More Deer, More Ticks, More Lyme

Deer in Schenley Park, Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2023

Black-legged tick season is here again and with it comes the threat of Lyme disease. We now find ticks in neighborhoods where they never used to be and white-tailed deer are the reason why. More abundant deer mean more ticks. More abundant ticks mean more Lyme disease. Though deer themselves don’t spread Lyme disease they have an effect on its abundance. Let’s examine the Deer, Ticks, Lyme connection.

Lyme disease is a debilitating illness caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that’s transmitted by the bite of a black-legged tick. 

Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus) have a two year life cycle as egg, larva, nymph and adult. At each stage the tick must drink a blood meal to transition to the next one — from larva to nymph, from nymph to adult, and from adult female to produce eggs. (Note: Ticks eggs do not carry the Lyme bacteria.)

Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)

White-footed mice are the main reservoir of the Lyme bacteria. Larval ticks are so tiny that their blood hosts are small animals and birds, including white-footed mice. Nymphs and adults are large enough that they can also feed on humans and deer.

Black-legged tick life cycle (diagram from CDC enhanced with life form names)

When a tick bites a host and sucks its blood it takes up the host’s blood and transfers some of its own body fluids into the host. If the host is infected with the bacteria, it infects the tick. If the tick is infected, it infects the host.

Deer cannot transmit Lyme to ticks because they’re never infected by it (lucky them!). Deer are not to blame for spreading Lyme. However deer are key to the black-legged ticks’ reproductive success.

Deer are the adult ticks’ preferred host and their long distance transport system. Deer bodies are the place where adult ticks meet and mate in the fall. After mating the male dies but the female lives on. She sips a last blood meal, then drops off to the ground and hides in leaf litter while her body develops eggs over the winter.

Adult ticks meet in the fall during the rut while deer are moving around a lot. Bucks average 3-6 miles per day but may travel as much as 10-20 miles in search of does. Does may travel to meet or evade them.

Deer in western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

Meanwhile ticks are along for the ride. When a pregnant female tick drops off after her last blood meal she may be 3 to 20 miles from where she started and she’s carrying 1,000 to 3,000 eggs that she’ll lay in the spring.

In places of overabundant deer, such as here in Pennsylvania, we find an abundance of ticks moving into areas they’ve never been seen before. Pennsylvania also has the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S.

So deer are not the reservoir for the Lyme disease bacteria but in places with deer overpopulation there is also an overabundance of black-legged ticks.

More abundant deer mean more ticks. More abundant ticks mean more Lyme disease.

Deer cross the road in Schenley Park, July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information check out these resources:

p.s. There’s also a flu-like disease, called babesiosis, that’s carried by black-legged ticks and is now gaining momentum. Uh oh!

Watching Sunrise on the Equinox

19 March 2023

Tomorrow the Spring Equinox will occur at 5:24pm EDT. Some will mark the day by visiting a celestial calendar, a structure where sunrise lines up with particular stones. At Angor Wat, below, the sun rises behind the middle tower.

Equinox sunrise over top of the middle tower of Angkor Temple, Angor Wat, Cambodia, March 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.S. there’s a granite celestial calendar behind the Len Foote Hike Inn at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. Pictured at top, the Star Base includes a granite keyhole, a shelter (cave) and Adirondack chairs for viewing.

Tonight the Hike Inn is probably full to capacity with all 20 bunkrooms in use. Tomorrow everyone will be up and out before dawn to watch the sun rise.

The Hike Inn as seen from Star Base, March 2009 (photo by Kelly Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Newcomers usually visit the Star Base beforehand so they know what to expect.

Nashville Hiking Meetup members visit the Star Base, 2009 (photo by Kelly Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The next morning they watch from the cave.

Waiting for Spring Equinox sunrise, 2009 (photo by Kelly Stewart via Flickr Creative Common license)

The most famous aspect of the Hike Inn is not the Star Base but the fact that you have to hike 5 miles to get to it. No vehicle access. Check-in at the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitors Center, park your car at the trailhead and start your hike. The Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain is (relatively) nearby.

Trail sign for the Hike Inn (photo by Kelly Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Upon arrival put your phone in airplane mode. The Hike Inn is intentionally unplugged, though they do have electricity (mostly solar). No TV, no radio, no phone … just enjoy the quiet time.

Arriving at the Hike Inn, 2009 (photo by Kelly Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Because the equinox is late in the day on 20 March there may be two sunrises, March 20 & 21, that come close to perfect.

Sunrise at the Equinox 20 March 2004 from the Hike Inn, Georgia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more information about lodging, check out the Hike Inn website.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Kelly Stewart on Flickr via Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Un-natural Observations

Dippy wearing a St. Patrick’s Day scarf at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 15 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 March 2023

Every Saturday I review my photos and pick a few nature observations to highlight but today, weirdly, I only have pictures of man-made objects. The lack of nature observations stumped me for several hours while I struggled to come up a good topic. Finally I gave up. Here’s what I saw.

Dippy, the statue of Diplodocus carnegii in front of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, wears a special scarf for St. Patrick’s Day. He doesn’t actually mind the cold.

My husband and I see this water tower from our apartment but I had not seen it up close so I took a long walk *uphill* to visit what he and I affectionately call “The Doorknob.”

The Doorknob on the Hill at Robert E Williams Memorial Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Were there ghosts at Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts building on 9 March? What else could explain this Ghost Busters car in the parking lot at the maintenance entrance?

Next week I’ll make a big effort to snap photos of plants.

Duck Hollow Outing, March 26, 8:30a

Male mallard (photo by Steve Gosser)

17 March 2023

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Spring is coming in fits and starts, here one day and not the next. By late March we’ll have mild weather. Let’s get outdoors!

Join me on my first bird and nature outing of 2023 at Duck Hollow and Lower Frick Park on Sunday, March 26, 2023 — 8:30am to 10:00am.

Meet at Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road.

We’ll check the river for ducks and walk nearby trails to see a red-tailed hawks’ nest. Migrating ducks will have left by then but I hope for killdeer, kingfishers, and cardinals.

We’ll also see new flowers and leaves. Will we find a four-leaf clover?

A child finds a four-leaf clover (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars, field guides and a scope for river-watching if you have them.

Check the Events Page before you come in case of bad weather.

Hope to see you there!

(duck photo by Steve Gosser; remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Honeybee News

Four bees fly near the hives on The Porch restaurant roof, 15 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 March 2023

While Pittsburgh experienced a “Too Early Spring” for plants, 7 Feb to 7 March, it was also a weird time for honeybees. Thirteen days of temperatures above 54ºF(*) with blooming trees and flowers prompted honeybees to begin foraging. I often found them at the cherry blossoms but couldn’t catch one in a photograph.

Flowering cherry, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week the average temperature stayed near freezing for four days in a row so I was surprised to see a few bees emerging from the hive pictured at top when it was only 45ºF. In fact I was surprised to see the hive at all on the roof of The Porch restaurant at Schenley Plaza. It’s probably warmer up there.

The Porch at Schenley Plaza with beehives on the roof, 15 March 2023 (photo by Katr St. John)

Crazy spring weather, hot then sudden cold, can sap honeybee strength and make them susceptible to disease. To make matters worse freezing weather kills the flowers (food supply) so beekeepers provide supplemental feeding to help their bees over the rough spots.

Now there’s happy news about a bee vaccine, provided through supplemental feeding, that can innoculate honeybees from one of the worst diseases: American foulbrood (AFB).

Foulbrood is caused by a spore-forming bacteria, Paenibacillus larvae, that kills honeybee larvae without harming the adults. As the larvae die off, AFB weakens the colony and can quickly lead to its death in only three weeks. The bacteria is so hard to eradicate that infected hives must be burned.

Developed by biotech company Dalan Animal Health,

The vaccine, which contains a dead cell of the virus, is administered to the bees through the queen feed that worker bees consume. The worker bees then transfer the vaccine into the royal jelly and feed it to the queen. As a result, the vaccine gets deposited into her ovaries, giving larvae immunity when they hatch.

CBS News: USDA approves vaccine for honeybees

Read more about the foulbrood vaccine here at CBS News and the press release on Business Wire.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s.(*) I say 54ºF because, according to the University of Maine Extension, “The minimum temperature for honeybee flight is 54º F.  The optimum temperature for flight activity is 72-77º F.”

Preparing To Set Up His Harem

Male red-winged blackbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 March 2023

The guys are back in town! Male red-winged blackbirds returned to western Pennsylvania early this month to get a jump on the breeding season. Males arrive 2-4 weeks before the females in order to shake down who owns what territory before the ladies get here.

Male red-winged blackbird claiming territory (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The best territories are in the middle of a marsh and claiming a good one is extremely important. When the females arrive they chose a mate based in part on the quality of his territory. If the male and his territory are exceptional, up to 15 females join his harem.

Female red-winged blackbird with nesting material (photo fro Wikimedia Commons)

According to Birds of the World, experiments have shown that females prefer a harem on good territory to being the lone mate of a male on poor territory. Female red-winged blackbirds would rather be one of many wives than alone with one male in a lousy home. With that in mind the males are getting ready to set up their harems.

Watch for the arrival of female red-winged blackbirds in late March or early April. You’ll hear the boisterous clamor of males when they see the flocks of females.

This 3-minute video shows red-winged blackbird behavior in the spring.

video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube; click on the captions to see the originals)

Rare Insect Record At The Walmart

Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing, Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 (collected and photographed by Michael Skvarla / Penn State. Creative Commons)

One night in 2012 while he was an entomology grad student at University of Arkansas, Michael Skvarla went to Walmart to buy milk. On his way into the store he saw a large unusual insect clinging to the building so he carefully picked it off the exterior and carried it with him to add to his insect collection.

One of the Walmart Supercenters in Fayetteville, AR (photo from 2018 via Google Maps)

Back then he misidentified the bug as an “antlion” and forgot about it while he finished his PhD and joined the faculty at Penn State.

Then in 2020 the COVID shutdown forced Penn State classes online so Skvarla pulled specimens from his own insect collection to teach Entomology 432 lab on Zoom. As he showed this bug to the class and described its characteristics Skvarla paused because it didn’t match its label. The class analyzed the bug and made a rare discovery.

“We all realized together that the insect was not what it was labeled and was in fact a super-rare giant lacewing. I still remember the feeling. It was so gratifying to know that the excitement doesn’t dim, the wonder isn’t lost. Here we were making a true discovery in the middle of an online lab course,” said Codey Mathis, a doctoral candidate in entomology at Penn State.

Penn State Research News: Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, prompts mystery

This bug is quite rare. According to Penn State Research News, giant lacewings (Polystoechotes punctata) have been missing from eastern North America for over 50 years and were never before found in Arkansas. Its discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered.

Where did the giant lacewing come from? Are there more out there? Those answers await more field research.

Meanwhile Skvarla and colleagues performed DNA tests to verify its identity and published in Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.

Read more about the discovery at Penn State Research News: Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, prompts mystery.

Moral of the Story: Don’t worry if you cautiously misidentify something. Just hang onto that photo or specimen and reevaluate it later. Perhaps you’ll discover a rarity.

(photo credits in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals)

Report “Tame” Ruffed Grouse for This Study

“Tame” ruffed grouse at Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

13 March 2023

In November 2020 the ruffed grouse pictured above caused a sensation among birders by coming very close to us at Moraine State Park. He even chased my car!

The “tame” ruffed grouse looks at me, Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John taken on my cellphone)

“Tame” ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) are not common in Pennsylvania but where they occur they are quite noticeable. They aren’t afraid of humans and they sometimes act aggressively. Why do they do this?

This spring the PA Game Commission, in cooperation with Penn State, is conducting a ruffed grouse genetics study to find out. They are asking the public’s help to locate “tame” grouse for the study.

The Game Commission is encouraging Pennsylvanians to report the location of any “tame” grouse they see this spring by sending an email to That email should include the person’s name and phone number, date of the sighting, location of the encounter and a description of the grouse’s behavior. Ideally, those sending in a report should also include GPS coordinates for the encounter site.

PGC Press Release: Public asked to report “tame” Grouse Sightings

According to the press release, “The study aims to determine whether the Commonwealth’s grouse population shows signs of splitting up into distinct subpopulations and if “tame” behavior is linked to genetics.”

If you know of a tame grouse in PA please report it.

Meanwhile here’s a video that shows the “tame” grouse behavior.

(photos by Dave Brooke and Kate St. John, video from PA Game Commission on YouTube)

In Ecuador, A Tale of Two Flowers

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 March 2023

While on the trail in Ecuador at Yanacocha Reserve on 31 Jan 2023, this beautiful native flower attracted my attention. Nasa grandiflora, is a member of the Loasaceae family and endemic to the mountains of Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia.

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

I could not resist looking inside the flower bell so I tipped it up and took two photos, one focused at the opening, the other focused deep inside.

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Most people don’t touch this plant but I didn’t notice its black spines, including on the sepals (see photo below) that act like stinging nettle when you touch them. It’s a good thing it was so cold that I was wearing gloves.

The second flower that caught my attention was along the back roads in the Mindo area and was hard to miss. Its vines draped over everything at the sunlit openings.

Black-eyed susan vine (Thunbergia alata) is native to eastern Africa but is grown in gardens in many countries. In tropical areas it has become invasive including in Ecuador and Florida.

Black-eyed susan vine, Thunbergia alata. Seen every day in Ecuador (photo by Kate St. John)

Once this vine takes hold it is difficult to eradicate because it grows fast above ground and spreads rapidly via rhizomes. It was sad to see the Ecuadoran equivalent of porcelain berry or kudzu.

Vigorous growth of Thunbergia alata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gardeners don’t realize what they’ve wrought until it’s too late. Here are some examples from the invasives section of

Invasive Thunbergia alta (photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental,
Invasive Thunbergia alta (photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental,

The two flowers have different survival strategies: The native flower has a spiny defense. The alien overcomes the competition.

(photos by Kate St. John and from, click on bugwood captions to see the originals)

Spring On Pause + Spring Forward

Crocus in Shadyside garden, Pittsburgh, 9 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 March 2023

After a very warm February, with some days reaching 20° to 26°F above normal, the weather returned to expected March temperatures this week and our Too Early Spring hit the Pause Button.

The city’s Urban Heat Island still prompted non-native ornamental plants to bloom including crocuses above and forsythia below.

Forsythia in bloom, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Garlic mustard came up in Schenley Park.

Garlic mustard, 5 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Native trees, like this sycamore in Schenley Park, paused to wait for warmer weather while non-native willows turned yellow — willows at bottom right, perhaps Salix babylonica.

A shadow of the Panther Hollow Bridge bisects this view of a sycamore in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

But there are better things to look at. Last Sunday the Botanical Society visited the Otto and Magdelen Ackerman Reserve in Westmoreland County where we found yellow corydalis (Corydalis flavula) poking up among the fallen leaves. No flowers yet.

Leaves of yellow corydalis, Ackerman Reserve, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Plus two impressive fungi on fallen trees.

Armallaria formerly hidden under bark, Ackerman Reserve, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Are these turkey tails? Ackerman Reserve, 4 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

By the way, don’t forget that Daylight Saving Time begins tonight in most of the U.S. It’s time to Spring Forward.

(photos by Kate St. John, .gif from Wikimedia Commons)