Category Archives: Series

House Sparrows Put On Their Winter Coats

House sparrow in British Columbia, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds that eat insects leave Pennsylvania for the winter but the omnivores, like this house sparrow, stay behind.  Food won’t be a problem but it’s going to get cold so the house sparrows get ready in advance.

A study by Lowther and Cink in 1992 found that house sparrows (Passer domesticus) prepare for winter by molting into heavier plumage. Plumage weight increased 70% between August and September alone.  Summer weight is 0.9 grams; winter weight is 1.5 grams.

In September the house sparrows put on their winter coats.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. 
This article was inspired by page 153 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, 3rd edition.) )

Fall Foliage: When?

Moraine State Park, 15 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Summer ended on Friday morning. Brrrr! Now that it’s cold, it’s time for colorful fall foliage, right?

Some reports say western Pennsylvania won’t have pretty leaves this fall, others say we will.  One thing is certain, though. The leaves stayed green longer than usual.

Twenty years ago our fall foliage reached its peak around October 15 but today — only one day before the 15th — the leaves have only begun to change.  We had the same situation last year as shown in my photo taken at Moraine State Park on 15 October 2017.

Delayed timing makes it hard to know when fall color will reach its peak but the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry (DCNR) is here to help.  Check out their Fall Foliage Guide complete with an interactive map and weekly reports.  The October 11-17, 2018 forecast map is shown below (yellow means “approaching best color”). Click here or on the caption to see the full report.

screenshot of Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, Oct 11-17 2018, by PA DCNR

Don’t worry if you haven’t gone “leaf peeping” yet in western Pennsylvania.  You still have time to see fall colors this month.

(photo by Kate St. John, Screenshot from the Pennsylvania Fall Foliage Report, October 11-18, 2018, PA DCNR; click on the caption to see the original)

Why Not To Clear Your Garden This Fall

Goldenrod gall with a woodpecker hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll bet you have a gardening project planned this weekend or next. Here’s some time saving advice:  Don’t clear your garden in the fall.

Why not?

  • Seeds on the old plants provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • Insects overwinter on plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat those insects. 
  • The brush provides shelter for the birds.
  • You won’t have to mulch.
  • You’ll enjoy watching birds among the old plants.

The photo at top shows that an old goldenrod gall contained food for a woodpecker. He hammered a hole to get the bug.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about this time saving plan in a 2010 article: Why Not to Clear Your Garden

p.s. The only downside I can think of is this: It’s hard to plant bulbs when the old stuff is in the way. 

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

Questions To Answer This Fall

Woolly bear: Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s early October and the woolly bear caterpillars are back, right on time. But one thing is very odd. The weather is quite hot.

The temperature outlook map shows what we already know: There’s a 70% chance October 2018 will be warmer than normal in Pittsburgh. Highs will be in the 80s today through Wednesday (Oct 7-10)

Temperature Outlook for October 2018 as of 9/30/2018 (map from NOAA

How is this affecting the plants and animals we usually see in October?

In a normal October 20 years ago, fall foliage color would peak in Pittsburgh by the middle of October, sparrows and ducks would migrate through our area, and the average first frost would occur around October 15.  Will those things happen on time this year? is interested in the answer. They’re wondering: “What do you usually expect at this time of year? What does it look like outdoors, sound like, smell like, feel like?  Are your expectations met, or are things different?  Are there trends in your community that we need to be paying attention to?”  

Click here for a list of what we ought to expect in October in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Record what you find at

(photo of woolly bear by Kate St. John, map from; click on the caption to see the original)

Flowers in a Purple Theme

Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Scaly blazing star, July 2018 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Yellow flowers are abundant in the summer while some of the rarest flowers are purple. Here are four rare plants I’ve never seen.

Dianne Machesney visited Lynx Prairie in Adams County, Ohio in late July to see scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa), above. It doesn’t occur in Pennsylvania though we have it’s cousin dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) at Jennings Prairie.  The two plants differ in this way: “Scaly” flowers are clustered at the tip, “dense” flowers coat the long spike.

Lynx Prairie is also famous for these rarities shown left-to-right below: American bluehearts (Buchnera americana), crane fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).

Lynx Prairie in Shawnee State Forest is a great place to find rare flowers in a purple theme.

(photos by Dianne Machesney)

Turning Green

Male scarlet tanager in August 2015 (photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Male scarlet tanager on an ash tree, August 2015, Chemung County, NY (photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Yesterday in Schenley Park I saw a scarlet tanager with blotches on his belly.  He was starting to turn green.

Scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) molt twice a year.  In January through March they molt into breeding or “alternate” plumage while on their wintering grounds in South America. The females don’t change color but the males turn from green to scarlet. Young males often retain a bit of green (click here to see).

When the breeding season is over, they molt back to basic plumage in July through September. The males look blotchy at first but when they’re done they’re bright olive green with black wings as shown below.  By then they’re on their way to South America.
(photo at top in August, Tim Lenz; photo below in Oct, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Scarlet tanager in October 2015 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Scarlet tanager in October 2015 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I was lucky to see yesterday’s scarlet tanager because he hardly made a sound.  Tanagers have stopped singing now that breeding is over.  This one was singing very softly.


p.s.  Did you know that female scarlet tanagers sing?  According to All About Birds: “The female Scarlet Tanager sings a song similar to the male’s, but softer, shorter, and less harsh. She sings in answer to the male’s song and while she is gathering nesting material.”

(photo credits: scarlet tanager turning green by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license; yellow-green scarlet tanager by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Now Blooming: Moth Mullein

Moth mullein (photo by Kate St. John)
Moth mullein (photo by Kate St. John)

Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is blooming now in western Pennsylvania. Though it’s closely related to common mullein it hardly looks alike.

This biennial in the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) grows a rosette of basal leaves in its first year, then sprouts a flower stalk that grows 1.5 to 3 feet tall in year two.  Its white or yellow flowers bloom from bottom to top.

Native to Eurasia and Africa, moth mullein was first noticed in Pennsylvania in 1818.  It’s not invasive in Pennsylvania but is listed as a noxious weed in Colorado.

Look for moth mullein in waste places and pastures.  It’s not named for what it does, but for what it looks like: A flower that resembles a moth.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Fruit In Transition

Fruit is forming on Large-flowered Bellwort, 29 June 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit is forming on Large-flowered Bellwort, 29 June 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

In late June the spring flowers are gone and summer flowers haven’t bloomed yet.  I find it hard to identify plants without flowers but this one was rather easy.

The leaves are perfoliate and alternate on the stem.  The six-sided fruit indicates the flower had six parts. The fruit stem pierces the leaf.

Here’s a plant with these characteristics. Large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) has six petals and the stems pierce the leaves.

Large-flowered bellwort in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)
Large-flowered bellwort in bloom (photo by Kate St. John)

In late June bellwort fruit is still puffy looking.  Eventually it will shrink into three lobes.  Click here to see.

Right now the fruit is in transition.


(photos by Kate St. John)