Category Archives: Schenley Park

Is This Bug True?

Here’s lookin’ at ya! Deceased annual cicada, Neotibicen sp. (photo by Kate St. John)

All bugs are insects but not all insects are true bugs. Is this cicada a true bug? The answer is complicated.

According to Ask A Biologist, true bugs are insects with:

  • A long slender beak-shaped mouth part (proboscis) for sucking liquid food.
  • A partially hardened pair of front wings with clear tips and completely clear rear wings shorter than the front ones.
  • Few joints in the antennae and feet: antennae about five joints, feet usually no more than three.

Cicadas have these characteristics so they and 50,000 to 80,000 other insects are in the “true bug” Order Hempitera. This tiny green flatid planthopper is too.

Flatid planthopper hiding on a bottlebrush buckeye stem in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

But their status is more complicated. These two are true bugs but not true “True Bugs.”

Within Hempitera there’s a suborder of really True Bugs called Heteroptera. Cicadas, planthoppers, spittlebugs, aphids, and adelgids aren’t in this suborder. (See taxonomic chart from bugguide.net below.)

BugGuide’s taxonomy for the order Hempitera (screenshot from bugguide.net)

Encyclopedia Britannica says you can recognize Heteroptera by the X shaped design on their backs. Here are three true True Bugs I’ve seen in Pittsburgh this month.

This green and brown shield bug (probably Elasmostethus artricornis) is native to North America. I found several perched on American spikenard in Schenley Park.

A true bug, probably a shield bug (photo by Kate St. John)

The invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs are mating this month. I found this pair at Washington’s Landing.

Brown marmorated stinkbugs mating (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, I think this is a leaf-footed bug because of the swollen leaf-like segments on his hind legs.

Probably a leaf-footed bug (photo by Kate St. John)

Wondering if a bug is true? It’s a safe bet that it isn’t. Most insects are not, including dragonflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, flies and fleas.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Very Tame

White-tailed deer are numerous and very tame in Schenley Park. Last week I encountered a doe with twin fawns near the swimming pool.

The family became alert while I was staring at them, but the mother has learned that we humans aren’t dangerous and is teaching it to her kids. How many generations does it take for the herd to become this tame?

Doe in Schenley Park, 29 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)
Her twin fawns, 29 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the past ten years I’ve seen the landscape change in Schenley Park while the deer population has grown exponentially. Where there used to be thick slopes of false Solomon’s seal and yellow jewelweed there is nothing green now, just carpets of fallen leaves. Having eaten the good stuff they are working on less tasty food, avoiding the poisonous plants such as white snakeroot at their feet in these photos. Some day their range will fail them.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like A Mountain,” A Sand County Almanac

p.s. Click here for a photo of an 8-point buck I saw in the park yesterday, August 3.

p.p.s. Also see this article: Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

(photos by Kate St. John, Schenley Park, 29 July 2019)

Why So Many Landslides?

After a rainy period or spring thaw in Pittsburgh we inevitably see devastating landslides on the news. Why does Pittsburgh have so many landslides and why are they associated with rain or moisture?

The problem is a combination of a particular bedrock with our steep hillsides. Where both are present the location is landslide prone, as shown on the City of Pittsburgh map below. (Click here to see the City’s interactive landslide-prone map and zoom in for details. Click here for the Allegheny County interactive landslide map.)

Landslide prone areas (screenshot from Pittsburgh GIS Data Download Page)

The house in the video above was inside a landslide zone on Semicir Street overlooking Riverview Park. Add water and … the house collapsed!

The bedrock at fault is Pittsburgh redbed, a claystone that disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces if exposed to pressure when it’s wet. Redbed is usually under pressure because it’s underneath solid rock and overlying soil. Add water to a steep slope and you have a landslide.

This sandstone boulder on the Bridle Trail in Schenley Park was part of the escarpment above it until the redbed layer beneath it gave way.

An old landslide in Schenley Park on the Bridle Trail, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a future landslide on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail. This sandstone boulder, high above my head, will fall some day because the slow drip of water over the boulder has disintegrated the underlying redbed. Notice the reddish crumbled stones.

Sandstone boulder is undercut, a landslide waiting to happen at Lower Panther Hollow Trail, Schenley Park, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I had read that Pittsburgh redbed disintegrates when wet but I wanted to see for myself so I gathered some redbed rocks and ran an experiment.

Thousands of years ago these small crumbles were a much bigger solid rock but water had already acted on them. Will the crumbles disintegrate in the presence of water and pressure? I kept some rocks dry and soaked others for a day. Here’s my experiment.

Add water and pressure to Pittsburgh redbed claystone and … Watch out below!

p.s. For a really spectacular landslide, check out what happened to Route 30 in East Pittsburgh in April 2018.

(photos and redbed experiment by Kate St. John, house collapse video embedded from WTAE Pittsburgh on YouTube, map from Pittsburgh GIS Data)

Schenley Park Bridle Trail, July 28, 8:30a

American hophornbeam fruit at Schenley Park Bridle Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

Join me on Sunday, July 28 at 8:30am for a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park.

On this month’s outing we’ll visit a trail I’ve never shown you before. Meet me at the start of the Bridle Trail, so named because it was built in the late 1880s as a riding path for horses. We’ll make a clockwise circle for 1.6 miles.

Bridle Trail loop in Schenley Park (map saved at GMap Pedometer)

The gravel trail is a gentle downhill with rock outcrops, a view of the Monongahela River, two stone bridges, and some cool birds and plants. American hophornbeam winged fruits, shown above, are seen along the way.

Dress for the weather (probably hot!). Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring water, a sunhat, binoculars and field guides if you have them.

p.s. What goes downhill must come up the woodland staircase to the Oval.

(photo by Kate St. John, map created using Gmap Pedometer)

Ghost Flower

Indian pipe, Schenley Park, 11 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found a ghost flower blooming in Schenley Park last Monday.

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) looks ghostly because it has no chlorophyll. Instead it’s symbiotic or parasitic on fungi that have a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with tree roots. This makes Indian pipe a parasite on a parasite … sort of.

Though it’s a perennial member of the Heath family, Indian pipe only grows when conditions are perfect and these are so impossible to replicate that the plant isn’t cultivated.

Its stems and flowers grow and bloom in a couple of days. The flowers are pollinated, in part, by long-tongued bees and fade within 1-2 weeks. After pollination the developing fruit makes the flower head stand up. Click here to see.

Later this month I’ll return to see the fruiting stems and will look for remnants of the bizarre truck accident that was in progress when I found the flowers.

Tri-axle truck falls over the hill, 8 July 2019: I found Indian pipe while on a shortcut past the paving project on Serpentine Road. My normal route was closed because a huge tri-axle dump truck had pitched over the hillside, dumped its load of asphalt and was lying on its side. On Tuesday July 9 they winched the truck out of the valley. Unfortunately, as of Friday July 12 the asphalt is still on the hillside. 🙁 Click on the embedded news links to see what the accident looked like.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Two Fledge Watches + A Bird Walk, June 1-12

Schenley Plaza tent (photo by Kate St. John)
Schenley Plaza tent (photo by Kate St. John)

The first two weeks of June are jam-packed with outdoor opportunities. Join me at one of these upcoming events:

  • Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, June 1-5
  • Phipps Bio-Blitz Bird Walk in Schenley Park, June 2
  • Downtown Peregrine Fledge Watch, June 7 and 10, 11, 12.

Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, Schenley Plaza, June 1-5, 11a – 1p

Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch is a fluid drop-in event to swap peregrine stories and watch the young Pitt peregrines learn to fly. Come when you can. Bring binoculars or camera if you have them. Be sure to check the blog for updates in case of weather cancellation.
Where: Schenley Plaza near the tent, shown above.
When: 1-5 June 2019, 11a-1p. Fledge Watch is weather dependent and will be canceled for rain or thunder.
Who: I’ll be there with John English of Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook group and lots of peregrine fans. (Note on June 1: John English will start the watch at 11a; I’ll arrive at noon.)
Parking: Pay-parking is available around Schenley Plaza (on-street parking is free on Sundays!) and at Carnegie Museum.

Phipps BioBlitz Bird Walk in Schenley Park, Sun June 2, 8:30a – 10:30a

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens with Cathedral of Learning in the distance (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday June 2, the fourth annual Phipps BioBlitz Festival will bring together families, students, local scientists, naturalists, and teachers to conduct biological surveys of living species in Schenley Park. The event is free with no advance registration required. Read all about Phipps BioBlitz Day here.
Where: Meet me at the back of the Event Tent on Phipps’ front lawn. You’ll see a sign for my walk.
When: Sunday June 2, 8:30a-10:30a
Parking: Free on Sundays!
Note: As soon as the bird walk is over, I’ll adjourn to Schenley Plaza to look for peregrines.

Downtown Peregrine Fledge Watch, Third Avenue, June 7, 10, 11, 12 … 11a-1p

Fledge watchers Downtown at Third Ave, 7 June 2016 (photo by John English)
Downtown Fledge Watch, June 2016 (photo by John English)

During the second week of June — perhaps earlier — the peregrine nestlings on Third Avenue will make their first flight. Because their nest is low they may need our help. In the first 24 hours of flight, fledgling peregrines lack the wing strength to take off from the ground and have to be put up high to start over. The PA Game Commission (PGC) will send an officer to rescue the bird. Call PGC at 724-238-9523.

The #1 purpose of Downtown Fledge Watch is to educate the public so lots of people know to call the Game Commission if they find a downed peregrine. We’d love to believe trained volunteers can find every bird but the reality in Downtown Pittsburgh is that peregrines in trouble are found by people who’ve never seen a peregrine.  People often tell building security guards about the birds so I’ve notified nearby Point Park University (site of the rescue porch).

Downtown Peregrine Fledge Watch is a drop-in event to watch the young Downtown peregrines, educate the public about peregrines, and alert the PA Game Commission at 724-238-9523 if a fledgling needs to be rescued from the ground.

Come when you can. Bring binoculars or camera if you have them. Be sure to check the blog for updates in case of weather cancellation.

Where: 3rd Avenue between Wood and Smithfield in Downtown Pittsburgh. (click the link for a map)
When: On weekdays, Fri June 7, Mon-Wed June 10-12. Time: 11a-1p. Fledge Watch is weather dependent and will be canceled for rain or thunder.
Who: I’ll be there (except June 12) with John English of Pittsburgh Falconuts Facebook group.
Notes: There is no official Fledge Watch on June 8-9 weekend but John and/or I may be there. On-street parking is free on Sundays.

(photo credits: Schenley Plaza tent by Kate St. John, Phipps Conservatory from Wikimedia Commons, Downtown Fledge Watch by John English)

A Beautiful Success Story

Kentucky yellowwood flowers, Schenley Park, 20 May 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

This flowering tree is a native North American but was so rare that few people ever saw it until botanists fell in love with it.

Originally found in small patches from Arkansas to Kentucky and Tennessee, the Kentucky yellowwood’s (Cladrastis kentukea) beautiful flowers, mid-story height, and tolerance for full sun in urban settings makes it the perfect ornamental.

Original range of the Kentucky yellowwood tree (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Planted in eastern North America for over 200 years, it became naturalized in scattered locations from Ohio to Massachusetts. Allegheny County is one of the few new places where Kentucky yellowwood grows wild.

On Sunday in Schenley Park, our group was awed by the profusion of vanilla-scented flowers at the Visitors Center. We didn’t recognize the species so I went exploring yesterday and found it both cultivated and wild.

Kentucky yellowwood at the Schenley Park Visitors Center, 20 May 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here are some other cool facts about Kentucky yellowwood:

  • It’s called yellowwood because “a clear yellow dye is obtained from the heartwood.”
  • It is the only Cladrastis native to North America.
  • The flowers are attractive to bees. Narratives say the tree is attractive to birds.
  • Flowering varies from year to year with heavy blooming every 2-3 years, particularly after a long hot summer. 2019 is a big year for Kentucky yellowwood in Pittsburgh.
  • Every description says the tree flowers in June, but blooming started here in mid May — two+ weeks early, probably due to climate change.

Once I started looking I found the tree in many out of the way places in Schenley Park, probably growing wild. Kentucky yellowwood is a beautiful success story in Pittsburgh.

Today in Schenley Park: Canada Warbler!

Canada warbler in Schenley Park, 19 May 2019 (photo by Peter Bell)

This morning 14 of us met at the Visitors’ Center for a bird walk in Schenley Park. We started with a view of the peregrine falcons at the Cathedral of Learning and ended with Best Bird in a tree near the Visitors’ Center — a Canada warbler!

Schenley Park outing, 19 May 2019 (photo taken by Margaret Laske)

Highlights in between included the sound of Tennessee warblers, scarlet tanagers, a yellow warbler, and an Acadian flycatcher, plus the sight of two ruby-throated hummingbirds, a wood thrush building her nest, a blue jay feeding nestlings, and a bay-breasted warbler in the tree canopy.

There were a heck of a lot of bullfrog tadpoles in Panther Hollow Lake. Why so many? They were almost gross.

After the walk we were milling about when Pete Bell took the photo at top and asked what it was. A Canada warbler! Several of us stayed 20-30 minutes to re-find it with some really great looks. Kuldeep Singh captured this gorgeous photo of the bird.

Canada Warbler (photo by Kuldeep Singh)

In all we saw and heard 32 species.  The complete checklist is here on eBird.

(photos of Canada warbler: at top by Peter Bell, at bottom by Kuldeep Singh. Group photo taken by Margaret Laske using Kate St. John’s phone)

Schenley Park Outing, May 19, 8:30a

Red-eyed vireo on nest (photo by Don Weiss)

Join me on Sunday May 19 at 8:30am for a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park.

Meet at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive for this 8:30am to 10:30am walk. We’ll see flowers, late migrants and nesting birds. Red-eyed vireos, shown above, nest in Schenley Park. Will we see one?

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Check the Events page before you come for more information and in case of cancellation.

(photo of nesting red-eyed vireo by Don Weiss)