Sep 06 2014

Unusual Color

Published by under Plants

Late Coralroot in pink (photo by Dianne Machesney)

It sounds really exotic to say that there are orchids at Moraine State Park, but yes there are.  Last weekend Dianne and Bob Machesney found late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) including this very unusual pink one.

Late coralroot’s 1/4 inch flowers bloom from August to October so now’s the time to look for them.  Unfortunately the plant is often hard to see because it’s only 4-7 inches tall and a brownish-purple color that matches the forest floor.  But not this one.  I have no idea why it’s pink but it’s certainly pretty.  Click here to see what it looks like when it blooms in normal color.

Coralroots are very picky about habitat because they’re twice-dependent.  They are saprophytes that get their nutrients from fungi which are getting their nutrients from dead and decomposing plant material.  Coralroots are particular about the species of fungi they parasitize so you can’t find these orchids just anywhere.  Your best bet may be to look where there are pine needles on the ground.

Thanks to Dianne for this unusual photo and her description of the plant.  Now I know what to look for.

 

p.s. It should go without saying that you should not collect these plants.  They are endangered in many northeastern states and in Florida.

(photo of unusual Late Coralroot by Dianne Machesney)

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Sep 05 2014

In Fog

Published by under Weather & Sky

On chilly autumn mornings, the fog rises from Pittsburgh’s rivers and envelops the town.

Our fog is nothing to the thick fogs on northern coasts.

In San Francisco, Simon Christen took time lapse photos of moving fog and wove them into his beautiful video:  Adrift.

Play it above in small format or click here for the full screen version on Vimeo.

 

See more of his fascinating photos and videos at Simon Christen’s website.

(video by Simon Christen on Vimeo)

p.s. If the video plays haltingly on your computer, click on the HD letters at bottom right of the video window to turn off High Definition which requires lots of bandwidth.

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Sep 04 2014

TBT: Compass Errors

Published by under Migration

Suunto Compass (from Suunto Watches)Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Did you know that birds have built-in compasses that they use for migration? Unfortunately a few young birds are born each year with compass errors that send them in the wrong direction.  Their mistakes spawn Rare Bird Alerts but their errors can be fatal.

In November 2008 when a young brant stopped at Pittsburgh’s Duck Hollow, I learned that migratory birds make mistakes in direction but not distance.  They fly as far as they’re supposed to go but some head in the wrong direction.

Click here to read more about bird navigation in this 2008 article entitled Compass Errors.

 

 

(photo of a Suunto compass from the Suunto website)

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Sep 03 2014

River Otters Chirp Like Birds

Published by under Mammals

Curious river otter (photo by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s something I learned by being fooled:  River otters can sound like birds.

I found this out in Belfast, Maine one summer when my husband and I walked across the footbridge in the evening.  The Passagassawakeag River was beautiful at sunset as the birds gathered to roost and a family of river otters swam at the Belfast shore.

We were on the other side of the bridge when I heard a loud bird chirping.  What bird was that?  Intrigued, I approached the sound to find out.

For the life of me I could not find that bird.  Its voice echoed under the bridge but no songbird was down there.  Finally I realized the sound came from the otters. They were whistling to each other.

This recording from the University of Utah’s streaming library is close to what they sounded like:

Who knew that river otters could sound like birds?!

 

(photo by David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 02 2014

Help Migrating Songbirds

Published by under Books & Events

Wood thrush rescued Downtown, 28 April 2014 (photo by Matt Webb)

Migrating songbirds need your help in the Pittsburgh area.

Last spring while traveling north, this wood thrush found himself in a hall of mirrors … and he hit one … a window in Downtown Pittsburgh.  Fortunately his stunned body was found by a BirdSafe Pittsburgh volunteer who kept him safe and quiet until he recovered.  In this photo he was about to be released at Allegheny Cemetery by Matt Webb.

Fall migration is underway and nighttime migrants are again lured to our city lights and vulnerable to window kills. Each year up to 1 billion birds die by hitting windows in the U.S.  BirdSafe Pittsburgh is ramping up to rescue ours. They need your help.

Across North America BirdSafe projects mobilize volunteers to walk city routes at dawn, looking for stunned or dead birds.  Stunned birds are rescued. All birds are counted.  Last spring the Pittsburgh project confirmed what other cities know:  that wood thrushes and ovenbirds are the most vulnerable to window kills.

This fall the focus will still be on Downtown but program coordinator Matt Webb says you can create your own route near your home or office if you wish.  48% of collisions happen on residential structures so it’s just as important to collect data in a residential area. Contact Matt at birdsafepgh@gmail.com or call (412)53-AVIAN if you want to explore this option.

Better yet, learn what to do and get some hands on experience at the kick-off walk this Sunday, September 7 at 6:00am at PPG Plaza.  Click here for directions and PPG parking garage information or use on-street parking for free until 8:00am.

For more information, contact Matt Webb at birdsafepgh@gmail.com or (412)53-AVIAN.

 

(photo of rescued wood thrush by Matt Web)

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Sep 01 2014

For All The Working Birds

Harris' Hawk working as a falconer's bird in Spain (photo by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco via Wikimedia Commons)

Some birds work for a living just like we do. This Harris hawk hunts for a falconer in Spain.

This year’s most famous working bird is Rufus the Hawk who patrols Wimbledon to scare away pigeons.  Click here for the beautiful Stella Artois commercial in which he stars.

Today humans get a day off in the U.S.

Happy Labor Day.

 

(Harris Hawk working as a falconer’s bird at Alcalá de Henares, Spain. Photo by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 31 2014

Swift Migration

Published by under Migration

Vaux's Swifts go to roost in Chapman Elementary School chimney in Portland, OR (photo by Dan Viens)

Just a reminder that swift migration is heating up across the continent: chimney swifts in the east, Vaux swifts in the west.

Stake out a chimney at dusk and watch the excitement as the swifts swirl and drop into the chimney to roost for the night.

Early to mid September is prime time for this activity in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Check out these chimneys in Pittsburgh:

  • At South St. Clair Street, across the street from 5802 Baum Boulevard, look at the chimney across the parking lot.  Three Rivers Birding Club usually visits this chimney at least one evening during migration… and then we go to The Sharp Edge for beer.
  • In Oakland on Clyde Street near Central Catholic High School, watch the tall chimney on an apartment building on the left.
  • In Dormont, start at the corner of West Liberty Ave and Edgehill Ave.  Walk up the right side of Edgehill Ave to the second telephone pole that has a sign on it saying Weight Limit 9 Tons.  Stop and look across the street & you’ll see the chimney.
  • In Squirrel Hill at the corner of Murray and Forward Avenues there are lots of chimneys.  I’m not sure they’re used by swifts but it’s worth a look. Stand on Pocusset.
  • Check out the closed public schools: the former Schenley High School, former Gladstone Middle School, etc.  I bet you’ll find swifts.

If you’ve never seen this you’re in for a treat.  It’s awesome!

Here’s more information about swift migration from Georgia Wildlife.  Or watch the trailer for On The Wing, a movie about Vaux swifts in Portland, Oregon and their famous chimney.

 

(photo from Dan Viens, creator of On the Wing)

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Aug 30 2014

The Good Thistle

Published by under Plants

Swamp thistle in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

Can a thistle be good?  This one is.

Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum) is practically smooth.  Its hollow 6-foot stem has no spines and its deeply cut leaves look pointy but aren’t very sharp.  It is very beautiful with big purple flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths.

Compare this native biennial to other big thistles and this is the one you’ll prefer to touch.  Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) is more prickly though it smells very sweet.  Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) and non-native Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) are so spiny they’re absolutely scary. Wear stout gloves!

The easiest way to identify Swamp thistle is by its bud which looks cob-webby with fine white hairs.  Here’s a closeup.

Swamp Thistle bud (photo by Kate St. John)

Swamp thistle is native to eastern North America from Labrador to Louisiana (and Texas) where it grows in swamps, wet woods and thickets.

I photographed these two at Jennings Prairie in Butler County, Pennsylvania earlier this month.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 29 2014

From Billions To None, Sept 7 on WQED

Published by under Books & Events

Digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough via Wikimedia Commons
 

Monday, September 1, marks an important day in history.  On that day 100 years ago the passenger pigeon went extinct.  To commemorate the event WQED will broadcast From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm.

As told by Joel Greenberg, author of The Feathered River Across the Sky, the story is compelling, powerful, and heartbreaking.

At the height of its population there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in North America, roughly equivalent to the number of birds that overwinter in the United States every year.

Their extinction was shocking in its swiftness. In Wisconsin it took only 28 years — from the largest communal nesting ever recorded, 136 million birds in 1871, to the last wild bird shot dead in 1899.

Humans caused the extinction. Aided by new technology (trains and telegraphs) and in the absence of hunting laws, there was uncontrolled killing at the communal nesting grounds.  By the late 1870′s there were signs of great decline.  Advocates pleaded for hunting controls but across the U.S. businessmen who traded the birds as meat and legislators successfully argued against protection.

History repeats itself today.  The documentary describes how cod nearly went extinct when fishing technology improved and how cod fishing was banned, yet after 20 years the population has not rebounded.  Today, sharks and one out of eight bird species are in trouble.

But the program also gives us hope.  When we stopped killing whales and sandhill cranes, they rebounded.  We banned DDT and brought back bald eagles and peregrine falcons.  If we put forth the effort we can choose to preserve.

Watch From Billions to None on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm on WQED.  Then stay tuned for a related program at 4:00pm, The Lost Bird Project (reviewed here).

Thanks to our friends at the National Aviary for underwriting both programs.

 

p.s. Click here to see the trailer From Billions to None on Vimeo.

(digital painting of the extinct Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius by Tim Hough via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 28 2014

TBT: What to Look for in Early September

Published by under Phenology

Turtleheads (photo by Tim Vechter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In a few days it will be September.  Plants and animals are changing as fall approaches.  What will we see outdoors in the month ahead?

Phenology is the study of the times when natural phenomena recur.  Back in 2008-2009 Chuck Tague and I collaborated on a year-long phenology series for western Pennsylvania.  His website held much more information than mine but, alas, it disappeared when Apple discontinued web.me.com.  My series remains as a collection at the Western PA Phenology tab at the top of this blog.

What can we expect in early September?  Click here for the phenology forecast.

 

(photo of turtleheads by Tim Vechter)

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