Jul 07 2015

The Sneaky Little Vine: Dodder

Published by under Plants

Dodder vine wrapped around a stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Dodder vine wrapped around a stem (photo by Kate St. John)

This small yellow-orange vine is a native member of the morning glory (Convolvulaceae) family that’s hated by agriculture.

Dodder (Cuscuta) has virtually no leaves and is not green because it doesn’t use chlorophyll to make food.  Instead it wraps itself closely around a host plant, inserts very tiny feelers (called haustoria) between the cells, and sucks nutrients out of the host.  Though it starts growing from seed, it loses its soil-based roots when it’s found a really good host.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide has only one entry for dodder in eastern North America — common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) — but there are 100-170 species around the world, especially in tropical and subtropical climates.

In Pennsylvania dodder blooms summer and fall in dense clusters of small white flowers.  According to Wikipedia “the seeds are minute and produced in large quantities. They have a hard coating and typically can survive in the soil for 5–10 years, sometimes longer.”  And therein lies the problem.

Farmers hate this plant because it eats some of the plants we cultivate.  Tomatoes, for instance.  If dodder takes over the best way out is to plant something dodder can’t live on — grasses or wheat — but it takes a few years before the dodder seed bed is too old to grow.  Hence, dodder has been declared a noxious weed/seed in 49 states.

On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen dodder take over (here’s what a thick patch looks like) and tomatoes have developed their own defenses against it.

In the end you might think dodder is good for nothing but in western North America it hosts the caterpillars of the brown elfin butterfly (Callophrys augustinus). (See comments.)

And so goes the circle of hosts.  It’s eat and be eaten.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 06 2015

From A Different Angle

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 3 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 3 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

With access denied to private property under the Westinghouse Bridge(*) we’re exploring public property to see the peregrines who nest there.

Over the weekend Dana Nesiti tried two locations at the East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard Bridge.  The sidewalk (topside) is the closest and shows off the birds from a different angle.

Here he captured some great shots of the adults in the sun.

Peregrine lifting off, Westinghouse Bridge (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine lifting off, Westinghouse Bridge (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine lifting off, Westinghouse Bridge (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine lifting off, Westinghouse Bridge (photo by Dana Nesiti)

… and this one of Storm on the catwalk perch.

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge, 3 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge, 3 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The youngsters were hard to see on Friday but by Saturday they were ledge walking far and wide on the big arch.  With my scope, John English and I could easily see one walking and squawking for food.

On Sunday they made practice flights.

Young peregrine practice flight at Westinghouse Bridge, 5 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Young peregrine practice flight at Westinghouse Bridge, 5 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

And seemed to be train spotting. 😉

Young peregrines (pre-fledge) at Westinghouse Bridge, 5 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Young peregrines (pre-fledge) at Westinghouse Bridge, 5 July 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

As you can see, “topside” is closer to the action.


(*) NOTE!  The place where we used to stand under the Westinghouse Bridge — and the access to it — is owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad (NSRR) and we are not allowed on it.  DO NOT go there.  NSRR is closely monitoring the site.

(photos by Dana Nesiti)


16 responses so far

Jul 05 2015

Pretty. Invasive.

Published by under Plants,Schenley Park

Purple loosestrife blooming on CMU's campus, 2 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Purple loosestrife blooming on CMU’s campus, 2 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

When I saw this plant blooming in Schenley Park the other day I made sure to point it out to participants at last Sunday’s walk.  Most people aren’t aware that purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is highly invasive.

Purple loosestrife came to North America from Europe and was established on the east coast by the mid 1800s.  It grows 1.5 to 5 feet tall with opposite or alternate untoothed leaves and a spike of pinkish purple flowers. Here’s a closeup of the flower.

It spreads by seed and by massive woody roots in ditches, wet meadows and wetlands.  Once it takes hold it out-competes native plants and creates a monoculture that lowers the biodiversity of the site.  Amazingly it even affects ducks because, though dense at the top, it’s open at water level and provides no cover for nesting.

Purple loosestrife is listed as invasive in 27 states, including Pennsylvania, but many garden stores and garden websites still sell it to those who are unaware of the danger.  When its seeds get into flowing water, watch out!

Fortunately years of research found a beetle that eats it.  In the video below, Donna Ellis from the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension describes purple loosestrife and how the Galerucella beetle is an effective biological control agent. (Birders, listen to the audio track. If I’d been standing there I would have been totally distracted by those upset birds!)

I found only a single loosestrife in Schenley Park and an Urban Eco Steward pulled it up (yay!) but on Thursday I found two clumps on Carnegie Mellon’s campus.  Uh oh!

Pretty.  Invasive.


(photo by Kate St. John)

4 responses so far

Jul 04 2015

277 and Counting

Hays bald eagle carrying nesting material, March 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Hays bald eagle carrying nesting material, March 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

277.  That’s how many bald eagle nests there are in Pennsylvania this year. What an improvement since the time when there were only 3 nests back in 1983!

As the PA Game Commission explains:

“So far this year, 277 bald-eagle nests have been documented in Pennsylvania, with nesting eagles present in at least 58 of the state’s 67 counties.  That shatters the 2014 preliminary number of 254 nests, which also was an all-time high. And more nests remain to be counted as the year goes on.”

The count will go up, not because bald eagles are building new nests in July, but because observers will report additional nests in the days ahead.

Many people don’t realize that the nest count starts over every year. Nests that are used year after year must be reported again to be included in the count.

Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds section, says, “Even if nests are well known locally, please don’t hesitate to report them. You might be adding a new nest to the list, or making certain that one reported in a previous year is accurately counted this year.”

It’s easy to report a nest. Just email the Game Commission at pgccomments@pa.gov with “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject line, or phone it in to your Game Commission Region Office or the Harrisburg headquarters.

Perhaps your report will help bald eagles break the 300 mark.


(photo of a bald eagle at Hays by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. Peregrine falcons are rare compared to bald eagles. There are only 45 peregrine nests statewide this year.

2 responses so far

Jul 03 2015

Little Eats Big … Slowly

Harvestman with mites on its legs (photo by Kate St. John)

Harvestman with mites on its legs, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

We’re used to top predators eating small prey but the world is far more complicated than Big Eats Little.  Small things can weaken a predator or bring it down.

Harvestmen (Opiliones), also called daddy long-legs, are omnivorous ‘bugs’ distantly related to spiders.  They are harmless to humans but can be dangerous to small insects.  However they can be weakened by even tinier parasites.

See those two red dots on the harvestman’s legs?  They are parasitic mites sucking the harvestmen’s “blood.”  Bugguide.net identifies them as a species of Leptus (family Erythraeidae) whose larvae parasitize North American harvestmen.

Just two mites are probably not a problem but a large infestation on the body weakens the harvestman.  If seeing bugs-on-bugs doesn’t bother you, click here for an example.

Harvestmen clean their legs by drawing them through their jaws so it’s a wonder the mites remain in place.  Obviously there’s been a long mutual evolution of cleaning and clinging that brought these two species to where they are today.

No matter how small the predator, there’s always something smaller to oppress it.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 02 2015

What to Look For in Early July

Published by under Phenology

Common Milkweed close-up (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Common Milkweed (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What can we expect outdoors in early July?  Click here for my prediction, written in 2009:  Milkweed or What to Look for in Early July.

In 2009 I described how to find monarch butterfly eggs on milkweed leaves.  Sadly, monarchs have declined so precipitously in six years that they’re very hard to find today in western Pennsylvania.


(close-up of Common Milkweed by Marcy Cunkelman)

4 responses so far

Jul 01 2015

Pitt Peregrine Fledgling Update from ARL

Published by under Peregrines

2015 Pitt peregrine fledgling checked by vet (photo courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

2015 Pitt peregrine fledgling checked by vet (photo courtesy ARL Wildlife Center)

Peregrine Update from Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center, 1 July 2015, 11:40am via Facebook … for the bird known as “Silver”:

“Wildlife Center staff took the falcon to be examined by Dr. Robert Wagner yesterday evening. A complete physical examination was conducted. The formerly missing primary feathers are almost completely grown, but our licensed rehabilitators & the veterinarian agree that the bird displays neurological deficits. A blood sample was taken to gain insight on these inconsistencies. A test is also being conducted to rule out lead poisoning. Supportive care will continue as the test results are pending. The falcon will continue to be treated by Wildlife Center staff.”


(photo courtesy Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center Facebook page.  Click on the image to visit their Facebook page)

21 responses so far

Jul 01 2015

Mr. Mouse Went A-Courting

Published by under Mammals

House mouse (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

House mouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that male mice sing to attract the ladies?

We can’t hear their songs because they’re way too high for our audio range but each species has its own song and they vary the tunes to fit the social setting.

I learned about this in April’s Audubon news when they highlighted Duke University’s research into mouse songs.  The article included this video of two mouse songs with the audio track digitally lowered so we can hear it.

First a researcher places fresh female urine in the male’s enclosure. Mr. Mouse can smell her but can’t see her so he sings a loud and complex song.  Next they put a female in the male’s enclosure.  When he finds her (why does it take so long?) he snuggles up and sings a softer, simpler song.

What do the lady mice think?  When placed alone in an enclosure with a speaker playing male songs, most females stay close to the speaker when the complex songs play.  Perhaps those songs say “Come hither!”

Click here to read more in Audubon Magazine.


p.s. We can’t hear mice sing at 50 kHz, but cats can. 😉

(video from audubon.org’s Vimeo site. photo of a house mouse from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.)

The title is a reference to “Frog Went A-Courting” in which Frog sings to woo Miss Mouse.

4 responses so far

Jun 30 2015

Bald Bird Season

Published by under Songbirds

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

Bald northern cardinal, June 2015 (photo by Matt Webb)

It’s that time of year again when some birds go bald.  Don’t worry. They won’t stay that way.

Bird bander Matt Webb explained why this happens when he posted his photo of a bald northern cardinal on Facebook:

“The loss of [head] feathers is due to feather mites. They are able to deal with the mites on the rest of their body, but end up breaking their feathers off their heads when they scratch at the mites. They will re-grow the feathers this fall. It’s actually a pretty common and normal occurrence with Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays, and seems to be prevalent at this time of year.”

Two weeks ago I saw a bald blue jay near Schenley Plaza.  He didn’t want me to take his picture so I had to keep my distance.  In this photo he almost looks normal …

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but when he turns his head he’s bald with an Elizabethan ruff around his neck.  😉

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bald blue jay, June 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

When birds are bald you can see that …

  • Their ears are holes below their eyes, though usually covered by feathers. Our ears are holes too, partly covered by a flap of skin.
  • Their eyes are large compared to the size of their heads.
  • The northern cardinal’s skin and the roots of his feathers are black.
  • The blue jay’s skin is dark but the roots of his feathers are not.


Have you seen any bald birds lately?

(Vultures don’t count! They’re always bald.)


(photo of bald northern cardinal photo by Matt Webb, photos of bald blue jay by Kate St. John)

8 responses so far

Jun 29 2015

Walks in Schenley Park: Yesterday + July through October

Participants in Sunday's walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)

Group photo: Sunday’s walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the cold, gray, and drizzle 12 people came out to walk in Schenley Park yesterday morning.

Our best birds were a Baltimore oriole with a fledgling, northern rough-winged swallows, a scarlet tanager, gray catbirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

We also observed that deer tried to eat the Black Cohosh flowers and rejected them (they smell bad), Bottlebrush Buckeye is in full bloom near Panther Hollow Lake, and a rose-breasted grosbeak jumped up to eat Pale Touch-me-not seeds.

Yesterday’s walk was the last one on the schedule but many of you asked for more so I’m pleased to announce 4 more monthly walks — late July through late October — that will take us up to winter.  (Most are the last Sunday of the month, but not in August.)

  • Sunday, July 26:  Meet at Bartlett Shelter. Let’s look at the park from a different angle and see what’s blooming in the meadow.
  • Sunday, August 23:  Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center.  What’s changed at the lake since June? Late summer flowers and a hint of fall.
  • Sunday September 27:  Meet at Bartlett Shelter.  It’s Great Race Day so we’ll avoid road closures and spend time at the quiet end of the park.
  • Sunday, October 25: Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center for the last walk before winter sets in.  Will the crows be back yet?

As always, the walks are 8:30am to 10:30am.  Dress for the weather, wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring binoculars if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates if a walk is canceled for bad weather.

See you then!


(photo by Kate St. John)

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