Category Archives: Phenology

Signs of Spring: Flowers & Leaves

Purple deadnettle in Schenley Park, 1 April 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 April 2020

Spring keeps coming to Pittsburgh in fits and starts. In the last week we’ve gone from +22 F degrees above normal (29 March) to -3 F degrees below normal (31 March) and yet the flowers and leaves keep coming.

To illustrate I took two photos of the same sedge in Schenley Park. The buds on 27 March burst open two days later in 77 degree heat.

Sedge buds, Schenley Park, 27 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sedge blooming, Schenley Park, 29 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaves are starting to pop, too. Yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) have their first leaves …

… and these reddish, toothed, compound leaves are opening on shrubs along West Circuit Road in Schenley Park. It’s a cultivated alien I can’t identify.

Compound leaf of cultivated shrub in Schenley Park, 31 Mar 2020 (not sure what it is; photo by Kate St. John)

There are also flowers in the trees: Northern magnolia, crabapple buds, blooming (invasive) Callery pear, and flowering cherry.

Northern magnolia, Schenley Park, 27 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crabapple buds, Schenley Park, 31 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Callery pear in bloom, Pittsburgh, 31 Mar 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering cherry, Pittsburgh, 1 Apr 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

I am so grateful that Schenley Park is still open.

Please keep physical distance in the parks or our parks will close as have those in other parts of Pennsylvania!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Signs of Spring, 18-23 March

Crocuses blooming in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 March 2020:

Around the world, more and more of us are under Stay At Home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yesterday Governor Wolf announced that eight PA counties — 45% of Pennsylvanians — must Stay At Home through 6 April. Fortunately residents are permitted to “engage in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking or running if they maintain social distancing” — i.e. stay at least 6 feet apart.

So I’ve been going outdoors alone … especially when the weather is drizzly, cold or gray because no one else is out there. I’ve seen lots of birds including red-winged blackbirds, hundreds of American robins, eastern phoebes, a brown-headed cowbird, a golden-crowned kinglet and a merlin(!) in Schenley Park.

I’ve also photographed some signs of spring, 18-24 March 2020. Flowers are blooming in Greenfield’s neighborhood gardens, above and below.

Daffodils in my neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The earliest trees are beginning to leaf out including the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) in Schenley Park.

Bud on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
New leaves on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cornelian cherry trees (Cornus mas) are in bloom at Schenley. Photos of the whole tree and a blossom closeup.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) tree in bloom, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) in bloom, 22 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yet the rest of the forest is still quite brown. The smaller American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) stand out with dry pale leaves. Photo from afar and a close-up.

A small American beech stands out with its papery dry leaves. Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Papery leaves of a American beech, Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Getting outdoors is not cancelled.

Stay safe.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Signs of Spring This Week

Daffodil blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2020

Spring is coming ready or not. Take a breather from COVID-19 news with some signs of spring. My friends and I have gone outdoors alone, then emailed updates and photos when we get home. Here’s what we’ve found.

Yesterday Donna Foyle found snow trillium and scarlet cup mushrooms at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)
Scarlet cup mushrooms, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)

I’ve been to Schenley Park, Raccoon Creek, and Moraine State Parks where I’ve seen daffodils, coltsfoot, alder catkins, red maple flowers, and spring beauties. See the captions for descriptions, locations, and dates.

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 8 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alder catkins, Schenley Park, 11 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Red maple blooming in Greenfield, 14 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty at Racoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, an audio treat. Wood frogs and spring peepers were calling at Moraine State Park on Sunday afternoon 15 March 2020.

Getting outdoors is not cancelled!

Just maintain a safe distance from each other (6 feet) and wear muck boots. It’s mud season.

(photos & video by Donna Foyle and Kate St. John)

Does Spring Still Move 13 Miles A Day?

Crocuses blooming in Germany, early March (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a rule of thumb from the last century that says “Spring moves north 13 miles a day.” On average this means that if crocuses began blooming in Morgantown, West Virginia a week ago they ought to start blooming in Butler, PA today.

However this year’s spring is so early and so hot that I’m wondering if the rule is still true. The animated map below shows spring leaf out moving north from 1 January through 10 March 2020. Some days spring leaps many miles.

Spring Leaf Index as of 10 Mar 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

According to the USA National Phenology Network, spring is many weeks ahead of schedule, particularly in the eastern US. It’s “three to four weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Washington, DC and New York City are 24 days early, Nantucket is 30 days early.” Wow!

Leaf out in Pittsburgh began in early February, tulip leaves emerged in late February and I saw the first crocus bloom last week.

So what do you think? Is spring moving faster than it used to? Or just sooner?

Follow the signs of spring at the USA National Phenology Network and Journey North. Here are some cool maps that track what’s going on:

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; map from USA National Phenology Network; click on the captions to see the originals)

Despite The Cold, An Early Spring

Honeysuckle buds March 2019 vs Feb 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

Except for a 10 degree cold snap in the last 24 hours, we’re having an early Spring.

So far this year temperatures in Pittsburgh have been 10-34 degrees above normal a third of the time. January 11 was 34 degrees above normal at 71 degrees F.

Honeysuckle bushes responded by leafing out. Last Monday (10 February 2020) I found open honeysuckle buds in my neighborhood. I took a similar photo last year on 11 March 2019 but it was whole month later and the buds were not as open.

According to the USA National Phenology Network, Spring is three weeks ahead of schedule in the southeastern US:

Spring leaf out has arrived in the Southeast, over three weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Charlottesville, VA is 24 days early, Knoxville, TN is 20 days early, and Nashville, TN is 18 days early.

Status of Spring USANPN.org

Here’s what it looks like on the map as of 14 February 2020.

Spring Leaf Index as of 14 Feb 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

Despite the cold, today will warm to almost 40 degrees in Pittsburgh and to 52 by Tuesday. I think we’ll still have an early Spring.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from USANPN.org)

Outdoors in Early January

Privet berries, North Park, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sometimes we think Pittsburgh is boring in January but there’s still a lot to see outdoors. On New Years Day I joined the Botanical Society of Western PA for a walk in North Park. Here’s what we found.

Above, black privet berries (Ligustrum genus) stand out against the sky. Privet, an invasive plant, is found at the old farm along Irwin Road. The house and barn no longer stand but ornamental trees and shrubs remain, including the Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) we always trek to see. Our hike leader, Richard Nugent, said it will bloom pink in February. Here’s a bursting bud.

Ozark witchhazel buds, North Park Irwin Road, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unusual trees caught our attention, some with burls, others with holes. Two of the best are pictured below.

Large burl at North Park, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
A heart-shaped hole, North Park Irwin Road, 1 Jan 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

We also saw and heard red-tailed hawks circling overhead. (example photo below)

Two red-tailed hawks soaring in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In January they claim territory with lots of circling and screaming. Here’s what they sound like. No, that is not the sound of an eagle.

During winter expect the unexpected. There’s more to see than you’d think.

(plant photos by Kate St. John, red-tailed hawk photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Seen This Week In Schenley Park

Witch hazel flowering in Schenley Park, 24 Dec 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found three things in Schenley Park on Christmas Eve:

  • Witch hazel blooming,
  • Gray squirrels searching for nuts,
  • An eastern screech-owl at his roost.

Tiny spider webs span a few petals of the witch hazel flower shown above. These winter flowers are pollinated at night by owlet moths.

Squirrels were busy in Schenley Park this week. Some are so black that they look like a black hole in the landscape. Despite his color he’s just an eastern gray squirrel.

A gray squirrel who’s black in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This particular eastern screech-owl has been spending the winter in Schenley Park since at least 2015-2016. I saw him on Christmas Eve but my cellphone photo was too poor to use. Here’s a photo I took in January 2017.

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park, 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t forget to spend time outdoors in late December. There are still cool things to see.

(photos by Kate St. John)

October Plants

Japanese barberry, Moraine State Park, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

October weather is here and the trees are starting to change color in southwestern Pennsylvania. On the ground I found additional evidence of autumn last weekend.

Above, the shiny red fruits of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) hang from thorny branches. Watch out if you approach them, not because of the thorns but because of ticks. This invasive shrub creates thickets with the perfect micro-climate for black-legged ticks and their favorite host, white-footed mice.

Burdock, nature’s velcro, is still in bloom. The tiny hooks coating the sepal will soon dry out and cling to your clothes as you pass by.

Burdock still blooming, Moraine State Park, 13 October 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though burdock (Arctium minus) is an alien invasive, a local insect has found it tasty. Notice the trail of the leaf miner, highlighted below.

Burdock with leaf miner activity, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile a native plant called Lycopodium or groundpine is in autumn dispersal mode. It has sent up tall pale green structures called strobili that will release the plant’s spores(*).

Lycopodium, Moraine State Park, 13 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Lycopodium is a very ancient plant. It’s the last living relative of Lepidodendron, a mighty tree that predates the dinosaurs.

(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) Spores definition from Google dictionary: Spores are minute, typically one-celled, reproductive unit capable of giving rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, characteristic of lower plants, fungi, and protozoans.

Confusing Fall Asters

Asters, Raccoon Creek State Park, Lake Trail, 27 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s late September and asters are blooming throughout western Pennsylvania. I found several patches of purple asters yesterday on the Lake Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park.

These two may be the same species. They have similar leaves and their colors matched in real life though the camera shows them differently. It’s a trick of the light. Cameras are notorious for distorting purple / blue.

Asters, Raccoon Creek State Park, Lake Trail, 27 Sep 2019, 12.18p

I haven’t identified these flowers. My Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide has 10 densely packed pages of asters and that’s not all possible species.

Do you think fall warblers are confusing? Asters (and goldenrods) are the last frontier!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Tiny Hemlock Pest Has Hatched

Hemlock woolly adelgid nymphs (photo by Elizabeth Benton, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)

A week ago I received a message from the USA National Phenology Network that hemlock woolly adelgids would hatch very soon in Pittsburgh and the southern Appalachians. This is worrisome because the nymphs are the active phase of this forest pest.

Hemlock woolly adelgid hatch announcement from USA NPN

Originally from Japan, hemlock woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) kill eastern hemlocks in 4-20 years by locking on where the needle meets the stem and sucking the lifeblood out of the tree (closeup at top).

The adults are sedentary, attached to a tree. The nymphs, however, are tiny and mobile. They blow on the wind and hitchhike on clothes, equipment, birds and animals. They spread very easily just after they’ve hatched.

The message above says “You should see active nymphs” but you won’t. At 1/100th of an inch they’re smaller than a grain of sand, almost microscopic. And yet, their effect is devastating.

Hemlock woolly adelgids have already killed up to 80% of the hemlocks on parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Shenandoah National Park. They are eating their way through the Great Smoky Mountains, shown below, and they’re killing hemlocks in Pennsylvania.

Tree death from Hemlock woolly adelgid in the Great Smoky Mountains (photo by Ignazio Graziosi, University of Kentucky, Bugwood.org)

We won’t know how far they’ve spread this spring until they reveal their presence next fall when the females deposit woolly egg sacs on the undersides of hemlock branches.

Hemlock woolly adelgid eggs covered in white “wool” (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Right now the nymphs are spreading.

Read more about hemlock woolly adelgids at the USA National Phenology Network.

(photos from Bugwood’s invasive.org, message and map from USANPN. Click on the captions to see the originals)