Category Archives: Phenology

Seen This Week

18 November 2023

After beautiful fall foliage in late October, the landscape faded to brown this week. All the colors were in the sky.

Friday’s sunrise was spectacular for good reason. “Red sky at morn” meant rain was on the way. Fortunately. Even with yesterday’s precipitation we are 6.81 inches below normal for the year.

Wednesday’s sunset was muted by comparison.

Sunset in Pittsburgh, 15 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

By now the native trees in Pittsburgh are all brown or bare, so why are there still yellow and green leaves in Schenley Park?

Scene from Schenley Park Upper Trail, 17 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Invasive alien plants are tuned to the climate and daylight levels of their homeland. Those that originated further north than Pittsburgh, Japan for instance, see our November daylight as if it were October back home. Thus invasive honeysuckle bushes are still yellow-green and Norway maples still cling to their yellow leaves.

This virburnum retains its pinkish-green leaves for the same reason.

Pink-green leaves on alien viburnum, Schenley Park, 17 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The sun’s low angle showed off two Agaricaceae mushrooms among fallen leaves in Hays Woods.

Agaricaceae mushrooms at Hays Woods, 12 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I found a tree on stilts in Schenley Park. This black locust germinated on top of a log on a rock. As the log deteriorated the roots found soil on either side of the rock. Years later there is a significant gap between the trunk and the ground.

Black locust tree “on stilts” because it grew on top of a rock, 17 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Yesterday at Duck Hollow: A Few Good Birds

Monongahela River valley at Duck Hollow, 12 Nov 2023, 10:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

13 November 2023

Warbler migration is over and waterfowl migration has not yet reached Pittsburgh so at times we seem to be in a birdless state. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow was in that condition at yesterday’s Duck Hollow outing — a dozen mallards and 1(!) Canada goose — but we found a few good birds in the thickets.

When we arrived the sky was brilliantly blue with some russet trees on the hillsides. Our group of five was so small that we didn’t do go-around-the-circle introductions and I forgot to take a group photo.

Brilliant blue sky, fading leaves, Duck Hollow, 12 Nov 2032 (photo by Kate St. John)

One golden-crowned and three ruby-crowned kinglets bopped around us as we looked up this hill.

Best birds of the day were five purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) — one male and four females — that were too far for a photograph, so here’s one from Wikimedia. We parsed out the females first: Very brown stripes on chest, wide white eyebrow, brown face, brown head, notched tail.

Female purple finch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Then we saw the lone male (again this photo is from Wikimedia). House finches were nearby for comparison. Here’s how to tell the difference –> Purple and House.

Male purple finch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Later a northern mockingbird came close for a photo, this one by Charity Kheshgi.

Northern mockingbird, Duck Hollow, 12 Nov 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

View our checklist online at and below.

Duck Hollow, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Nov 12, 2023 8:30 AM – 10:15 AM
5 participants, 25 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 1
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 12
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 3
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) 3
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) 2
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) 1
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 1
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 1
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 5
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula) 3
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) 1
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 4
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 1
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) 3
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 8
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 8
Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) 5
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 5
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 8
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 3
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 6

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week

Eastern screech-owl, Frick Park, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

11 November 2023

Songbird migration is quiet now and birds, when they’re found, are in mixed species flocks.

On 7 November, Charity Kheshgi and I encountered agitated golden-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos but it took us a while to find what they were upset about. This red morph screech-owl was hiding above our heads in a small oak.

Golden-crowned kinglet, Frick Park, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

An exception to the mixed species flocking rule is our “murder” of crows. My guess is that Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is 90% American and 10% fish crows, but who can tell? They look alike.

In late afternoon crows stage in the trees in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, then head west at sunset. 6,000 to 10,000 pass by my building on their way to the roost.

Crows staging in Squirrel Hill just before dusk, 10 Nov 2023 (photo by Stephen Tirone)

At sunset black birds in a darkened sky are impossible to photograph but it’s another story at sunrise. Click on the photo below for a closeup of crows in the brightening sky.

Sunrise with crows, 2 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaves littered the ground this week and the air was filled with the sound of leaf blowers. 🙁

Fallen red maple leaf, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Most of the trees were bare in Schenley Park by Friday 10 November.

Bare tree touched by sun, Schenley Park, 3 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Most of the trees are bare, 10 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, a reminder that the rut is still in progress and deer are crossing roads. This duo showed up at a Squirrel Hill polling place on Election Day at a place surrounded by roads. So watch out.

Deer at the polling place on Election Day, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by John via Mardi Isler)

(credits are in the captions)

Burst of Color Before The Freeze

Witch hazel in a garden, 28 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

4 November 2023

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.

Bracket polypore fungus, Schenley Park, 27 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Heavy mist on 29 October clung to ornamental grasses at Phipps Conservatory.

Heavy dew on ornamental grass at Phipps, 29 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) was still blooming last week. Alas, it’s invasive.

Canada thistle still blooming, 27 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) at Phipps change color before they lose their needles.

Dawn redwood changing color, Phipps, 29 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Fall color was muted on a misty morning in Schenley Park, 29 October.

Panther Hollow Lake on a misty morning, Schenley Park, 29 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Autumn Beauty in the Woods

Beautiful autumn in the woods, 26 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 October 2023

The last full week of October brought beautiful weather and fall foliage to Southwestern Pennsylvania. Early mornings were chilly but warmed up quickly. Here are a few scenes from the week.

  • Frick Park is beautiful in early morning sunlight on 26 October. With Charity Kheshgi.
  • American beech leaves in Schenley Park show three color stages: green, yellow, brown.
  • Sugar maple leaf is red at SGL 203, Marshall Twp
  • The arching trunks of a mature Norway maple in Shadyside, City of Pittsburgh.
  • Fall colors reflecting on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park.
  • Beautiful sunrise on 26 October. Three crows pass by on their way from the roost.
American beech changing color, Schenley Park, 21 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sugar maple leaf, SGL 203, 22 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Norway maple in yellow, Shadyside, Pittsburgh, 23 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fall foliage reflection at Moraine State Park, 24 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Golden yellow is a them from leaves to sky.

Sunrise with three crows, 26 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Leaf Peeping and Patchy Frost Prediction

Bright red maple leaf near Phipps Conservatory, 16 October 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 October 2023

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.

PA fall color prediction for 19-25 Oct 2023 (map from PA DCNR)

This week I found bright leaves on red maple trees, at top, and yellow on buckeyes and hickories.

Schenley Park leaves are yellow and green on 16 October 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow and orange maple leaves, Frick Park, 18 October 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

The top of this red maple is almost bare, 16 October 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tomorrow night the northwest wind will bring migrating birds overnight and patchy frost on Monday morning.

This is the week to go leaf peeping.

(credits are in the captions)

Fall Color in Early October

Invasive burning bush shows off its fall color, Moraine State Park, 9 Oct 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 October 2023

In October Pennsylvania’s Department Conservation and Natural Resources produces a weekly Fall Color Report with photographic samples from around the state. They promise this week will be colorful in the Northern Tier but we’re only getting started in southwestern PA. The fall color exception is Somerset County where high elevation creates a cooler climate.

PA fall color prediction for 12-18 Oct 2023 (map from PA DCNR)

As you can see, Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park is still mostly green …

… though a few maples are changing color.

The reddest maples are quick to drop their leaves so the predominant colors are still green and yellow.

Some flowers and fruits add a splash of color.

But for really gorgeous red and orange yesterday’s sunrise was the best.

Sunrise in Pittsburgh on 13 October 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

“Red sky at morn, sailors forewarn” came true with today’s all-day rain.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from PA DCNR with link in the caption)

Seen in Late September

Honeybee on asters, Schenley Park, 28 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

7 October 2023

The best photos from this week have been published already (Yesterday at Hays Woods Bird Banding) so I’m reaching back to late September for a few of things I’ve seen.

Bees of all kinds are attracted to deep purple asters beside the Westinghouse Memorial pond in Schenley Park. The honeybee, above, is hard to see near the flower’s orange center.

At Duck Hollow, yellow jewelweed still has flowers as well as fat seed pods. Try to pull one of the pods from the stem and see what happens.

Yellow jewelweed flower and seeds, Duck Hollow, 26 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 28 September I explored the slag heap flats near Swisshelm Park where (I think) solar arrays will be installed. Because the slag is porous the flats are a dry grass/scrub land where this shrub would have done well except that it’s been over-browsed by too many deer. It looks like bonsai.

Deer damage at the future site of solar flats, NMR Valley, 28 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Deer overpopulation is also evident by the browse line at the edge of the flats.

Browse line at the edge of the future solar flats,NMR Valley, 28 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 26 September at Duck Hollow I encountered an optical illusion where Nine Mile Run empties into the Monongahela River. It looks as if this downed, waterlogged tree is damming the creek and that the water is lower on the downriver side of it. This illusion seems to be caused by the smooth water surface on one side of the log.

Optical illusion: the log is damming Nine Mile Run, 26 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

We found a tiny red centipede crossing the trail at Frick Park on 30 September …

Tiny red centipede, Frick Park, 30 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

… and a puffball mushroom outside the Dog Park.

Puffball mushroom, Frick Park, 30 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 27 September hundreds, if not thousands, of crows gathered at dusk near Neville Street in Shadyside before flying to the roost. I thought this would happen again the next day but they changed their plan and have not come this close again.

Hundreds of crows take off from a roof on Neville Street, 27 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes sunrise is the most beautiful part of the day.

Sunrise at Neville Street, 28 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

These photos don’t give the impression that it’s been abnormally dry, but precipitation in Pittsburgh is down 6″ for the year. Almost 2″ of that deficit occurred in September. The Fall Color Prediction says our leaf color-change is later than usual.

(photos by Kate St. John)

It’s Time to Hear the Elk

Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)
Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

29 September 2023

If you’ve been waiting to hear the elk bugling in Pennsylvania, now’s the time to make the trip to Benezette, PA.

In September and October Pennsylvania’s elk (Cervus canadensis) are in the rut, their annual period of sexual activity. The bulls gather harems, pursue the females, antler-spar with other males, and “sing” a bugling love song.

Like white-tailed deer, male elk grow new antlers every year but these cervids are huge. Males are 25% larger than the females and can weigh up to 1,100 pounds with antlers that can span five feet.

Consequently it’s a bit surprising that the bugle is such a high-pitched call. Its bell-like echoing carries far in the woods and fields.

Visit the Elk Country Visitor’s Center in Benezette to see and hear the elk, perhaps even in the parking lot.

If you can’t be there in person, watch the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s live stream. 

p.s. Elk, also called wapiti, were reintroduced in Pennsylvania in 1913 after we extirpated them in the late 1800s. Did you know white-tailed deer were reintroduced to Pennsylvania, too? 

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Loves Disturbed Soil

Pilewort seeds blow away in the wind, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 September 2023

Have you seen white fluff blowing in the wind lately? The fluff is not from dandelions. At this time of year it’s from pilewort.

Pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is a native plant in the Aster family that looks very weedy, even ugly. At two to eight feet tall the flower heads on the tips of the branches look like seed pods because they barely open to expose pistils and stamens. To appreciate the flower you need a magnifying glass. Its beauty is microscopic.

It doesn’t take much wind to set it going. Do you see the flying fluff in this closeup? Look for the tiny yellow arrow in this photo and the one at top.

Pilewort near Phipps’ parking lot, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Why is it called pilewort? The common name literally means “hemorrhoid plant.” Penn State Extension explains.

Native Americans used American burnweed [pilewort] to treat rashes caused by exposure to poison ivy and poison sumac. Medicinally, it has also been used as an emetic and to treat dysentery, eczema, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. It has been used to create a blue dye for wool and cotton and, despite its intense flavor, can be eaten raw or cooked.

Penn State Extension: American burnweed

Pileweed’s other common name is American burnweed because it grows easily after brush fires. It loves disturbed soil and is easy to find by the side of the road, in churned up gardens, and in urban areas. In this age of bulldozers, roto-tillers and garden digging, pilewort has many opportunities to germinate.

I found a lot of it at Duck Hollow.

Pilewort at Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort at Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Perhaps it’s a good thing that pilewort grows prolifically. A 2002 study in Japan found that Erechtites hieraciifolius is good at absorbing the greenhouse gas, nitrogen dioxide, turning it into an organic form.

It may not be beautiful but pilewort plants itself by the side of the road and then cleans the air.

(photos by Kate St. John)