Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …

Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.

Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.

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)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Annual Spray Your Clothes Day

It’s Spray Your Clothes Day (photo by Kate St. John)

7 April 2021

We missed a celebration when it snowed on 1 April so I’ve moved a very important annual event to right now. Today is Spray Your Clothes Day.

Pennsylvania is a hot spot for Lyme disease, a debilitating illness caused by a parasite transmitted by black-legged ticks. Many of us are spending more time outdoors than usual because COVID-19 has made indoor gatherings unsafe. If you’ve taken up gardening, hiking, birding, etc., you’ll want to spray your outdoor clothes with permethrin to repel black-legged ticks.

Black-legged ticks lurk in Japanese barberry, leaf litter, bush honeysuckle, weeds and tall grass, especially in moist environments. When you work with leaf litter in the garden, or brush past weeds nodding over the trail, or step off the path to let someone pass, a black-legged tick may latch on for a ride. If it sucks your blood for 24 hours you could get Lyme disease.

To avoid fumes and protect kids and pets, spray your clothes outdoors on a windless day. I sprayed mine last month so I’m good to go. If you haven’t done so yet, consider this your annual reminder. Learn more at Today Is Spray Your Clothes Day.

p.s. Don’t assume you’re safe if you only go to Pittsburgh’s large city parks. A 2015-2016 study found there are black-legged ticks in the city parks and 20-50% of them are carrying Lyme disease. This is typical in Pennsylvania.

(photo by Kate St. John)

These Tadpoles Migrate Every Day

Screenshot of western toad tadpoles from Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration

2 April 2021

Three weeks ago frogs were singing and laying eggs in the vernal ponds of southwestern Pennsylvania. Many of the eggs have hatched by now. What do the tadpoles do next? This video from a remote lake on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada provides a hint.

Maxwel Hohn spent four years filming a tiny migration we never see. Every morning western toad tadpoles (Anaxyrus boreas) swim from their nighttime shelters to feeding areas in the lake, then back again to hide at night. The result is his award-winning 8+ minute video: Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration.

Our eastern American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) are closely related to western toads so I wonder if they do this, too.

Meanwhile, if the video wasn’t amazing enough for you, here are two more amazing things about tadpoles and toads:

  • Don’t worry that our tadpoles won’t survive the freezing temperatures this morning in eastern North America. Even if the ponds freeze, tadpoles are able to overwinter under ice. See photos at What’s Under the Ice? Wow! Winter Tadpoles from Oakland Twp, Michigan.
  • Do you know where North America’s toads came from? South America. And they didn’t walk! “Based on DNA sequence comparisons, Anaxyrus americanus and other North American species of Anaxyrus are thought to be descended from an invasion of toads from South America prior to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama land bridge, presumably by means of rafting. — from the Wikipedia description of the American toad.

No Snakes Day

Brown tree snake on Guam (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2021

Today we celebrate someone who banished snakes from an island.

Legend has it that St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, chased all the snakes into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast.

The island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, is plagued by brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) accidentally introduced after World War II. In 70 years the snake population exploded to 2 million, more than 100 snakes per hectare, or more 110 snakes per football field. It’s the highest concentration of snakes anywhere in the world.

Brown tree snakes have caused the extinction of most of Guam’s native wildlife, thousands of power outages, widespread loss of domestic birds and pets, and considerable emotional trauma to residents and visitors. Guam’s plant life has diminished, too, because the snakes have eaten the pollinators.

People working to eradicate Guam’s brown tree snakes have learned a lot about the animal. For instance, the snake dies when it eats acetaminophen so they’ve air-dropped acetaminophen-laced mice to tempt the snakes.

A study this year showed that fat slippery poles do not protect nest boxes so that method will have to change. The snakes make themselves into lassos to climb up! Click on the picture below or its caption to see a video of the snake in motion.

Screenshot from video of brown tree snake lasso locomotion (video at Current Biology)

Everyone hopes that eradication efforts succeed and that Guam will celebrate No Snakes Day some time in the future. They could certainly use the help of St. Patrick and the luck of the Irish.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons an a screenshot from the lasso video; click on the captions to see the originals)

Sights and Sounds of Early Spring

Sun pillar at sunrise, 6 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 March 2021

Spring is coming! Our native trees are slow to bloom but cultivated flowers and amphibians are already active. There’s a lot to see and hear.

Above, on 6 March we were greeted by a sun pillar caused by ice crystals slowly falling through the air at sunrise.

A shagbark hickory lives up to its name in bright sunlight.

Shagbark hickory, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

American basswood now has bright red buds that are still cautious about opening.

American basswood buds, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cultivated European white willows have bright yellow twigs in March.

Cultivated willows turn yellow in early spring, Homewood Cemetery, 9 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Non-native crocuses are blooming so I hoped to see native snow trillium at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Friday, 12 March 2021. I did not find any, not even leaves. Was I too early or did the deer eat them?

However I was rewarded with the sound of frogs! Spring peepers and a few wood frogs called from the first vernal pool.

Peepers calling at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021

Wood frogs quacked in the second pool joined by a few solo peepers (hear that slow “creeeek” sound). In the video you can see the surface of the water moving with so many wood frogs.

Get outside while the sun’s shining. There’s more spring to come!

(photos audio and video by Kate St. John)

Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

Butterflies drinking turtle tears (screenshot from Phil Torres YouTube video)

17 February 2021

In 2018 in the Peruvian Amazon Phil Torres of The Jungle Diaries filmed colorful butterflies fluttering around turtles at the edge of the Tambopata River. He explains what the butterflies were doing:

Learn more about this phenomenon in Phil Torres’ video: Butterflies drinking Turtle Tears!?

One commenter wrote: “So if I cry, will butterflies come to me?”

(screenshot from Phil Torres Jungle Diaries video)

Jumping Spiders Sing and Dance

Adult male jumping spider, Phidippus mystaceus (photo by Thomas Shahan via Wikimedia Commons)

29 January 2021

Did you know that jumping spiders sing and dance?

Well, only the males do. They have to put on a show to distract the ladies. Otherwise their chosen mates will eat them!

Watch how this works in the PBS video below featuring Habronattus clypeatus jumping spiders native from the southern Rocky Mountains to the northern Sierra Madre Occidental and Sonoran Desert.

So does the male Phidippus mystaceus (at top) sing and dance? This paper on jumping spider sex indicates that courtship dances are common among all jumping spiders, so I think it’s safe to assume he dances, too.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

p.s. For those of you who quest for particular birds or bugs, you’ll enjoy the story that accompanies the Phidippus mystaceus photo. Click here and scroll down to read how, after 3 years of searching, Thomas Shahan finally found him. It begins: “It’s quite difficult for me to put into words just how long I have been wanting to find an adult male of this species!”

Like a Furry Robot

Jumping spider on a human finger (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you have ever approached a tiny spider that jumped suddenly far and fast you’ve probably seen a jumping spider (Salticidae), one of 6000 species on Earth.

Jumping spiders are harmless to humans and can be identified by the position of their eyes. They have four pairs(!) with the largest front and center. As for jumping, they use their back legs.

Jumping spiders’ well-developed internal hydraulic system extends their limbs by altering the pressure of their body fluid (hemolymph) within them. This enables the spiders to jump without having large muscular legs like a grasshopper. Most jumping spiders can jump several times the length of their bodies.

Wikipedia: Jumping Spider

When not jumping I’ve seen them move in a jerky fashion.

Like a furry robot.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Show Me Your Tail

Male zebra-tailed lizard, Tucson, AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 December 2020

One thing we don’t see in Pittsburgh are the antics of lizards. Only two lizard species occur in southwestern Pennsylvania but are rarely found, so when I saw Russ McSpadden’s tweet of two zebra-tailed lizards in the Sonoran Desert I was fascinated.

Their territorial sparring looks like cartoon dinosaurs.

So who are these guys?

Zebra-tailed lizards (Callisaurus draconoides) are 2.5 to 4 inches long, not including their tails, and are endemic to the open desert of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

During the breeding season, May to August, males are particularly colorful with iridescent blue and sometimes orange on their bellies. Each male defends a territory and works to attract multiple females. The more females he has the greater his social status and the more aggressively he defends his territory. Hence the threatening dance.

You can’t see much of the zebra tail in the video but these lizards use it as a social signal and predator deterrent. According to Wikipedia, “When threatened zebra-tailed lizards run quickly with their toes curled up and tails raised over their backs, exposing the stripes” as shown in the photo below.

Zebra-tailed lizard, Death Valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The dominant lizard in the video must be shouting at the other guy, “Leave now! Run away! Show me your tail!”

(*) The two lizard species that occur in southwestern PA are the northern fence lizard and five-lined skink. I’ve never seen a five-line skink and have only seen a fence lizard once — in Virginia Beach.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. embedded tweet from Russ McSpadden @PeccaryNotPig)

The Virus That Kills Birds

  • Ruffed grouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As we struggle with a nearly out-of-control coronavirus pandemic I was stunned to learn there’s an equally deadly virus among birds. The discovery came when I found the answer to Craig’s question: “Kate, why is the ruffed grouse population in decline in Pennsylvania? Habitat destruction?” No, West Nile Virus is killing them off.

West Nile Virus arrived in North America more than 20 years ago and spread across the continent in just five years, killing native raptors and songbirds in its wake. When it struck Pittsburgh’s bird community in 2002 it was fairly common to find dead crows. That was a long time ago and I don’t see dead crows anymore so I thought birds were now able to survive the virus. Instead a 2015 study found that West Nile Virus is still wiping out birds in North America. It affects each species differently.

Some such as wild turkeys, chickens and house sparrows had a die-off when the virus arrived and then recovered with apparent immunity. Others never developed that resilience. The virus ravages their bodies so quickly that they die without reproducing.

The birds in the slideshow above are some of WNV’s most devastated victims. Every year their populations decline in a downward spiral. Greater sage-grouse and yellow-billed magpies have such restricted ranges that WNV may push them to extinction. This explains why I haven’t seen so many warbling vireos, purple finches and American goldfinches as I did a decade ago.

In 2016 the PA Game Commission studied the plight of the ruffed grouse and found that birds never exposed to WNV had only a 10% survival rate. This 9-minute video tells the whole story.

It’s ironic that we worried so much about West Nile virus when it’s actually a bird disease. Read more about West Nile Virus In Birds at kenyon.edu.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, J. Maughn, Steve Gosser and Chuck Tague,)