Jul 09 2014

Feed Me!

Published by under Bird Behavior

Chipping sparrow juvenile, begging from adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Early July is a great time to watch songbird families.  Many baby birds have just fledged and are still dependent on their parents for food … or they would like to be.

Marcy Cunkelman sees the family interactions up close in her birds-and-butterflies garden.  Here are some of her family portraits.

Above, we see that fledglings are the same size as their parents but don’t always look like them.  You can tell they’re related by their actions as this young chipping sparrow begs for food while his parent leans away from the noise!  The juvenile’s stripes provide camouflage but make him resemble a song sparrow more than the pale, plain-chested adult.

Below, a tree swallow feeds her newly fledged baby.  Since swallows capture insects on the wing, the juveniles have to fly well enough to catch bugs before they’re able to feed themselves.
Tree swallow feeding young (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

 

And below, a downy woodpecker offers a seed to his baby.  When the babies are young the parents lead them to the feeders and offer them seeds.  Pretty soon the juveniles figure out that it’s faster to get the seeds on their own.
Female downy woodpecker feeding young (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

 

Soon the youngsters will be independent.  Meanwhile you’ll see them say, “Feed me!”

 

p.s. Wissahickon Nature Club will have an outing to Marcy’s garden this coming Saturday, July 12.  Click here for details.

 

(all photos by Marcy Cunkleman)

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Jul 08 2014

Detective Work

Published by under Plants,Quiz

Perfoliate, alternate, entire (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’ll have a plant identification quiz.  I have an answer but you may have a better one.

I found this plant on June 29 at Dead Man’s Hollow in Allegheny County.   The leaves are so distinctive that its identity begs for some detective work.  Here are the clues I gathered:

Leaves:

  • alternate on the stem,
  • edges are entire (not toothed),
  • leaves are perfoliate.  (The stem perforates the leaves, a very cool feature.)
  • bottom leaves are larger than the violet leaves nearby.

The plant had no flowers and no buds.  Instead it had developing fruits which gave me clues about the flowers.  Here are two photos of the fruits.

Developing fruit, 3-sided with 6 sections (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Developing fruit, 3-sided with 6 sections (photo by Kate St. John)

The fruits are:

  • on stems that sprout from perfoliate spots on the leaves
  • three sided with a seam in the middle of each side.  Does this mean the flower was three-petaled or six-petaled?
  • still maturing?  Or are they in their final form?

I looked up “six petals with alternate, entire leaves” in my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and found a familiar spring wildflower with perfoliate leaves.

However, I am not completely satisfied with my identification.  I have never seen “my plant” arc horizontally like this when it’s blooming and the fruits in the illustration look different.  Is my Newcomb’s Guide missing a species?  Have I never noticed that the plant “lies down” in the summer?  Are the fruits going to match the illustration when they mature in a few weeks?

So here’s the quiz:  What plant is this?

Leave a comment with your answer.  I’ll post my guess after I’ve heard from you.

UPDATE:  See the Comments for the answer and a link to the flowering version of this plant.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 07 2014

Invasion of the Billbugs

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Billbug on a window (photo by Kate St. John)

A week ago these bugs were everywhere, so many that they made the news.

I noticed them on June 30 when I saw more than twenty tiny dark bugs perched on the outside of my office window.  What bugs were these, why were there so many of them, and why were they on the window?

Other people encountered the bugs too — at poolsides, on car roofs, in backyards — and they were scared because the bugs looked like engorged ticks.

Though close in size to ticks, I could tell these were not because:

  • Ticks are Arachnids, related to spiders. They have 8 legs. These bugs have 6.
  • Ticks don’t have wings.  These bugs have wings under their elytra (wing covers) and though they weren’t flying very much I saw a few of them raise their wing covers and suddenly fly away.
  • Ticks do not have snouts.  These bugs have snouts(!) like inflexible elephants’ trunks.
  • Ticks never swarm .. and that’s what these bugs were doing.

Using Google and BugGuide.net I narrowed their identity to some sort of snout and bark weevil.  But which one?  And why were there so many of them?

Meanwhile public fear and misunderstanding prompted KDKA to call the Allegheny County Health Department’s Entymologist, Bill Todaro for information.  He knew what they were right away: Nut and Acorn Weevils. Also called billbugs, they eat only plants, never bite people, and swarm in late June because they’re looking for a member of the opposite sex to mate with.

Here’s an annotated closeup of one of the Nut and Acorn Weevils on my office window.  This is a view of his underside because he was outside on the glass.

Nut and Acorn Weevil on the window, 1 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

So, they were really nothing to worry about.  They were courting.  We just never noticed them before.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 06 2014

Why It’s Called Wingstem

Published by under Plants

Wingstem, upper stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Two months before it blooms we can identify this plant even though it has no flowers.  Look at its stem!

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) is already five feet tall and on its way to eight.  It will look like this in August.  Meanwhile the stem gives away its name.

The “wings” are petiole extensions that run the length of the stem.  The newest wings at the top of the plant are straight with a dark margin. The older part of the stem has long white hairs in the margins. Sometimes the wings are wavy.

Winged stem on Wingstem (photo by Kate St. John)

To me the wings look like flanges.  “Flange-stem?”

Say that three times quickly and you’ll know why it’s called wingstem!

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 05 2014

What The Bee Sees

Pale touch-me-not (photo by Kate St. John)

Blooming now in southwestern Pennsylvania, Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) beacons to bees with its yellow landing pad.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 04 2014

Happy Fourth of July 2014

Published by under Birds of Prey

One of the juvenile Bald Eagles from the Hays PA nest (photo by Dana Nesiti)

This juvenile bald eagle is only four months old, hatched at the Hays nest in Pittsburgh, PA.

Thanks to Dana Nesiti for his photo from the Eagles of Hays, PA Facebook page.

Happy Fourth!

 

(photo by Dana Nesiti, Eagles of Hays, PA)

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Jul 03 2014

TBT: Six Years of Bald Eagle Success

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald eagles in Butler County, PA (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s Throw Back Thursday…

Six years ago bald eagles were doing well in Pennsylvania with 140 active nests.  Back then we knew it was only a matter of time before they’d be off Pennsylvania’s endangered list but we couldn’t imagine how quickly that would happen.

Who knew that by July 2014 we’d have 250 nests in Pennsylvania, three of them in Allegheny County, and one in Pittsburgh that’s internationally famous because of its webcam!

Click on the bald eagles’ photo above to go back in time to July 2008 when there were no eagles to watch at the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and far fewer eaglecams.  At that time one of the famous eaglecams was at Norfolk Botanical Gardens where the pair had a Peyton Place year and an ailing eaglet.

After you read the 2008 Norfolk eagle story, you might be wondering what happened to the eaglet with avian pox.  Nicknamed Buddy he lives in captivity because his beak grows in a deformed shape and must be trimmed once a month so he can eat.  Though otherwise healthy, he would die in the wild without this treatment.  He will never fly free.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Jul 02 2014

Two Peregrine Chicks at Westinghouse

Published by under Peregrines

Two peregrine chicks at Westinghouse Bridge on banding day, 1 July 2014 (photo by Thomas Keller, PGC)

Two peregrine chicks at Westinghouse Bridge on banding day, 1 July 2014 (photo by Thomas Keller, PA Game Commission)

 

Just when you thought peregrine nesting season was over, there’s one more nest remaining to fledge in Pittsburgh.

Yesterday morning Tom Keller of the PA Game Commission rode with PennDOT in their graciously provided bucket truck to band the nestlings at the Westinghouse Bridge.  This late nest was first confirmed on May 20 when Dan Brauning and Tom Keller found the female incubating three eggs.  On June 10 Tom confirmed the first hatchling.  Yesterday he banded two females.  (One egg didn’t hatch.)

This late-in-the-season nest cycle is probably a re-nesting after the first attempt failed.  Nest failures at natural cliff sites can be caused by predation but this location is so inaccessible that the re-nest is probably due to a changeover in adults after a peregrine-vs-peregrine challenge.  The banded female, Hecla, hatched in 2009 at the Ironton-Russleton Bridge in Ironton, Ohio and has been present at Westinghouse since 2012.  Perhaps her banded mate is new but no one has been able to read his bands.  He’s still unidentified.

Westinghouse site monitor (and proud “papa”), John English, organized a Banding Watch under the bridge.  Thanks to photos from watchers Maury Burgwin and Donna Memon, I’ll tell the rest of the story in pictures.

The bucket near the nest, peregrine "mom" flies by (photo by Maury Burgwin)

Bucket at the nest, upset peregrine mother, Hecla, flies by (photo by Maury Burgwin)

 

Female peregrine on the attack on Banding Day (photo by Maury Burgwin)

Hecla is very angry. “Get away from my babies!” (photo by Maury Burgwin)

 

Hecla's mate (unidentified) does a barrel roll to defend his nestlings on Banding Day (photo by Maury Burgwin)

Hecla’s mate (unidentified) in a barrel roll defending his nestlings (photo by Maury Burgwin)

 

Female peregrine, Hecla, defending her nest on Banding Day, 1 July 2014 (photo by Maury Burgwin)

Hecla flies under the bridge to attack the banding crew (photo by Maury Burgwin)

 

Male peregrine drives a gull away from the Westinghouse bridge during the excitement on Banding Day (photo by Donna Memon)

Worked up about the banding, the male peregrine drives away everything from the Westinghouse bridge including this hapless gull. “Sorry! Just leaving!” says the gull. (photo by Donna Memon)

 

Stay tuned for Fledge Watch, July 18, 19 and 20!   Check John English’s Westinghouse Peregrines webpage or Pittsburgh Falconuts for details.

 

(photo credits:
Nestlings by Thomas Keller, PA Game Commission.
Action shots of adult peregrines by Maury Burgwin.
Peregrine-vs-gull encounter by Donna Memon
)

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Jul 01 2014

The Could-Have-Been National Bird

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Wild turkeys (photo by Steve Gosser)

Around the world, national birds are chosen from among large, distinctive or iconic native species.  The bald eagle was chosen in 1782 for the Great Seal of the United States.  He is naturally large and distinctive and, after hundreds of years of persecution (yes, people used to trap and kill bald eagles) the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act made him completely iconic.

Many national birds are not majestic.  Austria and Estonia have both chosen the barn swallow and the U.K. has chosen the European robin.  The U.S. could have chosen the large, native wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).  After all France, our great supporter during the American Revolution, chose the Gallic rooster (Gallus gallus) as their symbol but that was largely due to a play on words.  Gallus is the Latin name for both the Gauls and the chicken.

Some say Ben Franklin preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as a national symbol but the real story is more nuanced than that.  It’s a story of our first principles and the fight for independence.

Our basic reason for fighting the War of Independence was Americans’ desire to be freed of England’s hereditary aristocracy (the king) who imposed oppressive laws from afar.  The leaders of our Revolution were not hereditary aristocrats.  They were generally “commoners” who became successful on this continent.  They resented being pushed around by the aristocrats overseas.

As the war was winding down in 1783, Major General Henry Knox proposed that the leaders keep in touch so they formed the exclusive Society of the Cincinnati and chose the bald eagle as their symbol.  Open only to those who fought or lead the American Revolution and their descendants, the Society’s bylaws formed the first hereditary aristocracy on American soil.

This was offensive to Benjamin Franklin.  What did we just spend eight years fighting for?!  In a letter to his daughter he criticized the Society and pretty much “dissed” everything they stood for including their odd depiction of a bald eagle on their crest.  He said that it looked like a wild turkey and then he let lose on the bald eagle and riffed on the turkey’s “better” qualities.  It’s a great piece of writing and well worth a read (click here).   By the way, Franklin is correct about the bald eagle’s rapacious habits.

Ben Franklin’s and judge Aedanus Burke’s distaste for the Society’s bylaws turned public opinion against them.  George Washington threatened to resign as the Society’s president unless they removed the hereditary clause — which they did until the furor died down.  Then they secretly returned to the rule of primogeniture, membership inheritance by the first-born males. (“Hmmm!” says this first-born female.)

More than 200 years later, the Society of the Cincinnati still exists but is so obscure that few of us have heard of it.  Their lasting legacy is the name of Cincinnati, Ohio and the misconception that Ben Franklin preferred turkeys.

 

(photo of wild turkeys by Steve Gosser)

p.s.  The Society of the Cincinnati  has other lasting legacies but few of us know what they are.  While writing this article I learned for the first time that Society members played a role in the development of Pittsburgh and that Arthur St. Clair (viz. Upper St. Clair) was a member.  Who knew?

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Jun 30 2014

Green Flowers

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Flowers of Indian cucumber root, 22 June 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

It seems odd that a plant would have green flowers but a surprising number do including jack-in-the-pulpit, northern green orchid and ragweed.

In mid-June I found a blooming Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) that I nearly missed because the flowers didn’t stand out.  The top two had already gone to seed and those in bloom were camouflaged in a greenish yellow way.

The bottom whorl of leaves caught my attention.  It’s typically five to nine long leaves (this one had seven) suspended a foot or so above the ground.  Only the blooming plants have the smaller top whorl too.

I tried to take a picture of this arrangement but even my best photo is confusing.  The small flower whorl blends in with a second plant behind it even though the background is beyond the mossy log.

Indian cucumber root, Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, 22 June 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Having paused to take a photo I knelt down to see the flowers.  This perennial is pollinated by insects, probably flies.  The color green makes sense for flies as they don’t need fancy red, white, yellow or purple to be attracted to the plant.

Indian cucumber root earned its common name when Native Americans taught the settlers that the edible root smells and tastes like cucumber. People still dig and eat it today, thereby destroying the plant.  It’s endangered in Illinois and Florida.

Though not threatened in Pennsylvania, I won’t say the exact location of this flower.  Only that I found it in the Laurel Highlands, an area encompassing 3,000 square miles.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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