Aug 02 2014

Hummer Time

Published by under Songbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird (photo by Steve Gosser)

Did you notice that the hummingbirds “disappeared” in June?  And that they came back in July?

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds really didn’t go anywhere.  They were busy nesting and gathering insects to feed their young.  Since they don’t feed nectar to their babies there was little reason to visit hummingbird feeders.

But now the “kids” are grown and the hummingbird population has surged.  Mom, Dad and the kids are jostling for space at the feeders. Males perch high on dead snags to protect their nectar kingdoms.  Steve Gosser captured this beautiful male on his way to a feast.

Once again it’s Hummer Time!

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 01 2014

Bee Wars!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

July is the time when bees have wars.  I knew nothing about this until Facebook-friend Chad Steele described a war at his hive on July 21.

Chad wrote, “During a walk yesterday there was a huge cloud of bees all around and over the hive. At first I thought they were swarming. But looking closer, it appeared that there was another swarm trying to get into the hive, especially where I just put on the new boxes.  I got even closer and saw bees fighting each other to the death.”

I asked my bee-keeping friend, Joan Guerin, to tell me more.  She explained that in July there’s a dearth of nectar because spring flowers have finished and late summer flowers have not ramped up.  Hungry bees go scouting for nectar and when they find a colony with weak defenses they try to get in.  Successful scouts go back home and recruit more invaders.  The war is on!

Chad found this out first-hand.  Wearing his bee-keeping gear, “I got into the fray again, inside the older boxes, and pulled out a frame to get some idea what was occurring… And I was surprised to see hundreds of bees uncapping the honey cells, and drinking it!! Occasionally there was one being attacked by another bee…  The cloud of bees was huge and after putting the frame back I concluded that this was a takeover.”

The drama began silently a few months before.  Chad figured out that the queen had died in late May or June and no queen succeeded her.  With no new eggs and bees being born in the colony the worker population dwindled.  By July Chad’s hive was a much smaller group, unable to defend their colony.

Ultimately, the invaders stole the honey and the old hives’ workers completely died out.  Chad has left two boxes in place in hopes that a honeybee swarm, looking for a new home, will come in and start a new colony.  “That is how we got this one, so it could happen again. Especially since there is obviously a strong hive somewhere nearby …Time will tell.

Watch the video above to see bees attack a few invaders at a hive in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Who knew that honeybees fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat?  I learn something new every day.

 

(video from YouTube by Tulsa bees)

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Jul 31 2014

TBT: How Cowbirds Know They Are Cowbirds

Immaure brown-headed cowbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT)…

At this time of year most birds have stopped breeding and are starting to flock for the coming winter.  Many of us have noticed grackle flocks and soon, I’m sure, we’ll see flocks of brown-headed cowbirds.

The fact that young cowbirds flock with each other is a miracle in itself.  Every one of them was dumped as an egg in another species’ nest where they out-competed their foster parents’ young.   Imprinting behavior says they ought to think they’re members of the foster species, but they don’t.

How do cowbirds know they are cowbirds?  Click here to find out in this Throw Back Thursday article.

 

(photo of an immature brown-headed cowbird by Cephas at Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

 

 

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Jul 30 2014

Peppergrass

Published by under Plants

Peppergrass (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a pretty plant that grows in ugly places.

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) is a native edible member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family that occurs naturally in North and Central America.  Sometimes it’s cultivated for its peppery taste.  The young rosette leaves taste like mild arugula and the round flat seed pods, when chewed, are a substitute for black pepper.

However most of us know this plant — if we notice it at all — for its indomitable attitude toward degraded habitat.  It will grow almost anywhere, a trait that has given it the status of “Weed.”

I found this one growing from a crack in the sidewalk of the Greenfield Bridge.

Though one could eat the seed pods from a roadside specimen, don’t do it!   The soil next to a busy road is contaminated with toxic metals from car and truck exhaust. Plants in the Brassicaceae family are such good hyperaccumulators of metals that they can be used to clean up toxic top soil.  This roadside plant is full of toxins.

If you decide to taste peppergrass, look for a plant that’s in good clean soil far from the road.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 29 2014

Even Less Water Than We Thought

Colorado River water loss as seen at Lake Mead, Nevada (photo from US Bureau of Reclamation)

Rainfall in Pittsburgh is normal this year but out West they’re in their 14th year of drought with no end in sight.  This is starkly obvious at Lake Mead near Las Vegas where the water level has dropped 138 feet, leaving a “bathtub ring” of mineral deposits.

Three western states depend on Lake Mead for water and on its dam for electricity.  Since last October 4.2 million acre feet came into the lake but 7.9 million was withdrawn.  The lake has dropped 30 feet in the past five months alone.  As the water drops so does Hoover Dam’s generating capacity, putting the electric supply at risk too.

You’d think this problem could be fixed by controlling surface water consumption but it goes much deeper than that.

Back in January, I wrote about NASA’s GRACE satellite pair that measures groundwater from outer space (click here to read how it works).  Using nine years of GRACE data from the Colorado River Basin, University of California Irvine and NASA scientists made an alarming discovery.  From December 2004 to November 2013 the watershed lost 53 million acre-feet of water, an amount almost twice the size of Lake Mead.  More than 75% of that loss was from groundwater.  No one knows how much water is underground but it’s going fast.

When wells deplete groundwater, there are significant downstream consequences.  A 2012 study by Stanford Woods Institute found that overpumping can make the surface run dry.  Though surface water is carefully managed in the West, groundwater use is often poorly documented and barely managed — if at all.

Water loss at this scale affects every living thing.  Near Las Vegas the wetlands along Lake Mead are gone and so are the birds and animals that depended on them.

If the loss continues at this rate, humans may have to leave Las Vegas, too.

 

Read more about this study in Science Daily.

(photo of Lake Mead by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

8 responses so far

Jul 28 2014

S is for Snake

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Eastern hognose snake (photo from Wikimedia Commons, altered)

If you’re afraid of snakes, please pretend this is a big “S” or close your eyes while you read.

I’m inspired to write about eastern hognose snakes today because summer is prime time for reptiles in Pennsylvania and a remark made in the PA-Herps Facebook group has stuck with me since last winter: “The only way to get bitten by a hognose snake is to smell like its prey.”

The eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is native from Minnesota to southern New Hampshire, from Florida to eastern Texas.  It is more than two feet long and comes in so many colors and patterns that it defies an easy description.

I imagine that during summer’s heat I might see a hognose snake but the chance is slim.  I don’t look for snakes because I can’t identify most of them and some are poisonous.  My caution prevents discovery.

However, this snake is safe.  Very safe.  He won’t bite but he may scare you.  Wikipedia describes his defensive behavior:

When threatened, the neck is flattened and the head is raised off the ground, not unlike a cobra. [Cobra!!]  They also hiss and will strike, but they do not attempt to bite. The result can be likened to a high speed head-butt. If this threat display does not work to deter a would-be predator, a hognose snake will often roll onto its back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk from its cloaca and let its tongue hang out of its mouth.

If I managed to get close to a calm hognose I’d see why he has this name — an upturned nose like a hog.

Ton an eastern hognose snake (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

But I’m not eager to get so close. If I scared him, the “cobra act” would frighten me. The “high speed head-butt” would give me a heart attack.  Both the snake and I would be lolling on the ground with our tongues hanging out.

S is for Sometimes Scary.

 

(photo of an eastern hognose snake from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  I have vertically flipped the original image to make an S. Click on the image to see the original at Wikimedia)

 

p.s. Despite the tone of this article, I am not afraid of snakes.

3 responses so far

Jul 27 2014

It’s Shorebird Time!

Published by under Water and Shore

American avocet, July 2014 (photo by Jessica Botzan)

After the summer solstice, shorebirds begin to migrate from their northern breeding grounds.

By early July the first wave reaches Lake Erie’s shore and our inland ponds and rivers.  This early group includes colorful adults still in breeding plumage.

Jessica Botzan photographed this gorgeous American avocet at Conneaut, Ohio last weekend.

It’s shorebird time!

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

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Jul 26 2014

A Use For Horse Hair

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

Tufted titmouse collecting horse hair for its nest (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Many birds use animal hair to line their nests.

After grooming her horse, Marianne Atkinson put the excess hair in her suet feeder.

The tufted titmice appreciated her thoughtfulness.

Someone’s going to have a soft bed. :)

 

(photo by Marianne Atkinson)

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Jul 25 2014

Not Just A Pine Cone

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

On Fourth of July weekend I was hiking at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach when I noticed an odd-looking pine cone in the dappled shade next to the trail.  I paused to look more closely.

It’s not just a pine cone!

Here’s a better look.

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

… and this view from a different angle.

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

After two minutes of my ever-closer approach this lizard had had enough and ran away.

I know nothing about lizards so I googled images for a “brown lizard sandy shore Virginia” and found a photo whose description said “Matches the pine cone.”  How cool is that!  Someone else had photographed an eastern fence lizard on a pine cone.

I also found out that …

  • The eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) is native to the eastern U.S. and southern Pennsylvania.  Theoretically I should have seen one in all my years of hiking near Pittsburgh but this is a first for me.  (I’ll admit I haven’t been looking very hard.)
  • Their scales are keeled, a feature you can see in the photos.
  • Eastern fence lizards are sexually dimorphic.  This one is female because her throat and flanks are whitish where adult males are shiny blue.  During the mating season males flash their blue bellies to attract the ladies and tell other guys, “This is my territory.” Click here to see the male’s amazing underside.
  • That flashy blue behavior is risky.  Flashy males are more likely to be eaten by birds.
  • In 2009 Penn State biologist Tracy Langkilde reported that eastern fence lizards who live where there are fire ants have longer legs than their predecessors 70 years ago — an example of evolution in action. They’ve also learned to twitch instead of freeze when they encounter the voracious ants that can kill them in less than a minute.

I’m glad I stopped to examine that pine cone.  I usually say, “Keep looking up” but it pays to look down sometimes, too.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Jul 24 2014

TBT: V is for Vulture

Published by under Birds of Prey

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Now that the Hays bald eagles have flown from the nest, many of us watch the skies for a glimpse of them.

Did you know there’s another large raptor in Pittsburgh that can fool you into thinking it’s an eagle?

Learn how to identify soaring turkey vultures.  Believe it or not they’re more common here than eagles.  Click to read: V is for Vulture.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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