Apr 22 2015

Reminder: April 26 Outing in Schenley Park

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), everywhere in Pittsburgh, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday April 26, 8:30am in Schenley Park. Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive.

Dress for the weather (cold). Bring binoculars if you have them.

Click here for more information and for updates if the walk is canceled for bad weather.

We will certainly see purple deadnettle.


(photo of purple deadnettle by Kate St. John)

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Apr 22 2015

A Symbiotic Relationship

Boxelder blooming (photo by Kate St. John)

Boxelder blooming, 17 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Warbler migration is ramping up and we’re already craning our necks to see them.  Up to now it’s been easy to find birds in the leafless trees but that’s about to change.

In Schenley Park the box elders burst into flower and leaf last week (above), the Norway maples opened last weekend, and the oaks and hickories are blooming now.

Here’s a red oak twig on April 19 just before the buds burst.  Who knew they could grow so long!

Red oak buds about to burst, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Red oak bud about to burst, 19 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Inevitably the warblers gravitate to the leafy trees where they’re hard to find, prompting the common complaint, “The leaves are hiding the birds.  I wish the leaves weren’t there!”

But if the leaves weren’t there, the birds wouldn’t be either.

Insects time their egg-hatch and larval growth to take advantage of leaf out.  These tentworms appeared in Schenley Park when the choke cherries opened their leaves.

Tentworms on a choke cherry branch, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tentworms on a choke cherry tree, 18 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Leaf out brings insects.  Insects bring warblers.  It’s a symbiotic relationship between birds and trees.

Blackpoll warbler gleaning insects from a boxelder (photo by Chuck Tague)

Blackpoll warbler in a boxelder, eating a caterpillar (photo by Chuck Tague)

The trees are probably happier than we are to see the warblers arrive.


(tree photos by Kate St. John.  Blackpoll warbler by Chuck Tague)


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Apr 21 2015

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Clothes and dryer: The clothes dryer kills ticks (photo by Kate St. John)

After-hike defense: Dry your clothes before washing them. (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, it’s time to get outdoors but remember there are dangers out there.

Not bears and mountain lions.  I’m talking about deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis).  They transmit Lyme disease and it can ruin your life for a very long time.

Tick season never ends but it’s really dangerous in the spring and early summer.  Most Lyme disease is transmitted in May through July when the deer ticks’ tiny poppy-seed-sized nymphs are active and we’re active too.  We don’t notice the nymph, or we forget — or don’t know — the basics of protection against Lyme disease.

Here are the basics with great help from the TickEncounter website at the University of Rhode Island.

  1. Know the enemy.  Click here for details.
    Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)
  2. Avoid the enemy. Click here for more.
    1. Wear light-colored long pants, long sleeves and a collar.
    2. Tuck your shirt in.
    3. Walk in the center of the trail. Before you walk off trail, tuck your pants into your socks and keep them that way.  Did you know ticks lurk in leaf litter, too?
    4. Pre-treat your clothing and shoes with permethrin (TickEncounter says this substitutes for (a) and (c) and works better than DEET!)
    5. Protect your yard and your pets with tips found here.
  3. Do a daily tick check.  Yes, daily!  You might have missed one yesterday.  Here’s how to check.
  4. When you take off your hiking clothes, immediately dry them for 10 minutes in a hot dryer.  Really.  This kills ticks.
  5. If you find a tick remove it correctly (here’s how) and save it for testing.  Send it here and they’ll tell you if it carries Lyme disease.

I thought I knew about deer ticks but I learned valuable new information at the TickEncounter Resource Center.  Visit their website here.

Forewarned is forearmed.


(photo of clothes and dryer by Kate St. John.  tick chart from the Center for Disease Control via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the chart to see the original)

Even with permethrin, don’t bushwhack through Bush honeysuckle or Japanese barberry.

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Apr 20 2015

Looking For An Old Man’s Beard

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern Parula (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern parula warblers (Setophaga americana) will be migrating through western Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  They’re on their way to northern breeding grounds, but plenty of them nest south of Pennsylvania.  Why don’t they nest here, too?

My guess is that they used to.

Northern parulas are very versatile about climate.  Their range map shows they breed from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada but there’s a gap in the Rust Belt states, New Jersey, and New England that divides their northern and southern populations.

Breeding parulas are hard to find in western Pennsylvania because they’re picky about nesting material.  They look for a site near water with Old Man’s Beard (Usnea lichen) or Spanish moss where they hollow out a cup in the hanging mass and line it with soft fibers. (On rare occasions they choose other hanging material such as flood debris in trees.)

Shown below at left is old man’s beard lichen (Usnea species), at right is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  Both are epiphytes that grow on other plants but they aren’t parasitic. They get their nutrition from the air.

Old Man's Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish moss is a southern plant whose northern limit is in coastal Virginia. Usnea grows in North American and European forests where the air is clean, but Old Man’s Beard has been missing from western Pennsylvania for more than a century, killed by our air pollution.  Though Pittsburgh’s air isn’t as bad as it used to be, it’s still too polluted for a plant that lives on air.  Without Old Man’s Beard, the northern parula passes us by.

So, yes, northern parulas probably used to nest here … and they might come back.  Pennsylvania’s forests have regrown since deforestation a century ago, and the air in the mountains is clean enough for lichens.  Breeding northern parulas have increased in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains and on the high plateau.

When our air is clean enough for Old Man’s Beard we’ll have northern parulas, too.


(photo of northern parula by Steve Gosser. Photos of Old Man’s Beard lichen and Spanish moss from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the original Wikimedia photos)

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Apr 19 2015

Now Blooming

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Sessile trillium, Boyce-Mayview Park, Allegheny County, 15April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Toadshade (Trillium sessile), Boyce-Mayview Park, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

As I mentioned yesterday, spring wildflowers are now blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Here’s a sample of what Dianne Machesney, Donna Foyle, and I found in our outdoor travels last week.  Check the captions for the flower names, locations and dates.

  • Toadshade or Sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) is found in rich woods.  The dark red flower holds the petals shut.  In my photo there are two Virginia spring beauties that hadn’t opened on that cloudy day.
  • Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is also found in rich woods.  The flowers are small with faint pink details.  They don’t open until the sun comes out.
  • Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is an invasive import that does well in rich damp woods.  I’ve seen it in Schenley and Boyce-Mayview Parks. Dianne saw it at Enlow Fork.
  • Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) is another import, a non-invasive garden plant that’s escaped to the wild.  I’ve seen it planted in Schenley Park.  Dianne photographed it at Enlow Fork.
  • Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is an import that doesn’t care where it grows.  You’ll find it everywhere once you start to look.  Up close its flowers are intricate.  From a distance the leaves have a purplish cast.
  • Horsetail (Equisetum) is a “living fossil” plant, the last species of a class of plants that dominated the dinosaurs’ forest.  Some were as big as trees. Today they are coal.  Visit the dinosaur exhibits at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to see what they looked like.


Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Enlow Fork, Washington-Greene county line, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Enlow Fork, Washington-Greene county line, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), Boyce-Mayview Park, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), Boyce-Mayview Park, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Enlow Fork, Washington-Greene county line, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Enlow Fork, Washington-Greene county line, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)


Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), everywhere in Pittsburgh, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), everywhere in Pittsburgh, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Horsetail (Equisetum), Youghiogheny Rail Trail near Buena Vista, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015 (photo by Donna Foyle)

Horsetail flower spikes (Equisetum), Youghiogheny Rail Trail, Buena Vista, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015 (photo by Donna Foyle)


(photos by Kate St. John, Dianne Machesney, and Donna Foyle)

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Apr 18 2015

Let’s Get Outdoors!

Published by under Books & Events

Bloodroot in bloom, Wingfield Pines, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Wingfield Pines, Allegheny County, 15 April 2015, photo by Kate St. John

It’s Spring and there’s a lot to see.  Every day new songbirds arrive and new wildflowers bloom.  There are plenty of opportunities to join others and see the sights in western Pennsylvania (see the outings table below).  Here’s what I found last Wednesday …

At the Allegheny Land Trust’s Wingfield Pines I didn’t expect to see wildflowers because the site has been plowed so many times, but on the hillside I found a patch of bloodroot in full bloom!  Above, a closeup of the flowers.  Below, just a section of the huge patch.  Notice how the leaves curl around the stems.  The sunshine encouraged the flowers to open but made them hard to see and photograph on the forest floor.

Bloodroot in bloom, Wingfield Pines, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring wildflowers are ephemeral so don’t wait or you’ll miss them entirely. Several of the bloodroot flowers had already lost their petals and gone to seed.
Bloodroot lost its petals, Wingfield Pines, 15 April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Here’s a list of April 19-30 outings for three of the many bird and nature clubs in western Pennsylvania: Wissahickon Nature Club (Wissahickon), Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania (BotSocWPa), and Three Rivers Birding Club (3RBC) … and my own outing on April 26.

Everyone is welcome to join these outings.  Click on the links for directions, meeting places, what to bring, and phone numbers for the leaders.

Date/Time Focus Location Leader & Link to more info
Sunday, April 19, 1:00pm & 2:00pm Birds Frick Park, Pittsburgh Jack & Sue Solomon, 3RBC
Sunday, April 19, 1:00pm Wildflowers Linn Run State Park, Rector, Westmoreland County Loree Speedy, Wissahickon / BotSocWPA
Saturday, April 25, 9:00am Birds Woodcock Lake & Pymatuning, Crawford County Shawn Collins, 3RBC
Saturday, April 25, 9:00am or 10am?(*) Flowers Indian Creek Wildflower Walk, Fayette County Lisa Smith, Wissahickon/BotSocWPA NOTE(*): Wissa & BotSoc sites disagree on start time.
Saturday, April 25, 9:30am Everything! Raccoon Creek State Park, Beaver County Ryan Tomazin, Brooks Bird Club & 3RBC
Sunday, April 26, 8:00am, 10am, All Day Everything! Enlow Fork Extravaganza at the Enlow Fork of Wheeling Creek, border of Washington & Greene Counties Wheeling Creek Watershed Conservancy, Wissa/BotSoc/3RBC
Sunday, April 26, 8:30am Everything! Schenley Park, Pittsburgh Kate St. John, Outside My Window
Wednesday, April 29, 8:00am Birds Knob Hill Community Park, Wexford, Allegheny County Karyn Delaney, 3RBC
Thursday April 30, 10:00am Everything! Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve, Beaver County Dianne and Bob Machesney, Wissahickon / BotSocWPA


Let’s get outdoors!


(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Please excuse typos in the table.  Make sure to consult the website links for up-to-date information!  Call/email the leaders to make sure.

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Apr 17 2015

A Happy Merger

Published by under Musings & News

Hoary redpoll and common redpoll at feeder in Alberta, Canada (photo by dfaulder via Wikimedia Commons)

In Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s eNews I encountered the only case of species “lumping” I’ve ever been glad to see.

Researchers from Cornell Lab’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program tested the DNA of 77 hoary and common redpolls and found that hoary redpolls and common redpolls have no differences at all across much of their genomes.  Just to make sure, Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor examined 235,000 regions of the genome, not just 11, and they tested DNA of the lesser redpoll of Eurasia.  The lesser redpoll is the same as well.

What we’ve been calling three species are merely variations in color and size.  Other species vary, too.  Humans, for instance.

Now that the weight of DNA evidence merges hoary, common and lesser redpolls into one species it’s only a matter of paperwork, review, and voting at the American Ornithologists’ Union to make this official.

I’ll be happy when its done.  I’ve seen common redpolls but not hoary ones, and now I won’t have to go out of my way to find a hoary redpoll unless I’d like to see his beautiful pale feathers.  This simplifies my winter travel plans considerably.

Read more here about the only redpoll in Cornell Lab’s All About Birds blog.


(photo of a (formerly) hoary redpoll at left and common redpoll at right by dfaulder via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 16 2015

Animal Cities: PBS NATURE April 22

Published by under Books & Events

Puffins near burrow at Shiant Isles, Scotland (Courtesy of © THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

Puffin near its burrow at Shiant Isles, Scotland (Courtesy of © THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

Are cities a purely human invention?  In the final episode of PBS NATURE‘s Animal Homes we’ll discover we’re not alone.  Some birds, spiders, lizards, and fish build cities, too.  Tune in on April 22 to learn:

  • Puffins nest in burrows where the female lays a single egg.  The small family of three lives in a city of 40,000 birds that flies together in a Puffin Wheel when they return from the sea.
  • Spiders are usually solitary — they even eat each other — but in the rainforest social spiders build and maintain enormous communal homes. Watch a preview here.
  • When an albatross colony is just starting out there may be a shortage of males.  See video from Hawaii where the ladies make do in a pinch.
  • Have you ever seen leaf-cutter ants carrying leaves in a procession to their nest?  I thought they ate the leaves until Animal Homes showed me what the leaves are really for.  You’ll be amazed at how complicated it is.
  • Speaking of complicated, there’s a fish whose social life is so complex you need a score card to keep up.  The male oscillated wrasse builds a nest that becomes a city of thousands — a city that ought to be called Peyton Place.  Competition, cooperation, and social drama in a fish!

Watch Animal Homes: Animal Cities on PBS NATURE, April 22 at 8:00pm EDT.  In Pittsburgh it’s on WQED.


(photo Courtesy of © THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

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Apr 15 2015


Published by under Peregrines

Female peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Female peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

It looks like this peregrine falcon is jumping out to surprise us … and so she is!

When Dana Nesiti photographed her at the Westinghouse Bridge last Sunday he got a really good look at her bands and they’re not what we expected.

Female peregrine bands atWestinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Female peregrine bands at Westinghouse Bridge, 12 April 2015 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Since 2012 the female at Westinghouse has been Hecla, Black/Red 68/H, who hatched at the Ironton-Russelton Bridge in Ironton, Ohio in 2009.  Dana’s photos earlier this month confirmed Hecla was still there.

But notice that these bands are Black/Green and appear to be 66/C.

If they are, we’ve seen these bands before.  Black/Green 66/C nested at the Westinghouse Bridge in 2010 and 2011.  Named Storm when she was banded in 2005 at Bank One in Canton, Ohio, PennDOT employees discovered her nest when she attacked them during bridge repairs.

If this is Black/Green 66/C, Storm has reclaimed her old nest site from Hecla.

And there’s an added twist.  It would mean that Pittsburgh has two female peregrines from Bank One, Canton, Ohio.  The second one is Magnum (2010, Bank One) who nests at the I-79 Neville Island Bridge.  Canton Peregrine Fans, did the same peregrine parents nest at Bank One in 2005 (Storm) and 2010 (Magnum)?  If so Storm and Magnum are full sisters.

Thanks to Dana for such great photos.  We hope he gets more of them so we can confirm her bands.

A picture is worth a thousand words!


(photos by Dana Nesiti)

p.s.  News on Monday April 13 indicates that Ohio’s peregrine population has fully recovered:  Peregrine falcons have been taken off the Threatened list in Ohio.   Here in southwestern Pennsylvania we can tell that Ohio has a surplus because most of our new nest sites are established by Ohio-born peregrines.

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Apr 14 2015

Dorothy’s Daughters, 2015

Published by under Peregrines

Beauty has four eggs 3 April 2015 (photo from RFalconcam, Rochester, New York)

Beauty has four eggs, 3 April 2015 (photo from RFalconcam, Rochester, New York)

Now incubating on her 15th nest(*) at the Cathedral of Learning, Dorothy is quite the peregrine matriarch.  She has fledged 42 youngsters and is a grandmother and great grandmother many times over.  Most of her “kids” disappeared in history but a few who chose to nest at monitored sites have been identified by their bands.  This spring there’s news of three of her many daughters.


Beauty has four eggs in Rochester, New York

Pictured above, Beauty is Dorothy’s most photographed offspring.  Born in 2007 she flew north to Rochester, New York where she nests with Dot.Ca on the Times Square Building.  Five cameras watch her every move but she is unfazed by the paparazzi.  Her love life was rocky in 2011 and 2012 but she and Dot.Ca are a devoted couple now and they’re incubating four eggs.  Follow her news and live video at RFalconcam.


Hathor is incubating in Mt. Clemens, Michigan

Hathor is incubating in Mt. Clemens, Michigan (photo by Barb Baldinger)

Hathor is incubating in Mt. Clemens, Michigan (photo by Barb Baldinger)

Hatched in 2003, Hathor nests at the Macomb County Building in Mt. Clemens, Michigan where Chris Becher and Barb Baldinger check on her progress every week.  On April 2 they found two eggs. When they checked on April 9 she was incubating.  Hathor’s nest is not on camera but you can follow her news on the Peregrine Falcons Southeast Michigan Facebook page.


Belle is gone from the University of Toledo
Belle at Univ of Toledo (photos from the Univ of Toledo falconcam)

A nest-mate of Hathor’s, Belle made news when she became the first female peregrine to nest at the University of Toledo.  She had undisturbed success at the bell tower, year after year, and fledged 24 young.  But in 2014 another female challenged her while she was incubating four eggs.  During the fight the eggs were scattered and Belle sustained injuries to her face (click here to see).  She healed and hatched two of them.  With extensive help from her mate Allen both youngsters fledged successfully.

Perhaps the fight was a hint of the future.  Cynthia Nowak sent me news that Belle went missing in February and a new, younger female is on the scene.  Though it’s sad to see a peregrine go — especially one of Dorothy’s daughters — we welcome the hope of new peregrine chicks at the University of Toledo where the new female, Liadan, has laid five eggs.  Stay tuned at Toledo Peregrine Project’s Facebook page.


(photo credits: Beauty from RFalconcam, Hathor’s eggs by Barb Baldinger, Belle photos from the University of Toledo Fal-cam)

(*) Dorothy first nested at the Cathedral of Learning in 2001 but the nest failed and was never found. A nestbox was provided in 2002.

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