Archive for the 'Phenology' Category

Sep 20 2015

Tiny Autumn Orchid

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Late Coralroot, flower close-up (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot, flower close-up, 14 Sep 2015, Butler County, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Monday I attended a botanical outing that promised fall orchids including this one: Late Coralroot.

Late or Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) is a tiny orchid that grows in eastern North America from Quebec to Texas.  Like Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) it’s a parasitic plant that feeds on fungi so it has neither chlorophyll nor leaves. Most of the year it lives underground.  Then in late summer it sends up one stem to produce tiny flowers only 1/5″ long which bloom from August to October.

The stems we found in Butler County, Pennsylvania were dark purple-brown, about 8 inches tall.  From above they looked like small useless sticks but as soon as we found them we realized how easy it would be to step on one unawares. Yow.

The plant’s color and size made it difficult to photograph. Nonetheless, here are some (poor) photos to give you an idea of the plant.  Here it is as seen from ground level, though not the entire plant.

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot (photo by Kate St. John)

This closeup shows the flower’s white un-notched lip with purple spots.  It also shows a strange characteristic: Some flowers are rotated sideways.

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Coralroot flower, turned on its axis (photo by Kate St. John)

When the flowers go to seed they droop along the stem.

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Late Corlaroot, flowers gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Though abundant in the spot where we found it, this plant is listed as endangered in several states and “Exploitably Vulnerable” in New York … so I’m not revealing its location.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 22 2015

Confused About The Season

Published by under Phenology

Crabapple tree blooming in Frick park in August (photo by Kate St. John)

Ornamental tree in bloom at Frick Park, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Sunday I found several ornamental trees blooming at Frick Park near the Blue Slide playground.

The branches held both flowers and green, unripe fruits.

I don’t know why they’re blooming.

Have you seen trees this month that are confused about the season?


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 16 2015

Now Blooming: Biennial Gaura

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Biennial gaura (photo by Kate St. John)

Biennial gaura, closeup (photo by Kate St. John)

Though the plant looks like a tall weed, this pretty flower is blooming now in fields and open areas.

As its name suggest, Biennial gaura (Gaura biennis) takes two years to bloom.  In the first year it’s a rosette of basal leaves that sends down deep roots to survive wet winters and dry summers.  In the second year it grows 4-6 feet tall and blooms in August.

The flowers are white when they bloom and turn pink as they fade.  I never notice the plant until the flowers are pink.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jul 02 2015

What to Look For in Early July

Published by under Phenology

Common Milkweed close-up (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Common Milkweed (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

What can we expect outdoors in early July?  Click here for my prediction, written in 2009:  Milkweed or What to Look for in Early July.

In 2009 I described how to find monarch butterfly eggs on milkweed leaves.  Sadly, monarchs have declined so precipitously in six years that they’re very hard to find today in western Pennsylvania.


(close-up of Common Milkweed by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Jun 21 2015

Midsummer Day and Night

Traditional Midsummer Night Festival bonfire in Lappeenranta, Finland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Traditional Midsummer Night Festival bonfire in Lappeenranta, Finland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today the sun will reach its northernmost point, the northern solstice, at 12:38pm.

In northern Europe this is Midsummer Day, celebrated the night before with enormous bonfire festivals, especially in Scandinavia, Latvia and Estonia.

Midsummer folklore includes old stories that spirits and witches roam the night so bonfires were set to keep them away.  Shakespeare embellished on the folklore in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His fairies cast spells on each other; Titania fell in love with Bottom.

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom, by Edwin Lanseer (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, by Edwin Lanseer (image from Wikimedia Commons)


If you celebrate the evening outdoors, be careful not to fall in love with an ass. 😉


(Midsummer festival fire in Lapeenranta, Finland and Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania and Bottom by Edwin Lanseer, both from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 07 2015

Color With Thorns

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Nodding thistle flower head (photo by Kate St. John)

Nodding thistle flower head (photo by Kate St. John)

Lots of big thistles are blooming now by the road to Duck Hollow in Pittsburgh.  At first I couldn’t identify them but my guess was that anything growing so well by the road was probably alien and invasive.  I was right.

Nodding thistle or musk thistle (Carduus nutans) is a biennial from Africa and Eurasia that came to this continent by accident, perhaps in ballast water.  It thrives in disturbed soil at roadsides and landslides and in heavily grazed pastures.  It’s a thorn in the side for cattle farmers and an alien invasive.

A view of the entire plant shows many thorns and the reason why its called “nodding.”

Nodding thistle nods (photo by Kate St. John)

Nodding thistle by Old Browns Hill Road (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite its mean reputation, I think it’s beautiful. The buds look like reddish-purple star bursts as they open.

Nodding thistle bud opening (photo by Kate St. John)

Nodding thistle bud opening (photo by Kate St. John)

And the color of the flower is outstanding. My favorite view is too wide for this blog’s narrow format so click here for a closeup of color without thorns.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 21 2015

What To Expect in Late May, Early June

Published by under Phenology

Chestnut-sided Warbler, female (photo by Chuck Tague)

Throw Back Thursday:  A Southwestern Pennsylvania Phenology for Late May and Early June

As we head into late May and early June the natural world is gearing up for the solstice.  Here’s a hint of what you’ll see and hear:

  • Long daylight as we approach the summer solstice. Today in Pittsburgh is 14 hours, 36 minutes long. By June 15th we’ll have 15 hours and 4 minutes of daylight.
  • Nesting! Everywhere birds are singing, courting, defending their territory, carrying nesting material, carrying food, feeding fledglings, warning of danger.  Chestnut-sided warblers like this one are nesting in the Laurel Highlands.  Canada warblers jump out of the bushes to yell at me when I hike at Quebec Run Wild Area. Not to be missed!
  • New flowers blooming, especially long-tubed flowers that feed hummingbirds and butterflies.
  • Fireflies, crickets and dragonflies.  When will you hear the first crickets?
  • Mosquitoes 🙁
  • Baby bunnies, baby birds, babies of all kinds.
  • And my personal favorite:  Fledging time for young peregrine falcons, the best time of all to watch peregrines.  Stay tuned to this blog for Fledge Watch dates which I’ll announce soon.

Now’s the best time to observe Nature and, frankly, I’d much rather be outdoors than at my computer. So I’m going out to enjoy it!


(photo of a female chestnut-sided warbler by Chuck Tague)

p.s. When I wrote this article in 2009 we didn’t have the crazy weather we’re experiencing this spring: temperatures in the 30’s, then the 90’s, then back again to the 30’s this weekend.  What a Weather Yo-yo!

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May 05 2015

Leaf Out!

Red oak leaves, 1 May 2015 (photo by Kate St.John)

Last weekend’s new leaves in Schenley Park demonstrated that the city is warmer than the suburbs.  Schenley’s leaves unfurled on May 1 while the suburbs were still brown.

Above, new red oak leaves. Below, sugar maple.

Sugar mapleleaf-out, 1 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

This white ash sapling opened its leaves like a crown.  Tiny ash saplings aren’t eaten by emerald ash borer because their stems are too narrow for the bug to use.
White ash leaf-out, 1 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

For dramatic leaf-out, you can’t beat a shagbark hickory.  This bud was just about to unfurl …
Shagbark hickory, leaves about to open, 1 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

And … Boom!
Leaf out! Shagbark hickory (photo by Kate St. John)

Three days later the leaves now produce shade.
Shagbark hickory leaves, 4 May 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)


Take a look at tree covered hillsides as you drive north or south and you’ll notice leaf-out moving north 13 miles a day — except in the city.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 02 2015

What to Expect in Early May

Published by under Phenology

Scarlet Tanager in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

The beginning of May is a birder’s paradise. Spring migration hits full stride.  Of course there are great birds at the “hotspots,” but unexpected species may stop in your backyard on their way north.

Here’s just a taste of the excitement in early May:

  • The trees leaf out and our brown, sun-filled forests become green and shady almost overnight.
  • Birds arrive in many colors:
    • Bright red, orange, black and blue:  scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings.
    • Shades of brown: hermit thrush, Swainsons thrush, wood thrush and veery.
    • Yellow and green:  Warblers and vireos galore!  The yellow warblers and yellow-rumped warblers we were happy to see in April will seem boring in May.
  • Nesting is happening everywhere.  Watch for the first robin fledglings.
  • More flowers bloom:  Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Fairy bells, Bellwort, Canada Mayflower and Mayapples.
  • More moths and butterflies appear.
  • And you’ll see the first baby bunnies.

Take part in some outings to see the sights of May.


(scarlet tanager in flight above new oak leaves. photo by Chuck Tague)

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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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