Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are thriving in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. This flock of 14 feels right at home in a Kathy Saunders’ backyard.
Meanwhile, where have all the city turkeys gone? A decade ago they were easy to find in Schenley Park and Oakland but I haven’t seen one here in three years. This vintage article describes an impromptu Turkey Day at WQED when six came for a visit in November 2011.
Throughout October Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods had not experienced a freeze, even though it was felt in the outlying areas. That changed on the first two days of November with a whisper of snow. We still had fall colors before the freeze. There are brown leaves and bare trees in our future.
At top, landscaping plants are often bred to maximize fall color as seen on a cultivated witch hazel on 28 October.
The oozing “sweat” beads on this polypore mushroom are just the right color for autumn.
Heavy mist on 29 October clung to ornamental grasses at Phipps Conservatory.
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) was still blooming last week. Alas, it’s invasive.
Fall color’s peak in southwestern Pennsylvania used to be around the 12th of October but climate change has pushed it later, closer to the 21st, as you can see in the PA fall foliage prediction for 19-25 October.
This week I found bright leaves on red maple trees, at top, and yellow on buckeyes and hickories.
Frick and Schenley are dominated by oaks whose color will peak in the next two weeks. Meanwhile their few red maples turned red from the top down and have lost their leaves in the same order. The maples are gorgeous up close but you can’t see them from a distance because the tops are bare.
Tomorrow night the northwest wind will bring migrating birds overnight and patchy frost on Monday morning.
Turtleheads and late boneset flowers at Schenley Park. Do you see the honeybee?
A rainbow with crows over Oakland.
Fiery sunset on 7 September.
Six deer in Schenley Park — only 5 made it into the photo.
But there’s a photo of deer I wish I’d been able to take: Friday morning 8 September along 5th Ave between the Cathedral of Learning and Clapp Hall I saw 3 deer — 2 does and 1 fawn — standing on the pavement at Clapp Hall. They were close to the curb of 5th Ave at Tennyson as they tried to figure out how to cross 5th Ave during rush hour.
The white-tailed deer population in the City of Pittsburgh has been so high for so long that most people think the browse line in our parks is normal, but the light-gap you see under the trees above is not normal in a balanced forest. It’s a sign of deer overpopulation. Here’s what a browse line is and how deer maintain it.
Browse line: A phenomenon that occurs when herbivores consume all of the vegetation in the woods between the ground and the level of their highest reach. A clearly visible line is formed between the leafed and the leafless areas.
Is the browse line hard to recognize in the photo above? Here’s an extreme example.
This eye-level view of the Grande Allée of horse chestnut trees at the Tuileries in Paris is a man-made browse line in which gardeners trim the trees and clear the ground to maintain an opening beneath the trees at uniform height. Nothing is growing between the ground and the trimmed height.
An individual deer browsing the ground and lower branches of trees does not create the browse line. It’s the cumulative effect of too many deer eating at the same location over and over.
Last Friday I watched two 8-point bucks, antlers in velvet, maintain the browse line next to the Upper Trail at Schenley Park. The current browse line, seen in the video, is that clear view straight through the woods to the cars passing on the road beyond.
In the video the bucks eat herbaceous stems and leaves on the ground, then switch to twigs, leaves and stems of trees. About halfway in, the buck on the right stands on his hind legs to reach the lowest branches. The buck on the left wrestles with a tree to yank off the branches. Deer only have lower teeth so they can’t sharply bite off a branch like a beaver would.
In late August, when forage should be quite plentiful, these bucks are forced to eat their own cover and what little remains of the edible plants.
p.s. Here’s what the forest would look like if there was no browse line.
In the city of Pittsburgh there are so many white-tailed deer that it’s easy to see them in August. The bucks are eating, eating, eating to bulk up. The does are hanging out with their adolescent fawns in this brief period between birthing and mating. It’s the calm before the rut.
Last Friday morning I found eight deer resting in dappled shade in Schenley Park. My cellphone photos don’t do them justice except for this: The photos show how hard it is to notice deer that are lying down and not moving.
A few of them moved, however, grooming to shed their chestnut brown summer coats for gray-brown winter pelage. The photo above shows four bucks with antlers in velvet, each with a different point count: 4-point, 6-point, 7-point and 8-point.
Two does and two fawns rested a short distance from the males. The fawns gave the group away. They did not hold still for long. (The second doe is not in the photo.)
One week earlier it was impossible not to see this six-point buck browsing the hillside right next to the Lower Trail.
He’s leaving a lot of greenery behind but the leaves he’s not eating are unpalatable invasive aliens called goutweed. The buck is nosing through them to re-browse the deer-food plants hidden below the goutweed. Those food plants won’t recover this late in the season. All the food will be gone and he won’t be back to this spot.
In August the days are still longer than the nights and deer hormones are not surging yet but it’s only a matter of time and the Equinox before their sedate demeanor ends. According to the PA Game Commission, after 12 weeks of rut excitement from mid October through early January:
98% of the mature does will have bred
40% of the fawns will have bred at only 6-7 months old (city/suburb phenomenon)
85% of the pregnancies will result in twins or triplets, some with different fathers.
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Yesterday I was curious about the status of Panther Hollow Lake after I’d found it more than half drained out on Friday 23 June. I was out of town last week so yesterday was my first opportunity to see what happened. Happily, Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works and PWSA fixed the leak while I was away. The lake is refilling slowly as it rains.
These before and after slides show the same views on 23 June and 1 July.
Formerly a sea of mud, it now has water.
Panther Hollow Lake is empty here, 23 June 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Panther Hollow Lake refilling, 1 July 2023
Panther Hollow Lake, cone in the mud, 23 June 2023
Panther Hollow Lake refilling, cone barely visible, 1 July 2023
Here’s the drain on 23 June with mud at the outflow and water on 1 July.
Panther Hollow Lake going down the drain, 23 June 2023
Panther Hollow Lake refilled at the drain end, 1 July 2023
On my Friday morning walk in Schenley Park (23 June 2023) the first thing I noticed from the Upper Trail was that Panther Hollow Lake looked really odd. When I got down to the edge I found out why. The lake had drained out, leaving half of it a sea of mud.
Panther Hollow Lake was built in 1892 by damming Panther Hollow Run and directing its outflow to a sewer pipe containing its original drainage, Four Mile Run, plus sewage. Last week something went wrong at the outflow point and the lake emptied.
Within 15 minutes of my Friday call to Pittsburgh 311, employees from two City Departments arrived on the scene. By mid-morning the Department of Public Works and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority were working to fix the outflow.
Today (27 June) Panther Hollow Lake is probably filling again but I’m out of town and haven’t had a chance to see it. If you visit the lake this week, leave a comment to let me know how it looks.
Meanwhile, this episode does not fix Panther Hollow Lake’s underlying problems of summer algae blooms and its unnatural concrete edge that prohibits lakeside vegetation. The algae blooms in part because the lake is shallow. The lake is shallow because it’s passing through the normal life cycle of a lake, illustrated in this diagram from NHLakes:The Life of a Lake.
Once formed, lakes do not stay the same. Like people, they go through different life stages—youth, maturity, old age, and death. All lakes, even the largest, slowly disappear as their basins fill with sediment and plant material. The natural aging of a lake happens very slowly, over the course of hundreds and even thousands of years. But with human influence, it can take only decades.
… Eventually, the lake becomes a marsh, bog, or swamp. At this point, the drying-up process slows down dramatically; limnologists aren’t sure why. Eventually, the lake becomes dry land.
At this point eutrophic Panther Hollow Lake is “old” and somewhat like a marsh, a state that can last a long time without much change. But the lake’s 130 year history is filled with human intervention, from construction in 1892, through two “renovations” (1909 and 1957), and plans made in 2010-2016 to renovate again. Those plans fell through last November and put Panther Hollow Lake on hold.
Last Friday’s drain-out will likely restart the planning process. Meanwhile, the marsh attracted two rare birds in late April (American bittern and sora) and still has nesting red-winged blackbirds. On Friday the remaining “puddle” at the deep end held two Canada geese and a great blue heron, both unbothered by low water.
I was happy to see that deer are eating Japanese knotweed in Schenley as well as in Frick.
Because it had been two months since my last outing in Schenley, when we rounded the bend to Panther Hollow Lake I saw the park through new eyes. Sadly it looked unloved: scattered litter, algae on lake, and a large barren area after last Friday’s grading project.
At this moment the Panther Hollow Lake end of Schenley Park is not in good shape. However, there are birds.
Schenley Park, May 28, 2023 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM — Canada Goose 2 Mourning Dove 1 Chimney Swift 6 Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2 gull species 1: Flyover Great Blue Heron 1 Red-tailed Hawk 4: adult + 3 nestlings under PH Bridge Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 Downy Woodpecker 1 Peregrine Falcon 1 Perched at CL visible from Schenley Acadian Flycatcher 1 Red-eyed Vireo 4 Blue Jay 1 American Crow 1 Carolina Chickadee 3: adult feeding 2 young Tufted Titmouse 2 Northern Rough-winged Swallow 4 White-breasted Nuthatch 1 House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 1 Carolina Wren 2 European Starling 6 Gray Catbird 1 Wood Thrush 1 American Robin 20: including two active nests + 3rd family with recently fledged young Cedar Waxwing 1 House Sparrow 1 House Finch 5 American Goldfinch 1 Chipping Sparrow 1 Song Sparrow 3 Baltimore Oriole 2 Red-winged Blackbird 7 Brown-headed Cowbird 2 Common Grackle 1 Magnolia Warbler 2 Yellow Warbler 1 Scarlet Tanager 1 Northern Cardinal 4