Aug 13 2015

TBT: Talking Turkey

Wild Turkey baby (photo by Tim Vechter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Speaking of wild turkeys, as I did on Tuesday, here’s more about on their family life and a cute baby picture in this post from August 2008 –>  Talking Turkey.


(photo by Time Vechter)

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Aug 12 2015

Localized Drought

Published by under Weather & Sky

Woodland boneset leaves wilting in dry weather, Pittsburgh, 9 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaves wilting in my dry backyard, 9 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ever since May’s dry weather, Marianne Atkinson and I have kept up a lively email conversation about drought and rain in our respective hometowns, Dubois and Pittsburgh.

Dubois has been short-changed on rainfall this year despite June’s excessive wet weather.  Most months have been so dry that June’s 3.36″ above normal could not overcome the drought.

Even their “good” rainfall statistics are misleading because most of it falls in a single heavy downpour event.  As of today, Dubois received 1.3 inches of rain in August but 98% of it fell in one 24 hour period — August 10-11.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  Climatologists predict that as the climate heats up western Pennsylvania’s weather will change from gentle rains to frequent heavy downpours.

Meanwhile Marianne watches the weather radar closely.  When rain is predicted will her garden get any of it?  No. As the storm clouds approach they usually part north and south, missing Dubois completely.  She sent me this screenshot of a recent “rainy” day from Accuweather.

Rain misses Dubois (radar screenshot from Marianne Atkinson)

Rain misses Dubois, August 2015 (Accuweather screenshot captured by Marianne Atkinson)

I’ve seen this phenomenon, too.  On Monday night Pittsburgh got a trace while Youngstown and West Virginia were slammed.

It's raining everwhere but here (Radar image from National Weather Service, Pittsburgh)

It’s raining everwhere but here (Radar image from National Weather Service, Pittsburgh)

Is your town suffering from localized drought?  Have you noticed this parting-of-the-clouds phenomenon?

It reminds me of Arizona’s monsoon.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 11 2015

Lost Turkeys

Wild turkey calling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wild turkey calling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In mid July, Mary Ann Pike had an unusual experience with wild turkeys in her back yard in Washington County, PA.  She wrote:

We have had a flock of turkeys wandering around our property for a week or two. I’ve usually seen 3 hens and 6 chicks, although my daughter says she’s seen twice that many. Last night my husband went out on the porch to start the grill for dinner and his sudden appearance scattered the flock into the woods. Suddenly, the air was filled with this sound:

The South Carolina DNR web site refers to it as Kee Kee, the call of lost young turkeys. It was incredibly loud, and it sounded like there were 20 of them in the woods less than 100 feet behind our house, but it was probably only 6 or 8 of them. We have never heard anything like it.

Click on Mary Ann’s link and you’ll hear the sound of lost turkeys.   Did you know their calls change as the birds get older?

Baby turkeys are precocial when they hatch so as a safety mechanism they imprint on the first thing they see — their mother — and listen for her instructions.  As the family forages together they use sound to keep in touch and announce danger.

At first the babies make peeping sounds but by seven weeks of age the peep becomes a whistle which they use to make contact after being scattered by a predator.  Later the whistle drops in pitch (the kee-kee-kee call) and later still they add a yelp (kee-kee-run call).  Adult turkeys drop the kee and merely yelp to assemble the flock.

If you hear the kee-kee calls in summer, chances are it’s some lost young turkeys calling their mother.  But be careful if you hear it in Pennsylvania in May or November.  Those months are turkey season when hunters use turkey calls to attract their prey.


p.s. Check the PA Game Commission website for exact turkey season dates by region.

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

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Aug 10 2015

Ospreys Getting Ready To Go

Immature osprey flying over the Duquesne nest (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Immature osprey flying over the Duquesne nest, 19 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The nesting season is over for most ospreys in Pennsylvania and some are already on the move.

In early August young ospreys stay close to home and practice their fishing skills under dad’s watchful eye, but it’s likely their mother has already left on migration.  This osprey family in Duquesne, PA is a case in point.

On July 19 Dana Nesiti photographed them when only two had fledged and their activity was still centered on the nest.

Immature osprey coming in for a landing at the Duquesne nest (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Immature osprey landing at the Duquesne nest while mom & siblings watch, 19 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

When Dana returned on July 25, all three had fledged and competition had intensified for their parents’ handouts.  Below, the youngster at right has food while two others squabble over a fish. The bird on the far left grabbed his sibling by the wing to pull him away. “Give it to me!”

"Give it to me!" juvenile osprey grabs his sibling's wing to get the fish (photo by Dana Nesiti)

“Give it to me!” juvenile osprey grabs his sibling’s wing to get the fish, 25 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The winner flew off with the live fish.

Juvenile osprey flies off with the prize -- a live fish (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Juvenile osprey flies off with the prize: a live fish, 25 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

But now more than two weeks later, the nest is not the focal point and the family will be hard to find.

Ospreys live in family groups during the breeding season but otherwise live alone.  The family starts to break up shortly after the young fledge.  Mom leaves before the kids are independent while dad stays behind to feed them for 10-20 days or more.  When the youngsters are self sufficient they leave, too.  Finally their father departs, 7 to 39 days after his lady left town.

Because they eat live fish North American ospreys don’t dare to linger where the water will freeze.  They spend the winter in Central and South America and the Caribbean, each at his own favorite place.  The adults won’t meet again until they return to their breeding territory.  The juveniles will stay south for two to three years before they come north to breed for the first time.

After this family has left Duquense we’ll see other ospreys passing through but “our” birds will be gone until next spring.


(photos by Dana Nesiti)

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Aug 09 2015

Green Head

Published by under Plants

Green-headed coneflower (photo by Kate St. John)

Green-headed coneflower (photo by Kate St. John)

Green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is blooming now in western Pennsylvania.

Look for its green head and swept-back yellow petals in open woods and fields.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 08 2015

Why Arizona in Early August?

Published by under Travel

End of the road? The southern end of the Huachuca mountains heading toward Mexico (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is green from the monsoon rain. South end of the Huachucas, 2 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To a Pennsylvanian it’s counter intuitive that birding is excellent in southeastern Arizona in early August.  It’s hot — especially at the lower elevations (104oF in Tuscon last Monday) — but the birds are active because it’s the breeding season.  Breeding?  Here’s why.

From late June through September, it’s so hot that rising desert air creates a low pressure zone that sucks in moisture from the south, primarily from the Gulf of California in western Mexico.  When the moist air hits Arizona’s sky island mountains it condenses into clouds, isolated thunderstorms, and rain.  This annual weather pattern is called the monsoon.

The moisture doesn’t have to travel far. This mountain in Mexico, called Sierra San Jose, is easily visible from Sierra Vista, Arizona, headquarters of the Southwest Wings Festival.

Sierra San Jose in Mexico, seen in the distance (photo by Kate St. John)

“I can see Mexico from my front porch.”  Sierra San Jose peak as seen from Sierra Vista, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

While I was at the Festival it thundered every afternoon at 3:00pm and rained somewhere by 4:00pm.  “Somewhere” means you can see it raining in the distance but you often don’t get wet.  The downpours are intense but you can drive in and out of them, sometimes within a mile.  However, watch out for flash floods!

The rain brings cooler temperatures, green leaves and, I quickly learned, bugs.  (Don’t ask me about chiggers.)

Bugs are food for baby birds so the monsoon is a second Spring when the birds court, sing and nest. That’s why the Southwest Wings summer festival is held in early August.

I had a great time!  The festival offers free seminars and one-day or two-day paid outings with guides.  I chose the day-long outings where we hiked in morning, ate lunch in the shade, and watched hummingbirds at feeders in afternoon.  In this way I visited Madera, Box, Ash, Miller and Huachuca Canyons, the Sonoita grasslands, and Patagonia.

The guides were excellent!  I saw 139 species and 33 Life Birds during my time in Arizona, and that wasn’t my first trip to the area.  Did I tell you I saw four elegant trogons?  Yes!

I highly recommend the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival.  Southeastern Arizona is a lovely place in early August.

The Huachucas from AZ-92 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Huachucas from Arizona route 92 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista as seen from route 90 (photo by Kate St. John)

Looking toward Carr Canyon, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

Carr Peak (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 07 2015

Deadly Beauty

Published by under Plants

Datura flower (photo by Donna Memon)

Datura flower (photo by Donna Memon)

This night-blooming flower grows like a weed in Arizona.  Here, Donna Memon captured a trumpet glowing in the setting sun.

Datura grows easily in the Arizona desert and is cultivated around the world.  There are currently nine species, many of which are hard to identify because the plant changes its characteristics to suit the growing conditions.  Its common names include jimsonweed, moonflower and angel’s trumpets.

Though beautiful it is extremely poisonous, producing hallucinations, elevated body temperature, tachycardia, severe pupil dilation, unconsciousness and death.  Thus it was surprising to me that it’s called “sacred datura” in Arizona because Navajo and Havasupai shamans used low doses for religious hallucinations.

The proper dose is hard to determine and if you get it wrong you die.  The correct amount varies — even in the same plant — based on age, soil conditions and local weather.  Despite the warnings people try it and, as Wikipedia says, “Few substances have received as many severely negative recreational experience reports as has Datura. The overwhelming majority of those who describe their use of Datura find their experiences extremely unpleasant both mentally and often physically dangerous.”

The angel’s trumpet is beautiful but a deadly way to see angels.

Read more here at Wikipedia.

Datura flowers (photo by Donna Memon)

Datura flower and bud (photo by Donna Memon)


(photos by Donna Memon)

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Aug 06 2015

Save Time: Reuse, Recycle

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Last week, Karyn Delaney reported a northern cardinal using an old robin’s nest outside her window and we joked in email that the mother took this shortcut because it’s so late in the breeding season.

Cardinals rarely reuse nests but some songbirds do.  On Monday Donna Memon and I found a Cordillean flycatcher at her(*) nest at the summit of Mount Lemmon.  Because her nestlings were too tiny to see and the nest edges and “launch pad” had fecal evidence of active fledglings, we surmised she was reusing the nest.

Birds of North America Online (BNA) reports that Cordillerans in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona — the location of Mount Lemmon — build a “cup of moss, sometimes mixed with bark strips or rootlets, [and] lined with fine grass or rootlets.” Cordillerans often reuse nests, sometimes in the same location for 20 years.  Perhaps this nest has been recycled many times because it’s much sloppier than a simple cup.

In the next three photos the flycatcher feeds and watches her tiny nestlings but she has to hurry because …

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

… this is a late nesting.  Winter comes early to Mount Lemmon and Cordilleran migration begins in mid-August so she’ll have to hurry.

It looks like she’s already saved time by reusing the nest.


(*) A NOTE ABOUT “Cordilleran and “she”:  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify but the Cordilleran flycatcher is the Empid species that nests on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a sky island in southeastern Arizona.  The Cordilleran’s look-alike relative, the Pacific slope flycatcher, is a low elevation bird. Also, for convenience I’ve called this bird a “she” but the males help feed the nestlings so we may have been watching a “he.”  On the subject of “he/she” I am borrowing my husband’s Poetic License.  😉


(photos by Donna Memon)

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Aug 05 2015

Smells Like Vanilla

Published by under Travel,Trees

Ponderosa pine: a look at the bark (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine bark — photo by Donna Memon

Did you know you can recognize this tree by the smell of its bark?

After the Southwest Wings Festival I visited with Donna and Razzak Memon in Tuscon, Arizona.  On Monday Donna and I went birding on top of Mount Lemmon, one of the few mountains named for a woman (Sara Plummer Lemmon).

The summit is 9,159 feet above sea level and 6,770 feet above Tucson so the air is thinner and cooler, a welcome change from the valley’s heat.  That day it was 72oF on the mountain, 104oF in the valley.  Because of the thin mountain air we learned something about this tree.  

Donna and I were heading downhill when a group of hikers paused near the tree to catch their breath and I overheard one of them say it smelled like vanilla.  On our way back up the thin air hit me at the same spot so I paused and sniffed the bark.  Yes, the bark smells like vanilla.

The Ponderosa pine (on Mount Lemmon*) is one of the few trees you can identify this way.  When the tree is young the bark is black, but when it reaches 100-120 years old it sheds the black and shows a yellow bark that smells like vanilla or butterscotch or baking cookies, depending your point of view.

The unusual bark is also a fire shield.  According to this NPR report, when fire hits the tree it flash-boils the sap and blows the bark off the tree, but the tree doesn’t burn.

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

In the top photo you can see some snags at left that died in a fire on the mountain.

But not this one.  Its vanilla-scented bark protects it.


p.s.  Here we are at the top of the mountain.  You can see Tucson in the valley below.

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

(tree photos by Donna Memon; Kate & Donna photo by Razzak Memon; information about Ponderosas from this 2009 NPR article)

(*) In the comments below Nickie explains that in California Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla but Ponderosas do not. However the Jeffrey pine doesn’t grow in Arizona. In Arizona the Ponderosa (and/or the Arizona species/ subspecies) does.

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Aug 04 2015

Arizona’s Same But Different Birds

Published by under Travel

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When you travel west in North America you often encounter birds that are similar but different from those back home.  Here are three natives of Arizona and their eastern North America cousins.

Yellow-eyed junco vs. dark-eyed junco:

Did you ever wonder why our eastern juncos are called a “dark-eyed?”  Perhaps because there’s a yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus) in Arizona, pictured above.  Click here to see the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis).


Bridled titmouse vs. tufted titmouse:

Bridled titmouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bridled titmouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The bridled titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi) has a fancy face compared to his eastern cousin, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).  Click here to see the tufted titmouse.


Black-throated gray warbler vs. black-throated green warbler:

Black-throated gray warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Black-throated gray warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These two warblers not only resemble each other but have very similar English names.   The black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens) is common in southeastern Arizona. The black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens) is the bird we see in Pennsylvania. Click here for a photo of the black-throated green.

And for you Bird-Code wonks:  These two would both be coded as “BTGW” but have been altered to BTYW (gray) and BTNW (green) to make them unique.


For more same-but-different Southwestern birds see this blog from December 2013 featuring Steve Valasek’s photos from New Mexico.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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