Archive for the 'Phenology' Category

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

Apr 07 2013

First Native Flower

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Snow Trillium at Cedar Creek Park (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yesterday I wrote about coltsfoot but it’s not the first native wildflower to bloom in western Pennsylvania.  That honor goes to snow trillium (Trillium nivale).

I looked for snow trillium last weekend at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and found the leaves but the deer had eaten all the flowers.    :(

Dianne and Bob Machesney found these blooming at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County.

Thankfully there are fewer deer at Cedar Creek.

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Apr 06 2013

At Last!

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Coltsfoot blooming (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

At last I’ve found coltsfoot blooming.  Spring is officially here.

Coltsfoot is an introduced plant that blooms earlier than most of our native wildflowers.  It’s not picky about habitat so you’ll find these dandelion-like flowers by the side of the road and in waste places.

When you see the flower you won’t see the leaves.  They’re hidden at the base of the plant right now but will grow into large colts’- foot-shaped leaves after the flowers are gone.

Coltsfoot blooming, from the side (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Normally I find coltsfoot blooming around March 25.  In last year’s hot weather it appeared on March 14.  You can see why I’m impatient.

At last!

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Mar 31 2013

Easter Flowers

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocus with honey bee (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Easter is early, winter is late. Few flowers are blooming in western Pennsylvania.

This weekend my surviving crocuses opened fully to receive a visit from a honeybee. He emerged with pollen pantaloons just like this bee in Marcy Cunkelman’s garden.

The bees are happy to find flowers this Easter Day.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Mar 25 2013

Spring Moves North 13 Miles A Day

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Tulips blooming in Moscow (photo rom Wikimedia Commons)

Snow again!  We are so ready for spring here in Pittsburgh.

The crocuses bloomed early last week but were slammed shut on Wednesday by a low of 200F.  Daffodil leaves emerged and paused.  Don’t even ask about tulips.

But Spring is south of us and it’s on its way.  There’s a rule of thumb that says Spring moves north 13 miles a day.

Here’s an easy way to watch its progress.

Journey North has a Tulip Test Garden website where observers report when leaves emerge and flowers bloom from the tulip bulbs they planted last fall. Many of the tulip gardens are student projects at elementary schools such as Della Kurtzhals’ class at Clarion Area Elementary School in Clarion, PA.

So how far away is spring?   At Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC the first tulip bloomed on March 18.   Using the rule of thumb, here’s my guess at blooming times in Pittsburgh and Clarion:

  • Pittsburgh is 372 air miles north of Charlotte so I estimate our first tulip will bloom on April 15.
  • Clarion is about 430 miles north of Charlotte so their tulips will probably bloom on April 20.

This is just an estimate. Actual blooming times may vary.  I won’t be charged like Punxsutawney Phil was for “misrepresenting spring.”  (Click here to read about the charges made against him in Hamilton, Ohio.  The comments are hilarious.)

So while your garden is covered in snow, rest assured that spring is moving north.  You can see it approaching on the Tulip Test Garden map.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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