This week my husband and I have been visiting family in Tidewater Virginia, our first long trip since the COVID-19 shutdown. Everyone’s vaccinated (& some had COVID last winter) so at last we’re making the “Real Hugs Tour.”
It is hot. 92 degrees F near the water, 100 degrees on the roads in the interior. Every morning I take a walk before it gets too unpleasant.
At the ocean I was pleased to see saltwater birds and southern songbird species. Favorite birds on the bay side of First Landing State Park were least, royal and sandwich terns plus a blue grosbeak (eBird checklist here).
I also encountered a lot of bug sounds …
… and a dragonfly that repeatedly perched on a twig in the stiff wind. Its behavior reminded me of a kestrel.
The landscape is beautiful and welcoming until you stand in the sun.
Blackberries ripen in the heat.
House finches are prolific breeders in the hanging baskets on my sisters porch. This brood froze as we peeked under the fern in one basket while another house finch couple was building a new nest in the next basket.
In Pittsburgh it is 10-15 degrees cooler but we will miss the sea breeze when we get home tomorrow.
Though American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) breed on barrier beaches and shelly islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, few of us get to see it. The birds want peace and quiet far from humans when they raise a family.
@GetToKnowNature brings us this video of oystercatchers growing up, thanks to her long lens.
Consequently the Colorado River is running very low and Lake Mead reached a crisis point last month. The Guardian reports:
In June , the level of Lake Mead plunged below 1,075ft, a point that will trigger, for the first time, federally mandated cuts in water allocations next year. …
Should second tier cuts occur, Arizona will lose nearly a fifth of the water it gets from the Colorado River. Nevada’s first-round cut of 21,000 acre-ft (an acre-ft is an acre of water, one foot deep) is smaller, but its share is already diminutive due to an archaic allotment drawn up a century ago when the state was sparsely populated.
The crisis is due to lack of precipitation but we learned in 2014 that loss of rain and snow is dwarfed by the depletion of groundwater.
Using nine years of NASA’s GRACE satellite data from the Colorado River Basin, UC Irvine and NASA scientists made an alarming discovery. From December 2004 to November 2013 the watershed lost 53 million acre-feet of water, an amount almost twice the size of Lake Mead. More than 75% of that loss was from groundwater. No one knows how much water is underground but it’s going fast.
In summer, folks in western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio flock to Lake Erie‘s shore to beat the heat. The water provides a respite but in July the western end is hotter than anywhere else in the Great Lakes. That’s because Lake Erie is shallow and shallow water is quick to take on the temperature of the surrounding air. So how shallow is Lake Erie?
Lake Erie is the fourth in line of the five Great Lakes and happens to be fourth largest by surface area — 9,940 square miles.
But as you can see in this bathymetric map it is also the shallowest (blue is deep, red is shallow). Lake Erie’s average depth is only 62 feet with the deepest spot just 210 feet near Long Point, Ontario.
It’s easier to see how shallow it is in this diagram from Michigan Sea Grant. Even Lake Ontario, the smallest by surface area, is 3.8 times deeper! (Lakes Michigan and Huron are superimposed on each other because they have the same pool level, 577 feet above sea level. Click here to see the complete diagram.)
Since the shallowest water is first to heat and first to freeze, the surface temperatures roughly match the lake depths. As of yesterday, 13 July 2021, the water at the western end of Lake Erie was close to 80 degrees F.
In Pittsburgh we hardly think about box elder (Acer negundo). It’s a native tree that grows by the river. No one plants it. It’s not a “bad” tree. So I was puzzled by this 1950’s story from my mother.
I never hear of box elder that I don’t think of your grandfather. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was a man of integrity and the absolute worst thing I ever heard him say was [this] about a member of the town council: “He was the kind of man who would plant box elder.”
— 1950’s family anecdote from my mother
My grandfather lived in a village in suburban Chicago in the heart of the Midwest where box elder is considered bad, ugly, weedy and invasive. Wikipedia provides this insight on how it got a bad reputation:
“After World War II, box elder’s rapid growth made it a popular landscaping tree in suburban housing developments despite its poor form, vulnerability to storm damage, and tendency to attract large numbers of box elder bugs. … It can quickly colonize both cultivated and uncultivated areas. … It grows around houses and in hedges, as well as on disturbed ground and vacant lots.”
Box elder isn’t invasive in Pittsburgh so I had to go look for it on its home turf at Duck Hollow. There I found that as a shade tree it can look pretty good. This one is two box elder trunks intertwined.
However some of them die back leaving ugly bare branches at the top.
And if you cut box elder or chop it down it grows suckers from every crevice.
Midwesterners agree that box elder is bad. Why don’t Pittsburghers have this aversion? I think it’s because we are on the eastern edge of box elder’s range, we never planted it as a street tree, and it isn’t particularly invasive here.
What is invasive here? Japanese knotweed! Originally planted as an ornamental, we don’t think it’s pretty anymore.
If my grandfather had lived in Pittsburgh perhaps he would have said “He was the kind of man who would plant Japanese knotweed.”
Aha. Now I get it.
p.s. Later this summer box elder bugs will appear though not in huge numbers at Duck Hollow.
The female goldfinch builds her nest in a shrub or sapling, laying a foundation of spider silk and adding rootlets and fibers. Then she lines the nest with soft down, often using thistle fluff.
She lays one egg per day for a clutch of five and starts incubation at the next-to-last egg. In 12-14 days her babies hatch.
It’s still July. Now the fun begins!
The parents make many trips back and forth from thistle fields to the nest where they feed by regurgitation. Sometimes the adults munch on leafy vegetables, even in gardens, which earned them the nickname “Salad Birds.”
At 3pm on Wednesday 7 Jul 2021 a heavy downpour in the Nine Mile Run watershed caused a flash flood recorded by Upstream Pittsburgh‘s stream cam (video below, blurry because it’s raining). The downpour was so localized to the East End that it did not register on Pittsburgh’s official weather gauges. Flood debris showed that if I’d been on the Nine Mile Run Trail the water would have been up to my ears! (photo at top taken at 40.4263341,-79.9068387).
On Thursday 8 July at 7pm a downpour over Pleasant Hills had devastating results as reported by CBS Pittsburgh.
And on Friday 9 July another localized thunderstorm let loose for half an hour in Squirrel Hill. I have no photos because I was driving down Braddock Avenue in the downpour, hoping the river on the road would not become a car-swallowing lake under the Parkway bridge. Fortunately the water ran off into Nine Mile Run. Another flash flood. I’m glad I was not on the trail.
We don’t need a particularly wet year for this to happen. Pittsburgh’s 2021 rainfall is actually 0.93 inches below normal as of today. The problem is that the rain falls all at once, especially in June and July.
Climate change is making the problem worse. A 2019 study found that extreme precipitation has increased 55% in the Northeastern US in my lifetime.
Brace yourself, Pittsburgh, for a lot of flash floods in the future. Sometimes every day.
About Nine Mile Run per Upstream Pgh (formerly Nine Mile Run Watershed Association): “Nine Mile Run is a small stream that flows through Pittsburgh’s East End, mostly underground. The 7 square mile Nine Mile Run watershed is home to the largest urban stream restoration in the United States, completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006.” Upstream Pgh got its start with this project and now works throughout the region on community-oriented stormwater management projects, large and small, plus much more. Click here for their website.
Pittsburgh’s weather fluctuated this week from pleasant to oppressively humid. Always late to get outdoors, I missed the best part of each day. The flowers were open but the birds were hiding at:
Duck Hollow and Lower Nine Mile Run on 3 July. 73 degrees, a pleasant day!
Montour Trail on 5 July. 85 degrees in the shade, cooler in Enlow Tunnel.
Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the South Side on 6 July. Almost 90 degrees and very sunny.
I was dripping with sweat on 6 July when I found this namesake plant, St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum), pushing up from a crack in the sidewalk. What a hardy plant standing tall on a hot day. I wilted after 30 minutes in the sun.
Summer is a challenging time to identify birds when fledglings look quite different from adults. Here are seven species whose babies can honestly say, “I don’t look like my parents.”
American robin adults (left) have plain rust-colored breasts. Juveniles (right) have spotted breasts.
The differences between juvenile and adult downy woodpeckers are subtle. Juveniles (left) have a faint red patch on top of the head while adult males (right) have a vibrant splash of red on the back of the head. (Don’t be fooled by the red flower behind the male in this photo.)
Red-bellied woodpecker juveniles (middle photo) are very plain with no red on their heads. Adult males (left) are red from bill to nape while adult females (right) have red napes, pale foreheads, and a spot of red at the bill.
In breeding plumage adult European starlings (left) are iridescent glossy black while fledglings are dull brown (right). Check out the shape of the fledgling’s beak and how he opens it. He has that in common with his parents.
Juvenile northern cardinals (dark bird on branch) resemble their mothers but the juveniles have dark beaks. Their mothers (at right) have orange beaks.
Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds never look like their foster parents. These dull brown, chunky birds have short, fat necks and “fat” beaks. The beak is the clue.
And finally, young chipping sparrows look so different from their parents that you’d think they’re another species. The juveniles are stripey brown (photo at top) while their parents have plain pale breasts and rusty caps. The best way to identify a fledgling chipping sparrow is to watch who it begs from.