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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blue-eyed Mary, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pink flowers on blue-eyed Mary, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Rue-anemone, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Solomon's seal not yet open, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Common blue violet, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Squirrel corn, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wake-robin trillium, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wild blue phlox, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow corydalis, 11 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wild ginger flower below the leaves, 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:
Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna) covers the hillsides at Braddock’s Trail Park. From a distance it looks white. Up close it looks blue.
A few blue-eyed Mary plants produce pink flowers.
Rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) is a delicate plant that blows easily in the wind. A strong breeze deformed the flower as I captured this image.
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.
Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.
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.
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.
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.
Eastern redbud flowers (Cercis canadensis) had not opened in Schenley as of 7 April, but they showed promise.
Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) was blooming at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Easter Day.
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?)
Spring green will continue in the coming weeks as tiny leaves pop open and more trees bloom.
About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …
Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.
Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.
Pennsylvania is a hot spot for Lyme disease, a debilitating illness caused by a parasite transmitted by black-legged ticks. Many of us are spending more time outdoors than usual because COVID-19 has made indoor gatherings unsafe. If you’ve taken up gardening, hiking, birding, etc., you’ll want to spray your outdoor clothes with permethrin to repel black-legged ticks.
Black-legged ticks lurk in Japanese barberry, leaf litter, bush honeysuckle, weeds and tall grass, especially in moist environments. When you work with leaf litter in the garden, or brush past weeds nodding over the trail, or step off the path to let someone pass, a black-legged tick may latch on for a ride. If it sucks your blood for 24 hours you could get Lyme disease.
To avoid fumes and protect kids and pets, spray your clothes outdoors on a windless day. I sprayed mine last month so I’m good to go. If you haven’t done so yet, consider this your annual reminder. Learn more at Today Is Spray Your Clothes Day.
At the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest Morela and Ecco have been incubating four eggs all night, all day, and in all kinds of weather since 23-24 March. Incubation is boring except for the weather events.
Recurring heavy snow showers moved through in Pittsburgh on April Fools’ Day (1 April). Morela kept dry under the nestbox roof until the wind blew the snow at her.
Here’s her reaction to an intense snow shower. Was she scowling?
Yesterday, 4 April, it was so hot that Morela was able to expose the eggs for five minutes while she panted and sunbathed.
Morela incubates all night. Ecco helps out by arriving every morning before dawn. On 31 March he had a message for her. Was he telling her where he stored her breakfast? Was he saying “No need to hurry back” ? Who knows.
Every day is the same. There’s always a bird on the nest. The pair switches off several times a day.