How To Get Happy When Skies Are Gray

Fields of rapeseed on a cloudy day in France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today in Pittsburgh it’s “cloudy” but a better description would be gloomy. Gray skies are depressing. How can we cope? Let’s look at yellow.

In an ongoing international survey (6,625 people in 55 countries to date) participants are asked, “What emotions do colors represent?” The data shows that most people say yellow is joyful but this isn’t true worldwide. It’s very joyful in the United States, exceptionally joyful in Finland, but in desert regions it’s not.

Researchers led by Domicele Jonauskaite at University of Lausanne, wondered if the attitude toward yellow was cultural or environmental: “What if people’s physical surroundings affect their feelings about certain colors?” They mapped the data here. (Darkest means the greatest yellow-joy; see Finland, Iceland, New Zealand.)

Likelihood of yellow-joy association (map from Science Direct, The Sun Is No Fun Without Rain)

They found that environment and cloud cover matter. The sun is not your friend in hot, dry, cloudless places. The study aptly named itself, “The sun is no fun without rain.”

Finland loves yellow. I think I know why. The first time I saw an intense field of yellow, like the one shown at top, was in Finland. I made my friends stop the car. So yellow! So happy! What is this plant? Rapeseed!

Rapeseed (Brassica napus) is the crop that makes canola oil.

Rapeseed in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t grow rapeseed in Pittsburgh, but I found a joyful yellow patch of chrysanthemums at the corner of Forbes Avenue and South Bouquet Street.

Go find some yellow and get happy.

(rapeseed photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Chrysanthemums by Kate St. John)

New Peregrine Visits The Nest

New female peregrine at Pitt visits the nest for the first time, 14 Oct 2019, 7:24pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

16 October 2019:

Good news for Pitt Peregrine Fans!

The new female peregrine, first seen in September by Dr. Alan Juffs, has made an important step at the Cathedral of Learning. On Monday evening 14 October 2019 she visited the nestbox for the first time.

Peter Bell of Pitt Peregrines Facebook page sent me the photo at top from the snapshot archive. I pulled the archived video and cropped it to the time span of her visit.

Isn’t she beautiful!

By visiting the nest she’s laying an even stronger claim to the Cathedral of Learning. I don’t know if a second female is still annoying her … but so far so good!

Thank you, Pete Bell! (See his Pitt Peregrines Facebook page here.)

(photo and video from the National Aviary falconcams at the Univ of Pittsburgh)

October Plants

Japanese barberry, Moraine State Park, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

October weather is here and the trees are starting to change color in southwestern Pennsylvania. On the ground I found additional evidence of autumn last weekend.

Above, the shiny red fruits of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) hang from thorny branches. Watch out if you approach them, not because of the thorns but because of ticks. This invasive shrub creates thickets with the perfect micro-climate for black-legged ticks and their favorite host, white-footed mice.

Burdock, nature’s velcro, is still in bloom. The tiny hooks coating the sepal will soon dry out and cling to your clothes as you pass by.

Burdock still blooming, Moraine State Park, 13 October 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though burdock (Arctium minus) is an alien invasive, a local insect has found it tasty. Notice the trail of the leaf miner, highlighted below.

Burdock with leaf miner activity, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile a native plant called Lycopodium or groundpine is in autumn dispersal mode. It has sent up tall pale green structures called strobili that will release the plant’s spores(*).

Lycopodium, Moraine State Park, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Lycopodium is a very ancient plant. It’s the last living relative of Lepidodendron, a mighty tree that predates the dinosaurs.

(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) Spores definition from Google dictionary: Spores are minute, typically one-celled, reproductive unit capable of giving rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, characteristic of lower plants, fungi, and protozoans.

Any Peregrine News?

Female peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Since last week’s announcement of the new peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning, several of you have asked if there’s any news from Downtown or the other sites in southwestern Pennsylvania. No, there isn’t any news except for this:

Yesterday, 13 October 2019, Dana Nesiti stopped by the Westinghouse Bridge and confirmed that both male and female peregrines are present. Two of his photos are shown here.

Peregrine at the Westinghouse Bridge, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Other than that it is very quiet. I stop by the Cathedral of Learning when I can and see the same things over and over: quiet airspace, no peregrines, or peregrines snoozing on the building.

If you see peregrine activity at Pitt or anywhere in southwestern Pennsylvania, please tell me by leaving a comment on my blog (it sends me an email).

If you can’t be here to look for peregrines, rest assured that I will tell you whatever news I have.

No news really is no news.

(photos by Dana Nesiti)

Hermit Crabs Get Creative

This video tweeted by @StrangeAnimaIs shows a hermit crab using an abandoned doll’s head as a shell. Why would a crab do this?

In some parts of the world there’s such an acute shortage of shells that hermit crabs use trash instead. This BBC video shows them on a beach in Thailand. Click here to see a crab in a can in Malaysia.

Seashells are missing because people and poachers collect them.

Animals that get creative are the ones who survive. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Monarchs Still Migrating Through Pittsburgh

Monarch butterfly in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though it’s nearly mid October I saw monarch butterflies migrating through Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday October 10 & 11. Their timing seems late, but they were given a boost by August-like weather early this month.

You can follow their progress across the U.S. on Journey North’s monarch butterfly blog where you’ll find:

Today’s rain will put a damper on monarch migration in Pittsburgh but we can watch from afar as the butterflies make their way to Mexico.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Who’s Outsmarting Who?

Juvenile raccoons contemplating their next move (photo courtesy PBS NATURE)

This morning I went out the back door at 6am — in the dark — with a bag of garbage. I do this every Friday to outsmart the raccoons.

Raccoons are thriving in my neighborhood though we rarely see them. Last night, for the first time in many months, I saw a hunched shadow cross the street on a nocturnal ramble. They’re still here.

Mostly we see their evidence so we try to outsmart them.

The garbage truck arrives in our back alley as early as 6am but we’ve learned from experience that if we put the garbage out the night before the raccoons rip it open and scatter the contents. Nowadays I take out the garbage as close as possible to the garbage truck’s arrival. One morning I missed the truck. Dang!

Seven years ago PBS NATURE premiered a program called Raccoon Nation that showed how creative urban raccoons can be. One of the scientists remarked:

The more obstacles you throw in their way become more challenges, so it’s quite possible that by providing more and more obstacles we are in fact selecting for smarter raccoons.

— from Raccoon Nation program on PBS NATURE

I’ve changed my Friday morning schedule to foil the raccoons. Have I outsmarted them or have they outsmarted me?

Click here for a short web exclusive video of raccoon babies + more exploring in a kitchen.

(photo and video clip from PBS NATURE)

Two Female Peregrines Vying For Pitt

New female peregrine at Cathedral of Learning, 4 Oct 2019 (photo by Dr. Alan Juffs)

Late yesterday, 9 October 2019, I watched the Cathedral of Learning for more than two hours to catch sight of the new peregrine and its mate. Though they were present less than half the time it was well worth the visit.

First, I learned that the new peregrine is female. I could recognize her from the ground by her perching preferences, her size, her dark head and her peach-toned chest. She hung out with the male, flying with him and roosting side-by-side in nooks on 32 north (Fifth Ave). I assume the male is Terzo though we won’t know for sure until we read his bands.

The size difference between the new female and Terzo is striking; she is a much larger bird. Hope is such a small female that it was hard to tell them apart unless the two perched side by side, a very rare occurrence. The roosting proximity of the new female to Terzo is a good sign.

It appears the new female “owns” the Cathedral of Learning. She is usually on site and she perches in plain sight. When flying near the building, both she and Terzo use flappy territorial flight, clearly saying, “This cliff is mine!”

Who is this message for? I found out while waiting for my bus on Fifth Ave.

At 5:25pm three peregrines flew toward the Cathedral of Learning. The male went past the building. The female landed on a stone peak at 27NW (a favorite perch of the new peregrine). A second female flew toward the perched one and took a pot shot at her. She didn’t hit her. The new peregrine didn’t move. The second female kept flying fast, away to the southwest.

Alan Juffs says he sometimes sees another bird fly at the one perched near his window. I wonder if the wailing on this video is the second female. The new peregrine isn’t phased by this, but she is certainly vigilant.

So I was wrong. There are three peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning, one male and two females. The females are vying for ownership of the Cathedral of Learning.

I like the new bird. I hope she wins.

(photo by Dr. Alan Juffs, University of Pittsburgh)

New Peregrine At Cathedral of Learning

New peregrine at Cathedral of Learning, 2 Oct 2019 (photo by Dr. Alan Juffs)

There’s still a pair of peregrine falcons at the Cathedral of Learning but one of them is a new bird. Last week Dr. Alan Juffs sent me photographs of a peregrine perched outside his window. I thought the bird might be new to Pitt but was unable to investigate until now. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

Yesterday afternoon (8 October 2019) I visited Alan Juffs to talk about the new peregrine and reminisce about Dorothy who frequented the same perches this bird has adopted. Juffs’ photographs and videos provide excellent documentation:

  • Unbanded! We don’t know where it came from but we do know it’s not from the Cathedral of Learning because all Pitt offspring are banded.
  • Clear breast with faint peach color, no spots.
  • Peach color extends onto belly, underlying the dark spots/stripes.
  • Very dark helmet and malar stripes. White throat stands out against dark head and malar stripes when viewed from the ground.
  • Long yellow legs
  • Dark back
  • Perches on the stone peaks on 27th and 28th floors on north (5th Ave) and east (Heinz Chapel) sides of the Cathedral of Learning.
  • Curious about humans inside the windows.
  • Calls to the other peregrine; the other peregrine calls, too.

Because it’s not banded, it’s hard to find out if this bird is male or female. Right now we don’t know.

This peregrine is clearly unbanded, 2 Oct 2019 (photo by Alan Juffs)

Juffs’ earliest photo was taken on 4 September 2019, so this new bird arrived on or before that date. Here it is on 4 September.

New peregrine first photograph on 4 Sep 2019 (photo by Alan Juffs)

Each peregrine has its own favorite perches on the “cliff” so when you see a peregrine consistently perched in a new place, it may be a new bird. Juffs remarked that Dorothy was the last peregrine to use these perches. She passed away in 2015. Hope and Terzo never use this spot but Dorothy often ate lunch on the air conditioner (click here for a January 2014 video of Dorothy eating lunch by Alan Juffs).

The new bird, like the late Dorothy, doesn’t mind seeing people inside Juffs’ office. It even seems curious. I wonder if it hatched on a building.

Curious about humans, 2 Oct 2019 (photo by Alan Juffs)

The new bird is a “talker.” In Juffs’ video below the new peregrine calls to another one.

Sometimes another peregrine calls in the distance. Here, the new peregrine listens.

In an effort to determine the bird’s sex I looked for nestbox snapshots from late August to now. As far as I can tell this peregrine has never courted at the nest. Unfortunately there’s a data gap from 18 August to 5 September but I can tell that the gravel has not been disturbed since the nesting season. I’m not finished reviewing September data, but so far no peregrines have moved the gravel since 10 July 2019 when Hope visited alone.

Right now the best way to determine the bird’s sex is to identify it on the building and watch it fly off with its mate to see which one is bigger (females are larger). I’ve seen the pair flying together — clearly male and female by size — but I’ve not been able to tell who is who.

What I do know is this: There are only two peregrines at Pitt right now, one male and one female. The new bird is one of them. It replaced either Hope or Terzo — I just don’t know which one.

New peregrine at Cathedral of Learning, 4 Oct 2019 (photo by Alan Juffs)

I’ll be spending a lot of time on campus, hoping for that crystal clear moment when I see the pair flying together and can tell who is who.

Meanwhile a big thank you goes out to Dr. Alan Juffs for his photographs and observations. Without his help we’d never know there is a new peregrine at Pitt.

(photos and videos by Alan Juffs, Director of the English Language Institute, University of Pittsburgh)

They Can Be Cannibals

Color variation in Asian ladybeetles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While writing about the worldwide spread of Asian ladybeetles (Establishing a Bridgehead) I learned another amazing fact. These insects are cannibals when they need to be, but they’re careful about it. They avoid eating close relatives.

Asian ladybeetles (Harmonia axyridis) are insect carnivores, preferring aphids above all else. Their population surges when aphids are plentiful and goes hungry when aphids crash. Rather than starve, ladybeetle larvae eat eggs and smaller larvae of their own species. The strong ones survive, indirectly regulating their own population.

However, they also make sure that their own family survives …

Interestingly, H. axyridis recognize their kin and are less likely to cannibalize a sibling than a non-related individual (Michaud, 2003). If normal prey becomes scarce, larval mortality can be very high, with in excess of 95% of larvae failing to survive to adulthood, and in such circumstances cannibalism can be essential for survival.

— Invasive Species Compendium, Harmonia axyridis

I’m not surprised that they eat each other, but I’m amazed that they recognize their relatives and avoid eating them.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Further reading: