Category Archives: Phenology

Seen This Week

Sunrise, 11 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 January 2023

The sunrise was gorgeous and cold last Wednesday when a group of us decided to walk at Jennings in Butler County. We saw few birds but there were ice heaves, buttress roots on an elm, and the seeds of old man’s beard (Clematis drummondii).

Ice heave at Jennings, Butler County 11 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elm tree with buttress roots, Jennings, Butler County, 11 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

When old man’s beard is in bloom it’s called virgin’s bower, transforming it from a young woman to an old man in a matter of months.

Seeds of Virgin’s bower, a.k.a. Old man’s beard, Jennings, Butler County, 11 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

My friends who live north of the city have not seen many dark-eyed juncos at their feeders this winter, but juncos are definitely present at the Frick Park Environmental Education Center. Charity Kheshgi posted photos of our recent trip to Frick.

(bird photos by Charity Kheshgi embedded from Instagram, all other photos by Kate St. John)

Is It Spring Yet? Asks the Starling

European starling in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2023

I know it’s only 12 January but a starling told me on Tuesday that spring is coming soon. I could see it in his beak.

Most of the birds that spend the winter in Pittsburgh wear the same colors all year long. Blue jays, chickadees and red-tailed hawks don’t change their look from winter to spring. European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) do make a change but it’s subtle.

In winter they live up to their name with “starry” spotted feathers, dull dark pink legs, and gray-black beaks. When spring comes their spots wear off, their legs become brighter red and their beaks turn yellow.

Last Tuesday I saw a starling whose beak was turning yellow, though still black-tipped like the one pictured below.

Halfway to spring plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His ultimate goal is this glossy crisp appearance.

European starlings in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starling beaks usually start changing in February. Is spring coming sooner than usual or is that starling ahead of the game?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Wrapping Up 2022: Seen In 2 Weeks

Pastel sunrise on 14 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 December 2022

The end of the year was a weather yo-yo from warm-ish winter to bone chilling cold to 60 degrees yesterday. Photos from the last two weeks span Pittsburgh and Virginia.

Above, a pastel sunrise on 14 December in Pittsburgh was followed by above freezing weather. It was so warm that by the 17th I found a bench gnome in Schenley Park and blooming trees at Carnegie Museum.

Whimisical gnome beneath a stone bench in Schenley Park, 17 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering cherry in bloom at Carnegie Museum, 17 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

That evening it dipped below freezing and stayed cold through sunrise on the 21st. The blossoms did not survive.

Frosty sunrise on 21 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And then it got Nasty cold.

To avoid the coming winter storm we drove to Virginia on Wednesday the 21st. On Thursday it poured, on Friday it turned sharply cold.

Finally on Saturday in Virginia Beach the temperature reached the mid 20s in the afternoon so I took a walk and found a young male common yellowthroat with bright yellow throat, olive back and shadow mask (sample photo at left). A warbler (!) had survived the coldest night of 13 degrees F and was gleaning dead insects from the sunlit grass. He was on the path in the photo at right, but of course we cannot see him.

There was a common yellowthroat warbler here in the grass! Lynnhaven Park, Virginia Beach, 24 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

By 26 December freezing weather at Back Bay NWR had created odd ice formations above the water.

Ice on the reeds at Back Bay NWR, 26 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a closeup.

A closer look at ice on the reeds at Back Bay NWR, 26 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

At sunset in Smithfield on 27 December it was comfortably above freezing. I put away my parka.

Sunset in Smithfield, Virginia, 27 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

No coat necessary while we drove home on 28 December. And there was a beautiful sunset in western PA.

Sunset along the PA Turnpike, New Stanton Rest Stop, 28 December 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The week ahead promises warm temperatures with rain all day for the Christmas Bird Count. Erf! Will I find the crows?

(common yellowthroat photo from Wikimedia Commons, all other photos by Kate St. John)

Why Do We Have a Gleam at Sunset?

The Gleam at Sunset, Pittsburgh, 2 Feb 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 December 2022

Often in winter Pittsburgh has overcast skies all day and clear skies at night. When the transition happens at sunset we see clear sky approaching from the west but it arrives too late for us to enjoy the sun. We have 10 minutes of sunshine and then it’s dark. I call this The Gleam At Sunset.

Why does this happen so often? Does Ohio have lovely weather all day that only reaches us at night?

Gleam at sunset, Downtown Pittsburgh in the distance, 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Myranda Fullerton at the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh told me why. Her answers are paraphrased below.

Lake Effect Clouds

Pittsburgh is well known for overcast skies in winter but you may be surprised where the clouds come from.

Lake Erie plays an extensive role in our cloud cover and, as long as it isn’t frozen over during the winter, it serves as a local moisture source that plagues the region with clouds. … Most places have clear blue skies after a cold front passage, but when we have northerly flow off of the lake we have cloud cover.”

Myranda Fullerton, NWS Pittsburgh, email paraphrased

Buffalo, New York has Lake Effect Snow. I like to think that Pittsburgh has “Lake Effect Clouds.”

Mixing and the Boundary Layer

When the air is well mixed (wind and/or rising warm air, falling cold air) it creates a defined line between the clouds and the rest of us below. In winter and early spring this mixing happens while the air is heated during the day.

During the winter and early spring, often times we observe a well-mixed boundary layer (we call this boundary layer coupling). When the atmosphere is coupled/mixed, the top of that mixing height is where we observe a cloud base [i.e. the bottom of the overcast deck].  You may even feel gusty wind during the day that supports the notion of a mixed atmosphere, when strong wind aloft is transported to the surface through this means. 

Myranda Fullerton, NWS Pittsburgh, email paraphrased

Stable Air is Clear

The cloud base remains well defined while the air is mixing. It falls apart when the mixing stops at sunset.

At night, wind gusts typically subside as the surface cools and the atmosphere becomes decoupled again in tandem with sunset / loss of daytime heating. At decoupling you may lose your mixing height and essentially dissolve your cloud cover.

Myranda Fullerton, NWS Pittsburgh, email paraphrased

So Pittsburgh’s typical winter is: Overcast clouds during the day. Clouds breaking up at sunset for a Gleam at Sunset. Then clear skies at night.

Still puzzled by the boundary layer? Click here for a video that explains it.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Burning bush leaf and fruit, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

19 November 2022

On Tuesday morning, 15 November, I found beautiful fruits on my walk in the neighborhood: Red berries on invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus), purple berries on native American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and dusty blue fruit on invasive English ivy (Hedera helix).

American beautyberry, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
English ivy berries, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

It began to snow so I hurried home and was glad I was indoors when it came down fast. It looks peaceful in slow motion at the end of this video.

The snow stuck to the grass, parked cars, and the Pitt peregrine nest …

Snow on the Pitt peregrine nest, 15 November 2022, 2:15pm

… then melted overnight as the temperature rose and low clouds moved in.

Low clouds at 8pm, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

By Friday most leaves were gone and the only green shrubs in Schenley Park were invasive plants: Bush honeysuckle in this view …

Scene in Schenley Park, 18 Nov 2022. The green shrubs are invasive honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

… and bamboo near the railroad tracks.

Scene in Schenley Park, 18 Nov 2022. The green shrubs are invasive bamboo (photo by Kate St. John)

Tonight the temperature will drop to 19 degrees for a very cold start to the new week. Brrrrr!

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

Colors This Month

Morning glory blooming in Bloomfield, 8 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 November 2022

Believe it or not, flowers bloomed this week in Pittsburgh. I found morning glories in Bloomfield and hawkweed at Moraine State Park.

Hawkweed blooming at Moraine State Park, 9 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The leaves were still beautiful on 2 November but warm weather could not bring back their vibrant colors.

Viburnum leaves turn red, 2 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bright yellow leaves on devils walking stick, 2 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Next week will be dull brown after frost zaps all the colors.

(photos by Kate St. John, forecast from the National Weather Service)

Most of the Trees Are Bare

Most of the trees are bare on this Schenley Park hillside, 6 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 November 2022

In Pittsburgh the wind blew all day last Saturday with gusts as high at 35 mph. By Sunday morning, 6 November, most of the trees were bare.

I confirmed this at my favorite “leaf gauge” hillside in Schenley Park, above, after hiking at Hays Woods where bare trees sheltered the still-green leaves of invasive honeysuckle.

Most of the trees are bare inside Hays Woods, 6 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Deciduous conifers are finally showing their own fall colors. Larches are yellow, dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) are orange.

Deciduous needles on a dawn redwood, 7 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The needles were dropping fast from this one in front of Phipps Conservatory.

Dawn redwood at Phipps, 7 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile half of the ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba) along Schenley Drive still had leaves.

Ginkgos along Schenley Drive, 7 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last year they weren’t bare until 20 November, below, but I predict they will be earlier this year.

Ginkgo trees lost their leaves later in 2021. This is 20 Nov (photo by Kate St. John)

Even if I couldn’t see them I can hear a clue that most of the trees are bare. The sound of leaf blowers fills my neighborhood. Maybe yours, too.

Sound of a leaf blower, Pittsburgh, 8 Nov 2022 (recorded by Kate St. John)

(photos and audio by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Biennial gaura, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 September 2022

Hays Woods showed off its flowers and insects during our visit to Nick Liadis’ birding banding project on Wednesday.

Biennial gaura (Gaura biennis) and honeysuckle vine were both blooming in pink. Interestingly, gaura flowers bloom white and fade to pink, while this non-native honeysuckle starts pink and fades to white and then yellow.

Don’t be fooled by the camera’s perspective. Gaura flowers are very small compared to honeysuckle.

Non-native honeysuckle vine, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

A Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica or yellow woolly bear) hung out on mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a very common and invasive plant at Hays Woods.

Virginian tiger moth, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Another invasive, Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica), blooms profusely at Hays Woods. Many insect pollinators love the flowers.

Japanese knotweed in bloom, 3 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Late August Colors

Squash blooming at the maintenance heap in Frick Park, 27 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 September 2022

Late August colors came in orange, yellow, purple, gray and green in Frick Park and Moraine State Park.

Above, squash(*) blooms on a fence in Frick.

Yellow daisies without petals are actually tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), native to Eurasia.

Tansy blooming at Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The deep purple of New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is never true to color in my cellphone photos. Instead it looks redder than expected because the Pixel 5 Photo app apparently overcompensates for the camera’s blue bias. All cameras have problems with purple, described in this vintage article: Not Truly Blue.

Ironweed blooming at Moraine State Park, 26 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This velvety bright orange mushroom in Frick deserved a photo on 25 August. Jim Chapman re-found it the next day and identified it as northern cinnabar polypore (Trametes cinnabarina, a.k.a. Pycnoporus cinnabarinus). By then it was already darker orange than this.

Cinnabar polypore, Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Insects specialize on their own host plants. False sunflowers have red aphids. Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) has gray ones.

Wingstem with gray aphids, Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And everywhere in late August there is green.

(*) Did you know that zucchini, pumpkin, summer squash and pattypan squash are all cultivars of Curcubita pepo? The plant pictured at top seems to be producing pattypan squash.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Flowers and Seeds

Wingstem from bud to seed, Schenley Park, 3 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

6 August 2022

By early August many flowers have already produced seeds. Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) above displays every step in the process: buds, new flowers, fading flowers and seed packets.

The three-flanged seed pods of American wild yamroot (Dioscorea villosa) are as distinctive as its pleated leaves.

American wild yamroot leaves and seeds, Jennings 29 July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) now has both seed pods and flowers (seeds in shadow at left). This alien plant is easy to find in Schenley Park because it is toxic to deer.

Greater celandine with seeds in the background, Schenley Park, 3 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) is much harder to find because it is ravaged by the large deer herd.

Yellow jewelweed. no seed in the picture, Schenley Park, 30 July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

If this flower evades the deer it will turn into a seed pod that bursts explosively when ripe.

Seed pod on yellow jewelweed, Schenley Park, August 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)