In Schenley and Frick Parks you can look straight through the forest if you duck your head below four feet high. In Schenley Park the ground is often bare and most plants in that four-foot zone are gone. But one flower, wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), is doing just fine in the city parks.
The absence of cover from the ground to 4 – 5 feet is called a browseline (below) and is evidence of an overpopulation of white-tailed deer.
According to this KDKA report, the deer population in Schenley Park is estimated at 80-150, which roughly equates to 100-200 deer per square mile. A healthy population in a balanced forest would be 20-30 deer per square mile, so any plant that survives in the Pittsburgh’s city parks is something that deer don’t eat.
A year ago in Schenley Park we had such a slow birding day that I wrote, “We worked for every bird.” A year later, nine of us were there yesterday and the birding was even slower! (14 species instead of 19.) However we found lots of insects and two white-tailed bucks in velvet. Here’s the story in pictures, thanks to Connie Gallagher.
Connie saw the very Best Bird, a blue-gray gnatcatcher.
We pondered the identity of these wasps and then remembered, all at once, that they are bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), a type of yellowjacket wasp.
There was still dew on the wild senna as this bumblebee gathered nectar.
The browseline is so severe in Schenley Park that there’s no cover for the deer who sleep there during the day. Looking down from the Falloon Trail we saw two bucks, a 7-point buck (at top) and a 10-point below.
Fortunately some of us heard these birds flying overhead. I can tell their identity by shape and the yellow tips of their tails. Cedar waxwings.
Here’s the group that worked for every bird on Sunday. Thank you all for coming!
Twelve years have passed. According to deer experts “Urban deer can live for 10 years; the deer population, if unchecked, doubles about every two years.” Schenley Park now has as much as 64 times the number of deer we had in 2010. This is truly unsustainable, even for the deer themselves.
Schenley’s deer have completely consumed all the good food plants and are starting to nibble the poisonous ones. The browse line is painfully obvious. In the process deer have eradicated their favorite plants from Schenley Park.
Orange jewelweed and yellow jewelweed provide nectar for hummingbirds and bumblebees and are a favored food of deer.
Both jewelweeds were prolific in Schenley Park as recently as four years ago.
But this year all the accessible plants have been eaten down to bare stems. The only ones that flower are those in spots unreachable by deer — on extremely steep slopes or hidden among thick cattails in Panther Hollow Lake.
Jewelweeds are annuals that must re-seed every year but no seeds are produced in this deer-browsed landscape. Impatiens will disappear from Schenley Park when the seed bank is exhausted.
False Solomon’s seal used to grow throughout Schenley Park and it carpeted the ground in an area near the Bridle Trail. All of it has been eaten to the ground since 2014. Here’s what it looked like eight years ago.
White wood asters used to bloom in Schenley’s woods. Not anymore. Here’s what they looked like in 2013.
Eradicated plants are indirect evidence of too many deer in Schenley Park. Direct evidence is their visibility every day.
A sustainably-sized deer herd would hide in the underbrush while sleeping during the day, but the browse line in Schenley is so severe there is no cover for them. The large herd has coped by becoming accustomed to people and leashed dogs.
I stood near this group of three deer on Sunday 21 August using my snapshot camera zoomed to 90mm (approximately 2x). This 8-point buck did not care that I was there.
Sometime this summer the Department of Public Works placed a large sandstone rock at the base of the stairs behind the Schenley Park Visitors’ Center. The prominent fossil facing the stairs tells a story about life in Pittsburgh 300 to 330 million years ago.
The sand became sandstone and in the early 21st century the rock separated from its fellows thereby exposing the fossil. This rock many have fallen at the Bridle Trail rockslide.
I have never seen Lepidodendron’s closest living relative, Lycopodium, in Schenley Park …
… but I’ll look for it now that I’ve seen its fossil ancestor.
Thank you to Public Works for placing this fossil rock on display in Schenley Park.
p.s. If this Lepidodendron had fallen in a swamp instead of on a sandy beach, it would have become coal. Read about similar fossils at Ferncliff Peninsula in Ohiopyle State Park in this vintage article: Fossils at Ferncliff
(photos by Kate St. John, illustrations from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
Twelve of us met in Schenley Park yesterday morning and walked East Circuit Road in search of birds. As expected in late July the birds were quiet, though we did manage to see or hear 27 species. Our checklist is here and listed at the end.
Best Bird was a pileated woodpecker hammering on a fallen log in the darkest woods. The photo above is not from our walk. Chad+Chris Saladin had better light for their photo in May 2020.
I forgot to take a picture of the group. 🙁 Here is my one photo from the walk: Yellow hawkweed (Pilosella caespitosa) blooming in the grass.
eBird checklist: Schenley Park, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Jul 31, 2022 8:30A – 10:30A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2 Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 8 Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 2 Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 4 Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) 2 Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 5 Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) 1 Heard Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) 1 Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 4 American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 7 Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 6 Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) 1 White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 1 House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 3 Young with obvious gape-beak Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 1 European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 2 Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) 1 Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) 1 Heard one making agitated call American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 15 House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 2 American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 3 Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 1 Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 2 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1 Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 5