Now Blooming

Bluets at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 April 2019

Wildflowers are blooming, elms are setting seed, and some early trees are leafing out. Here’s a sampling of buds and blooms this week in southwestern Pennsylvania.

At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday our group found many flowers opening including bluets (above) and early saxifrage (below). Our complete list is at the end.

Early saxifrage at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trail at Racoon Wildflower Reserve was littered with the tips of sugar maple branches, chiseled off by squirrels. These Acer saccharum buds are opening to reveal new flowers.

Sugar maple bud opening at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile in the City where it’s warmer …

This spruce in Shadyside was flowering, too. The pink buds will become cones.

American elms (Ulmus americana) have already set seed. You can tell this is an American (not slippery) elm because the samaras are deeply notched.

American elm samaras from Schenley Park, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park, invasive Norway maples (Acer platanoides) are leafing out.

Norway maple leaf-out in Schenley Park, 17 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spend time outdoors this weekend and see what’s blooming near you.

Here’s are list of flowers seen at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday 16 April 2019, in no particular order. Many flowers were only beginning to open. By now they’ll be in full bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Easter Lilies Are Poisonous To Cats

Easter lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A flower that’s poisonous to one particular mammal …

If you have a cat, keep this plant far away from him. Easter lilies are extremely poisonous to cats.

Cat montage (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Native to Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) are popular flowers at this time of year. Unfortunately every part of the plant is poisonous to cats: the flowers, the leaves, the stem, even the pollen.

Easter lilies are so poisonous to cats that if the pollen touches her and she grooms it away, it will poison her. The result is severe kidney failure.

The poisoning occurs quickly. Signs are evident within 6-12 hours of exposure. There is no antidote but immediate veterinary attention will improve the cat’s chance to live.

The Pet Poison Helpline recommends:

If your cat is seen consuming any part of a lily, bring your cat (and the plant) immediately to a veterinarian for medical care.

Pet Poison Helpline — Lilies Poisonous to cats

Do you have a dog? No worries. Easter lilies are not poisonous to dogs. This message only applies to cats.

Read more about cats at the Pet Poison Helpline. Read about dogs and lilies here.

p.s. Members of the Lilium genus are favorite foods for deer. I have not seen deer eating Easter lilies but I bet they love them.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Red Admirals’ Mass Migration

Red admiral butterfly in April in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch butterflies are famous for migrating long distances from North America to Mexico but they’re not the only butterfly that travels far. Red admirals migrate, too.

Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) occur in Europe, Asia and North America. Though the European population can hibernate, red admirals on this continent migrate south to places where their favorite host plant — stinging nettle — grows throughout the winter. In eastern North American they spend the winter in south Texas.

Over the winter a new generation of red admirals matures to fly north and repopulate the continent. We usually don’t notice them but in the spring of 2012 hot weather came so fast that red admirals passed through Presque Isle State Park in a couple of days on mass migration.

On Throw Back Thursday read about the amazing number of red admirals in 2012 in this vintage blog: Mass Migration.

Why don’t we see them migrating more often? Perhaps they’re traveling high above our heads. According to Wikipedia: “During migration, the red admiral flies at high altitudes where high-speed winds carry the butterfly, requiring less energy.” Oh my!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Caution For Hatch Day 2019

APRIL 24, 2017: Hope picked up her first pipped egg. Later she killed and ate it. (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
APRIL 24, 2017: Hope picked up her first pipped egg. Later she killed and ate it. (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Caution!

The peregrine eggs at the Cathedral of Learning nest are due to hatch next week, but here’s a word of caution:  You won’t want to watch.

My calculation says that hatch day for Hope and Terzo’s eggs will be next week, some time between Monday April 22 through Thursday April 25, 2019.

However, it won’t be a happy event. Hope has a habit of opening some of the eggs with her sharp beak, killing and then eating some of her chicks.  Her behavior is abnormal and upsets nearly everyone who sees it. She has done it every year.

In 2016 Hope killed and ate two chicks before they could emerge from their eggs.  In 2017 she killed one. In 2018 she killed two.

We don’t know why she does it but my word to the wise is this:

Caution! Don’t watch the eggs hatch at the Cathedral of Learning if it upsets you to see a mother kill her young.

p.s. After hatching is over Hope is a good mother, caring for her chicks and guarding them against danger. From 2016 through 2018 she fledged six youngsters from the Cathedral of Learning.

(snapshot from 24 April 2017 from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

Late April: What’s Next?

Great horned owl with yawning nestling, April 2019 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Spring is popping in southwestern Pennsylvania. Here’s what to look for in late April.

  • Branching! Great horned owlets are growing up fast. At the earliest nests owlets will walk on nearby branches before the leaves come out. Dana Nesiti photographed this yawning owlet in early April.
  • Nest building: Songbirds are building nests especially American robins, song sparrows and Carolina wrens. House sparrows flutter by with cellophane for their nests.
  • Migration: Blackbirds and tree swallows are here. Gray catbirds are coming soon. Also Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, blue-headed vireo, brown thrasher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, pine warbler, northern parula, chimney swift, barn swallow and house wren. See them on an outing with the Three Rivers Birding Club.
  • Trees: Flowering trees include redbud, downy serviceberry, cherry and more. “Leaf out” comes in early May.
  • Wildflowers: Violets, large-flowered trillium, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells and much more. Get outdoors with the Botanical Society of Western PA or Wissahickon Nature Club. Visit Enlow Fork on the last Sunday in April for the Enlow Fork Extravaganza starting at 8:00am.
  • Butterflies: Spring azures, cabbage whites, eastern commas, orange sulphurs, red admirals.
  • Turkey season: Be careful if you hear a turkey calling; it might be a hunter. Spring Gobbler hunting season runs from the last Saturday in April through all of May. Junior hunters get a one-day early start on the next-to-last Saturday (April 20).

In late April, spring is happening fast. Don’t miss it!

(photo by Dana Nesiti)

Not A Nice Flowering Tree

Callery pear gone wild (photo by Richard Gardner, Bugwood.org)

Yesterday I noticed white flowering trees on the hills and swales near Robinson Town Centre (I-376 West). “How nice,” I thought, “Who planted those trees in the empty places?” No one. They’re invasive.

April is the perfect time to see the invasive extent of callery pears (Pyrus calleryana) because they bloom before our native white-flowering trees: chokecherry, downy serviceberry (shadbush), and hawthorn.

Originally imported from China in the early 1900s as root stock for pear orchards, USDA bred them as landscape trees in the 1950s and came up with a winning cultivar, the thorn-less sterile “Bradford pear.”

From 1960 to the 1990s callery pears were wildly popular as street trees in suburbia. They’re pretty in early spring, colorful in fall, and they grow well in the full sun and disturbed soil found in new subdivisions. The Bradford cultivar is also brittle so commercial plant breeders created other cultivars. That’s when the genie came out of the bottle.

In a single cultivar population the fruits are sterile but if two different cultivars are planted near each other, or even grafted together, insects cross-pollinate them and the trees produce fertile fruit. Birds eat the fruit and disperse the seeds. The trees escape to the wild.

Callery pears grow anywhere. A patch can start with a single tree that becomes a thicket in several years. Dense thickets push out all native species. To make matters worse, the wild trees can have 3-inch thorns! The best field-scale control measure is to brush-hog and then mow every year. They still come up!

Callery pears take over disturbed soil (photo by Britt Slattery, US Fish and Wildlife Service, bugwood.org)

Callery pears now grow wild from Texas to New York and Massachusetts. They’re listed as invasive in eight states including our own: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Illinois.

You’ll see them this month on open hillsides and fields along the interstate, near shopping centers, and at the edges of subdivisions.

Don’t plant callery (Bradford) pears. They are not nice flowering trees.

(photos by Richard Gardner and Britt Slattery via bugwood.org; click on the captions to see the originals)

Schenley Park Outing, Sat. April 20

Redbud about to bloom, 23 April 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is here! Let’s get outdoors.

Meet me at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Saturday, April 20, 8:30a – 10:30a. (Note: Due to scheduling difficulties this walk is on Saturday.)

Trees and wildflower buds are bursting. New birds arrive on every south wind. I’m sure we’ll see redbuds. Will they be open?

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Don’t forget your binoculars! This event will be held rain or shine, but not in thunder. Check the Events page before you come in case of cancellation.

Hope to see you there!

(photo of a redbud by Kate St. John)

Red Maples Are Complicated

Male red maple flowers fallen from the tree, 10 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week the hillsides turned faintly red as red maples (Acer rubrum) bloomed across southwestern Pennsylvania. The city’s maples bloom sooner than the suburbs so I’ve had a preview of what’s to come.

In Schenley Park the ground under some red maples is carpeted with fallen flowers (above) while others retain flowers that are setting seed (below).

Female red maple flowers on the tree, developing samaras, 10 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

That’s because red maples are sexually complicated. They are polygamodioecious which means some trees have only male flowers, some have only female, and some have both (i.e. hermaphroditic). And they can even switch back and forth:

Under the proper conditions, the tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to hermaphroditic, and hermaphroditic to female.

Wikipedia Acer Rubrum

Watch your local red maples to see what they’re up to. The one in my backyard dropped its flowers a few days ago. This year it’s a male. 😉

p.s. For more on maple phenology, read Chuck Tague’s blog post: Maples In Spring: A Study in Diversity.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Mallard Moms Are On The Nest

Only two weeks ago the mallard flock at Duck Hollow was large and busy with males and females feeding in pairs. Back then the flock was usually 20+ birds but now it’s half that size and mostly male. The females are missing. They’re on the nest.

Female mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) nest on the ground laying one egg per day until the clutch is complete, about 10 eggs.

Though she doesn’t build the nest the mother mallard pulls nearby vegetation toward her body to line the nest bowl. When she begins incubation she plucks down from her breast to surround the eggs and cover them while she’s gone. The eggs hatch in 28 days.

Only the females incubate eggs while the males watch from afar. Except for a recess in early morning and late afternoon, female mallards are hidden all day — if they’ve chosen a good nest site.

In urban settings the ladies choose some creative places, as in the video above and this photo under a stairway in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mallard nesting under a stairway in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Three days before they hatch the mallard chicks call back and forth with their mother from inside the eggs. On hatch day all of them emerge within 6-10 hours. Next morning their mother leads them to water for their first swim. See all of this in Ian Oland’s video, above.

So don’t be surprised when you don’t see female mallards at Duck Hollow in early April. Right now the mother mallards are on the nest.

(video by Ian Oland on YouTube. photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Why Birds Get Here Last

Map of 1st 2019 ruby-throated hummingbird sightings as of 11 April 2019 from Journey North

This time of year can be frustrating for Pittsburgh birders. Migration is underway and the “good birds” are everywhere but here. Why do we keep missing them? Is there something wrong with us?

It’s not us. It’s where we live. Sometimes the “good birds” get here last.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are a case in point. Their arrival is tracked every year on the Journey North website (screenshot above) where we can see what we’re missing. In the very warm spring of 2012 they arrived in Ohio and Wisconsin by the end of March but weren’t in most of western Pennsylvania in early April. Hummingbirds surrounded us but they weren’t here yet.

On Throw Back Thursday, see the 2012 maps in this vintage article: Why Birds Get Here Last.

Watch the hummingbirds approach on Journey North’s 2019 first ruby-throated hummingbird map.

p.s. Our definition of a “good bird” is part of our problem. The “good” ones are uncommon so of course they get here last, if at all.

LATER THAT SAME DAY (Thursday April 11, 2019): As if to prove me wrong, birding was exceptionally good today with many new migrants that arrived overnight.

(screenshot of first 2019 ruby-throated hummingbird sightings as of 11 April 2019 from Journey North)