Jul 06 2013

Monongahela Barbara’s-Buttons

Published by under Plants

Marshallia grandiflora, Ohiopyle (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Large-flowered marshallia (Marshallia grandiflora) grows in bogs and along river banks in Appalachia where it earned the common name Monongahela Barbara’s-buttons.  It’s so rare that it’s endangered or threatened throughout its range and no longer grows in Maryland.

In southwestern Pennsylvania it’s found on the flood-scoured rocky banks of the Youghiogeny River where it relies on the floods to remove other species that would crowd it out.  In fact, the biggest threat to Barbara’s-buttons is flood control.  When the river quits flooding this plant can’t survive.

As you can see it has beautiful flowers.  What you can’t tell from the photos is that the plant is 10 to 36 inches tall.  From a distance the flower stands on a stalk above the leaves.

Up close the flower is intricate.

Marshallia grandiflora, Ohiopyle (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Botanists and plant lovers seek out Large-flowered Marshallia when it blooms in June.

We’re fortunate that the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy saved its habitat at Ohiopyle.


(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Jul 05 2013

Large Broods Wear Us Out

Common kestrel nest in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Any parent can tell you that raising kids is hard work and even harder if there are multiple infants the same age. (Think triplets!)

Most birds experience this multiple effect every time they nest.  In fact, the work is so exhausting that having “extra” kids beyond their normal clutch size decreases the parents’ life expectancy in some species.

This was shown in studies of common kestrels in Europe in the 1980s.

A team led by Cor Dijkstra artificially lowered and raised brood sizes of common kestrels by removing eggs from some nests and adding them to others.  Kestrel parents whose brood size of five remained normal or was reduced to three experienced the typical winter mortality of 29%.  On the flip side, adults whose broods were augmented were much more likely to die the next winter.  60% of the kestrels who raised two extra chicks were dead by the following March.

For thousands and thousands of years the clutch size of the common kestrel has been honed by the deaths of those who raised too many.  The birds settled on the number five.  More than that can kill them!


(photo of common kestrel nest in Germany from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 521 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

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Jul 04 2013

The United States of Birds

Published by under Books & Events

US State Birds on a map (design by Anand Gorantala)


On our National Holiday here’s a map with each state illustrated by its State Bird.

Web designer Anand Gorantala created this Visualization of US State birds on a map by placing photos of birds into a Wikipedia map file.

Click on the image to see the original with a link to the interactive version.

Test your knowledge:  Identify the states and birds.  Which bird is most popular?  Which birds are non-native?  (Tricky!)

Happy Fourth of July.

(map design by Anand Gorantala. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 03 2013

What Do Birds Think Of Fireworks?

Fourth of July fireworks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every year around the Fourth of July people use our neighborhood park to try out illegal fireworks.  (In Pennsylvania everything except sparklers, “novelties,” and toycaps are illegal without a permit.)

Last Sunday we jumped out of our skins when someone exploded a minute’s worth of “M-80″ salutes across the street.  After our hearts stopped racing and our cat emerged from under the bed I wondered…

What do birds think of fireworks?

I can guess based on our own reactions, but here are some scientific studies.

In the Netherlands where fireworks are popular on New Years’ Eve, the University of Amsterdam uses weather radar to track birds’ reactions when civilians celebrate at midnight.  On the radar here you can see thousands of birds fleeing en masse for 45 minutes.   The birds most affected are ducks and geese overwintering at quiet wetlands.  I suspect they are doubly susceptible because they aren’t habituated to human noise and they flee the sound of gunfire because they are hunted.

On the U.S. Pacific Coast a few towns have changed their fireworks venues to protect nesting seabird colonies.  When fireworks are too close the adults flee the cliffs exposing their young to cold or predation, or the young jump off the cliffs before they can fly.

At Depoe Bay, Oregon the fireworks display used to be held a mile north of town in a state park on a high cliff overlooking the ocean.  The site is part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and has a large nesting colony of Brandt’s cormorants.  After July 4, 2011 and years of fireworks-induced nest failure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began talking with municipal leaders about moving the venue.  USFW did a study showing significant nest failure and provided an alternate seaside location only a seven minute drive from town.  Most towns understand and accommodate.  Depoe Bay became famous for canceling and complaining.

So what do birds do about fireworks?   It depends.  Some flee.  Some hunker down.  Others are tolerant if the noise isn’t too close.  In any case the disturbance is temporary.

It’s pretty much our pets’ reaction too.


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

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Jul 02 2013

Our Bald Eagle Fledged on June 29

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald eagle juvenile takes off  at Hays (photo by Tom Moeller)

So many of us have been watching the bald eagles’ nest in Pittsburgh’s Hays neighborhood that we’ve  begun to think of them as “our” eagles.

Last Saturday, June 29, was a big day for the young eaglet.  After weeks of flapping she lifted off.  Tom Moeller photographed her flying for the very first time.

Above she takes off from the area of the nest.  Below she crosses over to fly toward her father’s perch.  She is huge!

Bald eagle juvenile at Hays, City of Pittsburgh (photo by Tom Moeller)


The entire photo series of her first flight is here on Tom Moeller’s Picasa site.

Do you want to watch Pittsburgh’s eagles on the Fourth of July?  Join the Audubon Society of Western PA at the observation area on the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail on July 4 from 10:00 am until 1:00 pm. They’ll have binoculars and spotting scopes on hand for you to see the eagles.  Check their Facebook page for more information.

Click here for a map showing how to get there.  –> Park near the Glenwood Bridge at Sandcastle’s back lot and walk less than half a mile on the bike trail.


(photos by Tom Moeller)

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Jul 02 2013

Summer Flowers Begin

Published by under Plants

Black-eyed susan, Jennings Prairie, 30 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)


At Jennings Prairie the best flowers bloom from mid July through August but I was there on the last day of June and found a few summer flowers to brighten the foggy morning.

Above, the bristly hairs on the black-eyed susan’s (Rudbeckia hirta) stem are the second clue to its identity.


Below, a very early whorled rosinweed (Silphium trifoliatum) attracted my attention, showing off its whorled leaves and purple stems.

Whorled rosinweed, Jennings Prairie, 30 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)


Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) are one of my favorites. They resemble evening primroses but open during the day instead of at twilight.

Sundrops, Jennings Prairie, 30 Jun 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I’ll return in early August for dense blazing-star, Culver’s root and goldenrod.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 01 2013


Published by under Vocalizations


Onomatopoeia is a six-syllable word that’s hard to read but easy to say:  On ah ma ta PEE ah      (Click here to hear it pronounced in U.S. English)

It comes from two Greek words: “name” (ὄνομα) and “I make” (ποιέω) and means, literally, “I make my name.”

The meaning is obvious when you consider some birds with onomatopoetic names:  bobwhite, chickadee and hoopoe.

Since we don’t have hoopoes in North America you might not know what they sound like.  Play the video to hear how the hoopoe got his name.

Can you think of other onomatopoetic bird names?


(video from YouTube)

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Jun 30 2013

The Value of Species

turtle_woodturtle_rsz2_wikiWood Turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend two pieces of a puzzle came together for me.  I saw an endangered turtle and I read a thoughtful book, The Value of Species, that describes how our values shape his plight.

The wood turtle is approaching extinction because of bulldozers and collectors — habitat loss and the pet trade.  He’s one of many species in this human-induced predicament.  In fact so many species are declining now that scientists say we’re heading into a great extinction, perhaps on the scale of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.

Our actions cause decline and extinction yet we continue to do them.  We’ve saved some species like the peregrine falcon with spectacular results but our overall track record is poor.  New problems arise faster than we can stop them.  Why?

In The Value of Species, Edward L. McCord explains that our values get in the way.

  • Human population growth is crowding out other species but we avoid thinking about our role in this problem.
  • We gladly protect an individual animal from harm but find it hard to protect an entire species.
  • We understand the monetary value of species but not their intrinsic value.
  • It’s hard for us to connect the need to save habitat (land) in order to save species.
  • Protections on land owned by the state for the common good can be trumped at the state level.  (The book discusses mineral leases on national land in Mongolia.  Marcellus leases in Pennsylvania’s State Forests is an example close to home.)
  • The common good erodes easily when people don’t trust that others will obey the rules.  When a society lacks trust species are vulnerable.

Chapter Three, The Fate of Life on Earth Hinges on Property Values, is especially apt this week.  On June 25 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District made it harder for the common good of living things to compete with property values.

The short time span of property ownership is microscopic when weighed against species who’ve been on earth for two million years and could disappear in a matter of decades.  “Still, many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if only for a week.”(1)

McCord describes a new and deeper way to see the intrinsic value of all species. When we do, we can change the trajectory of extinction by “drawing a line in the sand, something we do all the time to protect important values.”(2)

What will be the fate of the wood turtle?  The Florida grasshopper sparrow?  The red-breasted goose?

Ed McCord’s The Value of Species shows us the way to a brighter mutual future.


(photo of a wood turtle from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes from The Value of Species (1)page 51, (2)page xvii
Edward McCord is the Director of Programming and Special Projects at the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College

p.s. Ed McCord gave a talk about the book at the University of Wyoming in April 2014.  Click here for the video.

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Jun 29 2013

Columbo Time?

Published by under Plants

American columbo flower (photo by Chuck Tague)

I know a meadow where American columbo grows.  When I went there at midsummer 2010 it was in bloom.

Is it blooming now?  I’ll have to see.  Perhaps I’ll go tomorrow.


Click on the “columbo” link above to read more about this flower.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

UPDATE June 30: Alas I am too late by two weeks.

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Jun 28 2013

Why Here?

Peregrine about to land on the Tarentum Bridge (photo by Sean Dicer)

Why do peregrines nest on buildings and bridges instead of cliffs?

“Raptors imprint on their natal nest sites.  Consequently, they choose a similar situation several years later when they reach maturity.”(1)

This explains why they’ve chosen to nest at the Tarentum Bridge, pictured above.  The adult female, nicknamed Hope, was born on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in Hopewell, Virginia.  That bridge is such a dangerous place to fledge that Hope was hacked in the Shenandoah Mountains, but she remembered where she was born and picked a bridge when she chose a place to nest.

There are exceptions to the natal imprint rule.  Though Dorothy’s daughter Maddy was born on the Cathedral of Learning, a 40-story Late-Gothic Revival building, she chose the I-480 Bridge in Valley View, Ohio.  I can’t think of anything less like the Cathedral of Learning than this.  (The nest is at a broken patch of concrete on the bridge support.)

Maddy's nest at the I-480 Bridge, Valley View (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

The exceptions have saved at least one species from extinction.

Mauritius kestrels used to nest in tree cavities but monkeys were introduced to the island and ate the eggs and young. By the 1960’s the kestrels were down to two pairs — almost extinct — when one of the pairs decided to nest on a cliff ledge where the monkeys couldn’t reach them. That nest was successful, their youngsters nested on cliffs, and the species rebounded.

The exceptions benefit the rule.


(photo of Hope at the Tarentum Bridge (blue structure) by Sean Dicer.  Photo of Maddy’s nest site at the I-480 Bridge at Valley View (busy highway) by Chad+Chris Saladin.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by and includes a quote(1) from page 444 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.

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