Schenley Park Outing on April 25, 8:30a

Can you see the wood thrush? Schenley Park, 24 April 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)

19 April 2021

This year I’m resuming my outings in local parks after a hiatus for the pandemic in 2020. It’s not that COVID-19 has disappeared. In fact its resurging now in Allegheny County and the eastern U.S. However we’ve learned that we are relatively safe outdoors.

Join me for a walk at the west end of Schenley Park on Sunday, 25 April 2021 — 8:30am to 10:00am.

Meet at Anderson Playground because Schenley Drive will be closed for CMU Buggy Races until 9am. See map below!

I hope to see northern rough-winged swallows, gray catbirds and yellow-rumped warblers, maybe even the local ravens. Will the wood thrush who arrived last year before 24 April (photo above) be back in time for our outing? I hope so!

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them. Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth. The outing will follow these COVID-19 safety rules:

  • Everyone on the outing must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
  • We will social distance 6 feet as much as possible.
  • If the number of participants makes social distancing difficult I will divide the group into pods of six and ask for volunteer(s) to lead the other group(s).

Visit my Events page before you come in case of changes or cancellations.

A NOTE ABOUT ROAD CLOSURES! I have marked this map with the (approximate) Schenley Drive closures for the CMU Buggy Races on 25 April 5am-9am. We will meet at 40.435948, -79.947456.

Map of meeting place and anticipated Schenley Drive road closures for 25 April 2021 (markup from Google maps image)

(wood thrush photo by Donna Foyle)

Wrangling Honey Bees

Honeybee swarm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 April 2021

In late spring you may find a swarm of insects gathered in a tight cluster on a structure or tree. No matter what they are, stand back and leave them alone. Safely try to identify them.

If they’re wasps they’re dangerous. If they’re spotted lanternflies you have a problem. If they’re honey bees (Apis mellifera) they’re good news and relatively docile. Here’s what they’re up to.

Swarming is a honey bee colony’s natural means of reproduction. In the process of swarming, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies.

Swarms settle 20–30 m (65-100 ft) away from the natal nest for a few days and will then depart for a new nest site after getting information from scout bees. Scout bees search for suitable cavities in which to construct the swarm’s home. Successful scouts will then come back and report the location of suitable nesting sites to the other bees.

Wikipedia: Swarming (honey bee)

Honey bees are valuable pollinators and should not be killed. Beekeepers want the bees.

Most beekeepers will remove a honeybee swarm for a small fee or maybe even free if they are nearby.  Bee swarms can almost always be collected alive and relocated by a competent beekeeper or bee removal company. Extermination of a bee swarm is rarely necessary and discouraged if bee removal is possible.

Wikipedia: Swarming (honey bee)

Swarming season keeps beekeepers very busy!

Beekeeper collecting a swarm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They usually suit up and remove the bees without a lot of fanfare as in this video by Donald Porta who removed the bees in 27 seconds (after he got set up).

There are also flamboyant bee wranglers such as Yappy Beeman who don’t wear protective clothing. YappyBeeman, below, competes on YouTube with JPtheBeeman, DirtRooster and Mr. Ed.

p.s. If you have questions about honey bees contact local beekeepers for assistance. See the list of Pennsylvania State Beekeepers. Check Burgh Bees in the Pittsburgh area.

Not sure what bug you’re looking at? Here’s a helpful guide from the Connecticut Beekeepers Association: Honey Bee Hive vs. Wasp Nest: How to Identify the Difference.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Between The Showers

Raindrops on a trout lily, closed flower, Jennings, 12 April 2021

17 April 2021

Though it didn’t rain a lot this week April showers and chilly weather put a damper on outdoor plans.

On Monday 12 April we dodged the raindrops at Jennings to find ruby-crowned kinglets, field sparrows and a palm warbler. Rain beaded up on the trout lily leaves and rolled right off the dog violets. We got wet at the end of our walk. It poured on my way home.

Dog violets, Jennings, 12 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park …

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) was in full bloom by Tuesday 13 April.

Redbud in bloom, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) flower was fading by Thursday 15 April. Native to China and Korea, jetbead was planted as an ornamental but became invasive in eastern North America.

Fading flower on jetbead, Schenley, 15 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Squawroot (Conopholis americana), a native parasitic plant, is now emerging at the base of oaks and beeches. Alternative names include American cancer-root, bumeh or bear corn.

Squawroot emerging from the soil, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

As the leaves come out so do the insects. Even though these hackberry leaves are not fully open yet, tiny winged insects are crawling in the crevices. When the warblers arrive they will eat the bugs. This tree can hardly wait!

Insects in new hackberry leaves, Schenley, 13 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

After Friday’s chilly drizzle I hope for warm dry weather soon.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Red-Winged Black Bird in South Africa?

Long-tailed widowbird, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 April 2021

There’s a black bird with red wings in South Africa that resembles North America’s red-winged blackbird except for his outrageously long tail.

The long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne) is not related to red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The widowbird is a weaver (Ploceidae), red-wings are New World blackbirds (Icteridae), yet male and female widowbirds have very similar coloring to male and female red-wings. The similarity ends when you see his tail.

Long-tailed widowbird, male and female, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.

Long-tailed widowbird in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the video he briefly lands near a female on the ground.

Female long-tailed widowbirds don’t have long tails but they must exert a lot of selective pressure for the longest tailed males.

That tail doesn’t look like a safe accessory. I’m sure some females are widowed during the breeding season. 😉

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch For Hatching Late Next Week

Ecco incubating four eggs at the Cathedral of Learning, 13 April 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

15 April 2021

Incubation began three and a half weeks ago at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest. During the day Morela and Ecco take turns every one to six hours.

Ecco arrives to incubate before nightfall (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Because peregrines delay incubation until the clutch is almost complete, nearly all the eggs will hatch on the same day. We humans predict Hatch Day will be between 20 to 26 April. My calculation is on the late end of that spectrum (here).

The peregrines know when Hatch Day is coming because they can hear the chicks inside the eggs. As hatching approaches, Ecco will spend less time on the eggs and Morela will take over.

Our first visual indication will be a pip, shown here in 2013. The chick will emerge in about 72 hours.

How can you tell if an egg has hatched while Morela is completely covering the eggs? Look for a discarded half eggshell away from the scrape, shown here in 2013.

Watch for Hatch Day late next week on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Why Do They Wag Their Tails?

Two tail bobbers: Spotted sandpiper, Louisiana waterthrush (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

14 April 2021

One of the joys of early spring is finding the first Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) of the year as it forages along a stream and sings its loud distinctive song. The bird is so loud that we hear him first then look for movement along the water’s edge. He stands out because he constantly bobs his tail. In fact he bobs the entire back end of his body!

Just half a minute of this video illustrates what I mean.

A few weeks later the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius) arrives to walk the water’s edge bobbing the entire back end of his body, too.

Same habitat, same movement. Is there some advantage in drawing attention to one’s back end? Why do these birds wag their tails? I found a partial answer at All About Birds:

… waterthrushes don’t actually wag the tail, they dip (or teeter) the entire rear of the body by moving their ankle joints. This motion is very much like the bobbing of Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, which share their wetland habitats. It’s been suggested that this habit might either help them avoid scaring off their prey or possibly startle their prey into motion.

All About Birds, overview of Louisiana Waterthrush

There’s plenty of time to watch them teeter in the weeks ahead. My first Louisiana waterthrush of 2021 was at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County on 30 March. I expect the first spotted sandpiper next week.

Bonus! Here’s a closeup of a Louisiana waterthrush singing:

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

p.s. Others birds pump their tails including eastern phoebes, palm warblers, hermit thrushes, wagtails and pipits. It is not quite the same motion.

These Busy Bees Aren’t Bumbles

Carpenter bee on redbud (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 April 2021

On sunny April days you may see a big bee hovering in the open, chasing other bees, or patrolling near a wooden structure. It looks like a shiny black bumblebee, but it’s not.

Carpenter bee hovering (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica), like bumblebees, are solitary and docile. They don’t build hives and rarely sting. In April and May carpenter males compete for mates and the females look for wood where each will drill a gallery and lay her eggs.

You can tell the difference by sight. Carpenter bees (left) have black abdomens that shine in sunlight. Bumblebees (right) have fuzzy black or yellow abdomens that don’t reflect light.

Carpenter bee vs bumblebee (photos by Chuck Tague)
Carpenter bee (left) versus bumblebee (right), both in Pennsylvania (photos by Chuck Tague)

Here’s what a female sounds like as she examines a wooden railing. She is so docile that the person can get quite close to film her.

The female is looking for bare or distressed wood — not painted or treated — where she will drill a hole as described in this video. She doesn’t eat the wood. She just drills it.

Carpenter bees put fallen logs to use. Here they are in their natural setting. I have never seen this many bees near a human structure.

So … paint your house and carpenter bees will leave it alone. Meanwhile if you see carpenter bee holes in unpainted wood, this video from Clemson University tells you what to do: Carpenter Bees — Millie Davenport, Clemson University.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague)

Sunday Flowers

  • Blue-eyed Mary, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 April 2021

As soon as the trees leaf out the ground will be shady in Pennsylvania’s woodlands so our spring wildflowers are timed to bloom in April. I went to see them on Sunday at Braddock’s Trail Park in Westmoreland County, a place famous for blue-eyed Mary.

The captions identify each flower in the slideshow. Here’s a little more information:

If you live in Pittsburgh Braddock’s Trail Park is worth a visit for April wildflowers. More are coming soon. As of Sunday the trillium hadn’t bloomed yet.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blue Jays Building Nests

Blue jay gathering nesting material (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2021

As loud as blue jays are all year they are very secretive when they nest, so sneaky that it’s hard to find a nest unless you see them build it.

Last week I was lucky to see four pairs of blue jays working on nests in Schenley Park. Both participate in the project though the male does more gathering while the female does more shaping.

Each phase of nest construction uses different materials. You can assess a pair’s progress by noting what they gather.

  • The outer shell is made of strong fresh twigs which they yank from live trees.
  • The middle may include bark, moss, lichen, dry leaves, grasses, mud, bits of paper, cloth, string or plastic.
  • The cup lining is made of tough rootlets and sometimes wet, partially decomposed leaves.

I found a pair in Schenley Park working on the outer shell when I noticed a blue jay vigorously pulling on a long twig until it broke from the tree. He flew up to a crotch in a nearby tree where his lady was waiting to add it to the foundation.

Two blue jays jousted over this valuable mud puddle. One held a muddy clump in his beak while he chased the other away. The second jay persisted.

Valuable nesting material in a puddle, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.

Blue jays gather rootlets like these to line their nests (photo by Kate St. John)

Blue jays will travel 1,000 feet to gather nest material and even more for good rootlets, so I wasn’t surprised when I lost track of them when they flew away.

Learn more about blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) nesting in this 11 minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Then watch closely as they gather nesting material. Perhaps you’ll find the nest.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Spring Green

Spring green among the trees, Frick Park, 8 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 April 2021

This week Pittsburgh’s sugar maples are clothed in spring green flowers while the oaks remain bare. Most trees bloom long before leaf out so their leaves won’t block the pollinators. These flowers take full advantage of the wind.

Sugar maple flowers, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did your allergies kick in this week? The trees are throwing off lots of pollen with little rain to lay the dust.

Insect-pollinated flowers will follow soon. On 3 April pawpaw flowers (Asimina triloba) were still tiny buds in Schenley Park but by the time they bloom the stems will be long and flexible. The dark maroon fetid-smelling flowers will hang like bells to attract flies and beetles. Click here to see a pawpaw flower.

Pawpaw flower bud, Schenley Park, 3 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eastern redbud flowers (Cercis canadensis) had not opened in Schenley as of 7 April, but they showed promise.

Redbuds, Schenley Park, 7 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) was blooming at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Easter Day.

Spring cress, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were open in Schenley Park on 9 April.

Virginia bluebells, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This winter I noticed that when moss grows up the base of saplings it looks like leggings on the trees. At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve I found an entire group of saplings wearing mossy leggings. Click here to see the whole group. (Anyone know what this mossy phenomenon is?)

Mossy “leggings” on saplings, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring green will continue in the coming weeks as tiny leaves pop open and more trees bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)