Sep 21 2014

Not Confusing

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Hooded warbler (photo by Steve Gosser)

September and May are the two best months to find warblers in Pennsylvania, but in the fall many are confusing.  Adult males, like this hooded warbler, are not.

Confusing Fall Warblers got their name from four scary pages in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds where immatures and a few females are lined up to show their differences.  Hah!  They all look the same.

But I’ve learned a trick to overcome the problem.  The more you watch non-confusing adults the easier it is to identify their confusing “kids.”

Within each species the birds have the same body-shapes, feeding habits, perching styles and favorite locations (on the ground vs. thickets vs. treetops).  Often, the confusing birds have colors and markings that hint at their non-confusing cohorts.  Sometimes there’s one indelible clue — like the square of white on the female black-throated blue’s wing that matches the male’s.

Get some practice seeing adult male warblers on Steve Gosser’s new Warbler Page where he displays beautiful photos of Pennsylvania’s best.

Not confusing!


(photo by Steve Gosser, September 2014)

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Sep 20 2014

Who’s On First?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Question mark butterfly, fall form (photo by Kate St. John)

I am so new to butterfly identification that most of them prompt a question.  I photographed this one near the Kiski River in Armstrong County last Sunday.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark.”

No, really, I want to know.  Here’s the ventral side.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

Underside of question mark butterfly, fall form ... but cannot see the mark (photo by Kate St. John)

“It’s a question mark.”

Honestly, I’m not kidding.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark because it has a small white question mark on the underside of its hind wing.”

Well, this one doesn’t.  At least not that I can see.  Please tell me, What’s the name of this butterfly?

It’s a question mark, Polygonia interrogationis.

I give up.  Who’s on First?

(Watch Abbott and Costello drive each other nuts in this video of their Who’s on First? skit.)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 19 2014

Volunteers Count!

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at Tarentum (photo by Steve Gosser)

When a bird is on the Endangered Species List wildlife biologists pay a lot of attention to it.  When it’s de-listed funding dries up and official monitoring wanes.  How can we know a “recovered” species is doing well without official monitoring?  Volunteers count!  California’s peregrine falcons are a case in point.

This month in ESA’s Ecological Applications, Tim Wootton and Doug Bell compare California’s current peregrine population to the prediction they made in 1992.  In the process they highlight the value of dedicated volunteers.

Peregrine falcons were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970 after they went extinct in eastern North America. By 1975 the U.S. had only 159 breeding pairs so wildlife agencies in many states established reintroduction programs to raise chicks in captivity for release in the wild.  California was one of them.

By 1992 California’s reintroduction program was so successful that state wanted to end the program.  Would the peregrine population falter without human assistance?  That year in Ecological Applications Wootton and Bell published a population viability analysis that predicted the future peregrine population with and without the reintroduction program.  It looked like peregrines would be OK on their own.

Fast forward to 2014.  How are California’s peregrines doing?  Was the model right?

Wootton and Bell ran the analysis again but found that peregrine studies were hard to come by.  “The challenge was to come up with data,” said Wootton. “Once a species falls off the endangered species list, there is not a lot of funding to track how management, or lack of management, is doing.  There was limited data that was appropriate being collected on the falcon, so we turned to a couple of well-known bird censuses that cover wide geographic areas.”

Enter the volunteers!  Wooton and Bell calibrated data from the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Surveys to the few intensive surveys done by wildlife biologists.  Interestingly, the Christmas Bird Count provided the best data.  “The greater number of ‘eyes on the skies’ in the Christmas Bird Count was key to obtaining a reliable sampling of the rare peregrines … Mustering many observers lowers the likelihood of undercounting rare birds.”

So how are California’s peregrines doing in 2014?

In 1992 the authors predicted that northern California would perform best because there were some population “sinks” in Southern California where the birds didn’t do well.  Thanks to volunteers, 2014′s analysis finds that though the population is lower than hoped for it’s well within the recovery trajectory.

Volunteers, give yourselves a pat on the back!  Your bird counts make a difference.

Read more about the study here in Science Daily.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 18 2014

Next Week! Penguins: Spy In The Huddle

Published by under Books & Events

Emperor penguins with a spy in the Huddle, a PBS NATURE Special (photo courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP)

That’s an odd-looking emperor penguin, coasting on his belly with a black square on his chest.  But he’s not a real penguin.  He’s a spy in the huddle!

Coming to PBS NATURE on Wednesday, September 24 is the first in a three-part series Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, a unique intimate look at three species of penguins.

The series follows emperor penguins in Antarctica, rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands, and Humboldt penguins in Peru’s Atacama Desert using more than 50 life-size animatronic spycams.  The cams are so well disguised that after a brief examination the penguins generally accept the robots as one of their own.

This technique gets awesome footage.  One cam even caused marital strife.

Like many birds, male penguins arrive first on the breeding grounds and wait for their ladies to arrive.  Emperors choose a new mate every year but rockhoppers mate for life so each male waits and calls for his lady.  If she’s late, she may have died.  What’s a guy to do?  He courts a new female.  One spycam got into big trouble when a lonely male made overtures just before his lady returned.  She was late and she was angry!

Watch “The Journey” on PBS next Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.

In the next two weeks I’ll also review “First Steps” and “Growing Up,” premiering on October 1 and October 8 respectively.

Thanks to our local penguin experts, The National Aviary, for underwriting this series.  Get an up-close and personal penguin fix at their Penguin Point exhibit in Pittsburgh.  Irrepressible, irresistible penguins!


(photo of courtesy of Frederique Olivier/©JDP via PBS NATURE)

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Sep 17 2014

Lasting Impression

Published by under Plants

Stinging nettle closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle captured my imagination at the age of seven.

In Now We Are Six, Christopher Robin offers the Little Black Hen three things if she’ll lay him an egg for Easter Day.  Of the three, the only thing she cares to see is the nettle-place on his leg which she touches gently with her wing. “Nettles don’t hurt if you count to ten.”  This left a lasting impression on me.

For decades I thought stinging nettles were foreign, exotic and only grew in England so I was awed when shown a huge patch of them in Pennsylvania.  It was spring.  They smelled like cat pee.  I kept a wide berth and vowed to always wear long pants while hiking (which I do to this day).

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America. The nominate subspecies dioica that Christopher Robin encountered is introduced.  Three to seven feet tall, stinging nettle is coated with hollow stinging hairs loaded with histamines and painful chemicals.  A gentle brush against the plant causes the hairs to detach and become needles in your skin.  The sting is memorable. For those desperate to hold the plant a firm grasp flattens the hairs so that fewer penetrate.   This is counter-intuitive and not for the faint of heart.

At very close quarters the plant looks bristly.  The close-up above is of the crown at the top of the plant.
Stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Even the tiny leaf-like structures have stinging hairs.
Closeup of stinging nettle crown (photo by Kate St. John)

Because of my cautionary introduction to nettles, it took me a long time to believe the plant is good to eat and has a wide variety of medicinal uses.  I was skeptical about the Nettle Soup recipe in my Joy of Cooking cookbook.  “Using rubber gloves to protect you from the stinging nettles, remove the central stem from 1 Quart young nettle tops.”  (Sure!  I’m going to eat that??)  But it’s true.  Nettles are eaten around the world.  Young leaves are best. Click these links for food and medicinal uses.

Some people take nettle eating to an extreme.  There’s an annual World Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset England which began on a dare in 1986. Beer is involved.

In September stinging nettles still have a frizz of whitish flowers dangling from their stems — or perhaps seeds, I did not get close! — as seen in the whole-plant photo below.  I’ve circled the crown area of the close-ups in red.
Stinging nettle with crown circled in red (photo by Kate St. John)


So now you know what it looks like … in case you want to try.  ;)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 16 2014

Mirage On Cold Water

Published by under Weather & Sky

September mirage of distant islands near Great Wass, Maine (photo by Kate St. John)

It was brilliantly sunny with a chilly east wind when I hiked at Schoodic Peninsula on the coast of Maine last Wednesday.  Little did I know the conditions were perfect for a superior mirage.

Schoodic is one of the endless procession of peninsulas and islands that reach into the Gulf of Maine east of Acadia National Park‘s Cadillac Mountain.  Though Schoodic is part of the park it takes an hour and a half to drive there around Frenchman Bay.

That day from the top of Schoodic Head the nearby islands and peninsulas were undistorted but on the horizon the land looked really odd.  One pink granite island was shaped like an hourglass and a peninsula looked sparsely tree-covered with a flat top.

This was a “superior mirage,” so called because the upside down images are above the real objects.  They are typical in cold water zones where the inversion of warm air above cold air distorts the light.  When very complex they’re called Fata Morgana, an Italian reference to the sorceress Morgan le Fay, because reality is distorted as if by magic.

Mirages are so common in the Arctic that explorers learned to be very careful before they labeled what they saw as solid land.  In 1818 Sir John Ross gave up pursuing the Northwest Passage when he saw mountains blocking Lancaster Sound.  He named them the Croker Mountains and headed back for England despite the protests of several of his officers including Edward Sabine (for whom the Sabine’s gull is named).  The mistake ruined Ross’ career. Eighty-eight years later Robert Peary thought he saw a distant land mass and named it Crocker Land.  It too was a mirage. Beware of naming anything in the Arctic with the letters C, R, O, K, E, R. It doesn’t turn out well.

Even spookier:  A re-examination of testimony surrounding the sinking of the Titanic indicates a mirage may have hidden the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookout and hidden the Titanic from the nearest rescue ship.  Click here for illustrations that show how this could happen.

Mirages change quickly so I was able to snap only one good image before it became less interesting. I was fascinated but not fooled.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 15 2014

In Steep Decline

Published by under Musings & News

Herring Gull (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last week I learned something new.  Did you know that herring gulls are in steep decline?

On Thursday Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology published the 2014 State of the Birds Report in honor of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon who died 100 years ago this month.  The report heralds the great conservation successes of the past 100 years — bald eagles, wood ducks, Kirtland’s warbler, brown pelicans — and warns of species currently in decline that need our attention.

Especially interesting is the list of 33 common birds in steep decline.  According to the report, “These birds have lost more than half their global population. All of these species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals over the past four decades.”  We know from the passenger pigeon’s experience that steep decline can quickly lead to extinction so these birds are the ones to help right now.

Many are those I’ve written about in the past — common nighthawks, snow buntings, rusty blackbirds, common grackles — but the herring gull was a real surprise.   How can this species be threatened when we see them everywhere at the shore and the mall?

It turns out that herring gulls nearly went extinct in the 1880′s because of market hunting but made a stunning comeback to 100,000 birds by the 1980′s, thanks in part to humans’ wasteful ways (coastal refuse dumps and fishing boat waste).  Then the tide started to turn.  78% of the herring gull population has disappeared in the last 40 years.  Who knew?

There are plenty of birds who need our help.  Click here for the full report.  We can do it!

And here’s the list of 33 Common Species in Steep Decline.  You’ll find some surprises.


(photo by Shawn Collins)

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Sep 14 2014

International Rock Flipping, Without A Flip

International Rock Flipping Day logo (from Wanderin' Weeta)

Today is International Rock Flipping Day and I’m participating for the sixth time in this Blog Carnival event.

But the truth is I did not flip a rock.

This year I finally realized that I don’t like to flip rocks.  I don’t want to be surprised by what’s underneath and the surprise is increased by having to stand close enough to photograph the critters.

Before this dawned on me I flipped two carefully chosen benign-looking rocks.  Predictably, there was nothing but dirt under them.  (Whew!)  Even so I followed Rock Flipping Protocol and replaced the rocks as I found them.

Then I remembered Mainly Mongoose’s 2010 blog post in which she pondered the hazards of flipping rocks in the lowveld of northeastern South Africa, a location filled with poisonous snakes. Luckily she found a rock monitor (lizard) poised in a rock crevice.  No flipping required!

So I switched strategies and photographed the most interesting crevices in the rock walls at Schenley Park.  This yielded three spider webs: a many-round-holed web, a hammock, and a funnel.  The spiders were quick to hide as I approached.

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Webs between the rocks, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Web between the rocks (photo by Kate St. John)


Hoping for more interesting creatures, I visited the groundhogs’ wall domain but no one was home until this little guy appeared, hidden behind the flowers.

Chipmunk in a rock crevice, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Not as good as a rock monitor but a chipmunk is a nice surprise.

Happy, International Rock Flipping Day.  Go out and flip a rock if you dare!  Remember to put it back the way you found it.


p.s. Heather Mingo At the Edge of the Ordinary posted links to 2014′s hearty crew of international rock-flippers.  Click here for the round-up and links to the flipper results on Flickr and Facebook, too.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 13 2014

Isabella Scoffs At Winter

Isabella tiger moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I found this Isabella Tiger moth caterpillar in Schenley Park.  Does she have a prediction for the coming winter?

Legend has it that wide brown stripes on woolly bear caterpillars predict a mild winter; narrow brown stripes mean a harsh one.

In the 1950′s the former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History surveyed a very small sample of woolly bears and found that the caterpillars had an 80% accuracy rate.  However, no one’s been able to replicate Dr. C. H. Curran’s findings.  Instead a whole host of factors influence the stripes including species, diet and age.  Especially age.  The older instars are browner.

And frankly, this caterpillar doesn’t care how harsh the winter.  It can survive to -90 degrees F, hibernating as a caterpillar (not in a cocoon!) curled up in a ball under a rock or bark.  It freezes completely except for the innermost portions of its cells which are protected by naturally produced glycerol.  In the spring the caterpillar thaws and resumes eating before making a cocoon and becoming a moth.

Theoretically this particular caterpillar is saying “mild winter” but we know it ain’t so.

Isabella scoffs at winter.

Read more here about the woolly bear legend and amazing winter feats.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 12 2014

How Quickly Can You Pass These Tests?

This is a test.  For the next 3+ minutes wild New Caledonian crows will solve six physics problems in water displacement.

What will raise the floating treat?  If there are two treats which method is fastest?  The challenges are:

  1. Sand versus Water:  Will the crow know that there’s no point in dropping stones onto sand?
  2. Light versus Heavy objects:  Do heavy objects work better than light ones?
  3. Solid versus Hollow objects: Do solid objects work better than hollow ones even though the hollow objects weigh the same?
  4. Narrow water column versus Wide:  Which column takes longer to elevate?
  5. High versus Low water:  Is it faster to get the treat when the water is already close to the top?
  6. U-tube with a hidden connection:  Very hard! Will the crow figure out that one of the wide tubes governs the water level in the narrow one?

In the video the crows solve every problem but behind the scenes they faltered on the U-tube test so the scientists say they flunked it.

How quickly can you solve these physics problems?  Be quick on the U-tube test or else …

This experiment was tried with New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, and human children.  Read all about it here in PLOS One.

My favorite quote from the Discussion is: “The results from the current U-tube experiment suggest that New Caledonian crows are comparable to Eurasian jays, but differ from human children.”   ;)


(video from PLOS Media on YouTube)

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