Archive for the 'Phenology' Category

Mar 21 2012

The New Normal

One day does not a summer make but a week of June-like weather is mighty convincing.

Though I’m thrilled to be wearing summer clothes in mid-March it makes me very uneasy.  Our temperatures have been 20 to 30 degrees above normal.  In Minnesota the morning low in International Falls tied the previous record high on Monday!

The heat is unprecedented but the landscape is coping.  Last Sunday I found cutleaf toothwort (pictured above) blooming four weeks ahead of schedule and yellow buckeye trees leafing out in Schenley Park (below).   The weather is three months early.  The plants are one month ahead.

Insects are responding as well.  Stink bugs are everywhere and I swear I heard a cricket last night.

Most birds can’t keep up.  Those already here are moving north a bit early but the bulk of the migrants are in Central and South America and have no idea our weather is so far ahead of schedule. When they get here they may find their peak insect food sources have passed.

Meanwhile peregrines lay their eggs so that hatching will coincide with the push of northward migrants.  Dorothy’s first egg is right on time though the heat is not.  It was sad to see her panting at the nest yesterday, trying to keep her egg cool so it won’t develop out of synch.


With a warm winter here and a very cold winter in Europe, we’re on the roller coaster of climate change.  Arguing about it is pointless now.  Ready or not, we’re already coping with the new normal.


(Cutleaf toothwort photo by Dianne Machesney.  Yellow buckeye leaves by Kate St. John.  Dorothy panting at her nest on 20 March 2012 from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

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Mar 18 2012

Spring Last Week

Spring came fast last week, as shown by the pictures I took at Schenley Park on Wednesday and Friday, March 14 and 16.

Spring morning with dew, Wednesday March 14.


Coltsfoot starting to bloom (Wednesday).


Magnolia bud opening (Wednesday).


Female flowers on red maple (Wednesday).

And by Friday….

Spicebush flowers are open.



…and Wednesday’s magnolia bud is now a flower.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Mar 12 2012

March Flowers Bring…

Published by under Phenology

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)

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Mar 03 2012

Signs Of An Early Spring

Published by under Phenology,Trees

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)

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Feb 28 2012

Now Blooming!

Published by under Phenology

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)

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Nov 08 2011

What Birds At This Time Of Year?

Published by under Phenology

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.
  • Overhead:
    • 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)

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Oct 25 2011

October Scenes from Schenley Park

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)

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Oct 16 2011

Sparrows, Ducks and Colored Leaves

Published by under Phenology

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.

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Oct 01 2011

Winter’s Coming

Published by under Mammals,Phenology

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)

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Sep 20 2011

Look Before You Drink!

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.)

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