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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
After Friday’s chilly drizzle I hope for warm dry weather soon.
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.
His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.
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.
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.
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.