Archive for March, 2012

Mar 07 2012

Winter Trees: Red Maple

For some of the red maples in Schenley Park, winter is over.  They're already blooming.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are one of the earliest trees to flower in the spring, producing red female flowers and yellowish male flowers.  The male flowers are actually red but appear yellow from a distance because the yellow stamens extend beyond the red petals.

Shown above are the female flowers.  Look closely and you can see the tiny wings of the fruit that will form from each flower.

Weeks ago I photographed the winter buds which, like all maples, are opposite on the stem.  The red buds are globular, the bud scales are rounded.  Here's a close-up of what the buds looked like when they were closed.

Nearly everything about the red maple is red -- the buds, twigs, flowers, fruit (before it dries), leaf stems and fall leaves.  Red maples are so beautiful in autumn that they are often planted in cities and parks.

Red maple bark is not as easy to identify.  It's smooth on young trees and rough on old ones with vertical cracks that peel up a bit.  Here's a look at the bark that proves it's easier to identify this tree by its buds.


Today and tomorrow we'll have temperatures in the 60s and more of the red maples will bloom.  Use binoculars to see the flowers.

Soon the Winter Tree series will end because the trees will have leaves.

(Bud and bark photos by Kate St. John. Red maple flowers' photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the flowers' photo to see the original)

2 responses so far

Mar 06 2012

Another Gravel Nester

Published by under Nesting & Courtship

Spring is certainly coming.  I heard my first killdeer at Middle Creek last Sunday.

Though I've read that a few killdeer stay in Pennsylvania all winter I only see them when they make their first push into Pennsylvania in the last week of February and first of March.  Killdeer come north early because they nest relatively early -- as early as April 11.

Like peregrine falcons killdeer will nest in gravel but unlike peregrines they choose open, level places rather than cliffs.  This makes sense because killdeer babies walk away from the nest as soon as they hatch even though they can't fly yet.  Peregrine babies can't -- and won't -- leave the nest until they're able to fly.

Killdeer nests are typically in fields, pastures, golf courses and gravel parking lots.  Sometimes they line the nest with pieces of grass, wood chips or pebbles.  Look closely in Chuck Tague's photo above and you'll see eggs below the bird.  She's nesting in a grassy place littered with old wood chips and leaves.

Whether it's in a grassy field or a gravel parking lot, the eggs are always laid in a shallow depression so they don't roll away.  As added insurance, the killdeer arranges them with the points inward as you can see in Tim Vechter's photo below.  Notice how the eggs are camouflaged.  Pretty sneaky!


If you want to see a killdeer's nest, visit the beach parking lot at Keystone State Park in late April or early May.   As soon as you pull into the lot you'll see orange traffic cones blocking off some of the parking spaces.  The cones are protecting killdeer nests.

If you get too close the birds will shout at you.

Of course!

(killdeer photo by Chuck Tague, nest photo by Tim Vechter)

4 responses so far

Mar 05 2012

Eggs Coming Soon

Published by under Peregrines


If you haven't been watching the National Aviary falconcams or monitoring the peregrines' bridge nest locations, now's the time to start.

Pittsburgh's peregrines are very busy courting right now.  Whether you watch on camera or in person it's easy to see.

The male brings prey to his lady as a courtship offering.  When he's prepared it to his satisfaction he flies around, carrying it in his talons and calling for her to come.  She flies up and takes it from him, sometimes in mid-air, and settles in to eat.  When she's finished eating he goes to the nest and calls her to come bow with him.  After they bow he leaves and she stays to dig the scrape in the gravel where she'll lay her eggs.  This is a sure sign that they'll nest soon.

You can see the nest activity on the falconcams.  The photo above shows Dorothy and E2 at the Cathedral of Learning nest.  The photo below shows Louie and Dori at the Gulf Tower.


If you want to see their courtship flight, you have to be near their nesting territory.  Rob Protz was lucky to see a pair at Tarentum on Saturday evening when they flew around the bridge and landed to mate.   Their nest location and the male's identity are still a mystery so we're hoping for some sharp eyes to figure this out.  Other bridges to watch are McKees Rocks, Westinghouse and Monaca.

Be alert in the days ahead for the first eggs at Pitt and the Gulf Tower.  Dorothy,  at Pitt, laid her first egg on March 12 in 2010 and on March 13 in 2011.  Dori, at the Gulf Tower, laid her first on March 17 last year.

Eggs are coming soon.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning and at the Gulf Tower.  Click on the photos to see the falconcams)

13 responses so far

Mar 04 2012

In Quest of the Timberdoodle

Published by under Bird Behavior

In March the timberdoodles perform their sky dance.

Timberdoodles (woodcocks) live in the country, are well camouflaged, and dance in the dark. I live in the city so it's rare that I'm in scrubby country fields at night.  Consequently I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a woodcock's courtship flight.

I do know where and when to find them.

When the weather's good in early spring the male woodcock picks a suitable scrubby field as his stomping ground.   In the hour before sunrise or the hour after sunset, he lets the ladies know he's available and the guys to stay away by stomping around in the dark saying "peeent, peeent, peeent."  He sounds like a small rhythmic buzzer.

After a bit of peeenting he flings himself into the sky climbing hundreds of feet before circling back down to peeent again.  While ascending his wings make a twittering sound.  As he circles back down he chirps.  You can tell what he's doing even though it's too dark to see him.  "Peeent" on the ground, twitter going up, chirping coming down.  He lands where he started and does it again.  Here's what he sounds like.

I'd like to see a woodcock again this spring but... which scrubby field will a timberdoodle choose?  And is it a place I want to be after dark?

Hence, my quest.


p.s.  For some awesome information on woodcocks, see Chuck Tague's woodcock blog.

(photo by Bob Greene)

7 responses so far

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)

2 responses so far

Mar 02 2012

Raptor Weekend at the Aviary! March 17 & 18

Come to the National Aviary on St. Patrick's Day weekend for Raptor Days, March 17 and 18.  I'll be there to Celebrate Pittsburgh's Peregrines.

Saturday March 17:  "Masters of the Sky - Raptors"   Special activities 11:00am to 3:00pm.

Experience the thrill of the hunt as some of the National Aviary’s most stunning birds-of-prey make a special appearance. See the amazing adaptations that allow these birds to use their keen sense of vision to hunt. Discover the wide array of environments, including Southwestern Pennsylvania, that are home to these stunning birds where you can see them in the wild.

Saturday March 17 and Sunday March 18 at 3:30pm, I'll present "Celebrate Pittsburgh's Peregrines."

Celebrate Pittsburgh's Peregrines with Kate St. John.  Learn about Pittsburgh's peregrine falcons and the famous pairs who live atop the Gulf Tower and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.  Explore their life histories and family connections, how they came to Pittsburgh, what they do during nesting season and where their young live now.

Last year space was limited at WQED's peregrine celebration so here's a perfect opportunity to learn about peregrines or introduce your family and friends to Pittsburgh's peregrine excitement.  (I know they wonder why you're addicted.  I'll explain it!)

Come to the National Aviary on March 17 and 18.  "Celebrate Pittsburgh's Peregrines" at 3:30pm both days.

By then we're likely to have the first peregrine egg at the Cathedral of Learning or the Gulf Tower nests -- or both.  I can hardly wait!

See you there.

Activities are included in the price of admission.  Click these links for admission information and directions to the Aviary.

(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

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Mar 01 2012

The Blue Jay Report

Published by under Songbirds

When I asked last Sunday if you'd seen any blue jays lately I had no idea it would be such a popular question.

Many of you commented on the blog right away.  Then the National Audubon Society shared my question on Facebook on Tuesday morning and over 117 people weighed in.  Comments came from Prince Edward Island and New Mexico, from South Dakota and Florida.

Most folks outside Pittsburgh said they've seen blue jays regularly this winter while Pittsburghers generally said "No."

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I made two totally unscientific maps of the blue jay observations using the comments that gave a location.

The first map shows U.S. and Canadian responses.  The second shows the many Pittsburgh area responses.  Red means "No blue jays or fewer than usual." Green means "Yes, we have blue jays."  Black means, "We don't have them, but they don't occur here."  (The black dot at coastal North Carolina is a place where there are few due to habitat.)

Here are the U.S and Canadian responses.

And here are responses from the Pittsburgh area:

Can you find your response on the map?

Mine is still a red dot despite the fact that a blue jay appeared for a few seconds outside my window at work yesterday.

I think he was taunting me.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman.  Blank maps from Wikimedia Commons with data points added by Kate St. John)

19 responses so far

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