Category Archives: Phenology

Yellow Is A Sign of Spring

White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
White-throated sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Even before the buds burst and the flowers bloom, birds give us a hint that spring is coming.  Some of them turn yellow.

* White-throated sparrows have boring faces in the winter but their lores turn bright yellow ahead of the breeding season. They'll leave in March or early April for their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.

* American goldfinches were brownish all winter but molt into yellow feathers in late winter. Even the females turn a subdued yellow as seen in the female on the left in Marcy's photo.

Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Goldfinches turning yellow for spring (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

* At this time of year European starlings become glossy and their beaks turn yellow.  The starling below is male because the base of his beak is blue (near his face).

European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)
European Starling in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

There are other birds whose yellow facial skin becomes brighter in the spring.  Can you think of who that might be?  ...

Yellow is a sign of spring.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Marcy Cunkelman and Chuck Tague. See credits in the captions)

Cardinal Courtship

Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female cardinal raises one wing to greet her mate (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last week Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter(*) but the birds know spring is on its way.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) don't migrate so they're a good species to watch for early signs of spring.  Some pairs stay together all winter on their home territory or in mixed flocks.

In February they begin to court.  The males become aggressive toward other males and solicitous to their ladies.  And they begin to sing. (Xeno-canto recording # 356015 by Ted Floyd)

Watch your local cardinals for these courtship behaviors:

  • Lopsided pose :  The cardinal tilts up one side of its body, raises one wing, lowers its crest and exposes its belly, sometimes rocking side to side.
  • Song-dance display (shown by a female cardinal above):  The bird stands erect, raises its crest and one wing.
  • Song-flight display (quoted from Birds of North America):  In flight the male fluffs his breast feathers, raises his crest, sings, and descends slowly toward his mate in short, rapid strokes.  (Is the male doing this in the top photo?)
  • Territorial Singing:  (audio above)
  • Counter-singing:  Female cardinals counter-sing with their mates.
  • Courtship feeding:  The male cardinal presents food to his lady, beak to beak.  Gene Wilburn in Port Credit, Ontario captured a male feeding his lady with a "kiss."

Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Northern cardinal courtship, "The Kiss" (photo by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

 

Cardinals are courting.  Spring isn't far away.

 

(photo credits: wing flash in the snow by Marcy Cunkelman, The Kiss by Gene Wilburn via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

NOTE(*): On Groundhog Day the Spring Equinox is six weeks away ... so it's always true that we'll have "six more weeks of winter."

Look For Aliens

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Late fall is the perfect time of year to look for alien plants in Pennsylvania.  Natives are brown or leafless but alien species are still cuing on the seasons back home.

How do you find aliens?  Notice patches of green in the brown landscape.  Here are three photos to give you some practice.

Aliens in the top photo are circled below.

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens while you're driving ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

 

See aliens on the ground ...

There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)
There are alien plants in this picture (photo by Kate St. John)

Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)
Alien plants circled (photo by Kate St. John)

There's so much goutweed and garlic mustard in this last photo that it would be filled with red circles if I labeled all of it.   🙁

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

Common Mullein: Wait Until Next Year

Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)
Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)

In July these green and yellow flower spikes tower along our roadsides and waste places.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a Eurasian native of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) that was introduced to North America.  Because it's biennial both forms are visible right now.

In its first year of life, the plant is a basal rosette of velvety blue-green leaves, 4-16 inches long.

In its second year the rosette sprouts a flower spike, blooms in the summer, sets seed, and then dies.

Here it is in the spring of its second year. The basal rosette is beginning to flower.

Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)
Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)

And here's a closeup of the flowers:

Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)
Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)

Though common mullein only reproduces by seed it's very good at doing it.  Each plant produces 100,000 to 180,000 seeds that are dispersed by wind or animals.  If the seeds don't land in a hospitable place, no problem.  They're viable for 100 years!

Consequently, common mullein is listed as invasive in 20 states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Because it only spreads by seed, this plant can be eradicated by hand pulling before the seed sets, then bagging it and disposing of it.  Unfortunately, it's too late in the season to do that now and other methods, such as poison, will only spread its seeds when the plant falls.

We'll just have to enjoy its flowers and wait until next year.

When it comes to weeds, I love procrastinating!

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

Nightshade in the Garden

Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)
Bittersweet Nightshade (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Anne Marie Bosnyak sent me a photo, below, of a plant that popped up in her garden.

It has purple flowers and tomato-like fruit. It's obviously growing in the wrong place.  Is it a weed?

Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)
Bittersweet nightshade out of place in the garden (photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Well, yes.

It's bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a perennial from Eurasia that's considered invasive in Pennsylvania.

Did you know it's related to potatoes?  Don't eat it!  Read on.

Not Tomatoes

 

(flower photo by Chuck Tague, plant photo by Anne Marie Bosnyak)

Fluff In The Air

Cottonwood fluff on the ground (photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org)
Cottonwood fluff on the ground (photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org)

In late May, you'll see white fluff in the air as you search the sky for birds.  It's not dandelion fluff.  This is cottonwood season.

The eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) grows in open and riparian habitats from the Rockies to the southeastern coast. Western Pennsylvania is on the eastern edge of their range.

Range map of the eastern cottonwood (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Range map of the eastern cottonwood (image from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Cottonwoods are one of the fastest growing and largest trees in North America.  Reaching up to 130 feet tall the trunk can be more than five feet across.  The trees require bare soil and full sun to germinate so you usually see them out in the open, sometimes alone.

Eastern cottonwood (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)
Eastern cottonwood (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

 

Their species name, deltoides, describes the leaf shape that looks a lot like aspens. Both trees are in the willow family.

Cottonwood leaves (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)
Cottonwood leaves (photo by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org)

 

In early spring cottonwoods sprout male and female catkins. The females are fertilized by wind-blown pollen and become drooping strings of seed capsules.  In May the capsules burst open to release thousands of tiny seeds, each one attached to a bit of "cotton" that carries it on the wind.  (The brown spots in this photo are seed capsule covers, not the seeds.)

Eastern cottonwood seeds, still on the branch (photo by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org)
Eastern cottonwood seeds, still on the branch (photo by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org)

 

The fluff breaks off and blows away but each tree is so prolific that in windless conditions, when the fluff falls straight to the ground, it looks like snow.

Do you want to see a lot of cottonwood fluff?  Drive north on Route 528 from the bridge over Moraine State Park's Lake Arthur. Eventually cottonwoods are on both sides of the road.

There's fluff in the air there!

 

(photo credits:
fluff on the ground by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org
range map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original
clump of cottonwood trees by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
cottonwood leaves by T. Davis Sydnor, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org
cottonwood seeds on the branch by Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org
)

Apples in May

Mayapple flower turning into a May Apple (photo by Kate St. John)
Mayapple flower turning into an apple in May (photo by Kate St. John)

I'm taking a break from peregrines today.   Here's a plant.    🙂

In Schenley Park, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) bloom in April and fruit in May. The plants must have two leaves to produce a flower because the flower stalk grows from the Y between the leaves.

Here's what they look like when they bloom.

Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mayapple in flower with twin leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fertilized flower transitions from flower to apple in May, as shown in the photo at top.

You can eat a mayapple when it's ripe but Be Careful!  The entire plant is poisonous and the apple is only edible when ripe!  Find out more and see a mayapple sliced open in this vintage article from 2011: Eating Mayapples

 

 

(top photo by Kate St. John. Blooming photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)