Monthly Archives: March 2015

More Deer, Less Moose

Moose and deer (both photos from Wikimedia Commons)

What happens when the interval between spring thaw and leaf out gets longer?  Fifty years of detailed observations in New Hampshire’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest tell the tale.

In New Hampshire, where snow covers the ground all winter, spring thaw is a welcome event that finally exposes the soil.  Weeks later after lots of warm air and sunshine the trees leaf out.  In between these two events the sun warms the soil, the plants emerge, and wildflowers bloom.

Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest has kept detailed records of temperature, precipitation, snowpack, plants, animals, birds and invertebrates for more than half a century. An analysis of the data, published in BioScience in 2012, showed that the forest is getting warmer and wetter and the interval between spring thaw and leaf out has increased by 8 days.  Climate change is separating spring’s above ground (air) responses from the soil responses.

In the post-thaw interval severe cold events freeze the exposed soil and kill plant buds and invertebrates. This threatens some deciduous trees (yellow birch and sugar maple in New Hampshire) and birds find fewer invertebrates when they return from migration.  The record shows the mix of plants and animals is changing.

There are even changes in large animals.  For the past 50 years the snowpack has declined, an outcome that favors deer over moose and that seems to be happening at Hubbard Brook.

More deer, less moose.  If you write it down now you can see the trend later.

Read more here in Science Daily, December 2012.


p.s. It should be “More Deer, Fewer Moose” but I am quoting one of the articles and happen to like the ungrammatical juxtaposition.

(photo of moose by Ronald L. Bell, USFWS via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of deer by josephamaker2018 via Wikimedia Commons. Click these links to see the original images.)

Early Flowering Signs of Spring

Harbinger of Spring, Cedar Creek, 29 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite this month’s cold weather yesterday’s outing* to Cedar Creek found two early-spring wildflowers.

Bright afternoon sunshine encouraged the wildflowers to bloom but it washed out the colors on the forest floor.  We all searched hard to find this Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa).  Here’s a poor photo of the entire plant with an oak leaf for scale. It’s tiny! One leaf is sufficient to hide it.

Harbinger of Spring (photo by Kate St. John)


We also found a lot of Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale) in bloom but I had to be shown each flower because I couldn’t see them in the glare.   My best photo is of the one I stepped on.  Oh how embarrassing!

Snow trillium, 29 March 2015, Cedar Creek (photo by Kate St. John)


* This was a joint outing of the Wissahickon Nature Club and the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania.  Feel free to join us as we explore the flora and fauna in western Pennsylvania.  Click here for Wissahickon’s 2015 outing schedule (page 3 of the pdf) and here for the Botanical Society’s calendar.


(photos by Kate St. John)

This Morning in Schenley Park

Participants in the Schenley Park Walk, 29 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ready for a walk in Schenley Park, 29 March 2015: Diane, Jen, Rachel, Missy, Jen, Hayley, Julia, Rosie (photo by Kate St. John)

Nine of us braved the cold this morning at the Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park.  We didn’t see anything blooming in 20F degrees but it was sunny and the birds were active.

We saw three Best Birds:  a fox sparrow sunning himself by the stream, a golden-crowned kinglet flitting in the treetops, and a male pileated woodpecker hammering a dead branch (unusual for Schenley).  I checked my records for the fox sparrow. He’s the earliest I’ve seen in Schenley Park.  They always arrive alone — usually April 4 to 9.

Here are the birds we saw and heard:
* Red-bellied Woodpeckers
* Downy Woodpeckers
* Northern Flicker (heard, not seen)
* Pileated Woodpecker, unusual in Schenley Park
* Blue Jays, abundant and loud
* American Crow, flyover
* Carolina Chickadees
* Tufted Titmice
* White-breasted Nuthatches
* Golden-crowned Kinglet, 1
* European Starlings
* Fox Sparrow, 1 by the stream
* Song Sparrows, singing
* Dark-eyed Juncoes, singing
* Northern Cardinals, singing
* Common Grackles
* House Finches

I’m so glad we went out this morning!  If I hadn’t promised to be there I would have missed that fox sparrow.  🙂


The next outing will be Sunday April 26, 8:30am.  Meet at the Schenley Park Visitors Center (near Phipps).  Check here for details as the date approaches.

(photo of the outing group, 29 March 2015 !If I misspelled your name, please let me know in a Comment)


Let The Leaves Begin

Incipient forsythia leaves, 25 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Closeup of bush honeysuckle leaves about to open, 25 March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

In my neighborhood bush honeysuckle is the first to show leaves in the spring.  Last Wednesday these tiny leaves broke the bud.  I was excited!  Spring was here!

Not today. This morning it’s 17F degrees and it was so cold yesterday that it set a new record.

The wind will swing from the south today and warmer weather is coming this week.  Let the leaves begin.  (Please!)


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Bush honeysuckle is an alien invasive from Asia so its internal clock is out of synch with our seasons.

p.p.s  This morning’s walk in Schenley Park will be brief so we don’t freeze.

Hays Eagle Nest Failed

Female bald eagle lifts eggshell at Hays (screenshot from the Hays bald Eaglecam)
Female bald eagle lifts eggshell at Hays nest, 27 Mar 2015, 5:23am (screenshot from the Hays bald Eaglecam)

If you haven’t heard…

Before dawn on Friday morning March 27 it looked as if the egg in the Hays bald eagle nest was about to hatch.  The pair had had two eggs but one was non-viable and the birds removed it on March 13.

All eyes were on this last egg but by evening it was apparent that it too was not viable. The parents abandoned the nest.

What an abrupt and sad end to the Hay nesting season!

Read more coverage at:


(screenshot from the Hays Bald Eaglecam, installed by PixController)

Mixed Parentage

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)
Redhead-Ring-necked hybrid duck at Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

What duck is this?

Photographed by Tom Moeller on March 25 at Duck Hollow in Pittsburgh, this odd duck defies a single label.  Apparently one of his parents was a redhead, the other a ring-necked duck.

Here are the two species he resembles: male redhead on the left, male ring-necked duck on the right.

Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)
Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)

He has the head color, eye color and shoulder of a redhead and the head shape, bill color and body color (except for his non-white shoulder) of a ring-necked duck.

Depending on the light and the distance you might see a feature of either species and call him accordingly.  David Poortinga figured him out and told Tom what it was.

Here’s another look him.  He’s a redhead with a fancy bill and black back.  Or he’s a ring-necked duck with a red head.

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)
Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybrid, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Ducks and geese hybridize a lot compared to other birds.  Duck hunters see these hybrids up close because they have the bird in hand so Ducks Unlimited explains:

“Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. Scientists have recorded more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species. Mallards crossbreed with nearly 50 other species, and wood ducks hybridize with a surprising 26 other species. Nearly 20 percent of waterfowl hybrid offspring are capable of reproducing.”

Mallards being the least picky, or the perhaps most promiscuous, breed with many species.  According to Ducks Unlimited their mates include northern pintails, black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, and gadwalls.  Perhaps every dabbling duck is a mallard at heart.

Will the Odd Duck attract a mate this spring ?  If so, will she be a redhead or a ring-necked duck?  What will his offspring look like?

Yikes!  Talk about mixed parentage!


p.s. As of yesterday, March 27, the hybrid was still at Duck Hollow.

(photo of hybrid Redhead-Ring-necked Duck by Tom Moeller.  Composite photos of redhead and ring-necked ducks by Chuck Tague)

Sounds of Spring: Frogs!

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)

Have you heard any frogs lately?

In early spring male frogs call from ephemeral pools to attract females to mate with them.  This week in Frick Park I’ve heard spring peepers calling in the wetland next to Nine Mile Run.  The sound is so miraculous in the City(*) that I always stop to absorb it.

Spring peepers are loud but so tiny I couldn’t find them.  Look how small they are compared to someone’s hand!  Needless to say I didn’t see the “singers” in Frick Park.

Spring peeper found at Sault College woodlot, Algoma District, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper found at Sault College woodlot, Algoma District, Ontario, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Peepers aren’t the only ones calling.  Right now you can hear wood frogs and others if you’re in the right habitat.  But which ones?

PA Herps does statewide surveys to confirm the ranges of Pennsylvania’s native frogs (and much more).  Based on the PA Herps Frogs and Toads List I made this table of the frogs and toads that still occur in western Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Front.  I added my own description of the calls I know.  Click here on the PA Herps website to look up each frog including their photos and range map.

Frog Name Description of Call
Eastern American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus a whirring trill
Fowler’s Toad, Anaxyrus fowleri  *
Cope’s Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis  *
Eastern Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor  *
Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus a low ‘hrrrrmp’
Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans a tuneless banjo twang
Pickerel Frog, Lithobates palustris  *
Northern Leopard Frog, Lithobates pipiens  *
Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvaticus sounds like ducks quacking
Mountain Chorus Frog, Pseudacris brachyphona  *
Northern Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer LOUD! peeps, jingle bells -or- plinking the teeth of a comb
Western Chorus Frog, Pseudacris triseriata  *
Eastern Spadefoot, Scaphoipus holbrookii  *

* See the comments for frog call descriptions from Sue.


To hear them, look them up here on the USGS Frog Quiz website.   (Your computer must have QuickTime installed.)

If you know a lot of frog calls you can test your skills at the USGS Frog Quiz here.  Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize the calls. I tried the quiz and flunked immediately.  As you can see by the gaps in my table, I don’t know many frog sounds.  It’s time to get outdoors and remedy that!



Can you add frog call descriptions to my table? Leave a comment with your description.  *Thank you, Sue! See her comments.

* The miracle in Frick Park is a complex of meanders and wetlands completed in 2006 by the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Spring peepers found the wetlands on their own and now loudly pronounce them good for breeding every spring.

(photo of spring peeper calling by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of spring peeper on hand by Fungus Guy via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the images to see the originals)

Spring Moves North …

Red tulip near Burlington, ON, 21 May 2014 (photo by Laslovarga via Wikimedia Commons)

The first crocuses bloomed in Pittsburgh last week but the rest of spring is taking its time.  Until today the month of March averaged 3F degrees below normal.  (Yesterday’s brought it up to -2.6.)  With that kind of track record, when will Spring get here?

Two years ago I wrote about the rule of thumb that “Spring moves north 13 miles a day“and showed how to watch it online at Journey North’s Tulip Test Garden.  I even used the rule of thumb to predict that the tulips would bloom at Clarion Area Elementary School’s Test Garden in Clarion, PA on April 20, 2013.

Was I right?  I looked up Clarion’s 2013 Tulip Test Garden results which said the tulips bloomed on April 22.  But … April 22 but was a Monday that year.  Maybe the tulips bloomed on Saturday, April 20 while the children weren’t at school to see them!  (The vagaries of data collection…)

Let’s try it this year.  Click here to read about the Rule of Thumb so you know how I’m doing this.  Then I’ll estimate …

On the 2015 Tulip Test Garden Map Durham, NC’s first tulip bloomed on March 20.  That’s 362 miles or about 28 days south of Clarion Area Elementary School (they’re participating again this year), so Clarion should bloom on April 17.

April 17 feels too early but we’ll see.  By the end of April we’ll know if “Spring moved north 13 miles a day” in 2015.


p.s. A big flock of American robins sang in the dark this morning in my neighborhood.  One more Sign of Spring!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  This tulip was photographed by Laslovarga on May 21, 2014 near Burlington, Ontario.)

Dorothy Then And Now

Dorothy, March 2010 and March 2015 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam atUniversity of Pittsburgh)

Many of you are looking forward to Dorothy having eggs and chicks this spring at the Cathedral of Learning.  Others, knowing her age, have asked about her status.  Today I’ll explain her condition and why you should not be surprised when she doesn’t have viable eggs this year.

Dorothy is 16 years old, elderly for a wild peregrine.  Her fertility dropped to a single fledgling in 2013 and collapsed in 2014 after she became egg bound.  In the top photo she was sleek and alert in her fertile years (photo from 2010).  In the second photo, she is rumpled and slow moving now.  Consistently rumpled feathers are an indication of ill health in birds.

I have watched Dorothy since 2001 when she was only two years old.  For more than a decade she was full of vitality, totally in control.  She only began to hint at her age in 2013.  This year her decline is pronounced.  There are differences in her behavior that tell me she is past her prime.

THEN: 2001 to 2013 NOW: 2014 and 2015
Many courtship flights including aerial prey exchange in January, February, March No courtship flights in 2015. No aerial prey exchange since 2013.
Perching and mating(!) on the lightning rod on top of the Cathedral of Learning Has not been on the lightning rod. Has not been seen mating this spring.
Laid down only to incubate. (Peregrines roost and sleep in a standing position) Lies down to sleep in nest though there are no eggs
Agile at all times Opens wings to steady herself while walking on nest rail. Is slow moving
Always perched above the 27th floor. Rarely perched on A/C units Perches as low as 12th or 13th, often on A/C units.
Sleek feathers, alert stance Rumpled rough feathers, hunches more often


When I see her lying down in the nest without any eggs, I worry.  This is an unnatural position for a peregrine falcon that isn’t incubating.

Dorothy sleeping on her belly, though she has no eggs (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)


For now Dorothy is staying close to home. She is often seen on camera or perched at office windows, gazing in.  These are endearing traits that make us love her more, but that does not change the fact that she is elderly.

Dorothy’s chances of producing healthy peregrine chicks this year is very slim.


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