Category Archives: Phenology

Flowers and the Smell of Coal

Bloodroot open in full sun, 11 April 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot open in full sun, 11 April 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

A group of us went to Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County last Wednesday, April 11, to look for birds and blooms.  Our highlights were six Louisiana waterthrushes and the largest spread of snow trillium we'd ever seen.

The morning was cold and cloudy so the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was still closed when we arrived. By the time we left it was fully open (above).

Bloodroot in the chilly morning, 11 April 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot in the chilly morning, 11 April 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

We were surprised to find snow trillium (Trillium nivale) at its peak in mid April.  This flower usually blooms in February or March but cold weather must have held it back. So many blooms!

Snow trillium at its peak, 11 April 2018, Cedar Creek Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Snow trillium at its peak, 11 April 2018, Cedar Creek Park (photo by Kate St. John)

While we lingered near the snow trillium I noticed the smell of burning coal.  The site is far from any source so I wondered where the smell came from.

Later I learned that there are many abandoned coal mines in Rostraver Township and there's a history of abandoned mine and waste pile fires.

Did I smell an old mine fire still burning?  Has a new fire just begun?  Do any of you know the answer?

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Blooming News:  I visited Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve on Friday April 13 where I found the flowers far behind Core Arboretum and even behind Cedar Creek.  Yes, spring has been slow to come -- and it's trying to leave again.  This phenology map from NPN shows our delayed spring in blue.

First leaf Anomaly, 14 April 2018 from usanpn.org
First leaf Anomaly, 14 April 2018 from usanpn.org

 

How Early Is Spring This Year?

Snow this morning in Pittsburgh, 2 April 2018, 7:30am (photo by Kate St. John)
Snow this morning in Pittsburgh, 2 April 2018, 7:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

How early is Spring this year? That's a hard question to answer.

This morning we have snow again in Pittsburgh and heavy snow-cloud skies. Spring feels late and yet it was early at first.

The animated map below from the National Phenology Network (NPN) shows the emergence of leaves across the Lower 48 States. NPN uses honeysuckle leaves as their marker plant and so do I.  The blue color shows late emergence, red means early.  Our leaves were 20 days early in Pittsburgh.

USA National Phenology Network Spring Leaf Anomaly, 30 March 2018 (from usanpn.org)
USA National Phenology Network Spring Leaf Anomaly, 30 March 2018 (from usanpn.org)

Here's proof from February 20, 2018.

Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Since then Nature did a 180-degree turn and handed us a series of cold snaps capped by snow.  Our wildflowers have not bloomed yet.  Last year they were two to three weeks early and had gone to seed by the end of March.

Fortunately NPN tracks first blooms as well, using lilacs as the marker plant.(*)  On the map below you can see the Southeast bloomed 20 days early.

USA NPN Spring Bloom Anomaly, March 30, 2018 (from usanpn.org)
USA NPN Spring Bloom Anomaly, March 30, 2018 (from usanpn.org)

But we aren't on the bloom map yet.

When will our wildflowers bloom?  We'll have to wait and see.

 

(photo by Kate St. John. Animated maps from usanpn.org)

* From the USA NPN website: These models were constructed using historical observations of the timing of first leaf and first bloom in a cloned lilac cultivar (Syringa x chinensis'Red Rothomagensis') and two cloned honeysuckle cultivars (Lonicera tatarica 'Arnold Red' and L. korolkowii 'Zabelii').

Yellow In Bloom

Cornelian cherry in Schenley Park, 26 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cornelian cherry blooming in Schenley Park, 26 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Some yellow flowers bloomed this week.

Above, Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) opened its buds in Schenley Park and other cultivated locations.  Introduced from southern Europe, this small tree is in the dogwood family.

Another Eurasian plant, coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), started blooming along roadsides in mid March but was suppressed by the 8-10 inches of snow on March 22.  It came back quickly last week.

Coltsfoot in bloom, 26 March 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)
Coltsfoot in bloom, 26 March 2018 (photo by Kate St.John)

Meanwhile, there's frost this morning in my backyard.  My daffodils are still waiting for better weather.

Daffodils in the bud. Frost on the leaves, 31 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Daffodils in the bud. Frost on the leaves, 31 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

p.s. The air smells bad today in Pittsburgh because industrial pollution is trapped by an inversion. (Rotten egg smell!)  Check the Smell Report for March 31 on the map here.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Grackles Come, Gulls Go

Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Common grackle in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring seems to be coming slowly.  Nonetheless we've seen changes in the bird population since February.

Just over a month ago -- February 9 to 13 -- birders typically saw 7,000 ring-billed gulls assemble on the river every evening at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh.  By February 20 that number had dropped to only three.  Yes, there are still ring-billed gulls in the area but the bulk of them are gone.

Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)
Ring-billed gulls chase for food (photo by Shawn Collins)

 

Meanwhile, common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) were very uncommon over the winter but individual birds showed up in the last week of February.  I saw my first common grackle in Schenley Park on March 1 and more than 40 yesterday at Moraine State Park.

Common grackles have just begun to arrive and will stay to breed.  Additional ring-billed gulls will pass through Pittsburgh on their way north but they'll keep going.

Grackles come, Gulls go in early spring.

 

(photo credits: grackle from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Ring-billed gulls by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  I noticed the ring-billed gull population change by looking outside my window.  Twice in February I watched for 20 minutes at 5pm while I waited on hold on the phone.  On February 9 I saw thousands of gulls fly over my house on their way to the Head of the Ohio.  On February 22 the number was about 10.   Interestingly, I now associate the music-on-hold with flying gulls.

Catkins And Tiny Flowers

American hazelnut with catkins (photo by Kate St.John)
American hazelnut with catkins (photo by Kate St.John)

Every year I see these yellow catkins in March and every year I forget their name.  But this year will be different.  I'm identifying them ahead of time as American hazelnuts (Corylus americana).

The catkins are the male flowers, so full of pollen that your fingers become dusty yellow if you touch them.  They swing and flutter in the breeze to disperse their pollen to ...

American hazelnut catkins, early March 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
American hazelnut catkins, early March 2012 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

... to fertilize this tiny flower.  The red female flowers, located on the branches, are easy to overlook because they're so small.  They don't stand out because they don't need to attract insects for pollination.

Female flower of the American hazelnut (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Female flower of the American hazelnut (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Here are some additional tips on identifying American hazelnut:

  • This nut-bearing plant is often cultivated. It produces more nuts in full sun but it grows in the shade as well.
  • American hazelnut trunks grow in clumps like a shrub.
  • The clumps are on average about 10 feet tall.
  • Its long yellow catkins indicate it's in the birch family.
  • The bark is smooth and speckled.
  • Many of the catkins sprout alone instead of in bunches.
  • The catkins are as long -- or longer -- than my fingers.
  • The leaf buds are alternate on the branches.
  • The female flowers bloom from the leaf buds before the leaves appear.

Because it's often cultivated, you'll find American hazelnut along trails and in easy to reach places. Its nuts provide food for wildlife.

 

(photos credits: top photo by Kate St. John, closeups by Marcy Cunkelman)

Plants Are Making Progress

Honeysuckle leaves, 7 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle leaves, 7 March 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the cold weather, the plants are making progress toward spring.

The honeysuckle leaves above on March 7 are the same ones I photographed on February 20 below.

Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle leaves open in the heat, 20 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

It's interesting to note that the first leaves that opened in February are still small, though mature.  Newer leaves are the normal size.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

What’s Outdoors in Early March?

Skunk cabbage at Raccoon Creek State Park, 25 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Skunk cabbage at Raccoon Creek State Park, 25 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is coming in Pittsburgh.  What should we expect to find outdoors in early March?

A decade ago I would have said the list below definitely waits for early March but it has already happened in late February!

Spring is early but these sights and sounds will become more common in the next two weeks and we'll start to see "late March" signs of spring.

There is one thing that never happens in February, even when it's warm.  We'll "Spring Forward" the clocks on March 11 this year.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

The Crocus Report

Crocus blooming, Pittsburgh, PA 23 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crocus blooming in Pittsburgh, PA, 23 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Tuesday's summer weather made a difference to early rising bulbs.

I found crocuses blooming on Friday, snowdrops on Wednesday, and ...

Snowdrops blooming in Pittsburgh, 21 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Snowdrops blooming in Pittsburgh, 21 Feb 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

... daffodil leaves 3 to 4 inches tall.

Daffodils 3-4 inches tall, 21 Feb 2018, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Kate St. John)
Daffodils 3-4 inches tall, 21 Feb 2018, Pittsburgh, PA (photo by Kate St. John)

Is this early for crocuses?  Indeed it is.

Thanks to my blog, I have a record of first blooming dates in Pittsburgh's East End going back to 2009 (except for 2016):

This year's crocuses are blooming even earlier than in the Hot year of 2012.

The plants know our climate is changing.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

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)