Are We In a Drought?

United States Drought Monitor (screenshot from

2 August 2020

It’s been so dry in western Pennsylvania this summer that we find ourselves wishing for rain. Yesterday some areas were lucky. It rained 0.61 inches at Pittsburgh’s airport but not throughout the region. Precipitation is still down -2.24 inches since June 1. Are we in a drought?

The US. Drought Monitor map (28 July 2020 above) shows drought conditions and severity across the country. Pale orange in southwestern Pennsylvania indicates areas of Moderate Drought with short-term impacts (“S“). Yellow is Abnormally Dry.

The map above changes quickly if it rains heavily one day. The Drought Severity Index (Long Term Palmer) map, below, charts prolonged abnormal dryness or wetness and matches what gardeners and farmers are dealing with. Southwestern PA has felt like it’s in a drought and, yes, according to the Palmer Index the situation is Severe. (Black on the map is missing data.)

Long Term Palmer Drought Severity Index, 25 July 2020 (map from NOAA)

Our situation in Pennsylvania is mild, though. The real concern is out West where the Drought Monitor is bright red (Extreme Drought) with long term impacts (“L“) and the Palmer Index is dark orange.

West Texas is suffering the double whammy of rampant COVID-19 + extreme drought. Today’s a good day to count our blessings in southwestern Pennsylvania.

(maps from US. Drought Monitor and Drought Severity Index)

Bumblebee and Deer

Last week in Schenley Park I stopped by the Westinghouse Fountain to see swamp milkweed and a photogenic bumblebee.

My cellphone camera was able to capture it in flight!

As I left the fountain a doe crossed W Circuit Road and walked between parked cars to the woods beyond. A fawn soon followed but jumped back in fear before the cars and stopped in the road. Fortunately there was no traffic. It was joined by a second fawn.

The two approached me (I missed that shot) then turned away …

… and were joined by a second doe.

Eventually they all walked between parked cars and caught up with the first doe.

Schenley Park’s numerous deer aren’t afraid of people but they learn to fear cars at a very young age.

p.s. My cellphone can take nice closeups of bumblebees but fails on deer at a distance.

(photos by Kate St. John)


Western grebes with piggyback chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some animals such as western grebes (above) and giant anteaters (below) carry their young piggyback.

Pigs don’t do this so why is it called piggyback?

The term began as two words that morphed into “piggy + back.” Here’s the origin from World Wide Words.

It started out in the sixteenth century as “pick pack,” carrying something on the back or shoulders. Pick is a medieval version of pitch, so it meant a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. … Piggy-back came along later in the century, with piggyback a modern loss of the hyphen

Origin of piggyback from World Wide Words

At first it was “pick pack.”

Women carrying wood “piggyback” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now it’s piggyback.

Happy family — piggyback (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy family.

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

This is a Cocoon

30 July 2020

Seven years ago I wrote an article that’s rediscovered every summer when people find unusual “pine cones” hanging from their trees.

Though the structures are coated in plant material they aren’t part of the tree. They’re the cocoons of evergreen bagworm moths (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) whose larvae are disguised by vegetation while they eat the tree. Here’s one that’s sticking its head out.

Evergreen Bagworm – Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis, Woodbridge, VA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pesticides don’t work on these bag-covered bugs. Find out what to do in this vintage article: These Are Not Pine Cones!

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

Ants Know When To Quarantine

Black garden ants (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic is our poor ability to quarantine to stop the spread. This summer’s COVID-19 surge in Pittsburgh was sparked by travelers who returned from vacation (Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Florida, Raleigh, Nashville) but did not quarantine for 14 days.

Perhaps we could learn from ants. An April article in Treehugger described how social species avoid each other to stop the spread of disease. This includes black garden ants.

Ants are very social creatures, always working together to feed and protect the colony. Nurse ants stay inside the nest and tend the larvae; workers forage outside for food. A study of black garden ants found that when workers contract a fungal infection they know to stay outside the nest and avoid contact with other ants. Meanwhile nurse ants move the larvae deeper inside the nest to avoid infection. Ants basically quarantine themselves.

We could learn a lot from ants.

Read more at “How other species handle social distancing when someone is sick.”

p.s. The article also describes other species that practice social distancing including bees, mice, monkeys and bullfrog tadpoles.

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

Why Do Women Live Longer?

We know that women live longer than men, but why?

In 2017, the average life expectancy of women in the U.S. was 81.1 years but only 76.1 years for men. Longevity differs by country but the sex disparity is true for all humans and for other species as well.

A study at the University of New South Wales, Sydney published in March 2020 examined the life spans of 229 species and discovered it is related to sex chromosomes.

Across the animal kingdom, individuals with identical sex chromosomes — including women with double Xs — live nearly 18% longer than their counterparts with mismatched chromosomes.

The Secret to a Long Life? Matching Sex Chromosomes, Science Daily

Among mammals, insects, fish and some reptiles, females have matching sex chromosomes [XX] whereas males do not [XY]. In all of these classes females live an average of 20.9% longer and sometimes a lot longer. The study found that female German cockroaches (Blattella germanica) live 77% longer than males. Ewww!

Among birds and butterflies the arrangement is opposite. Male birds have matching sex chromosomes [ZZ] whereas female birds do not [ZW]. In this case the males live longer, but only about 7.1%.

Mallard pair, female and male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

More study is needed to discover why male birds don’t reach the longer life spans that female mammals and insects are able to achieve.

Learn more at “The secret to a long life? Matching sex chromosomes” in Science Magazine.

p.s. Life expectancy in the U.S. has been dropping since 2014.

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

The Threesome Continues

27 July 2020

Last Friday Mary Ann Pike noticed that Terzo and Morela were spending a lot of time at the Pitt peregrine nest and commented:

Seems like Morela and Terzo have been swapping shifts at the nest today. I saw Morela this morning, then Terzo early afternoon for a while, now Morela is there again. What a strange situation with Ecco in the mix. I wonder if he hangs around Oakland somewhere when he’s not on camera. It seems like the other 2 must be spending most of their time in Oakland but under normal circumstances they wouldn’t let a third Peregrine hang around.

Mary Ann Pike, 24 July 2020, 4:33pm

We didn’t realize it on Friday but Terzo and Morela were probably vigilant because Ecco was nearby. He appeared on camera before dawn.

In the video below Ecco arrives at 5:33am to bow with Morela. After he leaves Morela pauses for 45 seconds, then we hear a peregrine wailing at 3:28 in the video. The wailing continues intermittently over the next three minutes. Was it Terzo complaining that Ecco was there?

The rest of 24 July was very busy. Morela and Terzo bowed at 8:30a and 3:30p.

Morela and Terzo court, 24 July 2020, 8:30am

Terzo sunbathed and watched for two hours.

Then Morela hung out and preened for three hours. I’m happy to see that Morela’s flipped primary feather is gone.

Terzo and Morela courted at dawn on Sunday morning. There was no sign of Ecco but I’m sure he’ll return.

However, the threesome continues at the Pitt peregrine nest.

(photos and videos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

p.s. The National Aviary falconcam streaming service ends on 31 July 2020. It will resume next February.

Fruit and a Fungus

Last week in the city parks I saw a single fruit and signs of fungus.

In Frick I was surprised to find a pawpaw fruit. I don’t usually see any because the grove of pawpaw trees in Schenley is a clonal clump that rarely produces fruit. This lonely pawpaw will ripen in September.

In Schenley Park tar spot fungus (Rhytisma sp.) is forming on Norway maple leaves as it does every summer. In July the spots are yellowish. By fall they’ll turn black like spots of tar.

Tar spot fungus on maple leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though the fungus can infect other maple species, it only touches Norway maples in Schenley. Norway maples are invasive so I don’t feel so bad.

(photos by Kate St. John and one from Wikimedia Commons; click on its caption to see the original)

New Mammal in The Heart of Frick Park

Aspen felled by a beaver, Nine Mile Run, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2020

Last week I found an aspen lying in the creek that used to be its home. The cone shape of the stump means a beaver felled this tree.

Aspen felled by a beaver, Nine Mile Run, Frick Park, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beaver evidence is common at Moraine State Park, Raccoon Creek and even at Pittsburgh’s North Shore and on Washington’s Landing island. What makes this scene unusual is that it’s in the heart of Frick Park.

The felled aspen is next to the new upper boardwalk on Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run Trail. (See the edge of boardwalk in the photo below.)

Beaver evidence is next to the upper boardwalk on the Nine Mile Run Trail, Frick Park, 20 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

I’ve seen beaver evidence along the Monongahela River near Duck Hollow so I’m not surprised that a beaver swam or walked up Nine Mile Run. When he got to the boardwalk he found the perfect habitat: a shallow waterfall (man-made) and lots of trees to eat.

I haven’t seen the Frick Park beaver but I’ve seen a photo.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)

Tiny Jumping Beans

Jumping oak galls, Neuroterus saltatorius (photo by Donald Owen, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection via

24 July 2020

There’s a cool thing happening in California right now that we never see in Pennsylvania. In neighborhoods with white oaks there are tiny “jumping beans” in the gutters.

Here’s that they look like, recorded a week ago by Mary K Hanson.

They’re even better in slow motion, recorded by Mark Eagleton in Woodland, California.

Though they resemble the moths called “Mexican jumping beans” (Cydia deshalsiana) these galls are the agamic (asexual) second generation of tiny Neuroterus saltatorius wasps that mature on white oak leaves and fall to the ground.

Neuroterus saltatorius 2nd generation galls on back of oak leaf (photo by Steve Katovich via

The larvae are tightly packed inside the galls so when they move the galls jump up to 3 cm. That’s 30 times the size of the gall!

In the fall the larvae become adult wasps inside the galls and overwinter to emerge next spring.

Neuroterus saltatorius are native to western North America from Texas to Washington state and up to Vancouver Island, Canada. That’s why we don’t see them in Pennsylvania.

Learn more at the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology: Neuroterus saltatorius.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and; click on the captions to see the originals. videos embedded from YouTube)