Aug 23 2015

The Tuliptrees Respond

Published by under Trees

Tuliptree responds to anthracnose by growing new leaves, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tuliptree responds to anthracnose by growing new leaves, August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In June’s wet weather, Pittsburgh’s tuliptrees were attacked by anthracnose, a fungus that turned most of their leaves brown.  Click here to see.

July and August were very dry so the fungus died.

The tuliptrees responded.  They’ve grown new leaves!  It doesn’t matter that August is so close to autumn.  They need leaves to make food.

Photosynthesis is restored.


p.s.  The first time I saw trees grow new leaves in the fall was after Hurricane Bob stripped the leaves from the trees on Cape Cod on August 19, 1991.  It was very odd to see spring-like trees on the Cape in early October.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 22 2015

Confused About The Season

Published by under Phenology

Crabapple tree blooming in Frick park in August (photo by Kate St. John)

Ornamental tree in bloom at Frick Park, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Sunday I found several ornamental trees blooming at Frick Park near the Blue Slide playground.

The branches held both flowers and green, unripe fruits.

I don’t know why they’re blooming.

Have you seen trees this month that are confused about the season?


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 21 2015

Beautiful Places For Your Wish List

Published by under Beyond Bounds

This week Libby Strizzi sent me a link to this beautiful video of Richard Sidey’s expedition photography.

From Antarctica to Greenland, the Falklands to Svalbard, Namibia to Tonga, the next six minutes are filled with restful music, stunning scenery and beautiful birds.

Watch the video in full screen –> here.

It will add new places to your travel Wish List.

Happy Friday!


(video by Richard Sidey on Vimeo)

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Aug 20 2015

TBT: Acrobatic Goldfinches

Published by under Bird Behavior

American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

American goldfinch at upside down thistle feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT)

My upside-down feeder made the goldfinches try new acrobatics in this post from August 2008:  Acrobatic Goldfinches


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Aug 19 2015

It Grows a Mile a Minute

Published by under Plants

Mile-a-minute weed (photo by Kate St. John)

Mile-a-minute weed (photo by Kate St. John)

If you ever see this plant, eradicate it!

My first encounter with Mile-a-minute weed was a decade ago in the Laurel Highlands when a small patch of leaves caught my eye.  Such perfect triangles! I didn’t know the plant but if I had I would have uprooted it.

Mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata) is an annual, trailing vine, that thrives in sunlight and can grow 6 inches a day(!).  It has triangular leaves and perfoliate cups at the stem joints, called ocreae, where it produces flowers and fruit.  (Click here to see the fruit.)  Notice the recurved thorns on the stems and on the underside of the leaf veins that give it this alternate name: Devil’s tear-thumb.

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Persicaria perfoliata tried to invade North America several times but didn’t take hold until the late 1930s when it charmed a nurseryman in York County, Pennsylvania. He received it unintentionally in a shipment of seeds, was fascinated and allowed it to grow. By the time he realized his mistake it was too late.  Birds and animals love the fruit and spread the plant.  Mile-a-minute now swamps southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic and New England.  It has spread more than 300 miles since it left York.  Click here for the map.

If you think you’ve found Mile-a-minute weed, check a few things before you pull.  Does it have perfect-triangle leaves?  Does it have thorns?  If so, you’ve found the bad stuff.  Does it have fruit?  Put on your long pants, long sleeves and gloves and pull — and try not to spread the fruit!

I found this fruitless specimen dying in Frick Park last weekend.  I had noticed it in July and was finally returning to pull it but, thankfully, park stewards had already dosed the area with therapeutic defoliant.  Good!  I administered the final blow and pulled it out.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 18 2015

Small and Belligerent

Male ruby-throated hummingbird in bander's hand (photo by Kate St.John)

Male ruby-throated hummingbird in bander’s hand (bander Bob Mulvihill, photo by Kate St.John)

Now that the breeding season is over and dry weather is suppressing native flowers, ruby-throated hummingbirds are swarming to backyard feeders in Pennsylvania.  All of them are small and feisty, but did you know the males are even smaller and more belligerent than the females?

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are sexually dimorphic in size though they’re all so tiny that only a bander could know.  At banding, birds are weighed and measured and so we’ve learned that male ruby-throats are about 87% the size of females in wing length and weight(*).  Their size is related to their lifestyle.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird in bander's hand (photo by Kate St.John)

Female (or is this an immature?) ruby-throated hummingbird in bander’s hand (bander Bob Mulvihill, photo by Kate St.John)

Male hummingbirds are the original deadbeat dads.  Ruby-throated males rush north in the spring to claim territories with lots of food which they vigorously defend with aerial displays, chasing, and bill-to-bill sword battles.

When a female shows up the male doesn’t welcome her at first (he acts annoyed) but he switches to intensive courtship displays when she perches.  Good hovering technique really impresses her and to do it well he needs lots of energy, smaller wings, and a lighter body than hers — which he has.

As soon as he’s mated with one lady he looks for the next.  He never helps with nesting and young and is so focused on attracting another female and warding off other males that he may forego feeding for much of the day.  Banders have found that adult males lose weight in June and July, though they regain it in August.

By the end of the breeding season there are noticeably fewer adult males than females at bird banding stations.  In a study done at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Bob Mulvihill and Bob Leberman found that the adult sex ratio is most skewed in the fall when there are 4.1 adult females for every 1 adult male.

Their paper(*), published in The Condor in 1992, describes why more adult males die in the summer than at other times of year:

“As a species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is near the extreme of small size that is physiologically possible for an endothermic vertebrate. It is conceivable that males approach a critical body mass during the summer.  Below this critical mass they may have to abandon nocturnal homeothermy for hypothermic torpor, and may starve overnight or during periods of inclement weather.”

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds are so small and belligerent that it shortens their lives.


(photos taken at the Neighborhood Nestwatch bird banding at Marcy & Dan Cunkelman’s by Kate St. John, 18 July 2015.  Bob Mulvihill is the bander holding the birds.)
(*) The paper by Robert S. Mulvihill and Robert C. Leberman is entitled A Possible Relationship Between Reversed Sexual Size Dimorphism and Reduced Male Survivorship in the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, published in The Condor 94: 480-489.  It’s available as a PDF here at Sora.  Their work is cited in the ruby-throated hummingbird account at Cornell’s Birds of North America.

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Aug 17 2015

Reminder: Let’s Walk in Schenley Park, August 23

Published by under Books & Events

Yellow Touch-me-not. wilting, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday August 23, 8:30am in Schenley Park.

Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive.  (No confusion this time.  We’ll meet at the regular place.)

Dress for the weather. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

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

I’m sure we’ll see signs of drought … like this wilting jewelweed, alas.

See you soon.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 17 2015

Like A Jewel

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Scarab Beetle (Chrysina beyeri) at Carr Canyon, Arizona, 30 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beyer’s scarab, Carr Canyon, Arizona, 30 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

While in Arizona I went on a night outing to Carr Canyon in hopes of seeing owls.  Though we merely heard owls, we saw some amazing bugs.  The scarab beetles made the trip worthwhile.

The Glorious scarab (Chrysina gloriosa) was stunning with golden stripes on a green body …

Glorious scarab (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glorious scarab (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… but my favorite was Beyer’s scarab (Chrysina beyeri) at top, a bright green beetle with violet legs.  Notice how big he is!

Their beauty helped me understand why people made jewelry with stones carved like beetles (scarab pin below), but I was wrong to assume that beauty motivated the jewelers.

Scarab pin (photo by Kate St. John)

Scarab pin (photo by Kate St. John)

The original scarab amulets were made in Ancient Egypt.  The top of the stone was carved in the shape of the Sacred scarab beetle (Scarabeaus sacer), a symbol of the sun god Ra.  The flat bottom was carved with hieroglyphs and used as an impression seal.  When mounted on a ring, the scarab was held by a swivel so the seal could be rotated up.

Scarab ring bezel, Walters Museum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarab ring bezel (#42151), Walters Art Museum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though an insect was sacred to the Egyptians, the beetle they chose is not a beautiful bug.  It symbolized the sun god because, just as the sun rolls across the sky every day, their scarab rolls balls of dung.  The Sacred scarab is a plain black dung beetle.  Click here to see.

The jewel-like beetles I saw in Arizona live only in the western hemisphere.  If the Egyptians could have seen the sunlight colors on the Glorious scarab’s legs and wings, perhaps they would have chosen him instead.


p.s. In Arizona I saw two of four Chrysina beetles that occur in the U.S.  The only Arizona Chrysina we missed was LeConte’s (Chrysina lecontei).  Yes, LeConte again.  😉

(two photos by Kate St. John, two from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the Wikimedia photos to see the originals)

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Aug 16 2015

Now Blooming: Biennial Gaura

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Biennial gaura (photo by Kate St. John)

Biennial gaura, closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Though the plant looks like a tall weed, this pretty flower is blooming now in fields and open areas.

As its name suggest, Biennial gaura (Gaura biennis) takes two years to bloom.  In the first year it’s a rosette of basal leaves that sends down deep roots to survive wet winters and dry summers.  In the second year it grows 4-6 feet tall and blooms in August.

The flowers are white when they bloom and turn pink as they fade.  I never notice the plant until the flowers are pink.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 15 2015

Sneezes Coming Up

Published by under Plants

Giant ragweed closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant ragweed closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

These yellow capsules are closed but soon they’ll burst open and fling their pollen to the wind.

Last Wednesday I found this giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) growing along Nine Mile Run Trail south of Commercial Street.  The plant is so tall that the flower spike is at eye — or should I say nose — level.  Fortunately it’s not as tall as the record-setting 21-foot specimen in Texas.

Giant ragweed flower spikes (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant ragweed flower spikes, 12 August 2015, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Though the flowers aren’t open yet ragweed season officially begins today, August 15.  Hang on to your handkerchiefs!

Learn more here about ragweed and how to identify the ‘common’ one.


(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE August 16:  The capsules have opened.  The pollen is out.   Ahhhh-choo!

Giant ragweed and its pollen, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Giant ragweed and its pollen, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

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