Thursday, October 27, 2011

It's Always Halloween in the Natural World

Happy almost Halloween, everyone!

A couple of weeks ago I found myself trying to think of animals and plants that had names that were associated with Halloween.  Turns out it was a pretty fun mental exercise and a good idea for a blog post.  Now some of you may be wondering "Gee Katie, if you had this idea for a blog post weeks ago, why did you not post last week?"  Turns out having a full time job and working on one's M.S. degree takes up quite a bit of one's time. heh.  And if any of you really were wondering where my post was last week, then that means you actually follow this blog with some regularity and I love you.  I'm guessing most of my readers are more along the lines of "She posts each week?  I thought it was once a year...hua."

Anywho, on to the Halloween-themed plants and animals!

Is it just me, or does this red-lipped batfish make anyone else think of Rocky Horror Picture Show?

There are actually about 60 members of the batfish family, and no, none of them are named 'Dracula'.  Neatest thing about these guys other than their appearance?  They're poor swimmers, so get around by walking on the ocean floor using thickened pelvic and pectoral fins!

Ghost Orchid

The ghost orchid is native to the United States and can be found in southern Florida.  It got its name because the roots of the plant often blend in so well with its host tree that the flower seems to be floating in space just like a ghost.  Nothing scary about this ghost though, just pure beauty.

Gray Catbird

You guys know me, I love my birds, and the grey (gray? I still can't decide which spelling to use) catbird is no exception.  The distinctive 'meow' call that the species gives is how it got its name.  What some may not know is that the catbird is also a talented yet shy songster.  Unlike its cousin, the northern mockingbird, who likes to sing and be seen, the catbird is more likely to warble quietly from deep within a thick clump of vegetation.

Spider Crab
A giant Japanese spider crab in front of her...what is she taking a picture of?

Get a load of those legs!  It's easy to see how spider crabs get their name.  However if you look again, you'll notice that it's only spiders that have 8 legs; crabs have 10, giving them one of my favorite terms I like to use to nickname my pet hermit crabs, decapods. (Want to learn more about spider crabs? Check out my blog entry on them here!)

Witch Hazel

Although witch hazel has a very distinct and even bewitching look to it, the witch part of its name doesn't come from entirely from a person who can turn you into a newt and is lighter than a duck ("Burrn her!").  Witch is suspected to have its origins from the Middle English wiche, meaning "pliant" or "bendable".  Although seeing as stems of witch hazel were also sometimes used as divining rods, witch may just refer to witchcraft after all.

Goblin Shark

Now there is a face only an Ichthyologist could love (hi Mary!).  I think the origins of this deep sea fangly fish's name are no mystery. However much about the fish itself remains a mystery, and it is thought to be one of the rarest-observed fish in the world. In addition to its distinctive snout, the goblin shark is also equipped with jaws that are able to protrude very quickly in order to snatch up soft-bodied prey.

There you have it, some of the wonderful and unusual plants and animals that share their names with creatures we associate with this time of year.  While the ghosts, goblins, and witches of Halloween might give us a fright, each of these species are fascinating and far less scary.  Though come to think of it, if I ever saw a goblin shark in person, I'd probably give him all of my candy.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Trees are Out to Get Me

The trees of Pennsylvania are trying to kill me.  They try to kill me every year.  Oh sure, in the fall people oooh and ahh over the magnificent beauty of fall foliage, but that's just a disguise because given the opportunity, the trees in Pennsylvania will try to kill you, too.

Leaves aren't the only thing falling from trees in the autumn.  Here in Pennsylvania there are three kinds of trees that are dropping their fruit and making people duck and take cover.  Here are the three shady culprits and their weapons of choice.

Assailant #1: Oaks

Weapon of Choice: Acorns

Sure, the mighty oak's acorns may not look like a formidable murder weapon, but that's what they want you to think.  But don't let these squirrel treats fool you, they are capable of inflicting personal injury.  Just the other day an acorn from a towering 150 year old black oak came slamming down so hard on the pavement in front of me that it made me jump and swear that the acorn hadn't just fallen, but that the tree must have thrown it at me. (Thank goodness the tree has as bad of aim as I do)  Acorns are even more deadly in great numbers.  Two years ago I was hiking on a hilly nature trail covered in a bumper crop of acorns (also known as a mine field) and nearly fell on my face several times.  

Why do oaks want to kill me?  Maybe they're taking their frustrations out on me from having squirrels steal their nuts year after year.

Assailant #2: Black Walnut
This black walnut was recently apprehended and put behind bars.
(ok, make that "behind chain link fence")

Weapon of Choice: Black walnuts

The black walnut's weapon of choice packs a punch on many levels.  First, there is the immediate danger from being hit on the head by one of these green titans.  If the black walnut tree misses you on the initial drop, it can find you for revenge later.  All you have to do is touch the black juices of the walnut husk and your hands will be stained for quite some time.  This is the walnut's version of the black spot of death, a trick that it learned from the pirates of Treasure Island.  

Even innocent fish are not immune to this villain's attacks.  The green husk of the walnut contains a chemical called juglone, which when mixed with slow-moving or stagnant water, kills all of the fish residing beneath the surface.  This is such an effective fish-killer that Native Americans were known to use black walnut fishing as a reliable way to collect fish.  It seems that the black walnut has acquired a co-conspirator...

Assailant #3: American Chestnut

Weapon of Choice: Burrs
The American chestnut may be iconic come the holiday season, but that's only because by then this tree will have run out of ammunition.  Make no mistake, right now this tree will leave you with anything but a sense of cheer.  No, right now this tree will leave you with a sharp, prickly, vegetative, green sea urchin sticking out of your cranium.  The burrs of the American chestnut are so sharp that I can barely manage to pick one up with my bare hands.  I can only imagine the pain of having one of these dropped on your head from 20 feet or greater must feel like (especially those poor bald-headed victims).  I think no greater explanation must be made as to just how greatly armed and dangerous this assailant is.  

The American chestnut may have a reason for its outlash, as the species is currently under siege by chestnut blight.  I don't blame those trees that are sick for lashing out, but those trees that are healthy are really all bark and no blight.

As you are walking the nature trails this fall, admiring the beautiful fall foliage, be sure to keep one eye open at all times and wear a hard hat.  These three assailants may be lurking in the woods near you.  The trees haven't killed me yet, but that doesn't stop them from trying.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It's Fall Migration...Get Out Those Life Lists!

October 7, 2011

As the seasons transition, you may find that the color of the leaves and daily temperatures aren’t the only thing changing.  If you’re a birder, you may notice some new feathered faces in your area as well!  Fall migration is in full swing, giving bird lovers everywhere a chance to see rare and uncommon birds as they make their way south.

Why do birds migrate in the first place?  The most common answer is that birds migrate due to the cold temperatures.  And that is true… in a roundabout way.  Birds don’t migrate because they can’t handle the cold, their feathers act as a great form of insulation which is kind of like putting on a big, poofy sleeping bag when you need it.  Rather it’s the food of the birds that migrate that can’t handle the cold.  Birds that eat things that aren’t available in the winter, such as insects, nectar, fruit, or aquatic vegetation, must fly south in order to find food to eat.  And as they travel south, it’s our backyards that many of these birds choose to fuel up.

In my area of Pennsylvania, fall and spring migration is a great time to see warblers such as the black-throated blue and the black and white.  I can never see or say the name “black-throated blue” without thinking that it’s really the “black and blue warbler.” Imagining a tiny bird with a shiner is kind of a funny mental image.  Today I noticed a female black-throated blue warbler (who is neither black nor blue) making her “refueling” stop at a compost pile, acrobatically catching flies with a snap! of her beak. 

While living in Florida, I didn’t see American robins unless it was migration time.  Then these American icons would arrive en masse to descend upon the local lawns in search of worms and other tasty invertebrates.  Once when I was washing my birds’ cage outside with the hose (I have two cockatiels…they don’t migrate.), ten or so robins came down to drink from the stream of water that was running into the drive of my apartment complex.

Although the fall and spring migrations don’t last very long, they are always a treat.  Across the United States, bird enthusiasts gather to watch hawks, songbirds, and even tiny hummingbirds at favorite stopover locations.  Hopefully you’ll spot a feathered gem this fall too!

I've Upgraded!

October 7, 2011

Upon logging on to my page on Facebook today, I was promptly informed that the discussion boards are vanishing at the end of the month. Curse you Facebook and all your changes!  Well, it all works out for the better because now I have an official blog blog!  This thing is so fancy...there's underlining, I can put things in bold, I can even include pictures!

Me getting (fiddler) crabs in Florida.

I've graduated to a real grown up blog!  I look forward to using this new space to the fullest extent...that I'm able to figure out without enrolling in an html class.  Over the next couple of days I'll be going through the archives and sprucing them up by adding some pictures here and there.  So stay tuned, subscribe, stalk me if you will (in a friendly, non creepy, I'm-The-Nature-Geek's-biggest-fan kind of way), to see the latest changes!

Table Scrap Ecosystem

(originally posted September 25, 2011)

This spring, I purchased an Acme Cheap-O plastic compost box, so that I could do my part to reduce waste going into landfills. That and my garden could use all the help it can get since it is located beneath a dementor life-sucking life form called the Norway maple. I figured watching the decomposition process might be kind of neat (oooo! Look at all the mold spores!), but I had no idea just how fascinating it would be. Compost bins not only benefit our gardens and landfills, but they introduce an entirely new ecosystem into your yard.

If you don’t know much about composting, let me give you a brief run down. Composting is a process where you take your food waste and through the help of heat and nature’s decomposers, turns it into nutrient-rich soil. You can’t compost everything, dairy and meat are the two main categories of things that cannot be composted—they putrify and take too long to decompose, but there is a lot that you can compost. If it comes from a plant, it can be composted. Fruits, vegetables, leaves, twigs (though I wouldn’t put in twigs much bigger than your finger in diameter), and even tea bags can be composted. Some people even compost paper, but I recycle mine instead.

One of the very first things I learned about composting is if you compost it, they will come. You needn’t worry about adding critters like such as the exotic and invasive red wiggler worm to your compost pile; if you’re piling up tasty food scraps, the critters will come to you. My compost pile currently harbors a vast variety of life, including ants, more pill bugs (roly polys) than I’ve ever seen in my life, millipedes, and a few species of flies. I also have a few very intelligent and very well-fed spiders in my bin. The flies that live in my compost bin are mainly fruit flies and black saw flies; neither have any interest in humans, unlike the pesky house fly, deer fly, and horse fly. In fact, the black saw fly actually drives house flies away; any insect that can do that is welcome in my pile of refuse anytime.

All of these invertebrates live right there in my compost bin, their own micro habitat. They complete their life cycles and in the process, they turn what was once waste into valuable soil. If you have someone in your family that likes to look for insects and other creepy crawlies, a compost bin is a veritable gold mine. I have to wonder what my neighbors think though when they see me staring transfixed into my compost bin.

The Do-Nothing Killer

(originally posted September 20, 2011)

The Nature Geek has a guest blogger today, which is me, Mr. Nature Geek. I know some of my antics (mishaps even?) have appeared in this blog before so I figured I should finally tell a story of my own. It’s about a lowly plant:

Imagine you’re doing what you do every day, maybe chatting with a co-worker at work. And then all of a sudden…a tiny bit of dust falls from the ceiling lands on your shoulder. Just dust. No problem! Except for the fact that the coworker you were just talking to pointed at you, went bug-eyed and tore off down the hall screaming something about a hideous monster that was going to eat everybody alive. A quick check in the bathroom mirror reveals nothing amiss, though exiting reveals that the office is deserted. As you head outside armed men flood the street and rush towards you, brandishing clubs, torches, and pitchforks, screaming “KILL IT!”

Now, before things get messy and not-G rated, we’ll end that story just by saying it ends not so well. But what kind of story is that? It didn’t have much plant life, but it is the story of what makes poison ivy “poison”. So what is really happening? Bear with me as I geek out.
This story starts with my “favorite” plant, poison ivy. Damaging a leaf releases sap full of a type of molecule called urushiol. These little monsters are oil-like, and so can easily penetrate your skin, walking right through the castle’s walls. One finds a random protein molecule on a cell (that cell is you, by the way) and bonds tightly to it. And then, (dramatic pause), it just sits there and does nothing. The cell keeps living happily. No explosion. No jolt of lightning. Just a little dust particle sitting on the shoulder of some cell and doing nothing.
Now what? That urushiol molecule keeps doing nothing. But other cells, part of your immune system, detect that do-nothing molecule on you and pretty much go bug-eyed and run screaming, just like that co-worker. That tiny little urushiol molecule makes them think you might be a brain-eating zombie, or worse, a virus infected cell. Other well-armed members of the immune system respond to that call (cue angry townsfolk) and flatten the place with you, a poor innocent cell, included.

As a real person however, you see the destruction in the form of blisters, redness, swelling, and itching. So the next time you wonder if that patch of green you just walked through was poison ivy, think of that story of an innocent cell and the "killer" molecule that does nothing. Just as every plant and animal has its own story, the molecules they use each have their own.

Hermit Crabs: It's What's Inside That Counts

(originally posted September 12, 2011)

Over the summer, you may have collected many souvenirs—sea shells, a tan, and a really tacky t-shirt or two—and some of you may even have a new pet in the family this fall. Yes, each summer, countless children convince their adult chaperones to purchase a hermit crab; you know, the one with the Spiderman shell. Often these little land crustaceans aren’t given much thought as they hide in their shells most of the time, but they are pretty fascinating and misunderstood pets. Today I thought I’d dispense some geeking out of the pet variety.

First off, there are more than one species of hermit crab. There are about 15 species of land hermit crabs (1100 species of hermit crabs altogether!) and of those, I’ve usually seen five species being sold as pets (purple pincher, Ecuadorian, ruggie, strawberry, and Indonesian) , with the purple pincher being the most common. Each species has its own characteristics, from different eye shapes, to the color of their exoskeleton.
The purple pincher, the most common pet hermit crab species

It's easy to see how the strawberry hermit crab got its name!

By far my favorite species of hermit crab: the Ecuadorian. Look at those adorable eye stalks!

Although we use the term “hermit” to describe someone who is antisocial, hermit crabs prefer to live in colonies. That’s not to say that they are buddy-buddy with their neighbors, rather hermit crabs live in colonies to make it easier to find a bigger shell as they grow and molt. When hermit Bob down the shore changes his shell, Abby takes his now vacant shell, and Doris takes hers, and so on. Pet hermit crabs will do this too if you have several of them in a tank.

My next geek-out fact is one big, awesome category, and that is hermit crab behavior. Hermit crabs may not look like they exhibit much behavior at all, but that’s because they are nocturnal—they do their crabby thing after the lights are out. They dig, climb, fight (sometimes using only their antennae…not very intimidating if you ask me), and even make noise. When a crab gets really mad, it’ll make a sound called “stridulating” which has been described as a cross between a frog’s croak and a cricket’s chirp. Check out this video of a Ecuadorian hermit crab stridulating (she refers to it as "chirping"), which in this case translates to Put me down!
If you watch closely towards the end, you'll see the crab reaching over his shell with one of his antennae and bapping her on the finger as crabs will do to each other when perturbed.

Cockatiels find hermit crabs fascinating too!

Finally, perhaps the least-known fact of all about hermit crabs is that they are not bred in captivity; each one is taken from the wild. This does not mean that you can’t have a hermit crab as a pet however; there are many people who are looking for new homes for their tiny pet. Each and every one of the 55 (yes, 55) hermit crabs I have ever owned were all given to me by their owners. Hermit crabs can be fascinating pets, and can live to be 25 years old under the right conditions! Have crabby questions or a problem that is really pinching you? Just ask!

I Can't Find My Nuts!

(originally posted September 4, 2011)

As the days progress towards fall, we find ourselves thinking of things like back-to-school (congratulations parents, you made it through another summer!), apple cider, colorful leaves, and squirrels. What? Fall doesn’t make you think of squirrels? It could be said that squirrels really always live a crazed life, but fall is especially busy for these bushy-tailed seed thieves as they prepare for the inevitable winter.

Unlike their close chipmunk relatives, squirrels do not hibernate. They remain active all year, from the hottest days of summer to the coldest days of winter. Their diet consisting largely of seeds, fruit, and insects, squirrels can often have a difficult time finding food in the winter. To survive the winter, squirrels spend a great deal of time collecting and storing food. And when it comes to collecting food, squirrels are masters. They can scramble up and down trees without effort, thanks in part to their incredible hind feet, which can rotate 180 degrees to face backwards so that they can have an extra grip when descending head-first. Besides using their agility and sheer determination to collect wild foods, squirrels are equally talented in acquiring food from us, through our bird feeders. There is quite a bit of money to be made in squirrel deterrent devices and methods, and for every method, there seems to be a squirrel that can defeat it. In my case, the squirrels have found their easy pickings in my compost pile. Darn things chewed right through the plastic box!

After collecting their food, squirrels will bury it underground in spots all throughout their territory. When food becomes sparse in the winter, all the squirrel has to do is retrieve his cache. Sounds easy enough, right? Not really. For every four acorns a squirrel buries, it will forget where it hid three of them. Apparently remembering that you hid your acorn “under a brown leaf by the stick” isn’t a very good strategy. Somehow the squirrels seem to get enough to eat however, and the acorns that are forgotten rejuvenate the forest by growing into new oak trees.

This fall, have fun watching the squirrels go crazy-go-nuts as they prepare for the winter months ahead. Me, I’ll be making preparations of my own as I install some heavy-duty wire mesh on my compost box.

An ID Spree 2: The Geek-quel

(originally posted August 23, 2011)

It seemed that the first ID Spree was rather popular (and by "popular" I mean 13 people read it) so I thought I’d have a go at a sequel. And like Derek, if you have any suggestions on an ID Spree that you’d like to see or suggestions for any blog topic, let me know!

Wasp vs. Bee vs. Hornet
To tell these three apart, just look at the “waist” of the insect; the part between the thorax and abdomen. If the waist is so small it practically looks pinched, you’re looking at a wasp. If the insect does not look like a runway model, then it’s a bee. There are no hornets native to the US (the yellow jacket is actually a wasp), although there is a European species starting to spread on the east coast. It has a waistline between a bee and wasp.

Snag vs. Log
If it’s a dead tree and it’s still standing, it’s a snag; if it’s lying on the ground, it’s a log. (Both are provide invaluable habitat for wildlife!)

Turtle vs. Tortoise
Turtles usually live in or around water, are omnivores (eating both plants and animals), and when walking their back foot is in the shape of the letter “L”; tortoises usually live in arid climates, are herbivores (eating only plants) and their hind feet look club-like, much like elephant feet.

Male vs. Female Land Turtles and Tortoises
If you want to know the sex of a tortoise or box turtle, just look at the underside of its shell, called the carapace. If it is flat, you have a female. If the carapace is concave, it’s a male—the curved shape helps the male fit on top of the female during mating!

Hare vs. Rabbit
In general, hares are very slender with long faces and even longer ears; rabbits are more rotund and cuddly-looking. And because nature always likes to make exceptions, the snowshoe hare, due to its thick coat of fur to keep warm in its mountain habitat, more resembles a rabbit.

Vulture vs. Buzzard
Although in the US “buzzard” is used as a nickname for a vulture, true buzzards are actually a variety of hawks found in Europe and Africa.

Feline Scat vs. Canine Scat (because I knew you were dying to know)
Feline poo has pinches between each of its segments; canine poo does not. Hey at least I spared telling you why cat scat has the pinches!

And due to popular demand:

Geek vs. Nerd (from The Nature Geek Dictionary)
Geeks are people who are very passionate and oftentimes knowledgeable about a particular subject; nerds may also possess the same knowledge, but are considered to be lacking in coordination, social skills, and basic fashion sense (think Steve Urkel).

Whether or not I fit into the nerd category, I’ll leave that one up to you.

Got any cheese?

A Plant's Guide to Water

(originally posted August 14, 2011)

As I sat trying to brainstorm what I wanted to write about this week, I found myself drawing a blank. Maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday, maybe it’s because I can’t think, or maybe it’s because it has been gloomy and raining most of the day. It’s interesting the effect that rain has on us; we feel compelled to bundle up, stay inside, find something comforting to eat or drink, and put everything on our to do list on hold.

Which got me to thinking of all the effects water has on plants and some of the neat ways they have evolved to address these issues. Ah-ha! It seems rain can provide motivation after all!

Plants have some of the most fascinating adaptations to deal with water (or the lack thereof). On their leaves and stems, they have microscopic openings called stomata which are used for respiration. On hot days, plants risk dehydration through these openings, so many respond by wilting their leaves. By keeping the underside of their leaves shaded (which is where the highest concentration of stomata are found), the plants reduce evaporation. Jewelweed, a common plant in the eastern US, Pacific Northwest, and Canada, takes this to daily extremes. Plants in the sun have wilted leaves, while their immediate neighbors in the shade will have erect leaves. You can literally trace the shadows of the overhead trees in the jewelweed below.

Cypress trees, on the other hand, are adapted to the other extreme, living their lives in saturated swamps. Their wide trunks and vertical protrusions of their roots called knees give the trees a stable hold on the ground, more so than their thin-trunked neighbors. It’s like the difference between standing with your legs together and seeing if your friend can push you over and then standing in a sumo wrestler stance and accepting the same challenge.

When it comes to dealing with frozen water, pines, firs, and spruces are the clearcut (oh crud, never say “clearcut” around a tree) winners in this category. We all know that these evergreens have needles instead of broad, flat leaves, but did you know that needles are just broad, flat leaves rolled up? The rolled up leaves coupled with a waxy coating reduce water loss, which means that the leaves can be used for photosynthesis year-round. As an added bonus, the needle shape of the leaves makes it easier for snow accumulation to slide off of their branches.

Plants have all sorts of incredible ways to deal with water, whether it be a lack of it, an abundance of it, or the frozen form of it. Since the rain is forecasted to continue on into tomorrow here, tomorrow when I don my full rain suit, I won’t be able to help thinking how I’ll kind of look like a rolled up leaf with a waxy coating. Ok, a blue and gray pine needle with a waxy coating.

An ID Spree!

(originally posted August 5, 2011)

And now for something completely different; this week I thought I would feature a handy-dandy desk (or lap, or palm, depending on where you are reading this right now) reference for some common and random “how do I tell the difference between a ____ and ____?” questions. Ready? Here we go!

Cricket vs. Grasshopper
A grasshopper has short, stubby antennae; a cricket has long antennae, usually as long as or longer than its body. (A katydid is actually a cricket! In other parts of the world it is referred to as a “bush cricket”)

Frog vs. Toad
A frog has wet, smooth skin; a toad has bumpy and usually dry skin.

Legless lizard vs. Snake
Legless lizards have eyelids; snakes do not—so if it blinks at you, it’s a lizard!

Venomous vs. Poisonous
In order to get sick from something that is venomous, it has to be injected into you via hairs, spines, fangs, etc; to get sick from something that is poisonous, you have to touch or ingest it. This means that there are no poisonous snakes, but there are both poisonous and venomous caterpillars!

Bug vs. Insect
All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs—true bugs are a group of insects that can usually be identified by a triangle-shape on its thorax (between the head and wings).

Spider vs. Daddy-long-legs
Spiders have two body parts and can produce silk; daddy-long-legs have one body part and cannot spin silk. Daddy-long-legs are arachnids (along with ticks, scorpions, and mites), but are not spiders.

Dragonfly vs. Damselfly
When at rest, dragonflies hold their wings flat; damselflies hold their wings folded up.

Northern mockingbird vs. Brown thrasher song
A northern mockingbird will sing his array of songs at random; a brown thrasher sings each of his phrases twice.

Moth vs. Butterfly
Moths are typically nocturnal (active at night) and when at rest, hold their wings flat; butterflies are diurnal (active during the day) and when at rest, typically hold their wings up.

Millipede vs. Centipede
Millipedes have 4 legs per body segment; centipedes have 2 legs per body segment. (And contrary to what their names would suggest, centipedes can have between 20 to 300 legs; and millipedes have between 36 and 400 legs, with the most ever counted being 750)

And there you have it—now go and use your new found geeky powers! (But only for good of course.)

Embracing the Heat with Wings Wide Open

(originally posted July 31, 2011)

It has been quite a hot summer so far! Many states have experienced consistent temperatures in the 90s and above, and during each newscast, there always seems to be a cautionary story about the dangers of heat exhaustion and dehydration. On days like these, how would you like to lay in the hottest area you can find and just soak up the sun? Yeah, me neither. But birds have a rather different reaction to those dog days of summer.

Last summer, as Mr. Nature Geek and I went hiking at a local wildlife preserve in 100+ degree heat, we were quite surprised to discover a flock of swallows lying in the middle of the dirt path, right in the direct sunlight of the afternoon. We watched as newcomers would land on the ground and promptly spread their wings and tail to absorb the sun. A few even leaned on one side and put one wing straight up in the air, as if trying to tan their wingpits. A year later on another hot summer’s day, I watched a group of juvenile American robins in a forest sunning themselves in the heat of the afternoon in a similar fashion. One even reminded me of a dog as it did a 180 degree turn before lying down!

Birds are known to sunbathe to get their dose of vitamin D, something they cannot produce on their own. Sunbathing is also hypothesized that birds also sunbathe to get rid of parasites or bacteria on their feathers. But why wait until it is so hot that the birds risk hyperthermia? The birds were obviously hot—on both occasions the bathers were all panting due to the extreme heat. I had to find out the answer, so I went to consult my trusty ornithology text books. The answer, it seems, is still unknown. In an interesting study on the reason for high temperature sunbathing, a researcher found he could induce sunbathing in hand-raised birds simply by turning on a space heater in a darkened room. So perhaps the sun itself is not a cue, but the temperature of the air, which just happens to be the hottest on a cloudless day.

I usually like to end my blog entries on a nice, neat, and tidy resolution, but this time I have none to offer. That’s why I am a geek of science—I love that no matter how much we learn there is still always an element of mystery about nature! Keep your eyes open this summer for sunbathing birds and just when you think you can’t take any more of the heat, look at those guys not running from the heat, but directly into it, laying down, and begging for more.

A Cold-Blooded Killer

(originally posted July 19, 2011)

That’s right; this week’s blog is about a cold-blooded killer. Although your mind may be conjuring up Hollywood-inspired images of murderous villains and monsters, this killer is neither of those. This is literally a cold-blooded killer; the eastern cicada killer. Since the cicada killer is a wasp that kills cicadas, and since all insects are ectotherms (i.e. cold blooded), the description is perfectly and geekily accurate! Getting up close and personal with a Hollywood killer may not be the best idea, but observing a cicada killer is not as crazy as it sounds.

Considering my previous blog on the carpenter bee, you might think I have a thing for large and intimidating insects, and you’d be absolutely right. These wasps are huge—the females reaching 2” in length—and their appearance is intimidating. But as with the carpenter bee, males lack the ability to sting and females do so only rarely, like when being handled or stepped upon. (For information on capturing giant wasps for “fun,” consult Mr. Nature Geek, though to his credit he has never been stung...yet.)

A day in the life of an eastern cicada killer is quite fascinating, especially when witnessing it firsthand. Female cicada killers are the ones that earn the wasp their namesake. After mating, a female will locate a cicada, subdue it with a paralyzing sting, and then carry it back to a burrow she has excavated in the ground. This is quite the feat considering the cicada can be twice her weight! Last summer, a female cicada killer attempting to fly with her prize tumbled to the ground at my feet. She then climbed my leg, cicada in tow, to gain some altitude so she could continue her flight. Even I will admit this act was somewhat unnerving!

Upon reaching her burrow, the female will create a chamber for each egg that she lays, each on its own cicada. Male cicada killer eggs (yes, the females know which of her eggs are male or female) are given one cicada upon which to feast upon hatching, and female eggs are supplied two or three cicadas due to their larger size. The emerging larva consume their cicada meal within a few days, and then prepare themselves to overwinter underground.

For the male cicada killers, most of their time involves searching for females and chasing off intruding males, which sometimes escalates to aerial combat that involves two or more males grappling midair. I once watched a patch of vegetation in the Hillsborough River State Park campground in Florida that was being patrolled by a male cicada killer. Perched high on a broad leaf, I could see him physically turn his body to survey his territory, sometimes leaving his post to investigate any passing flying object. Once the object was either determined to be non-threatening or another wasp that was then chased off, the male would return to his leaf, once again turning his body left and right.

Although cicada killers are by definition “cold-blooded killers,” they do not pose the same threat to humans as zombies or crazed people armed with chainsaws. This summer I challenge each one of you to get close to a cicada killer to watch it in its daily activities—just think of it as one of those double dares you’d always do as kids at sleepovers.

Geeking Out Abroad

(originally posted July 10, 2011)

Last week, I took my first international trip ever to the beautiful country of Norway. I have family that lives in Kongsvinger, and so being provided with a place to stay, home cooked meals, and a bilingual translator for a sister was a perfect way to ease into international travel. In addition to seeing my sister and her family, I was of course ecstatic over the opportunity to see the flora and fauna of a new country! Armed with my binoculars and birds of Europe field guide at all times, I was prepared to soak up as much of the natural culture as possible at any given moment.
That is some serious birder face right there.

Upon my arrival in Oslo, the very first bird I saw was not a new and exotic Scandinavian species (hey…Scandin-avian! Get it? Avian…
bird?), but instead a familiar feathered face to the Western United States, the black-billed magpie. In Norway they’re called the “common magpie,” or more familiarly, “skjære” in Norwegian. Although the species was identical to the one found in the United States, just like people from different parts of a country or the world, these magpies had their own dialect, sounding completely different from their American relatives. The tone quality was similar, but their calls were unique.

Throughout my visit, I was surrounded by birds that although unique to the region, were easily recognized as relatives to those found in the United States. There were swifts, identified by their rapid wing
The blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
beats and “flying cigar” shape; tits, which despite their interesting name, look nearly identical to our chickadees; jackdaws, sharing the same “bad boy” strut as our crows and ravens; and a frustrating bird that I’m positive is related to our American goldfinch by the sound of its song and call, but evaded my binoculars every single time I tried to identify it.

My experience with the plant life of Kongsvinger was also quite interesting. First off, stinging nettle is just as common there as it is here in Pennsylvania, if not more so—every single yard I saw had a patch of stinging nettle in it. Whether you speak English or Norwegian, stinging nettle’s painful effects transcends any language barrier and all know to steer far clear of it! 
How do you say "ouch" in Norwegian?
(Hua, Google Translate tells me it's "ouch." Whaddya know.)

It was also a mind-shift to go to a place where the Norway maple was native. Here in the northeastern United States, the Norway maple is a considered a horrible exotic invasive plant, out competing native maples, and shading out any plants that may attempt to grow beneath it. In Norway, other plants had evolved in the presence of these maples, and as a result, a lush green growth could be found beneath the shady branches.

I could easily go on and on about all of my experiences during my week in Norway, but to sum it up, the experience from a biological and geeky perspective was incredible. I look forward to visiting again someday and enjoying even more unique encounters with the flora and fauna of Scandinavia!

Citizens...For Science!

(originally posted June 23, 2011)

Do you think it would be fun to take data, record observations, make discoveries, and contribute to the world of science? Or perhaps you’re a Nature Geek who already works in a science field but due to your geekiness you just can’t get enough? Then citizen science is for you!

Citizen science was a concept I was introduced to a few years back when I got to participate in a gopher tortoise survey along with about 20 other nature enthusiasts. The idea of citizen science is to use average American citizens to contribute to a real scientific study, regardless of their background or experience in a scientific field. Perhaps you have heard of the Great Backyard Bird Count or the Christmas Bird Count? These are both examples of citizen science programs managed by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where participants submit lists of all the birds seen at their backyard bird feeders on a specific day.

A citizen project I learned about today is called The Lost Ladybug Project. Native ladybugs are rapidly declining in the United States, it is suspected due to the increase in the numbers of exotic ladybugs. To try to find out where the natives are and in what numbers, a team of science organizations has banded together to ask citizens to photograph any and all ladybugs they see and submit them to their database. You find a ladybug, photograph it, submit the photo, and you’ve made a significant contribution to a scientific study. Simple as that!

Sound like fun yet? Perhaps you’re thinking that birds and bugs aren’t quite your thing. Well there are all kinds of citizen science projects for every kind of science. As I write this, Mr. Nature Geek sits at his computer behind me, playing a DNA sequencing “game” that is really using his brain to help solve Multiple Sequence Alignments! 
(not that I know what that means, it just sounds really impressive) 

If you’re interested in participating in a citizen science project, Science for Citizens is the best place to go. There you can search for projects that are specific to your interests, time investment, zip code, and level of difficulty. And yes, my young Nature Geeks in training, there are projects for kids too! So get out there, have fun, and make a difference with citizen science!

The Miraculous Melodious Mockingbird

(originally posted June 16, 2011)

Last weekend, Mr. Nature Geek and I went to visit one of our favorite nature preserves. As we hiked the trails, I heard a familiar sound coming from a familiar place. It was a northern mockingbird, singing from the top of a tall dead tree. This mockingbird was one I was used to seeing; every time I visit the preserve he always seems to be there showing off his vocal talents. That day I decided to stop and pay some due respect to the serenading songster, rather than giving him my usual quick glance as I hiked by.
A Northern mockingbird in a familiar stance: singing his heart for all to hear and see

Mockingbirds got their name from their uncanny ability to copy the songs of other birds around them (as well as most any other sound they find interesting). Male mockingbirds demonstrate their superior genes and health to female mockingbirds by showing off their musical chops. This may sound somewhat familiar as we humans are also impressed by those who can do impersonations of celebrities or make unusual sounds using only their vocal cords. My mockingbird at the nature preserve quickly proved himself to possess one of the best repertoires I had ever heard—13 bird species in about 10 minutes! There was a blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch, belted kingfisher, juvenile American robin (rather specific, that one!), and two species of woodpeckers amongst the mix. He also did a spot on American kestrel, which must scare the furry pants off of the voles in the adjacent meadow.

Northern mockingbirds are also are known somewhat less favorably for their untiring ability to sing all night. While in Florida, I would sometimes hear a mockingbird singing in the dark of night, long after all the other songbirds had retired. These males that can put American Idols to shame are lonely bachelors, determined to prove their worth through sheer determination. If you happen to have one of these males singing outside your window at all hours, the best advice I can give you is to invest in a good set of earplugs or set up a mockingbird dating service.

As we continued down the trail, our mockingbird's song never ceased. With talents like that, I hope that he finds a cute female mockingbird to have lots of offspring with. He may quiet down a little bit while busy caring for a nest of chicks, but then I know he'll be right back to the top of his tree, traumatizing the local vole population.

When Females Inherit the Earth (or at least a small part of it)

(originally posted June 9, 2011)

Ah to be a male in the animal kingdom! Their muscles are stronger, their bodies bigger, colors flashier, and their mates can be numerous. It’s no wonder that I’ve had more than one female (girl and woman alike) express jealousy of males when talking about their posh lifestyles. But fret not, geekettes! While most of the time we think of the males ruling the roost, there are many instances of where it’s the females that are in control.

Birds of prey, spiders, and insects: what do they have in common? No, it’s not the fear that they are out to get you, it’s reverse sexual dimorphism. Reverse sexual dimorphism means that it’s the female that is bigger than the male, not the other way around as normally found in the animal kingdom. 
A great picture of reverse sexual dimorphism in great-horned owls.  The larger female is on the right.

Scientists haven’t settled on one solid explanation for why these females are larger than their mates, but I don’t think the females care too much. And in some cases, like tarantulas, the females benefit from a longer lifespan as well. In these spiders the males live to be about five years old, while the females can live to the ripe old age of 30 or even 40 years old.

Ask anyone of a case where it’s better to be a female than a male, and most often you’ll get the answer “praying mantis.” I have to agree; being a male praying mantis and being decapitated and devoured by your sweetheart is kind of a bummer. 
Female spiders too will make a meal out of their mates of they don’t flee fast enough after mating. And while female honeybees may not dine on the males of their hive, when fall comes, the freeloading males (who do nothing but lounge around the hive all day being fed copious amounts of honey by their sisters) are kicked to the curb, left to die of starvation.

And yes ladies, there are even cases where it’s the females who have all the mates. Found in some shorebirds like red-necked phalaropes and spotted sandpipers, polyandry means a female who mates with as many males as possible, often leaving them to care for the young. In some extreme cases, polyandrous females will even be more showy than the males.

So the next time you hear someone remarking about the beauty of a peacock, remember two things: one, the only reason he has those fancy feathers is to impress the female; and two, there is plenty of girl power in the animal kingdom. Just don’t try kicking your brother out of the house come fall.

Come to Your Nocturnal Senses

(originally posted June 4, 2011)

If you’ve never gone for a hike at night without the aid of a flashlight, I highly recommend it. As a friend of mine says; “If you want to go hiking with a flashlight, you might as well go during the day; there’s lots of light then.” Humans have better night vision than we give ourselves credit for and after as short as 15 minutes, your eyes become quite adapted to the dark and navigating on an established trail becomes quite easy. Without a clunky flashlight to give away your presence or to ruin your night vision, your senses become heightened to a whole new nocturnal world around you.

Hiking in the dark your ear becomes tuned to the softest rustle. If you’re hiking in Florida and hear what sounds like some large predator headed your way, don’t worry, it’s more than likely a nine-banded armadillo. During the day armadillos already sound like a tank barreling through the palmettos, so at night I can imagine how you might feel the urge to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. But there are fascinating and pleasant sounds of the night to be heard as well, such as an insect serenade, a frog chorus, or an owl’s call to its mate.

You may think that your vision would be the last sense you’d rely on in the dark, but there are lots of things to see at night. Many people have pleasant memories of catching fireflies as children, and going on a hike in the dark is a great way to find them. If you’re lucky and walking in the early summer, you just might see a juvenile firefly, better known as glowworms. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see not just glowing insects, but fungi as well, a phenomenon called foxfire. 

Scientists may not know the reason that foxfire exists in some fungi, but they do know that it is created by the same chemical reaction as found in fireflies. But things don’t have to glow to be seen at night; it is quite easy to spot the silhouette of a bat zooming overhead collecting insects against the moonlit sky.

The warm summer months are a perfect time to take a night hike. Even if you walk around your neighborhood you just may make some interesting discoveries. Tonight when taking a hike around my Philadelphia suburb, I saw fireflies, a skunk (from a safe distance thankfully!), bats, and even heard a red fox’s defensive scream. Just remember to leave the flashlight at home!

The Regulars of Café Geek

(originally posted May 26, 2011)

At my humble abode, I have three bird feeders: a large hanging tube feeder, a small feeder suction-cupped to my window, and a suet cage hanging from a hook also on my window. Between the suet and the sunflower I provide, I am able to host a small and regular gathering of avian visitors. My customers consist of locals such as mourning doves, downy woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice, and less desirable out-of-towners like house sparrows and European starlings. I’ve come to notice since opening my bird café that much like individuals at a local diner, each species has distinct personalities when it comes to feeding styles. Allow me to introduce my seed aficionados:

House Finches
My problem with getting great bird pictures at my feeders is
1) Those pesky birds don't understand the command "Stay!" and
2) I don't have a really fancy and expensive camera that can do super high speed images.
(Hey Canon, wanna sponsor my blog? You'll be viewed by literally tens of people)
So, thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the images for this week's blog :)

Constantly having aerial dogfights, squeaking angrily at each other, and squeaking for no apparent reason whatsoever, these guys are like that boisterous group of teenagers sitting in the corner booth that insist on including everyone in their conversations and arguments. They may be loud, but they can also be pretty darned entertaining.

Mourning and Rock Doves
Ok, so I do have one picture that is mine this week.  
My mourning doves like to pass out after stuffing their crops.
Reminds me of some family members fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner...

Mourning doves and rock doves (aka pigeons) are like those people who can wolf down an entire meal without coming up for air. Swallowing their seeds whole and in rapid succession, I always wonder if doves get any true enjoyment out of their meals; how can they enjoy a meal when all they taste is the seed’s shell?

House Sparrows
A male house sparrow no doubt messing up someone else's feeders.

The messiest eaters out of the bunch—I can hear them flinging seeds out of the window feeder from across the living room and know exactly who is on the feeder. They are like kids, who seem to get more food on the table and floor than in their mouths.

Carolina chickadees
Taking a meal to go!

Workaholics and Carolina chickadees have something in common: eating on the go. My chickadees never eat at the feeder. Instead they grab a seed (or two) at a time and bolt off to the nearest branch to crack it open. Even now, I just saw one member of my chickadee pair visit my suet feeder only briefly before disappearing in a gray blur.

White-breasted nuthatches
The white-breasted nuthatch in typical form: upside down

Know that person who will give you the evil eye of death if you so much as look at their plate? That’s my white-breasted nuthatch. It will take on any bird that gets too close to it, spreading its wings and gaping. I once saw the nuthatch on one side of my suet cage and my female downy woodpecker on the other side. The nuthatch inched down to the bottom of the cage—head first of course—and was visibly startled at the sight of the woodpecker’s tail. So what did the nuthatch do? Pulled it, of course!

You don't mess with this fluffy cuteness.

The birds at my seed and suet eatery are a pretty lively and diverse bunch and each day I anticipate their arrival and the antics they bring with them. The birds don’t mind me watching them from behind my counter, just so long as I keep the food coming and don’t get too close. Don’t worry guys, the last thing I would want is to be squeaked at in public.