Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

A Warm Week of Crows and Insects

As the waxing moon rises, crows swirl above the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain at Frick Fine Arts, 8 November 2021

13 November 2021

It’s been a warm week in November for crows and insects with lows above freezing and highs in the mid to upper 60s.

Since I last reported on Pittsburgh’s winter crows they’ve changed their flight path and staging areas. Prior to 2 November they staged near the border of North Oakland and Shadyside but that evening they refused to fly over my neighborhood and haven’t done so since. I imagine they wore out their welcome and were encouraged to leave.

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.

Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain at dusk, 8 November 2021

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 …

Yellow woolly bear caterpillar, Volant, PA, 10 November 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

… 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 bug outside my window, 11 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

He has something in common with the crows.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Butterflies on Broom

American snout butterfly on desert broom, Box Bar Recreation Area, Arizona, 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

30 October 2021

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.

Male and female flowers on desert broom, Box Bar Recreation Area, Tonto National Forest, 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Easily Catch Spotted Lanternflies

Spotted lanternfly adult (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 October 2021

The invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) hasn’t taken over Pittsburgh yet but it’s only a matter of time. Since first seen in western Pennsylvania in January 2020 at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, Beaver County, the bugs have expanded their population and range. They’ve been seen on the North Side, in Homestead, and elsewhere near the railroads that brought them here.

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.

Adult spotted lanternfly (Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture, Bugwood.org)

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.

photo by Kate St. John

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.

Good luck!

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)

Waves of Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterfly on salvia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 September 2021

In mid-to-late September monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) pass through western Pennsylvania on the way to their winter home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. Last week I saw quite a few flying southwest, one at a time.

Each butterfly travels alone, migrating 50-100 miles a day and resting at night. By the time the eastern population has reached Texas their paths converge.

Monarch butterfly fall migration patterns (map from US Forest Service)

They look for good roosting habitat and end up together, often in pine trees, to wait out the night or bad weather.

Migrating monarch butterflies resting on a pine tree on Fire Island, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When flight conditions suddenly improve they are spurred to leave. They all depart at once. That’s what happened on 21 September 2021 in west-central Texas after a cold front passed through.

Watch waves of monarchs light up the radar in this Facebook post at Garden Naturally Group.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map from US Forest Service; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Bugs’ Last Fling

Praying mantis, SGL63, Clarion County, 20 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 September 2021

Yesterday was the last really hot day before tomorrow’s storms and a return to cooler temperatures. We found many active insects, including mosquitoes!, as we looked for birds at State Game Land 63 in Clarion County yesterday morning.

Above and below, an apparently pregnant praying mantis looks for a place to lay her eggs.

Praying mantis, Clarion County, 20 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Many monarchs flew by on their way south. Will they reach Pittsburgh before the storms?

Monarch butterfly on Queen Anne’s lace, 20 Sep 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

And a field of grass and goldenrod was a-flutter with small orange butterflies. (I think one may be a pearl crescent. Can you identify these two?)

Two butterflies nectar at goldenrod, 20 Sep 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)
Three’s a crowd: butterflies at goldenrod, 20 Sep 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

Bugs are having their last big fling.

(photos by Kate St. John and Donna Foyle)

Caterpillar Attracts Attention, Moth Does Not

American dagger moth caterpillar, 13 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 September 2021

This gorgeous yellow caterpillar is an American dagger moth (Acronicta americana), a 2-inch long member of the owlet family Noctuidae. As a caterpillar he attracts attention.

As a moth he does not.

Adult American dagger moth (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The difference is a matter of self defense. The adult American dagger moth is probably good to eat so he does his best to hide.

The caterpillar is conspicuous because he has a toxin in his black bristles that cause a stinging sensation when the bristles break off and embed in skin. Like many poisonous animals he’s using aposematic coloration and behavior to simultaneously attract attention and warn off predators, “Look. Don’t eat me.” Other examples include poison frogs, monarch butterflies and skunks.

However, this caterpillar is not invincible like the hickory tussock moth. If you know what you’re doing it’s possible to flatten the black bristles and touch the dagger moth caterpillar as Rebekah D. Wallace does, below, to show the spiracles under the caterpillar’s “fur.”

An expert carefully flattens the bristles to show the lateral spiracles (photo by Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia)

No thanks. I’ll look but not touch.

(photos by Kate St. John, Wikimedia Commons, and Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia via bugwood.org; click on the captions to see the originals)

Check The Antennae

End band net-wing beetle, Frick Park, 6 Sep 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 September 2021

This bug attracted my attention as it fluttered by so slowly that I thought it was a moth.

When it landed I could see its body shape and antennae were wrong for a moth. Moths usually have feathery antennae like this …

Antennae of an Agreeable Tiger Moth (photo by Chuck Tague)
Antennae of an Agreeable Tiger Moth (photo by Chuck Tague)

… whereas this bug has segmented antennae, as seen in this photo from Wikimedia Commons.

iNaturalist told me it was an “end band net-wing beetle (Calopteron terminale).” The black tip on the elytra (wing coverings) is the “end band.” The large and membranous “net-wings” are covered when the beetle is at rest. Click here to see him with open wings.

In flight I thought he was a moth because “This beetle is a strong, but slow, lumbering flier,” according to North American Insects and Spiders.

Check the antennae to narrow the possibilities. On beetles they can be whimsical.

Longhorn Beetle “Whitespotted Sawyer,” Sequoia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Click beetle with antler-like antennae, Tsu, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Kate St. John, Chuck Tague and Wikimedia Commons)

Leaf Miner on White Snakeroot

Leaf mine on white snakeroot, 19 August 2021, Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)

5 September 2021

Have you seen an unusual white squiggle on a green leaf? The pattern was made by a leaf miner, a tiny insect larva that eats a path between the top and bottom surfaces of the leaf.  The path ends when the larva is ready to pupate. When the insect departs it leaves a hole.

There are many tiny moths, beetles, sawflies and flies that make leaf mines. Some create blotches. Others, like this one, make serpentine paths. You can identify the insect(s) that made the paths — or at least narrow the number of species — by noting the type of mine and identifying the plant host.

This serpentine leaf mine was on white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in Frick Park on 19 August. Based on the Illinois Wildflowers list of insects that feed on Ageratina altissima, here are two possible suspects that create serpentine leaf mines and live in Pennsylvania.

  • The larvae of a tiny fly, Liriomyza eupatoriella. (NOTE: While researching this insect I discovered Charley Eiseman, an expert on leafminers and author of the only photo of the bug at bugguide.net. More on Charley Eiseman below.)

If you want to know more about leaf miners, go to the expert. Check out Charley Eiseman‘s book, Leafminers of North America or visit his BugTracks blog where he writes about all kinds of insects. He’s even discovered new species.

(photos by Kate St. John, screenshot of bugguide.net and photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Disappearing In The Sand

Coquina clams, open shells, Corpus Christi (photo by Pinke via Creative Commons license)

31 August 2021

Coquina clams (Donax variabilis) are tiny saltwater molluscs found on sandy beaches from Virginia to Texas. Their variable colors are beautiful and at only 3/4 inch long they are just the right size for collecting. I usually find an empty half shell rather than two joined like butterfly wings (above).

Colors of coquina clams (photo by Florida Fish & Wildlife via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Since I only pay attention to empty shells I never thought about where they live and how they get there until I saw this video. Watch two coquina clams disappear in the sand.

(photos from Pinke via Flickr and Florida Fish & Wildlife on Flickr)

Cicada Outside My Window

Scissor-grinder cicada outside my window, 27 Aug 2021, 8pm (photo by Kate St. John)

28 August 2021

Last night at sunset I heard a bug outside my window and found a scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen winnemanna) perched on the bricks outside the glass. He sang his courtship song to attract a mate, a repetitive WEEE ah, WEEE ah, WEEE ah, WEEE ah that tapers at end. It’s a sound so unique that he can be identified by song. Click here to hear.

When the cicada left he flew directly at my window and bounced off the glass, over and over again. I imagine his 5 eyes were fooled by a reflection of the sky.

Cicada closeup (photo by Dana Nesiti)
Cicada closeup (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Don’t confuse our annual cicadas with the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in D.C. last May and disappeared in July. Scissor-grinders emerge every year in July and peak in September and they look different from each other.

Annual cicada in Pittsburgh, probably scissor-grinder.
Annual cicada, 5 Aug 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)
17-year cicadas are not in Pittsburgh this year. See the red eyes!
Magicicada sp. is not in Pittsburgh in 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos by Kate St. John, Dana Nesiti and from Wikimedia Commons)