Archive for the 'Phenology' Category

Apr 13 2014

Flowering Trees

Published by under Phenology,Trees

Red maple flowers, 10 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is getting a boost on this warm and sunny weekend but we still don’t have blooming cherry trees, dogwoods or hawthorns.  If you look closely, though, you’ll see one native tree has small red flowers.

Shown above are the male flowers on a red maple.  The sepals and petals are only half as long as the stamens that stick out to catch the wind or tap the backs of bees. The flowers are a favorite with bees but red maples are so versatile they can be pollinated by both insects and wind.

Individual red maple trees can have all male, all female, or both sexes of flowers.  The female flowers have no “fuzz” because they have no stamens (of course).

Look closely to see the tiny flowers.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Mar 23 2014

A Brief Appearance

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocuses blooming at Phipps outdoor garden, 22 Mar2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

At last the crocuses are (or rather… were) blooming in Pittsburgh, though not in my yard.

Yesterday was a sunny and breezy day with a high of 50F.  I took a long walk in Schenley Park and found nothing blooming except a small selection of snowdrops and crocuses at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden.

Today it has already snowed a little, tonight will be 15F and the cold will continue through Tuesday so these flowers won’t last.

If you want to see spring in all its glory visit the Spring Flower Show, indoors at Phipps Conservatory.  Theirs are the only flowers that have put in more than a brief appearance.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Mar 06 2014

Slow Spring …

Published by under Phenology

No crocuses yet (photo by Kate St. John)
At this point in March the crocuses should be sprouting leaves and about to bloom in Pittsburgh.

Crocuses in the city typically open around March 11, a date I’m aware of because I blog about them every year.  Here’s when they’ve bloomed in Schenley Park since 2009:

Do you think the crocuses will open by March 11 this year?  No.  :(

We aren’t alone in having a slow spring.  Watch the delayed wave of blooming tulips on Journey North’s Tulip tracking site.


(photo by Kate St.John)

p.s.  Found these tiny crocus leaves popping up at CMU this morning.  I don’t think they’ll have flowers in less than a week.

Crocus leaves at CMU, 6 Mar 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

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Feb 24 2014

Maples, Midges And Mammals

Icy trail in Schenley Park, 22 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is coming, slowly but surely.  Last weekend I took a walk in Schenley Park to see what was up.

On Saturday morning the snow was gone from the sidewalks and woods but Schenley’s gravel trails were sheets of ice.  I wore my ice cleats so I was able enjoy the sights without having to focus on my feet.  Three signs of spring attracted my attention: maples, midges and mammals.

The red maple branches look thick now because their buds are swelling …
Red maple buds, swollen in spring (photo by Kate St. John)

… and the sap is running.  I found a big hackberry whose sap was running so fast that it poured out of a limb wound and ran down the trunk in a rippling stream.  Warm days and cold nights are maple sugaring time.

Small, brown flying insects caught my eye.  Like the “flies” fisherman use to lure trout to the hook they’re impossible to identify and photograph, so I call them midges.  Their hatch in February won’t be eaten by warblers.

The mammals were active too, especially Schenley’s growing herd of the deer.   Hidden in plain sight I saw four deer browsing on saplings they hadn’t been able to reach under snow cover.  I whistled to attract their attention and three perked up their ears.

Deer in Schenley park, 222 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)


As usual I’m always surprised when my “Warm Day” February photographs look so brown.  The woods aren’t green yet but that’s just as well.  By mid-week the lows will be 8-10oF.

Maples, midges and mammals will wait a little longer for spring.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jan 22 2014

Turning Blue

Ruddy ducks at Conneaut Lake, PA in January (photo by Shawn Collins)

These ruddy ducks that Shawn Collins photographed last weekend look so brown and bland you might wonder why they’re called “ruddy.”

Right now they’re wearing their boring basic (winter) plumage but the bird at left shows a hint that spring is coming.  His bill is turning blue.

During the breeding season male ruddy ducks have sky blue bills, ruddy body feathers and very black heads.  They swim with their tails cocked and their head and neck feathers raised, the better to show off the bubbling display to the ladies … like this:

Male ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch for male ruddy ducks to complete this transformation.

You’ll know it’s spring when they have blue bills.


(photo of two ruddy ducks in basic plumage by Shawn Collins.  photo of single ruddy duck in breeding plumage from Wikimedia Commons — click on the image to see the original)

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Jan 02 2014

Beautiful Birds, 2013

What were your favorite birds of 2013?

If you’re from western Pennsylvania or northeastern Ohio, Steve Gosser’s six-minute video of favorites is likely to include a few of your own.

From the very public fight between a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle to the elusive Virginia rail, Steve photographed all of them within a two-hour drive of Pittsburgh.


(photos and video by Steve Gosser)


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Jul 16 2013

Arctic Summer Bird Activities

Red phalarope, Barrow, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though the solstice was more than three weeks ago the sun still hasn’t set in the Arctic.  Some arctic animals have no circadian rhythm because there’s no light/dark cycle.  What do the birds do?

The Max Planck Institute of Ornithology studied four species that nest near Barrow, Alaska.  What they found is that some stayed on a 24-hour clock while others had no daily pattern.  Their circadian rhythms varied based on lifestyle, sex and breeding stage.  Here are the four they studied:

  • Semi-palmated sandpipers are totally monogamous and share incubation and child rearing.
  • Pectoral sandpiper males have multiple wives. Only the females incubate and take care of the kids.
  • Red phalaropes reverse these roles.  The females have multiple husbands.  Only males incubate and raise the kids.
  • Lapland longspurs are monogamous with the occasional male having multiple mates.  Both parents take care of the kids but only the female incubates.

During the courtship period the shorebirds showed no daily pattern while the lapland longspurs simplified their lives by never giving up their 24-hour clock.

Incubation changed the shorebirds’ clocks.  In summertime the ground temperature in Barrow varies daily from near freezing (11:00pm to 7:00am) to 60 degrees F (noon to 6:00pm).  As soon as incubation began the incubating parents — pectoral sandpiper females and red phalarope males — began to follow a daily clock so they’d be on the nest when it’s cold.

The exception were the semi-palmated sandpipers.  Because they completely share parental duties they threw out the clock when incubation began and synched as couples.  “Who cares what time it is.  We have each other.”

Meanwhile the pectoral sandpiper males and red phalarope females never stopped courting so they never developed a daily rhythm.

In the end the study shows that arctic-nesting birds are very flexible.  They can be active regardless of time of day, then alter their circadian clocks when their needs change.

Those needs will change soon.  The sun will set for the first time on August 1 and the birds will prepare to leave.  For some shorebirds, migration has already begun.

For more information read a summary of the study in Science Now or the entire study at the Proceedings of the Royal Society.


(photo of a female red phalarope in Barrow, Alaska from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 24 2013

April or May Apples?

Maypple single leaf will not have a flower (photo by Kate St. John)

(While we wait for the peregrine eggs to hatch, let’s look at some plants.)

I used to say with confidence that mayapples bloom in May but I got worried last year when they came out in April.

This year I saw two plants blooming in Frick Park on April 17.  I started to worry again, but last weekend’s cold weather put the flowers on hold.  Just to be sure I went out and checked on them.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are perennial plants that grow in colonies in open woods. When they first come up the colonies look like miniature forests of green umbrellas.

Each plant has one or two leaves but only the two-leaved plants have flowers because the flower stalk grows from the Y between the leaves.

Above are two mayapples with single leaves in Schenley Park.  Nice, but they won’t have flowers.

Below, a nascent double-leaf plant shows the flower bud between the leaves.
Mayapple bud and closed leaves (photo by Kate St. John)


As the plant grows the umbrellas unfurl with the flower bud between them.
Mayapple double leaves beginning to open (photo by Kate St. John)


Then the bud turns its head downward and the flower opens vertically or face down. The leaves are so big and shady that it’s hard to see the flower.

Schenley Park’s mayapples weren’t blooming yet (aha!) so I found a picture of a blooming plant on Wikimedia Commons.  It’s on a hill so the photographer can look up to see the flower.

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


If you really want to see mayapple flowers up close you have to lie on your belly to do it.

I’m sure that’s what Chuck Tague did to get this photo.   I’m leaving the dirty work to him. 😉

Maypple flower closeup (photo by Chuck Tague)


A week from today will be May 1. Unless the weather heats up really fast, I think it’s safe to say these will be “May” apples this year.

(leaf and bud photos by Kate St. John. complete flowering plant from Wikimedia Commons. Flower closeup by Chuck Tague.)

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Apr 18 2013

Putting On The Green

Ohio buckeye leafing out (photo by Kate St. John)
This week the trees in Pittsburgh are putting on the green.

The flank of Mt. Washington is my favorite place to see it.  All winter the hillside is a flat brown color without the look of individual trees but now each leafing tree shows up as a pale green crown.  Some are white with flowers.

This appearance is ephemeral.  Soon the leaves will be large and shady and the hillside will look uniformly green.  So now while the trees are changing so fast here’s a close look at what they’ve been up to.

Above, in Schenley Park an Ohio buckeye leafs out.  Below at a later stage the flower buds emerge. (*see the Comments for discussion on this tree)
Ohio buckeye flower buds (photo by Kate St. John)


The bitternut hickory is not so quick but its mustard yellow bud has begun a leaf.

Bitternut hickory bud opening (photo by Kate St. John)


The pignut hickory’s end bud is furry, shiny and enormous.
Pignut hickory bud (photo by Kate St. John)


These catkins look like caterpillars.
(Dark bark, perhaps a sweet birch. Do you know what tree this is?)
Catkins that look like caterpillars (photo by Kate St. John)


And the crown jewels are the magnolias, native to Asia.  This is a star magnolia.  Wow!
Star magnolia blooming (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Apr 14 2013

Hairy Bittercress

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Hairy bittercress (photo by Kate St. John)

Every spring I’m stumped by this small flower that blooms in lawns, fallow gardens and waste places.  With four petals and alternate “divided” leaves I could tell it’s in the Mustard family.  When I keyed it out in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide I arrived at Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica*).

But that’s not what it is.   It grows too well in poor soil to be a plant known for preferring wet habitats, swamps and stream banks.  I began to suspect it’s an alien.

Based on that hunch I sent photos to friends.  Mark Bowers answered that this is hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), native to Europe and Asia.

Like Pennsylvania bittercress, its young leaves can be used in salads and are said to taste like radishes.

Click here for a video describing what to look for if you’d like to eat it.  Notice the dog at the end.  😉


(photo by Kate St. John)

* Not a typo, the person who classified Cardamine pensylvanica omitted the second ‘n’ in our state’s name.

9 responses so far

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