Monthly Archives: July 2017

Who Chewed The Doorknob?

Tooth marks on the doorknob (photo by Kate St. John)
Tooth marks on the doorknob (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week four of us hiked the Redbank Trail near Lawsonham, Pennsylvania.  At our turnaround point we stopped at a picnic shelter and lean-to that had a new pit toilet restroom with a shiny green door.  As I left the restroom I noticed tooth marks on the doorknob.

Then I noticed tooth marks all along the bottom of the door and even at the top. See the red arrows.

Door with many tooth marks (photo by Kate St.John)
Door with many tooth marks (photo by Kate St.John)

The animal apparently propped its upper teeth against the edges and scraped with its bottom teeth.

Tooth marks on the left side (photo by Kate St.John)
Tooth marks on the left side (photo by Kate St.John)

It scraped the hinges.

Door jamb with tooth marks (photo by Kate St. John)
Door jamb with tooth marks (photo by Kate St. John)

And it ate the aluminum door jamb!

An animal ate the metal door jamb (photo by Kate St.John)
The animal ate metal (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Who did this?  What Pennsylvania wild animal eats outhouses and chews metal?

The North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum.

Here's one eating an outhouse in the Western Arctic National Parklands, posted by NPS on Flickr.

Porcupine eating an outhouse (photo from Western Arctic National Parkland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Porcupine eating an outhouse (photo from Western Arctic National Parkland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Porcupines eat outhouses?  Yup.  They crave salt and there's a lot of salt in urine so they try to eat their way in.  There's also salt on the doorknob from our sweaty hands.  I learned this from Matt Miller's Cool Green Science blog.  Read more here!

 

Years ago Pennsylvania's porcupines only lived north of I-80 but for more than a decade they've been expanding their range southward. When they reach Pittsburgh they're going to find a lot of doorknobs.  😉

 

(door photos by Kate St. John. Porcupine-outhouse photo from Western Arctic National Parklands on Flicker, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Porcupines are already south of Pittsburgh in the Appalachian Mountains of Maryland but they prefer to live in heavily forested areas.  I can't imagine them moving into cities ... but you never know.

p.p.s.  See the comments. Porcupines have been seen in the metro area. Uh oh!

Today’s Outing at Schenley Park

Participants in the Schenley Park outing, 30 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Participants in the Schenley Park outing, 30 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

This morning 15 of us met at the Westinghouse Memorial pond for a walk along the Falloon Trail and Serpentine Road in Schenley Park.

For the most part birds were hard to find.  Though we knew they were in the woods, they weren't singing and the leaves were dense and dark.  Ultimately we recorded 19 species.  Complete checklist is here.

Best Birds:

  1. A male indigo bunting sang at golf course Hole #14 in the meadow next to the fairway.
  2. In the same location we found a Mystery Sparrow: mostly clear chest just a little stripey, very orange legs and a pink-orange bill.  Tom Moeller took a photo and zoomed it in.  Field sparrow.
  3. Our last bird was a small flycatcher hunting for bugs and not singing at all.  I wondered if it was an Empidonax. No. Eastern wood-pewee.  We heard other pewees and saw one begging from a singing adult.
  4. There were more American robins (22+) than species (19). Oy!

Best mammal: Fox squirrel in a tree.

Best flower: Joe-pye weed, a perennial in the sunflower family.

Best tree:  Northern catalpa or the Toby Tree (the Pittsburgh name for it).  Though I grew up in Pittsburgh I had never heard the name. Kimberly Thomas Googled it and found Chuck Tague's blog Tobies: The Cigar Tree.

Best butterfly:  Three Monarchs and the very common Eastern Tailed Blue which Tom Moeller identified for us.

Question:  Is the black oak in the red oak group or the white oak group.

Answer: The black oak is a red oak.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. The bronze statue in the photo represents a young man looking up to George Westinghouse.

More Than Three Inches of Rain

Two photos Monongahela River rising. Duck Hollow mudflat at 2:50p and 4:45p, July 29, 2017
Two photos Monongahela River rising. Duck Hollow mudflat at 2:50p and 4:45p, July 29, 2017

Early Saturday morning, July 29, more than three inches of rain fell in the Monongahela River watershed.   At the Allegheny County Airport more than an inch fell between midnight and 12:53am where the total was 3.51" in 24 hours.

Initial flooding occurred along streams and creeks and affected homes and roads, but by the time I visited Duck Hollow at 2:50p Nine Mile Run was back inside its banks while the Monongahela River was rising fast.

My two photos above show where the mudflat used to be at Duck Hollow. In only two hours -- 2:50p to 4:45p -- the river engulfed all but three trees.  I expect they disappeared later.

To give you an idea of what's missing, here's Don Kerr's photo of the mudflat only 20 days ago, 10 July 2017.  There's a lot underwater!

Mudflat at Duck Hollow, 10 July 2017 (photo by Don Kerr)
Mudflat at Duck Hollow, 10 July 2017 (photo by Don Kerr)

 

After watching the river I walked up the Nine Mile Run Trail and found more evidence of flooding along the creek.  Check the captions for more information.

Fisherman near the mouth of Nine Mile Run (photo by Kate St. John)
Fisherman near the mouth of Nine Mile Run (photo by Kate St. John)

I was amazed to find four snakes sheltering in this tree above the water. They are wrapped together in coils, two by two, waiting for the water to go down. Probably northern water snakes. (See the comments. I am bad at identifying snakes. I had guessed black rat snakes.)

Four snakes sheltering above high water on Nine Mile Run (photo by Kate St. John)
Four snakes sheltering above high water on Nine Mile Run (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Inside Frick Park, Nine Mile Run scoured the landscape next to the creek.  Flood debris was chest-high in the lowest lying spots and there was evidence the creek had overrun Commercial Street.

Flood debris snagged waist-high on this railing at Nine Mile Run in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Flood debris snagged waist-high on this railing at Nine Mile Run in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Nine Mile Run flooding scoured the woods in lower Frick Park, 29 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Nine Mile Run flooding scoured the woods in lower Frick Park, 29 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

The flood carried away bricks from the walkway next to Nine Mile Run in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)
The flood carried away bricks from the walkway next to Nine Mile Run in Frick Park, 29 July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

No wonder the Monongahela River is rising!

 

(photo of the Duck Hollow exposed mudflat by Don Kerr in Duck Hollow Facebook Group. Remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Pretty, But …

Jetbead fruits, Schenley Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Jetbead fruits, Schenley Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This Japanese shrub is prized for its pretty flowers and fruits.  Unfortunately it's invasive in forests of the eastern United States.

Jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) is easy to find in Schenley Park where it was planted as an ornamental.

In the spring I misidentify its four-petaled white flowers as mock-orange because I don't pay attention to the leaves.  Jetbead has opposite, deeply toothed leaves with narrow tips and pronounced veins.

Jetbead in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Jetbead in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fruits are unmistakable, though.  When ripe, they form a cluster of four shiny black beads -- jetbeads -- shown above.

We'll look for jetbead tomorrow on my Schenley Park outing.  Meet me at the Westinghouse Memorial Pond.

 

(photo of jetbead fruit by Kate St. John; photo of flower from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Best Bird In The Parking Lot

On a cold day in January 2014, Anthony Francher pulled into a parking lot at Rocky Mountain National Park and was approached by this black-billed magpie who clearly expected a handout.

The bird chortles and calls.  Do you see how his eyes turn white?  He's closing his "third eyelid," the nictitating membrane.

When no food appears, the magpie seems to get irritated.

Proving what my friend Chuck Tague used to say:  The best birds are in the parking lot.

 

(video by Anthony Francher on YouTube, posted in January 2014)

p.s. In the video description Anthony urges people not to feed wild animals lest they become tame.

Scarlet Baby

Scarlet tanager nestling (photo by Chuck Tague)
Scarlet tanager nestling, 2008 (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Tuesday I heard a sound in Schenley Park that I didn't recognize: a melodious call from a baby bird.

I found the bird flutter-climbing from a low perch to a high spot in a tree, moving fast and begging the entire time.  He had downy tufts on his head, a striped chest, big feet, short wings and an almost non-existent tail.  He looked a lot like the bird pictured above.

I couldn't identify the fledgling so I waited for his mother to bring food and she solved the mystery.  A bird just like her is pictured below (from Wikimedia Commons).

Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female scarlet tanager carrying food to feed young (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you don't recognize her, here's another clue.  The father bird looks like this.  (I didn't see him that day.)

Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male scarlet tanager (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Obviously scarlet tanagers change a lot as they grow into breeding adults.  Read more about them in this vintage article from July 2008:

Scarlet Baby

 

(photo of fledgling by Chuck Tague. photos of adult female and male from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

 

Endangered Plovers Return to Pennsylvania

A bird that hasn't nested in Pennsylvania since the early 1950's returned this year to Presque Isle State Park in Erie.

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus), a very rare bird, has been endangered in the Great Lakes region since 1986. This spring for the first time in over 60 years they nested at Gull Point.

Their decline was due to habitat loss.  Their return is an environmental success story.  As Dan Brauning, PGC's Wildlife Diversity Program Chief, said, "This is a testament to dedication and teamwork, not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the species' range. Their return wasn't by chance, or an accident."

Piping plovers nest on wide, sparsely vegetated sand or cobble beaches but 20 years ago Presque Isle State Park had nothing like that.  As the population of Great Lakes piping plovers grew, a plover would sometimes stop at Gull Point during migration but it never stayed.  PGC, DCNR, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy worked to clear invasive vegetation and protect Gull Point during the nesting season.  Then Audubon monitors, including my friend Mary Birdsong, watched for piping plovers each spring.  For a couple of years Mary observed a male piping plover stay at the point, calling for a female, but he was a lonely bachelor.  This year, success.  Two pairs!

Read here about their nesting success and how eggs were rescued from the waves.  Click here to see a close up of a piping plover.

 

p.s.  Gull Point habitat improvements have made it better for all the birds.  The shorebird population has tripled and increased bird populations all the way up the food chain.  Snowy owls now visit during irruption yearsPeregrine falcons, nesting in Erie, use Gull Point as their hunting territory.

(screenshot and video from Pennsylvania Game Commission)

What’s That Sound? Cicadas

Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Cicada, western Pennsylvania (photo by Dana Nesiti)

What's that sound?  In July the birds stop singing and the bugs begin.  Some sing during the day, others at night.  We usually don't see what's making the noise but sometimes we can identify the bugs by song.  Here's a group of insects that are fairly easy to figure out.

Cicadas sing during the day and they are loud.  Some songs are so unique that you can identify the bug if you know what to listen for.

Here are audio descriptions for five common species of annual(*) cicadas in southwestern Pennsylvania in order of "most likely to hear/notice," at least in my experience.

As with birds, pay attention to the habitat where you hear a cicada.  Swamp cicadas, for example, are only found in swamps or marshes.

  1. Scissor grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus).  Easiest sound to identify.
  2. Linne's cicada (Neotibicen linnei)
  3. Lyric cicada (Neotibicen lyricen)
  4. Dog Day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis)   This is the sound of a hot day in Maine.
  5. Swamp cicada (Neotibicen tibicen tibicen)
    • Song: burry, rattling, very rapid "wappa wappa wappa wappa" with rich round background sound that rises and falls in pitch from start to end
    • When?  early morning until noon
    • Where? found only in swamps and marshes
    • Click here to hear Swamp cicada at songsofinsects.com

 

Identifying cicada songs are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sounds of bugs.  There are an amazing number of vocal bugs including crickets, katydids and grasshoppers.

Have you heard a bug you can't identify?  Click here for the Songs of Insects guide to common insect species and their sounds.   There are 80 species on this page!

 

(photo by Dana Nesiti)

p.s. Annual(*) cicadas have a life cycle of 2-5 years but they seem "annual" because some individuals in each species reach adulthood every year (i.e. the species appears annually).

p.p.s  There aren't many scissor-grinders in my neighborhood this year.  I wonder if they had a bad reproductive year the last time this brood was above ground.  How long do scissor-grinders take to reach adulthood?  If it's 5 years then that'd be 2012, a very hot year.  Hmmm.

Woodpeckers Are Doing Really Well

Pileated woodpecker, April 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)
Pileated woodpecker (photo by Chuck Tague)

Last week Pittsburgh Today published a brief article about ecosystem health in the Pittsburgh region.  One of their points caught my eye: Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) have made a big comeback in our area.

I've noticed this too.  During Pittsburgh's 2016 Christmas Bird Count last December, many of us found pileated woodpeckers -- so much so that Audubon's summary of the count included this remark: "Pileated Woodpecker was reported at a higher than expected number.  48 individuals represents a new high count for Pittsburgh. "

On the same day as Pittsburgh Today's article, I also received an email from Tree Pittsburgh with news about a project this fall to replace ash trees lost to emerald ash borer (read more here.)

Without intending it, the topics are related.  My hunch is that we have more pileated woodpeckers in Pittsburgh because we have more under-the-bark insects and more dead and dying ash trees, suitable for nesting, since the emerald ash borer came to town 10 years ago.

Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)
Pileated woodpecker hole in dead white ash tree, western Pennsylvania (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Woodpeckers are doing really well.  It's the only bright spot in the emerald ash borer plague.

 

(photo credits: Pileated woodpecker by Chuck Tague.   Dead ash tree with pileated woodpecker hole by Kate St. John)

 

Schenley Park Outing: July 30, 8:30a

Pickerel weed, Schenley Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pickerel weed, Schenley Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Join me on a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park next Sunday, July 30, 8:30am to 10:30am.

Meet at the Westinghouse Memorial pond and we’ll walk Serpentine Drive or the nearby Falloon Trail keeping our eyes open for birds, plants and animals.  The memorial pond is especially pretty in July with pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) in bloom.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes.  Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Before you come, visit my Events page in case there are changes or cancellations.  Note: The outing will be canceled if there's lightning!

 

(photo by Kate St.John)