Spray Your Clothes, Field Check For Ticks

It’s Spray Your Clothes Day (photo by Kate St. John)

27 March 2023

The worst part of Lyme disease season has just begun so let’s learn how to avoid it.

From spring through early summer the tiny nymphs of black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) quest for blood meals from animals and humans. Only the size of poppy seeds, the nymphs are really hard to see. If an infected tick bites you, it will give you Lyme disease bacteria.

Nymphs are only the size of a poppy seed! (image from Wikimedia Commons)

To prevent the debilitating disease, don’t let ticks get on your skin.

  1. Choose outdoor clothing that prevents ticks from reaching your skin:
    • Light colored clothes: So you can see ticks easily.
    • Long pants.
    • Long sleeved shirt with collar + tuck in your shirt: Collar traps ticks before they walk up your neck.
    • Socks: When you bushwhack or garden, tuck pant bottoms into socks.
  2. Once a year (i.e. now!) Spray your outdoor clothing with Permethrin. I know from personal experience and the experts agree that Permethrin works much better than DEET. Spray protection lasts 4-6 washings. Pre-treated clothes can last 70 washings.
  3. Avoid brushing against vegetation. Avoid bushwhacking. Bush honeysuckle and Japanese barberry are tick magnets.
  4. If vegetation brushes you, field check your clothing for ticks when you reach a clearing. The sooner you get ticks off your clothes the better.
  5. Do a daily tick check.  Yes, daily!  You might have missed one yesterday that’s still on you. Check these spots.
How to do a tick check (image from PA Dept of Health & CDC.gov)

If you find a tick remove it correctly (here’s how) and save it for testing.  Send it here and they’ll tell you if it carries Lyme disease.

Black-legged ticks are active year round when the temperature is above freezing. If you wear protective clothing — yes, even in hot summer — you’ll save yourself a world of trouble. See more tips here.

p.s. There are lots of ways to outsmart ticks. Did you know zip pants trap ticks under the zip placket?

p.p.s. As Mary Jo Berman points out in the comments, I should have added this last tip on how to kill ticks on your clothing. After you come indoors, put your outdoor clothes in the dryer on high for 10 minutes BEFORE you wash them. Really. It kills ticks.

After hiking/gardening, dry your outdoor clothes for 10 mins in a hot dryer (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John.  tick chart from the Center for Disease Control via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the chart to see the original)

Today at Duck Hollow

Participants gather round for a group photo, 26 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 March 2023

This morning it was brilliantly sunny and becoming warmer as 15 of us walked at Duck Hollow.

Because of recent rain, especially in West Virginia, the river was running high though not quite as high as I found it during yesterday’s gloomy, rainy, windy weather (below).

The Monongahela River was running high on 25 March 2023. The tangle is al that’s left of the mudflats (photo by Kate St. John)

High water cut down on the number of waterfowl so we were happy to find a common merganser and pied-billed grebe. Best Mammal was a muskrat swimming up Nine Mile Run.

Today’s checklist is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S131891621 and below.

Duck Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Mar 26, 2023 8:30 AM – 10:00 AM
Protocol: Traveling, 1.4 mile(s)
Checklist Comments: Also 1 muskrat, 1 rabbit, 1 squirrel
23 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 2
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 6
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) 1 Female
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) 1
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) 2
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) 1
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 5
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) 1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 4 One pair courting. One pair with occupied nest under the bridge.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 1
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 2
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 4
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 3
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 4
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) 1
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 30
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 8
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 6
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 6
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 2
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 10

My next outing will be in Schenley Park on Sunday 30 April at 8:30am. Stay tuned.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Morela Returns!

Morela returns to court with Ecco, 25 March 2023, 6:11pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

26 March 2023

Four days ago I wondered if a female peregrine was challenging Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest because I hadn’t seen her on camera since Tuesday afternoon, 21 March. Yesterday morning Ecco was still present and calling to a female off camera. Was she Morela? Or had the challenger won?

The answer came yesterday around 6:15pm. After Ecco spent five minutes calling and bowing to an unseen female she appeared on camera. Morela is back!

This video shows only a small portion of time it took Ecco to entice her to the nest.

video clips of Ecco and Morela at the nest, 25 March 2023, 6:11pm

After he left she was so confident that the challenger was gone that she snoozed at the nest for an hour.

Stay tuned to the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning to see what happens next.

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

The Drama Continues Off Camera

Ecco watches something in the sky (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

25 March 2023

UPDATE as of Saturday 25 March 2023, 7:15 PM: MORELA IS AT THE NEST!

Morela is back at the nest, 25 March 2023, 7:12pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

News as of Saturday 25 March 2023, 8:00am:

On Wednesday morning, 22 March, I began to wonder if a female peregrine was challenging Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest. Morela hasn’t been seen on the falconcam since Tues 21 March at 3:32pm and two days have passed since I last saw her perched on campus (Wed 22 March at 4:14pm). Meanwhile Ecco waits and watches at the Cathedral of Learning.

Though none of us have seen any female peregrine for two days Ecco sometimes sees one in the sky — or maybe more than one. Yesterday afternoon he called to her from the nest. Whoever she was, she didn’t come in. Only Ecco knows whether she was Morela or the challenger.

Eventually a female will join Ecco at the nest so watch carefully at that point. Is she Morela? Or someone new?

Will there be eggs and chicks this year? No one can tell. Like Ecco, all we can do is watch and wait.

The drama continues off camera for now.

Stay tuned at the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

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

Hatch Watch Begins at Hays Eagle Nest

Bald eagle on the Hays nest, 23 March 2023 (screenshot from Pittsburgh Hays Bald Eagle Camera at ASWP.org)

24 March 2023

UPDATE on 26 March 2023: First egg hatched around noon on 26 March.

It’s been more than a month since the first egg was laid at the Hays bald eagle nest and today, 35 days later, we’re watching for a hatch.

Bald eagle eggs hatch in 34-41 days but thanks to eaglestreamer.org‘s record keeping we know that the Hays eagles hatch at the early end of that spectrum. This year’s predictions are:

Estimated hatch dates (based on 35 days incubation):

Egg 1 – 3/24/23; Egg 2 – 3/27/23.


You can also:

(photos are screenshots from the Pittsburgh Hays Bald Eagle Camera at ASWP.org)

To Lek or Not to Lek: Grackles Lead Different Lives

Male common grackle, puff and “skrinnk” (photo by Norm Townsend via Flickr Creative Commons license)

23 March 2023

Lek: an assembly area where animals (such as the prairie chicken) carry on display and courtship behavior. Also an aggregation of animals assembled on a lek for courtship.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Male prairie chickens hold a lek to attract females and according to this diagram so do “grackles.” It was exciting to think that the puff and “skrinnk” of male common grackles in Pittsburgh was a lek. But it’s not! The three species of grackles in North America lead very different lives.

Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), are usually monogamous and may nest alone or colonially with up to 200 pairs in a single colony.

Common grackles, Bill Up Display (photo by Tony Morris via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Bill Up is a male-to-male threat display. The puff and skrinnk is Song during courtship.

Boat-tailed grackles (Quiscalus major), found in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, nest in harems. The males gather in leks to attract the females.

Boat-tailed grackles perform during the breeding season (photo by shell game via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Male boat-tailed grackles on the lek (photo by Judy Gallagher on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Female boat-tailed grackles are dull brown and laid back compared their male counterparts.

Female boat-tailed grackle (photo by Melissa McMaster via Flickr Creative Commons licnse)

Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus), found west of the Mississippi and in Central America, gather in noisy winter flocks.

Great-tailed grackle flock (photo by Phillip Cowan via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In the breeding season they don’t use leks and they aren’t monogamous.

Great-tailed grackle (photo by designwallah via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Birds of the World explains:

[Their] mating system can be described as non-faithful female frank polygyny, in which a territorial male has one or more social mates, each female has one social mate, and both sexes employ extra-pair copulation as a conditional mating tactic. Territorial males defend a small territory including from 1 to several trees, where one or more females nest. The male protects nestlings hatched on his territory, but not nestlings from other territories. He copulates with his social mates and may attempt to copulate with other females. 

Birds of the World: Great-tailed grackle account

Frankly, all the great-tailed grackles mess around. Even the females swagger.

Female great-tailed grackle (photo by Charlie Jackson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Though they’re all called “grackles” they don’t act the same.

(photos are Flickr Creative Commons licensed and credited in the captions, click on the captions to see the originals)

Is There A Challenger At The Pitt Peregrine Nest?

Morela at the Pitt peregrine nest, 21 March, 2:07pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

22 March 2023

See Status Updates at the end.

As I mentioned yesterday morning Morela was looking as if she’d lay an egg any minute, but yesterday everything changed. After days of lounging at the nest and crouching over the scrape Morela was barely on camera at all. When she returned in the afternoon she looked vigilant. Meanwhile Ecco spent 2.5 hours waiting at the nest, sometimes watching the sky.

What’s up with Morela? Why isn’t she trying to lay an egg? I think she may have a challenger who’s keeping her busy.

From just after midnight on 21 March through 7:00am 22 March (today) this timelapse video shows how both peregrines are absent from the nest. I’ve provided a description of the action below the video, some illustrated with snapshots.

Activities on the video:

  1. Morela is at the nest nearly continuously on Tuesday 21 March from midnight to 4:50am when she jumped to the roof, still present at the nest though not visible.
  2. Morela looks relaxed for an hour at the nest 9:50-10:57am. Then she disappears.
  3. Ecco takes her place for more than an hour 10:59am-12:02pm. Ecco has a bright orange beak and legs compared to Morela’s pale yellow.
  4. Ecco stops in briefly and watches the sky.
  5. Morela’s back at the nest 2:03pm-3:32pm, for about 90 minutes, but she looks sleek and vigilant, not egg-y at all.
  6. Ecco returns for 90 minutes, 5:29p-6:56pm.
  7. Neither bird is at the nest after that.

The photos are numbered to match what they illustrate.

#1. Morela is on the roof during the early morning hours of 21 March.

Morela on roof of nestbox before dawn on 21 March 2023, 6am (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

#3. Ecco has bright orange beak and legs.

Ecco has bright orange beak and legs

#3 and #5 Morela’s beak and legs are yellow, not orange. At 2:00pm she looks sleek and vigilant, not egg-y at all.

Morela looks vigilant, 21 March 2023, 14:44 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

#4 Ecco stops in briefly and watches the sky.

Ecco watches the sky. Who’s up there? (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Neither bird is at the nest today which indicates again that there’s probably a challenger.

Fingers crossed that the intruder is driven off soon. Go, Morela!

UPDATE on Morela and Ecco as of Friday 24 March 2023, 5:50 am:

  • Morela’s most recent appearance at the nest: Tues 21 March at 3:32pm.
  • Morela last seen: Vigilant on Heinz Chapel scaffolding Wed 22 March at 4:14pm.
  • Ecco last seen: Watchful at the nest, Thurs 23 March at 5:13pm.
  • The Challenger: Has not been seen yet (which is good news).

My conclusion from these sightings: The challenger is female. Morela is keeping her away the Cathedral of Learning but has not vanquished her yet. The challenger has not won either.

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

Waiting For An Egg

Morela looks egg-y, 20 March 2023, 9:57am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

21 March 2023

For almost a week Morela has looked as if she’ll lay an egg any minute at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest. Yesterday morning we thought she was ready. She lumbered off the green perch and stood in the scrape. We watched and waited.

But minutes later Ecco showed up with a snack. Morela didn’t tell him “Go away I’m busy.” Instead she got up to grab it and eventually left to eat. As Ecco steps up to watch her leave, he realizes he has fluff stuck to his toes.

This morning at 6:54am there is still no egg. So we’re still waiting.

Morela but no egg at the nest, 21 March 2023, 6:54am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Morela, of course, is waiting more than any of us.

Will she lay her first egg today? Stay tuned the National Aviary Falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.

UPDATE, 22 March 2023: See this article about a possible challenger.

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

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)

Larval ticks are so tiny that their normal blood hosts are small animals and birds including the white-footed mice, chipmunks, short-tailed shrews and masked shrews that are responsible for infecting 80-90% of ticks. 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 with overabundant deer moving into new areas, as is happening in Pennsylvania, we find an abundance of ticks where they’ve never been seen before. Pennsylvania also has the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S.

Deer are not the reservoir for the Lyme disease bacteria but in places with too many deer there are too many ticks. More 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)