.  It took two years and $83 million to fix the mistake.

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Sep 21 2015

White Snakeroot + Schenley Walk Reminder

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Walk:
Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday September 27, 8:30am – 10:30am.

This time we’ll meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road.  This is not the usual meeting place at the Visitor’s Center.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk must be canceled for bad weather.

White Snakeroot:
On the August walk we saw white snakeroot and we’re sure to see it this month, too.  At the time I called it tall boneset, a confusing alternate name.  What was I thinking?!  I should have used its most common name.

White snakeroot grows 1 – 5 feet tall with opposite, toothed, egg-shaped leaves and branching clusters of bright white flowers.  Each flower head is a cluster of very tiny flowers, shown above.

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant is similar enough to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) that it used to be in the same genus, but it’s been reclassified to Ageratina altissima.   To avoid confusion with unrelated boneset I’ll call it “white snakeroot” from now on.

Unfortunately “snakeroot” is confusing, too.  White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is not related to black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa, black cohosh).  Arg!

In any case, we’ll see it next Sunday.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 20 2015

Tiny Autumn Orchid

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Late Coralroot, flower close-up (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot, flower close-up, 14 Sep 2015, Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Monday I attended a botanical outing that promised fall orchids including this one: Late Coralroot.

Late or Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) is a tiny orchid that grows in eastern North America from Quebec to Texas.  Like Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) it’s a parasitic plant that feeds on fungi so it has neither chlorophyll nor leaves. Most of the year it lives underground.  Then in late summer it sends up one stem to produce tiny flowers only 1/5″ long which bloom from August to October.

The stems we found in Butler County, Pennsylvania were dark purple-brown, about 8 inches tall.  From above they looked like small useless sticks but as soon as we found them we realized how easy it would be to step on one unawares. Yow.

The plant’s color and size made it difficult to photograph. Nonetheless, here are some (poor) photos to give you an idea of the plant.  Here it is as seen from ground level, though not the entire plant.

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

This closeup shows the flower’s white un-notched lip with purple spots.  It also shows a strange characteristic: Some flowers are rotated sideways.

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

When the flowers go to seed they droop along the stem.

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Though abundant in the spot where we found it, this plant is listed as endangered in several states and “Exploitably Vulnerable” in New York … so I’m not revealing its location.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 19 2015

Bug Noise Continues

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Common true katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Common true katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

During this week’s warm weather the bugs sang all night.

On Thursday evening I heard common true katydids (Pterophylla camellifolia) at the Fern Hollow Nature Center.

“chik-a-Chig, chik-a-Chig, chik-a-Chig.”  Click here to hear them.

Pittsburgh’s katydids are the slow-singing “Northeastern race” at the beginning of the recording.


(photo by Lisa Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

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Sep 18 2015

Like Plunging Arrows

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.


(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

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Sep 17 2015

TBT: Flightless

Common eiders in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Common eiders in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s something I’ve never seen:  Common eiders in flight.

I see common eiders every year when I visit in Maine in September but I’ve never seen them fly.

The reason why is in this Throw Back Thursday article from September 2012 –>  Flightless


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

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