Mar 19 2015

The Crocus Report

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Crocuses at Phipps, 18 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ta dah!  We’ve reached a milestone in The Signs of Spring.  It’s time for the crocus report.

Yesterday morning the crocuses at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden were just about to pop open.  The bright sun warmed the mulch and after another hour they had opened halfway.  I can say with confidence that they bloomed on March 18.

Crocuses opening at Phipps (photo by Kate St. John)

Is this late for crocuses?   I checked back through my blog posts, linked below, to collect their blooming history in Pittsburgh’s East End:

So … though this winter has seemed very cold the crocuses are not delayed too, too long.


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. They may have bloomed during Monday’s heat but I didn’t walk over to Phipps until yesterday.

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Mar 18 2015

Listening To The Secret Sounds Of Trees

Woman listening with headphones (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In early May when the trees leaf out we’ll once again hear the soothing sound of rustling leaves.  Did you know trees make sounds we cannot hear?

Last year an article by Sarah Zhang in Gizmodo caught my attention.  Eavesdropping On The Secret Sounds Of Trees describes the art and science of a Swiss research team who’s recording the internal sounds of trees.

The project, fittingly called trees, attaches sensitive microphones to trunks, branches and even leaves, then records the sounds and analyzes them in light of simultaneous environmental factors such as drought.  Click here and scroll down to hear the clicks, pops, hisses and taps made by a Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

Closer to home our trees are getting ready for spring, the sap is running, and it’s maple sugaring time in North America.

Maple sugar bucket hanging on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And so I wonder …

If we had those special microphones could we heard the sap rising in the maples?  Or is it so loud that we can hear it by putting our ears to the trees?

I’ll have to see.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Mar 17 2015

Looking For Luck on St. Patrick’s Day

Published by under Plants

A selection of four-leaf clovers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On the day that shows off the three-leafed clover — the St. Patrick’s Day’s shamrock — what are the odds of finding a lucky four-leafed one?  It’s harder than you think.

First of all you have to find clover.  Clover used to be common in every lawn because it was mixed with grass seed to provide natural fertilizer for the grass.  But now clover is absent because lawn care products poison all broad-leafed plants.  Clover is broad-leafed so it dies, too.  No luck for the folks with “perfect” lawns!

Then you have to find the odd ball four-leafed mutation among a sea of three-leafed plants.  On white clover (Trifolium repens) there are usually three leaflets per leaf.  (That’s one leaf on the stem).  But sometimes there’s a mutation and a recessive gene expresses into four.  What luck!  Even rarer and luckier, five leaflets.

On your first hunt through the clover patch, you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of finding a four-leafed clover and a 1 in a million chance of finding the five-leafed variety, according the Minitab statistics blog.   In other words, you’re lucky to find one.  If you do, mark the spot because more lucky leaves are likely to appear on that plant.

Looking for four-leafed clovers today in March’s still-brown grass may be a challenge but here are some tips to help you search.

And save yourself some time.  Don’t look for luck in a perfect lawn.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 16 2015

This Many!

Snow Geese take off from Middle Creek (photo by Kim Steininger)

How many snow geese are in this picture?  Imagine if it was your job to count them!

Snow goose migration got off to a slow start this spring because the lakes remained frozen in Pennsylvania.  In warm winters they start to arrive at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon-Lancaster County border in late February.  But that was out of the question this year.  The narrow north end of Chesapeake Bay was frozen in mid-February and there were 10-12 inches of ice on Middle Creek lake.  The geese stayed south.

The situation changed rapidly, though.  A week ago there were 100 snow geese at Middle Creek.  On Thursday March 12 there were suddenly 20,000.  On Friday there were 75,000 with more arriving throughout the day.  The count this morning is anyone’s guess.

Actually, the number of snow geese at Middle Creek is Jim Binder’s very educated estimate.  Jim has been the manager of Middle Creek WMA since 1997 and has decades of experience counting these birds.

The trick to counting is that snow geese always rest on the lake’s open water at night.  Jim comes out before dawn and counts them at first light before they leave for the day.  He knows the lake well and the numbers it can hold.  He’s so good at counting that he can tell the number by their sound.  The record is 180,000!

But Jim has to work fast. The flock wakes up and stretches its wings. Small groups leave in a leisurely fashion to feed in nearby fields but if something scares them — an airplane, a helicopter, or a bald eagle — the entire flock goes airborne at once with a roar.

When I want to see this spectacle I read Jim Binder’s snow goose count and arrive at Willow Point before dawn.  Kim Steininger took this photo on a day when there were 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese at Middle Creek.

How many snow geese do I hope for?  This many!


Note: Because the ice melted so late this year, snow goose migration is likely to be intense and over quickly.  The geese are running out of time to get home.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Mar 15 2015

Just Thirsty

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Swallow drinking from a swimming pool, Wikimedia Picture of the Year 3rd Place 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Angry?  Dangerous?

No, just thirsty.

Swallows drink by dipping their beaks in the water as they skim above it.

With perfect timing and a lot of patience, the photographer (sanchezn) captured this bird approaching head on.  His photo won Third Place as Picture of the Year on Wikimedia Commons.

Click on the image to see the original.  It is awesome in larger format!


(photo of a barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, by sanchezn from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Mar 14 2015

Not a Statue

Published by under Bird Behavior

Grey heron sunbathing (photo by SteveValasek)

This is not a statue.

It’s a grey heron sunbathing with his wings in a circle to catch the maximum rays.

Grey herons look a lot like our great blue herons though they live in Europe and Asia.  Steve Valasek took this picture in Ireland.

Love those wings!


(photo by Steve Valasek)

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Mar 13 2015

On The Radio: Bird Files

Turkey Vulture at Shavers Creek (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

If you’ve been following the Allegheny Front on WESA radio, you’ve heard their Bird Files series twice a month.

This week I joined as a contributor with a piece about Nature’s clean-up crew — turkey vultures!

Tune in to the Allegheny Front on WESA 90.5 FM tomorrow morning, Saturday March 14, at 7:30am.

Or read and listen here –>  Turkey Vulture Has Cast Iron Stomach


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Mar 13 2015

Blackbirds and Coltsfoot: What to Expect in March

Published by under Phenology

Red-winged blackbird singing (photo by Bobby Greene)

Winter was so long and cold that it’s been hard to predict when the birds will arrive and the flowers will bloom, but suddenly this week we are out of winter’s grip.

What else can we expect to see outdoors, now that Spring is springing?  Here’s a brief phenology for March.

  • Ducks, geese and swans visit our lakes on migration.
  • First-of-Year red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, killdeer, tree swallows, phoebes and meadowlarks arrive from the south.
  • Large flocks of robins poke through soggy lawns and sing at dusk and dawn.
  • Peregrine falcons court and lay eggs.  (Yes, we have seen courting!)
  • Blooming later this month: coltsfoot, forsythia, snow trillium, harbinger of spring and violets.
  • Frogs and salamanders will be courting and mating.  Listen for spring peepers and wood frogs.  Be careful not to kill salamanders that cross the road at night!
  • It’s Mud Season and Jacket weather.  No more winter coats!

Have you seen these signs of Spring yet?

Yesterday I heard my first red-winged blackbird!  Soon they’ll be singing from the cattails, as in this photo by Bobby Greene.


(photo by Bobby Greene)

(*) definition of Phenology from Google: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

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Mar 12 2015

TBT: Conspicuous

Red-tailed hawk soaring (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

Red-tailed hawks are conspicuous now as they soar to claim territory and court their mates.

Click here for a timely article from 2009 that describes what they’re doing.

Watch for the male’s Sky Dance.


(photo of a soaring red-tailed hawk by Cris Hamilton)

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Mar 11 2015

Bobble Buffleheads

Spring is finally here and the early birds are on their way north.  Among them are bufflehead ducks whose body shape and courtship behavior would earn them a different name if they needed one today.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are small black and white ducks that nest in tree cavities from western Quebec to Alaska.  Males are striking black and white, females mostly black, and they’re named buffleheads — “buffalo heads” — because the male’s head looks large and out of scale for his size.

Watch the video above and you’ll see three males “use their heads” to impress the lone female.  They are bobbing like crazy!  Apparently, the bigger the bob the better.

There’s even more going on.  Here’s a list of courtship displays quoted from Cornell’s Birds of North America Online.

  • Head-bobbing is the most common.
  • Fly-over and Land (not seen in the video):  The male flies over the female and lands close to her, skiing on water to show off his feet, raising his head feathers to show off his head.
  • Head-shake-forward:  After landing the male tosses his head forward and …
  • Wing-lift:  … and raises his wings high behind his head.
  • Leading and Following are done by established pairs.  “The male leads by swimming vigorously with the neck stretched upwards, sometimes pecking to the side, and the female usually responds by a Following Display, in which she swims or runs on the surface to catch up with the male, her neck extended, and vocalizes.”

So this lady has a mate (he’s Leading) but it doesn’t stop the other two guys from making a pass.  When one of them is particularly persistent she chases him away but he’s not convinced until her mate chases, too.

Buffleheads court while on migration so you’ll see this behavior on nearby lakes and rivers this month.

Do they make you think of buffaloes when you see their heads?

Nope.  If we had to name them today, we’d call them bobbleheads.


(video by winterwren3 on YouTube)

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