If April showers bring May flowers, what do March flowers bring?
In this case, scavenging flies.
Yesterday I found a huge patch of skunk cabbage blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park. They were so well camouflaged that I had to be careful where I stepped. I tried for a picture of the flowers hidden inside the spathe but was unsuccessful. Of course the pollinators don’t need to see the flower. They’re attracted to the smell. I stepped on one by accident and yes, it smelled awful.
Also found blooming in wet places are the long, yellow catkins of American hazelnut trees. Here are some from Marcy Cunkleman’s garden.
The warm weather fooled me into thinking spring had sprung, but this field at Raccoon brought me back to reality. How brown!
Spring still has a long way to go.
(skunk cabbage and field scene photos by Kate St. John, catkins photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Yesterday on my walk to work I noticed the treetops seem to have thickened.
They have! Through binoculars I could see that the buds are swelling and the twigs look thicker.
Spring is coming faster than usual. Here are some of its many signs:
- Red maples are flowering.
- Honeysuckle bushes have tiny green leaves peeking out of their buds.
- Pussy willows have furry catkins.
- The seed balls on London plane trees are breaking up into fluffy achenes.
- Celandine and garlic mustard are sprouting green leaves.
Marcy Cunkelman’s flowering quince was about to bloom last Tuesday. Maybe it has by now … just in time for tomorrow’s snow showers.
This March would like to come in like a lion but winter’s been a lamb.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
This just in from Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in Indiana County, PA: It’s still February and the crocuses are blooming!
We usually don’t see crocuses until March 11.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Now that summer’s birds are gone, what can we expect to see in southwestern Pennsylvania at this time of year?
November isn’t as boring as you might think.
- On lakes and rivers you’ll find ducks, cormorants, loons, Canada geese, and sometimes tundra swans.
- In the woods:
- The owls have more time to hunt and hoot during November’s longer nights. Listen for great-horned owls and eastern screech-owls in the woods and suburbs. I’ve heard a barred owl on my walk home. He’s unusual in the city.
- With the leaves off the trees, the woodpeckers are visible as they hammer the ash trees infested with emerald ash borer. Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers will pause to drill for sap.
- The golden-crowned kinglets are back.
- At the bird feeders our resident cardinals, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches are joined by a wide selection of seed eaters including white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, American tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos.
- At dusk watch for flocks of robins, starlings and crows gathering to roost.
- Best of all, November’s the month to see V’s of migrating tundra swans on their way to the Chesapeake and eastern North Carolina. They call “woo, woo, woo” as they fly. You’ll even hear them at night.
Keep looking up.
(photo of a barred owl by Marge Van Tassel)
The weather was beautiful last Saturday when I took these pictures in Schenley Park. Even my little cell phone camera was able to capture the colors. Here are buckeye leaves turning yellow at eye level.
Blue sky peeks through the trees.
Golden leaves and green. The green leaves are porcelainberry.
The trails were flooded with light.
(photos by Kate St. John)
October 16 already!
We’re heading into the chilly days of the Pumpkin Patch. Here’s what to expect in the coming weeks:
- Migrating warblers are far south of us now, but sparrows are on the move. I saw my first white-crowned sparrow on October 3.
- Soon our lakes will be full of ducks. Gadwall, American wigeon, and northern pintail are already at Lake Erie.
- Yesterday’s wind blew a lot of leaves off the trees but those that remain are green. Watch for bright red leaves on red and sugar maples and burnished red on oaks.
- First frost coming soon (if you haven’t had one already).
- Pennsylvania hawk watches are counting lots of sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks. Golden eagle migration will peak at the Allegheny Front in about a week.
- Watch for big flocks of robins, grackles and crows at dusk.
- By the end of October, the sun will be up for only 10.5 hours.
- Hunting season has begun. Wear blaze orange and be aware of PA’s hunting seasons. You’re generally safer on Sundays because there’s no Sunday hunting.(*)
I’m going out today to see what the wind brought in. I’m sure I’ll find sparrows, ducks and some colored leaves.
(photo of a white-crowned sparrow by Steve Gosser)
(*) By the way, the PA State Legislature is considering a bill (HB 1760) to allow Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania. Keystone Trails Association (hikers) and the Humane Society are among groups that oppose it. There will be a legislative hearing in Harrisburg on Oct 27 concerning this bill. Contact your legislator if you have an opinion about it.
On the soap box: I hike on Sundays. My personal opinion — which is my own, and does not reflect the opinion of WQED in any way — is that I oppose Sunday hunting. Hunting seasons run almost all year in Pennsylvania depending on the prey. There are 12 million people in PA but only 1 million hunters. Without Sunday hunting, 11 million people have 1 safe day per week to spend outdoors hiking, biking, farming, horseback riding, birding, nature walking. With Sunday hunting, hunters will have 7 days; 11 million people will have none.
Welcome to October.
What a difference a day makes! Yesterday’s high in Pittsburgh was nearly 60oF with a strong wind from the southwest but today it will be in the 40′s, the low in the upper 30′s, winds from the north and rain. The next good flying weather for migrating birds won’t be until Tuesday.
Meanwhile, if you watch your bird feeders you’re sure to see hungry squirrels. This weather reminds them they don’t have much time left to store food for the winter.
Look closely at your squirrels and you’ll see their fur is changing from brown to gray so they’ll be camouflaged in the snow. Their tails change first, as you can see on this squirrel posing near Marcy Cunkelman’s feeder.
Posing? Hah! He’s waiting for her to stop looking at him so he can pounce on the peanuts.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Watch out! There might be a yellow jacket in your soda can!
All summer long we’ve been able to eat outdoors without being plagued by yellow jacket wasps, but now it’s downright dangerous to put the can to your lips unless you’ve guarded it from these invaders.
Why do they do this?
Yellow jackets are members of the Vespidae family (wasps) who build papery nests underground. Last spring a single fertilized female, the queen, came out of the crevice she hid in all winter. She built a few papery cells underground, laid some eggs, tended the nest and fed the larvae. Within 30 days her eggs became sterile female workers.
The colony was born. From that point forward the queen merely laid “worker” eggs and her growing population of sterile females did all the work. They tended the nest, and collected insect prey (meat) to feed the larvae. They weren’t interested in sweets.
But in late summer a change occurs. The queen lays eggs that become males and fertile females who leave the colony to mate when they mature. Meanwhile, the queen stops laying eggs and colony social life breaks down. The workers stop tending the remaining larvae and leave the nest to go roaming. Now they’re looking for sweets to eat — fallen apples and your can of sweet soda.
This will end. By late fall all the yellow jackets will die and the newly fertilized queens will retreat to their crevices to wait out the winter and restart the cycle next spring.
Coincidentally, we stop eating outdoors by then so we don’t notice.
p.s. Do you have a yellow jacket story? Leave a comment to share it with us.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain. Click on the photo to see the original.)
September is the month for goldenrod.
Solidago, the genus name for goldenrod, is a member of the Asteracea or Composite family. In North America there are about 100 species of goldenrod, many so similar that it’s hard to tell them apart. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide lists 29 species in eastern North America but I’ll bet there are more. Goldenrod can hybridize and eventually form new species.
Most goldenrods are “short-day plants” whose blooming is triggered by longer nights and shorter days. They are actually light sensitive to darkness and require lengthening periods of uninterrupted night in order to bloom. If their nights are interrupted by bright lights they don’t bloom at all. Fortunately moonlight and lightning don’t affect this. (I wonder if floodlights do.)
By July the nights are long enough to trigger blooming but most goldenrods wait for August. Early goldenrod is called “early” because it blooms just after the summer solstice.
Like all members of the Composite family, goldenrod produces windborne seeds with fluff to carry them on the wind. Composite seeds are so lightweight that strong winds can carry them thousands of feet above the earth where they’ve been found by scientists during atmospheric sampling. At this height the seeds can travel around the planet and eventually colonize remote oceanic islands.
Imagine this: A strong winter storm passes over Jennings Prairie in the months ahead. It blows the goldenrod seeds to atmospheric heights where they travel around the world and over the Pacific. Eventually the seeds land on Midway Island… and in some future September the offspring of Jennings Prairie bloom as an echo more than 5,000 miles away.
(photo by Daryl Mitchell from Wikimedia Commons)
On Sunday I took a walk at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County, famous for its spring wildflowers.
The Cedar Creek valley was gorgeous. The eastern hillside was carpeted in white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), the valley was coated in Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna) and the western hill was a deep shade of blue, colored by Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) pictured here.
This is the week to see spring wildflowers in southwestern Pennsylvania. Don’t miss them!
(photo by Chuck Tague)