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)

Stinkbug Predator Shows Up On Its Own

Two invasives in one photo: Brown marmorated stinkbug on honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s stinkbug time again.

In the fall brown marmorated stinkbugs (Halyomorpha halys) invade our houses, squeezing into every crack.  They’re annoying to us but devastating to orchards, farms and gardens where they pierce the fruit and cause necrosis.

These Asian invaders were first seen in the U.S. twenty years ago and caused trouble so quickly that USDA started searching for a biological control agent in the stinkbug’s native range.  The most promising predator was the tiny Samurai wasp (Trissolcus japonicus).

The Samurai wasp injects its own eggs into stinkbug eggs; its larvae eat the egg contents.  According to the StopBMSB website “these stingerless warriors search for and destroy 60–90% of BMSB eggs in Asia.”  A video from the Entomological Society of America shows what they do.

Testing began in 2005 but the approval process takes a very long time. Scientists had to identify the right wasp and prove it wouldn’t destroy native species in the U.S. (Cane toads in Australia are a sad example of poor/no testing.)  Testing was still underway in 2014 when a field survey found samurai wasps in Maryland.

The samurai wasp showed up on its own, probably arriving inside stinkbug eggs in plant shipments from Asia.  An alien inside an alien.

By March 2018 the samurai wasp was found in 10 states — and only where stinkbugs are already a problem.  So far so good.

Read more about the samurai-stinkbug connection in this article in Science Magazine.

(photo of stinkbug by Kate St. John; YouTube video of samurai wasps by Chris Hedstrom, published by Entomology Society of America, 2012)

Outside The Hook Echo

EF1 tornado, Greene County, NC (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week the National Weather Service published an analysis of six of the many tornadoes that hit our area on Tuesday, October 2.  There were 14 tornadoes in Pennsylvania that day!

The most damaging tornado hit a nursing home in Conneautville, PA.  The most unusual one touched down in the Valley Green Road area of Westmoreland County.  NWS Pittsburgh describes what made the Valley Green Road EF1 tornado so interesting:

This tornado was unusual not only for its northward movement in an eastward-moving storm, but especially because it formed on the northern side of the parent thunderstorm, removed from the typical hook echo region.

NWS Damage Surveys for 10/2/2018 tornado event, National Weather Service Pittsburgh

So what is the hook echo region?

According to Wikipedia, “A hook echo is a pendant or hook-shaped weather radar signature as part of some supercell thunderstorms.”  

USTornadoes.com describes how it forms: “This “hook-like” feature occurs when the strong counter-clockwise winds circling the mesocyclone (rotating updraft) are strong enough to wrap precipitation around the rain-free updraft area of the storm.”

The annotated radar image below shows the hook at bottom left, curling around the back of the storm with a tornado at the tip. 

Annotated radar image of a violently tornadic classic supercell near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA on 3 May 1999 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Tornadoes usually form in the hook echo and they move with the storm.  Storm chasers use these facts to find and safely chase tornadoes.

But not at Valley Green Road.  That tornado formed on the north edge and traveled north (See region on the annotated example of an Oklahoma tornado below.)

Supercell radar image from NSSL NOAA, annotated in pink to show northern edge of the storm (image from Severe Weather 101, NSSL NOAA)

Sneaky tornado!  Fortunately it was not very powerful (EF1) and there were only trees in its path.

(photo and hook echo images from Wikimedia Commons. The tornado photo was taken in North Carolina (not in PA); click on the captions to see the originals)

Deadly Attraction, Part 2

Bright specks in the beam, migrating birds swirl in Pitt’s Victory Lights as seen from 0.4 mile away, 7 Oct 2018, 11:05pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night at 11pm I looked at Pittsburgh’s weather radar for isolated thunderstorms. Instead I found intense songbird migration in progress. The colors in this radar print show them flying over western Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh weather radar showing intense bird migration at 11:37pm, 7 Oct 2018 (image from the National Weather Service)

Some of these birds would be fatally attracted to Pittsburgh’s city lights — that was nothing new — but last night there was an additional deadly attraction.  Pitt won their football game on Saturday and the new Victory Lights were on.  Would birds be stuck in the beams?

Saturday evening I had emailed PABIRDS asking folks to check the Victory Lights to see if this was happening.  Was I going to ignore my own call to action just because it was 11pm?  Well, no. I packed up my gear and drove to the Cathedral of Learning.

Before I got there I parked near Phipps Conservatory 0.4 miles away and looked at the beams (photo at top).  Indeed there were bright specks circling inside the beams but I was so far away that only the brightest specks were visible.

Birds circling in the Victory Light beams, 7 Oct 2018, 11:17pm (cellphone photo by Kate St. John)

I parked at Schenley Plaza near Forbes and counted about 100 bright specks. No, those aren’t moths in my blurry cellphone photo above (11:17:42pm).  Those are trapped birds. 

In the marked up photo below (11:18:19pm) the bent arrow points to a bird that’s so fatally trapped that it’s flying into the light where it will die.  I saw another bird “ditch” out of the column to the roof.

Circling in the beam. Bent arrow points to a bird that’s totally trapped, approaching the lights. It will die on the roof (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning I predict there will be dead or stunned songbirds on the Cathedral of Learning’s many roofs, especially near the source of the Victory Lights. 

As I wrote on September 21, the 9/11 Tribute of Light had this problem and solved it.  I hope we can solve it at Pitt, too. 

UPDATE, Tues 9 Oct, 11am: I have received hopeful news of collaboration on this issue between Pitt and Audubon Society of Western PA. Stay tuned.

p.s. Click here for my original Deadly Attraction blog post including information on city lights and the 9/11 Tribute’s solution.

(photos by Kate St. John, radar map from the National Weather Service; click on the caption to see the radar)

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 climate.gov)

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? 

ISeeChange.org 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 ISeeChange.org:

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

Monarchs On Radar

Male monarch butterfly (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

After several years of low monarch butterfly populations in southwestern Pennsylvania, this year has been spectacular.  With the weather still as warm as summer I see monarchs flying south every day — even in October.

We know that migrating birds can be seen on radar. Did you know that clouds of monarch butterflies are visible too?

Back in September 2014 AOL reported that a dense flight of monarch butterflies was visible on radar in the St. Louis area.  Here’s what the National Weather Service radar looked like at the time.

Radar image from 19 Sep 2014, St. Louis, MO (National Weather Service)

Learn how the butterflies made this impression in a 2014 AOL article: Mysterious clouds spotted in radar explained.

(photo of monarch butterfly by Marcy Cunkelman, 2008; radar image from the National Weather Service St. Louis, Missouri via AOL’s article cited above)

What’s a Peduncle?

Fuji apples (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a puzzle. Don’t google it.  Look at the photos to arrive at an answer.

In botany: What is a peduncle?

We encounter peduncles every day though we don’t use the word much anymore.  Since 1950 the word has fallen out of common use and because it looks like pedophile+uncle the urban dictionary lists a raunchy meaning. But that’s not what it is.

Peduncle comes from ped (Latin for foot) plus -uncle (an Old French diminutive ending) so it literally means tiny foot.

Each photo on this page has at least one visible peduncle.  Can you find it?

Black raspberries (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Elderberries at Jennings, 4 Aug 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fruit of the ginkgo tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a clue.  The number of peduncles in each photo above is:

  • Apples = 1
  • Black raspberries = 5 (three are hidden)
  • Elderberries = too many to count
  • Ginkgos = 9

Final clue: The photo below shows no fruit, but it has peduncles.

Fruit stems on a Sassafras Tree (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Still stumped?  Click here for the answer.

(photos from Kate St. John, Dianne Machesney and Wikimedia Commons. Click on the Wikimedia captions to see the originals.)

Un-Confusing Conifers

Eastern hemlock cones and foliage in Kentucky (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’m pretty good at identifying western Pennsylvania’s deciduous trees because I live with them, but evergreens aren’t common here and they confuse me.

After I flunked the spruce-fir-hemlock test in Newfoundland in July I vowed to learn from that experience and do better last month in Maine.  I updated my conifer “cheat sheet” and memorized the difference between balsam firs and hemlocks.

Conifers are still confusing but I’m doing better.  I got a B- in Maine.

How do you tell the difference between pines, spruces, firs and hemlocks?
Learn from my conifer cheat sheet: In A Coniferous State.

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

Catnip For Cheetahs

Cheetah at Pittsburgh Zoo, 16 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

When my husband and I visited the Pittsburgh Zoo last spring we stopped by the cheetah exhibit to watch these graceful cats and learn about them from the zoo’s cheetah experts.  We were amazed to find out that cheetahs like perfume. It keeps them from being bored.

Zookeepers have known for years that big cats, including lions and tigers, react to some perfumes the way housecats react to catnip.  They sniff and flemen and rub their faces on the scented spot.  My cat Emmy shows how it’s done with her catnip toy.

Emmy rubbing her face on a catnip toy (photo by Kate St. John)

Instead of catnip the big cats prefer perfume and they don’t like the expensive stuff.   Watch how perfume turns them on in this National Geographic video.

Apparently Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men is catnip for cheetahs.

(photos by Kate St. John; video by National Geographic on YouTube)

October Pair Bonds

  • Peregrines bow to strengthen their pair bond at the Gulf Tower, Downtown Pittsburgh, 1 Oct 2018, 838am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

While many raptors are migrating, Pittsburgh’s stay-at-home peregrines are patrolling their territories and strengthening their pair bonds as they watch the others fly by.  Yesterday was a particularly good day for this activity.

In the slideshow above the Downtown pair courts for almost ten minutes in the morning fog, then Dori hangs out at the Gulf Tower for 5.5 hours.  Later, in a surprise move, the banded male (looks like Louie) visits the nest and digs the scrape after dark.  

Over at Pitt the peregrine pair, Hope and Terzo, decided to court at the Cathedral of Learning nest.  Their visit was shorter — from 5:08p to 5:46p.

  • Waiting for her mate, 1 Oct 2018, 508pm

Keep an eye on the National Aviary’s Cathedral of Learning and Gulf Tower cameras for an autumn glimpse of Pittsburgh’s peregrines.

p.s. We hope Dori and Louie will nest at the Gulf Tower next spring but it’s too early to tell if they will.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at Gulf Tower and the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, PA)