Why Do They Wag Their Tails?

Two tail bobbers: Spotted sandpiper, Louisiana waterthrush (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

14 April 2021

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.

All About Birds, overview of Louisiana Waterthrush

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.

These Busy Bees Aren’t Bumbles

Carpenter bee on redbud (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 April 2021

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.

Carpenter bee hovering (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Carpenter bee vs bumblebee (photos by Chuck Tague)
Carpenter bee (left) versus bumblebee (right), both in Pennsylvania (photos by Chuck Tague)

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.

So … paint your house and carpenter bees will leave it alone. Meanwhile if you see carpenter bee holes in unpainted wood, this video from Clemson University tells you what to do: Carpenter Bees — Millie Davenport, Clemson University.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Chuck Tague)

Sunday Flowers

  • Blue-eyed Mary, 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:

If you live in Pittsburgh Braddock’s Trail Park is worth a visit for April wildflowers. More are coming soon. As of Sunday the trillium hadn’t bloomed yet.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blue Jays Building Nests

Blue jay gathering nesting material (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2021

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.

Valuable nesting material in a puddle, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others pulled rootlets from an overturned tree, apparently in the final stage of construction.

Blue jays gather rootlets like these to line their nests (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Learn more about blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) nesting in this 11 minute video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Then watch closely as they gather nesting material. Perhaps you’ll find the nest.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Spring Green

Spring green among the trees, Frick Park, 8 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 April 2021

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.

Sugar maple flowers, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Pawpaw flower bud, Schenley Park, 3 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eastern redbud flowers (Cercis canadensis) had not opened in Schenley as of 7 April, but they showed promise.

Redbuds, Schenley Park, 7 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) was blooming at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Easter Day.

Spring cress, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were open in Schenley Park on 9 April.

Virginia bluebells, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

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?)

Mossy “leggings” on saplings, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring green will continue in the coming weeks as tiny leaves pop open and more trees bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Roadrunners Are Songbirds

Greater roadrunner, Imperial County, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 April 2021

Roadrunners coo!

Who knew?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweets from Wendy @geococcyxcal)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

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.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Annual Spray Your Clothes Day

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

7 April 2021

We missed a celebration when it snowed on 1 April so I’ve moved a very important annual event to right now. Today is Spray Your Clothes Day.

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.

p.s. Don’t assume you’re safe if you only go to Pittsburgh’s large city parks. A 2015-2016 study found there are black-legged ticks in the city parks and 20-50% of them are carrying Lyme disease. This is typical in Pennsylvania.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Back Up So I Can Take Your Picture

Short-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 April 2021

Clare Kines @NunavutBirder tweeted this encounter with a short-tailed weasel.

Also known as stoats or ermines, short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea) have a circumpolar distribution. This one was filmed in Nunavut, the most northern of Canada’s Arctic territories.

See more at Clare Kines’ award-winning photography website.

(tweet by Clare Kines. photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Snow and Sun and Dark of Night

Morela sleeps while incubating, 4 April 2021, 5:48am

5 April 2021

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.

Snow squall in Pittsburgh while Morela incubates, 1 April 2021, 9:42am

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 sunbathes, 4 April 2021, 2:08pm

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.

Ecco arrives to relieve Morela, 31 March 2021, 6:44am
What is Ecco telling Morela? … “I left your breakfast in the cache area”

Every day is the same. There’s always a bird on the nest. The pair switches off several times a day.

While you wait for hatch day on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, check out this FAQ on When Will The Eggs Hatch?

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