Dew On The Grass

Dew on the grass, early October (photo by Kate St. John)

Sunday morning, 21 Oct 2018:

In early October, warm days and cool clear nights are the perfect combination for dew on the grass.  One of these nights the temperature of the grass will drop below freezing and the dew will form as frost.

Have you had frost in your neighborhood yet? 

Tonight might be the night.

p.s. If the air is below freezing but not humid, the plants freeze without a frost

(photo by Kate St. John)

Winter Finches On Camera

On Tuesday I wrote about finches from Canada that will visit us this winter: common redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches and more.  Before they get here you might want some practice identifying them. The perfect place to do it is on the Ontario Feederwatch webcam.

This 7-minute video from October 16 shows purple finches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees and (a bird I didn’t mention yet) evening grosbeaks.

Ontario Feederwatch also has a very unusual “feeder” bird, the State Bird of Pennsylvania — a ruffed grouse — shown in this Tweet from @kerry_lapwing.

These feeders are located in Manitouwadge, Ontario, Canada, a small town 430 miles northeast of Duluth, Minnesota.  It’s already cold there with temperatures well below freezing every night (21o to 27o F or -6o to -3o C).

Tune in to Ontario FeederWatch for a preview of birds we hope to see in the northern U.S. this winter.

(Ontario Feederwatch YouTube video from Becky R, Twitter photo from Kelly Lapwing)

Stinky Fruit

Ginkgo tree with fruit, October in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s time to tiptoe on the sidewalk at Flagstaff Hill.  The female ginkgo trees are dropping their smelly fruit on Schenley Drive. 

Ginkgo fruit on the sidewalk at Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ginkgo fruit smells like stinky feet or vomit but the nuts inside are edible.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn about ginkgos in this 2011 article: Stinkbomb Tree.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Get Ready for Crows

Crows gathering at dusk, Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I heard them coming last Friday when 50 crows flew over my neighborhood late in the afternoon.  I heard them again Monday morning before dawn, flying over my house in the dark.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is building.  Right now the number is small but by Halloween we’ll see 1,000 of them at dusk near Pitt’s Alumni Hall. Even more of them in November.

Crows gathering on Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

By December expect 10,000 crows.  In March they’ll be gone.

Winter’s coming. Get ready for crows.

(photos by Kate St. John, November 2013)

The Finches Are Coming

Common redpoll, January 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Winter birding can be boring in Pittsburgh but not this year. The finches are coming!

According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, we’re going to see a lot of northern finches this winter because the “cone, alder and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast.”  These irruptive birds usually stay in Canada all year but move south, east and west in autumn when there’s not enough to eat.  Here are a few of the “treats” in store for us in western Pennsylvania.

Above, common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a goldfinch-sized birds with rosy chests, rosy caps, and black faces.  When they first arrive it takes them a while to notice bird feeders but when they do they cause a mob scene.  Look carefully in the flock for a very similar white-chested bird, the rare hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni).

Below, pine siskins (Spinus pinus) look like very stripey goldfinches with faint yellow wing and tail markings. Listen for their unique call like a zipper going up.

Pine siskin (photo by Shawn Collins)

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are northern visitors that resemble our familiar house finches but male purple finches are “purple” as if they were dipped head first in berry juice.  Even their flank stripes are rosy, not brown.  Here’s a guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch (photo by Brian Herman)

Two irruptive non-finch species have already arrived as indicators of good birds to come.

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are already here, searching for cones and seeds in local conifers. Listen for their tin horn calls.

Blue jays!   Yes, those crowds of blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are visiting from Canada.  They love acorns. 

Blue jay (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Learn what to expect in the 2018 Winter Finch Forecast. Fill your feeders and keep watch.

Don’t be disappointed if blue jays come to visit. They’re the harbinger of good things to come.

(photo credits: common redpoll and blue jay by Cris Hamilton, pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch by Shawn Collins, purple finch by Brian Herman)

House Sparrows Put On Their Winter Coats

House sparrow in British Columbia, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds that eat insects leave Pennsylvania for the winter but the omnivores, like this house sparrow, stay behind.  Food won’t be a problem but it’s going to get cold so the house sparrows get ready in advance.

A study by Lowther and Cink in 1992 found that house sparrows (Passer domesticus) prepare for winter by molting into heavier plumage. Plumage weight increased 70% between August and September alone.  Summer weight is 0.9 grams; winter weight is 1.5 grams.

In September the house sparrows put on their winter coats.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. 
This article was inspired by page 153 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, 3rd edition.) )

Fall Foliage: When?

Moraine State Park, 15 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Summer ended on Friday morning. Brrrr! Now that it’s cold, it’s time for colorful fall foliage, right?

Some reports say western Pennsylvania won’t have pretty leaves this fall, others say we will.  One thing is certain, though. The leaves stayed green longer than usual.

Twenty years ago our fall foliage reached its peak around October 15 but today — only one day before the 15th — the leaves have only begun to change.  We had the same situation last year as shown in my photo taken at Moraine State Park on 15 October 2017.

Delayed timing makes it hard to know when fall color will reach its peak but the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry (DCNR) is here to help.  Check out their Fall Foliage Guide complete with an interactive map and weekly reports.  The October 11-17, 2018 forecast map is shown below (yellow means “approaching best color”). Click here or on the caption to see the full report.

screenshot of Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, Oct 11-17 2018, by PA DCNR

Don’t worry if you haven’t gone “leaf peeping” yet in western Pennsylvania.  You still have time to see fall colors this month.

(photo by Kate St. John, Screenshot from the Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, October 11-18, 2018, PA DCNR; click on the caption to see the original)

Hanging Out in Schenley Park

Praying mantis in the meadow at Beacon Street (photo by Steve Tirone)

Last Sunday, October 7, it felt like summer when Steve Tirone and I went looking for Armillaria in Schenley Park.  We didn’t find any honey mushrooms but Steve found an amazing insect along the Beacon-Bartlett meadow trail.

This praying mantis (possibly Tenodera sinensis) was not alone. When we paused to take photographs, we saw another mantis perched nearby and a third one flew away from us.  Gigantic flying bug!

Fall is mating time for praying mantises. The adults will die but their egg masses will survive the winter.  Here’s what the egg sac looks like. Don’t take one home until you’ve read these Praying Mantis Egg Sac instructions. They will hatch in your house!

Praying Mantis egg mass (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last weekend was a busy time for praying mantises, hanging out in Schenley Park.

(photo by Steve Tirone)

High Turnover in Virginia

Female peregrine, Hope, in flight at the Cathedral of Learning, 27 May 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

The Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Virginia closely monitors Virginia’s peregrine falcons — so closely, in fact, that they identify individual nesting birds.  CCB may not know the origin of every adult peregrine (some arrive unbanded) but their goal is to know who’s who at every site.

Now that the 2018 nesting season is over, CCB analyzed their identification data and discovered an anomaly in Virginia.  Not only did they see the highest turnover rate of any year to date, but three times as many female peregrines were replaced as males.

As Dr. Bryan Watts reports,

Only 10.5% of males were lost compared to 35.0% of females. … [This] ongoing trend is opposite of the pattern of survival documented within the peregrine population breeding within the Midwest.

Female Peregrines Under Pressure, Center for Conservation Biology newsletter, 2 Oct 2018

The female peregrine pictured above, Hope (black/green 69/Z), hatched at Hopewell, Virginia in 2008. She now nests at the Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, far away from her Virginia birthplace. She chose a territory where female survival is higher than where she was born.

Read more about Virginia’s peregrine turnover rate in this CCB article, Female Peregrines Under Pressure.

(photo of Hope at the Cathedral of Learning, 27 May 2016, by Peter Bell)