Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

The Start of Pollen Season

American elm, flowers becoming seeds in April, Homewood Cemetery (photo by Kate St. John)

14 April 2022

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.

American elm flowers in hand (photo by Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org)

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.

Red maple flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

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!

Blooming deciduous trees, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. This spring is off to a slow start so we started sneezing later than last year. šŸ˜‰

(photos by Kate St. John except for elm flowers in hand by Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org)

April Fooling Frogs

Wood frog close up (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 April 2022

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 asĀ amplexus. The females will typically each lay a singleĀ egg clutchĀ consisting of about 400-1,200 eggs.

Description of Wood Frogs from Mister Toad website by Michael F Benard @BenardMF

Wood frogs are some of the earliest frogs to appear in the spring so don’t wait. Get outdoors soon before they’re done mating.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video by Gregory Bulte)

Woodcocks and Peepers

  • Sunset at North Park's Upper Field, 16 March 2022, 7:32pm

20 March 2022

Last Wednesday evening, 16 March, eight of us waited at dusk near the Viewing Platform in North Park’s Upper Field for the woodcocks’ sky dance to begin.

The sun set at 7:27pm, the sky flamed and dimmed. It was barely glowing twenty minutes later when we heard the first ā€œpeent.ā€

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.

American woodcock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Listen to a complete cycle of peenting + whistling and chirping wings.

American woodcock display, Fauquier County, Virginia from Xeno Canto

On Wednesday the moon was almost full and the woodcocks were very active. We heard at least six of them!

Waxing moon over Upper Field, North Park, 16 March 2022, 8:01p (photo by Kate St. John)

The spring peepers at Eagles Nest parking area were active, too.

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)
Spring peepers at North Park, 16 March 2022 (recorded by Kate St. John)

Woodcocks will continue their sky dance in April and early May but if you want two audio treats at once, go out in March by the light of the moon.

(sunset and moon photos + sound of spring peepers by Kate St. John. Woodcock and peeper photos from Wikimedia Commons. Woodcock audio from Xeno Canto)

It’s a “Newdybrank”

Gas flame nudibranch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 March 2022

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.”

Nudibranchs are sea slugs whose name means “naked gills” though some of them have no gills at all. From a video at DeepMarineScenes I learned that nudibranchs are …

  • 3000+ species of sea slugs similar to snails but without any shells inside or out,
  • Found from the poles to the tropics, most often in shallow tropical waters,
  • Carnivores that eat sponges, corals, anemones, etc.
  • Range in size from 1/4 inch to 1 foot long,
  • Use smell and feel to get around. Their eyes sense only light and dark.
  • Brightly colored from the toxic things they eat.
  • Toxic themselves. Their color warns off predators.
  • Their only real predators are other nudibranchs. Yow!

Here are a few more species.

Red nudibranch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Nudibranch, Nembrotha lineolata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Nudibranch, Nembrotha kubaryana (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Take a look at their lifestyle in a video from PBS.

For lots and lots of information about nudibranchs see this 5+ minute video from DeepMarineScenes: Facts: The Nudibranch.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Snow Helps Ticks Survive The Winter

Snow cover in Schenley Park, 4 Feb 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 March 2022

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?

Black-legged tick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the fall black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) burrow under leaf litter and hope for the best. Bitter cold doesn’t kill them if they can hide from it.

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 37Ā°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.

Before you go outdoors, take time to protect yourself as described in this vintage blog: Today is Spray Your Clothes Day. Did you find a tick on your body? Get it tested for Lyme disease at PA Tick Research Lab (https://www.ticklab.org/)

Spring is coming but so are the ticks. Be prepared.

Snowdrops, 2 March 2022 (Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John and black-legged tick from Wikimedia Commons)

Is This Winter Cold Enough to Kill Pests?

Icy waterfall, Butler County (photo by Kate St. John)

24 January 2022

With lows last weekend in the single digits and many days colder than normal this month, is this winter cold enough to kill pests? Not necessarily.

Insects and ticks have evolved to survive a normal winter but are vulnerable to extremes. Some pests may be vulnerable this winter if they aren’t careful to hide.

Fleas are the least hardy insects on this list as they will die after 10 consecutive days at or below 37oF, which is actually above freezing. However …

Fleas avoid cold temperatures by spending winter in the fur of warm mammals including pet dogs and cats. Perhaps that’s why fleas seem so bad in the fall.

Termites die when the temperature drops below freezing but they are subterranean and avoid the cold by burrowing below the frostline.

Don’t count on termites to die in cold winters. Do count on them to invade your home as the ground temperature drops in the fall.

Black-legged ticks decrease their activity below 35F and when the ground is covered in snow. Knowing they will die at temperatures below 10F they hide in warm places. However, they are lured out of hiding when warm weather fluctuates, followed by extreme cold.

Will this crazy winter lure ticks to their deaths? We’ll have to wait and see.

Emerald ash borers are incredibly hardy insects that survive to -20oF or -30oF depending on their winter hiding places.

Pittsburgh has never reached -30oF, even during our record cold of -22oF in January 1994, so don’t count on our winters to control this invasive pest.

Brown marmorated stinkbug on honeysuckle leaf (photo by Kate St. John)

Brown marmorated stinkbugs can survive subzero temperatures. “The U.S. Forest Service estimated that 80 percent of them died when temperatures fell to -20oF in Minneapolis in 2014.” But it didn’t kill all of them.

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 atĀ The State University of New JerseyĀ 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.

Winter has got to be good for something. I wish it was a great pest control system.

Read more about insect pests in winter at The Farmers’ Almanac.

(see photo credits in the captions; click the links to see the originals)

They Never Get Old

Juvenile European lobster (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 December 2021

Stress makes humans age faster so it’s no wonder that pandemic stress has made many of us feel and even look older.

Unlike us, however, lobsters are biologically immortal. They don’t slow down, they don’t get frail, they don’t die of old age. Lobsters never get old.

Their lack of aging is described in this vintage article from 2014, written at a time that was stressful for my family but turned out happy in the end.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons of a juvenile European lobster, closely related to the American lobster)

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)