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)
In late April on a sunny day in western Pennsylvania you’ll find the forest floor carpeted with small pale pink flowers.
The flowers are actually white with tiny pink veins that guide insects to the center, “Follow this road to the nectar.”
These are Spring Beauties, a light sensitive flower in the Purslane family that doesn’t open unless the sun comes out. Needless to say, with all the rain these 1/2″ flowers haven’t had much “face time” lately.
There are two kinds of Spring Beauty in our area. The most common species is called simply Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and has thin ribbon-like leaves. It’s quite easy to find in moist woods.
Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), pictured above, has wide oval leaves and is rare in western Pennsylvania. The leaves are the clue. The flowers are the same on both.
On the next sunny day — perhaps tomorrow – take a look in the woods for the beauties of spring.
(photo by Dianne Machesney)
Despite the cold and potential for snow I keep looking for signs of spring.
There’s not a lot out there. I found small bittercress and coltsfoot blooming on south-facing slopes last Sunday and I found rosettes of these leaves, noticable because they had a purplish tinge all winter (photo at left) and now they’re turning green (photo at right).
This is Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) a biennial plant native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Whether it hitchhiked to North America or was intentionally imported as a culinary herb (it tastes like garlic) it hasn’t been here all that long. It was first recorded on Long Island in the 1860s.
Since then garlic mustard has invaded the ecological niche occupied by our favorite spring plants. It easily becomes the dominant plant of forest and floodplain because:
- It starts growing in the spring before our native plants dare show their heads.
- Its seeds are viable for five years.
- It produces allelochemicals that suppress the good fungi our native plants rely on, and
- Deer don’t eat it.
So though I’m usually happy to find green leaves in March, these are not a good sign.
For more information on garlic mustard and what you can do about it, click here.
(photo on left by Marcy Cunkelman, photo on right from Wikimedia Commons.)
Despite the cold snap, here’s a happy sign of spring.
Yesterday the Botanical Society of Western PA hiked in the southeastern corner of Allegheny County and found snow trillium in bloom.
Snow trillum (Trillium nivale) is a small plant only 2-4″ tall that is so hardy it will even bloom in snow. It’s quite rare throughout its range and is considered vulnerable in Pennsylvania because it requires undisturbed habitat. Logging and mining threaten its existence.
This data sheet about snow trillium indicates it only occurs in our corner of the state.
We are lucky to have it.
(photo by Dianne Machesney)
Yow! It’s cold this morning! 18oF! Even so, there’s a spot of warmth in the woods.
Though it looks weird and smells bad, this plant is exciting to find because it’s one of the first to flower in the Spring.
This is eastern skunk cabbage, a wetland plant that’s found in northeastern Asia (Siberia to Japan) and northeastern North America (Quebec to Minnesota to the mountains of North Carolina).
Skunk cabbage has many names but most of them refer to its smell, a fetid odor that’s sure to offend if you break or tear the plant. Foetid is even in its scientific name: Symplocarpus foetidus. It smells awful to us but it’s attractive to scavenging insects who pollinate the plant and possibly seek it out for warmth.
Yes, skunk cabbage’s other claim to fame is that it generates its own heat, a talent called thermogenesis. The skunk cabbage spadix (the flower spike inside this purple spathe) can maintain a 60oF temperature while the outdoor temperature is 5oF. Scientists have theorized that the warmth attracts insects to come inside out of the cold.
Look for skunk cabbage now and remember where you find it. In late spring the flower disappears and in its place will be huge, bright green leaves that look so different that the plant is almost unrecognizable!
(photo by Sue Sweeney from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)