Have you been sneezing this week in Pittsburgh? Are your eyes itchy and watery? Pollen season just began and I can tell you which trees started it.
Pittsburgh is a deciduous place so we’re not contending with pine pollen. Instead we have wind pollinated deciduous trees that bloom before leaf out so their pollen will move freely in the forest.
When our landscape looks like this there’s pollen in the air.
The first to bloom are elms and maples.
American elms (Ulmus americana) are 100% wind pollinated and insure they don’t self-pollinate by producing female flower parts before the male parts mature. By the time the flower dangles in the wind the female parts are hidden.
The dark nobs below are pollen-loaded anthers.
And there are lots of them!
The structure of sugar maple flowers (Acer saccharum) shows they’re designed for wind pollination.
Red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) are more discrete, pollinated by both wind and bees.
Yesterday the temperature was warmer outside than inside so I opened the windows to pull in warm air. This morning my husband’s eyes are itchy. Uh oh. I raised the indoor pollen count. Mistake!
Spring green? Tree flowers! Ahhhh cho!
p.s. This spring is off to a slow start so we started sneezing later than last year. 😉
Have you heard ducks quacking deep in the woods lately? The sound comes from a soggy wooded place or puddle or tiny pond and there is no duck in sight.
Nature is playing an April Fool’s joke. Those aren’t ducks or chickens. Those are male wood frogs calling to attract females. If you could see what they were doing you’d find …
Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) gather together in large leks to mate. In these leks, males are much more common than females, typically outnumbering females by at least two to one. The males arrive first, and begin calling and wrestling with each other. As female wood frogs arrive at the ponds, they swim toward the center of the lek. Multiple males grab them, clinging to each female until one male wins out. This particular mating behavior, in which the male clings to the female, is known as amplexus. The females will typically each lay a single egg clutch consisting of about 400-1,200 eggs.
The sun set at 7:27pm, the sky flamed and dimmed. It was barely glowing twenty minutes later when we heard the first “peent.”
On dry Spring nights male American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) gather in shrubby fields to mate with females who intend to nest there. Within the hour after sunset or in the hour before sunrise, they let the ladies know they’re available by stomping around in the dark calling “peent, peent, peent.” After some peenting each male flings himself into the sky climbing hundreds of feet before circling back down. While ascending his wings make a twittering sound, while descending his wings chirp. You can tell what he’s doing by listening in the dark. He lands where he started and does it again.
Listen to a complete cycle of peenting + whistling and chirping wings.
What looks like a glowing pincushion (above) or piece of plastic in the tweet below is an animal called a nudibranch. It’s not pronounced the way it’s spelled. The “ch” is a “k.” This is a “NEW-dih-brank.”
Pennsylvania has the highest rate of Lyme disease in the U.S. (CDC, 2019) so in early March the approach of tick season is always in the back of my mind. This winter we had some spates of bitter cold and some long runs of snow cover. Did winter suppress the ticks?
This month I learned from Keystone Trails Association that: “All the snow keeping our grounds covered throughout the cold winter months has only helped the tick population. Snow coverage acts as a giant quilt or insulator to keep the ticks warm under the leaf litter.”
Snow helps ticks survive the winter and we had a lot of it this year.
This month the ground is warming and black-legged ticks are getting active. All they need is unfrozen ground and an air temperature of 37°F to start moving out of the leaf litter. This spells danger for hikers, birders and especially for gardeners who handle all that leaf litter.
Knowing they are vulnerable, stinkbugs take shelter in the fall by burrowing into the cracks of our homes. Aaarrg!
Spotted lanternfly adults die in winter but that’s no problem for this invasive insect. Before they die the females lay eggs to overwinter as the next generation.
According to Wikipedia, research last year at The State University of New Jersey suggests that -13oF is about the temperature at which all eggs die. At 5oF there is limited hatching but it depends on how long they were chilled and where they were kept. Pittsburgh has merely flirted with 0oF this winter, not enough to kill lanternfly eggs.
Frustrated that I could not see them from home I searched by car late Monday afternoon. There were no crows staging in the Upper Hill, Polish Hill, the Strip District, or near Trees Hall though I found a few hundred at Oak Hill west of Carlow. As I drove back from the Strip District I found a steady stream of crows flying toward the Cathedral of Learning — from where? — carefully avoiding the airspace above North Oakland and west Shadyside.
I chased them down to Frick Fine Arts where thousands were pouring in from every direction. They swirled in the trees near the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain and perched on the roof of Posvar Hall. In the top photo the fountain’s female statue appears to be holding up her arm to ward off the crows but in fact she is plucking a lyre and singing A Song to Nature for Pan, the reclining male figure, frozen in bronze since 1918.
Of course the crows would love to roost near the fountain. It has everything they’re looking for. Mature trees, night lights and the white noise of splashing water. But there are too many of them. Those who can’t find a spot fly over Central Oakland in the dark, scrambling for a place to sleep.
Meanwhile the week’s warmth brought out a last hurrah of insects including a Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica) or yellow woolly bear in Volant, PA …
… and a leaf-footed bug outside my window, probably a magnolia leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus fulvicornis). Last year’s leaf-footed visitor was eight days earlier in November. I think I know why they show up.
Leaf-footed bugs overwinter in leaf litter and are undoubtedly rousted out of their haven when the leaf blowers show up. Shortly before this bug appeared on our window, the 4-man leaf-blower crew at Ascension Church was in the final noisy throes of blowing and vacuuming a huge pile of leaves. I imagine the bug took refuge on our window while he figured out a new safe place to sleep away the winter.
While visiting Arizona I noticed that one plant in particular attracted lots of butterflies. The plant above was covered in snouts (Libytheana carinenta) though only one shows up in my photo.
Eventually I learned that the plant is desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides), a dioecious shrub with very different male and female flowers (male on left, female on right below). The male flowers get all the attention from butterflies.
It’s hard to imagine how the female flowers become pollinated when nothing seems to visit them.
Next month after the flowers are fertilized the seeds will be ready to disperse. I’m sorry I’ll miss the period when the brooms look fluffy.
Fall is breeding time for spotted lanternflies which are now in their winged adult phase. The adults won’t survive the winter but their egg masses will, so the more adults we eliminate now before they lay eggs the better.
Smashing a spotted lanternfly is easier said than done. The bugs have instant reflexes and jump when approached. However you can catch them in a water bottle. Easily! That’s why this video went viral.
Save a couple of plastic water bottles and lids. You’ll need lids to keep the bugs in the bottle.
Catch the bugs early in the day before they go too far up the trees.
Freeze the bottles containing lanternflies. The bugs die when they’re cold. Ta dah.
p.s. UPDATE, 5 November 2021: I saw my first spotted lanternfly in Schenley Park. It was in the SLF trap near the Bartlett tufa bridge.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Bugwood and Kate St. John; videos embeded from YouTube)