Today Is Not the Equinox

Sunset is due west on the equinox, North Dakota Hwy 5 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 September 2023

Are we there yet? Have we reached the equinox?

In Pittsburgh the winter solstice invariably arrives on 21 December, but the 21st never works for the autumnal equinox.

As an astronomical event, the equinox arrives everywhere on Earth at exactly the same moment but is expressed as different dates and times because of longitude and time zones. Hawaii’s equinox is on the 22nd while Paris and Johannesburg have the same date and time because of time zones.

Universal Time23 Sep, 6:50AM UTC
Pittsburgh23 Sep, 2:50AM EDT
Honolulu, HI22 Sep, 8:49PM HST
Tokyo23 Sep 22, 3:49PM JST
Paris23 Sep, 8:49AM CET
Johannesburg, SA23 Sep, 8:49AM SAST

For most of the Earth this month’s equinox will occur on the 23rd. When it does everyone’s sunset will be exactly west, just like the photo above.

Learn how this works at …

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Proof! Lanternflies Don’t Hurt PA Trees; Sticky Tape is Pointless, Bad

Sticky tape put on trees by an unknown Frick Park visitor, 19 Sept 2023 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

20 September 2023

Six years ago, when spotted lanternflies were a new plague in North America, no one knew if they would destroy Pennsylvania’s forests but scientists assumed the worst and warned accordingly. However, they also conducted long term studies of spotted lanternflies’ effect on Pennsylvania trees and agriculture. For PA trees there is happy news: Spotted lanternflies are not a danger to Pennsylvania forests. There’s no need to protect our trees from lanternflies because they are not hurting them.

Penn State subjected four species of trees to four years of spotted lanternfly super-infestation by surrounding the trees with mesh nets that kept hordes of lanternflies inside. Silver maple, weeping willow, and river birch were barely phased by the bugs and did quite well in the third year of the study. The bugs’ host plant, the invasive tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), did not grow during the plague.

A Penn State study had four types of trees in enclosures with spotted lanternflies inside to see how growth would be affected. credit: Kelli Hoover/WPSU (photo embedded from WPSU)

The study’s lead author, Kelli Hoover, concluded:

“If you have a vineyard and you have lanternflies on your grape vines, you should be very worried because they can kill grape vines,” Hoover said. “But if you’re a homeowner and you have large trees on your property and you have lanternflies on them, I don’t think you should worry about it.”

WPSU: Spotted lanternflies not a danger to forests, according to Penn State study

When scientists learn new information, even if it contradicts an earlier statement, they change their advice to match the reality.

Six years ago they thought the trees were in trouble and needed protection. Now they’ve proven that spotted lanternflies don’t hurt our trees.

Six years ago they suggested sticky tape to protect trees but quickly learned it’s a terrible idea because it kills beneficial insects and birds and immediately changed their advice: Do NOT use Sticky Tape; use Circle Traps instead.

Yesterday an unknown visitor to Frick Park put sticky tape on some trees. Here’s what one section killed: 12 spotted lanternflies, 25+ pollinators (yellowjackets), 70 warbler-food insects (tiny flying insects). More beneficial insects died than lanternflies. Needless to say the tape has already been removed. (Click here to see how sticky tape kills birds!)

Sticky tape deaths in Frick Park, 19 Sep 2023 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Sticky tape is bad and pointless. If you put it up, remove it.

Sticky tape on a red oak (photo by Kate St. John)

Learn more about the spotted lanternfly tree study at WPSU: Spotted lanternflies not a danger to forests, according to Penn State study

p.s. Are you still worried because you saw one or two bugs on a tree? Not a problem. In September spotted lanternflies climb any vertical object whether or not they intend to eat it: trees, utility poles, buildings. Here they are on the guy wire of a utility pole. Yes, they are creepy but they are not eating the utility pole.

video embedded from ViralHog on YouTube

(photos by Michelle Kienholz, Kate St. John and embedded from WPSU website)

Undertail Tells The Tale

Magnolia warbler in fall, Sept 2018 (photo by Dave Brooke)

19 September 2023

Right now warbler migration is at its autumn peak in southwestern Pennsylvania but, as usual, the birds are hard to identify. Their fall plumage is dull and confusing, they move fast so we never get a good look at them, and we don’t get much practice because many of them are here only in September. And then they’re gone.

This year it dawned on me that the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) is super-easy to identify if all you see is its butt, as shown at top and below.

Magnolia warbler shows its undertail, May 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The “maggie” has a unique pattern on its undertail, easy to see on the free Visual Finders PDF, downloaded from The Warbler Guide. I’ve highlighted the magnolia warbler on this screenshot of Page 15.

Visual Finders Download, Eastern Undertails page from The Warbler Guide I have highlighted the Magnolia tail

Note that the magnolia warbler is the only warbler with a white belly, white undertail coverts, white undertail and a large black straight-edged tip on the tail. It looks as if this warbler was dipped tail first in black paint.

Magnolia warbler excerpt from Visual Finders Download, Eastern Undertails page from The Warbler Guide

On some juveniles the tip is dark gray but the pattern is the same.

So this view is the best way to identify a magnolia warbler.

Underside of a Spring plumage magnolia warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The undertail tells the tale!

Download Stephenson & Whittle’s free Visual Finders PDF at The Warbler Guide.

(photos by Dave Brooke, diagrams from The Warbler Guide free download)

I highly recommend the 560-page The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle which I use at home after noting the warbler’s key features in the field. In my opinion the book is indispensable if you take photographs.

Hays Woods Hike: Get to Know Pittsburgh’s Newest Park

Hays Woods in September 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 September 2023

Are you curious about Pittsburgh’s newest and least developed city park? Get to know Hays Woods on a guided hike next Sunday.

Join the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) and Bird Lab for a free bird and nature walk at Hays Woods on Sunday, September 24, 8:00am to 10:00am. Meet at the Hays Woods – Agnew Rd Trailhead in Baldwin. The hike is entitled:

Befriending the Forest: The Birds and Plants of Hays Woods.

The view from Hays Woods, September 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s PPC’s description:

Come check out Pittsburgh’s newest city park for an exclusive hike with Bird Lab Avian Ecologist, Nick Liadis, and Jared Belsky, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Ecological Restoration Coordinator, Hays Woods.

Explore Hays Woods like never before, while learning about native plants and trees and how regional birds interact within this dense urban forest. This adventure will incorporate a mixture of species identification and bird watching. Fall migration is the best time to catch sight and sound of the migrating birds overhead.

Hike leaders are Jared Belsky of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who manages PPC projects on site (photo on left) and Nick Liadis of Bird Lab who bands birds at Hays during spring and fall migration (photo on right). Both have extensive knowledge of Hays Woods from hands on experience.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Hike announcement
Jared Belsky, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy & Nick Liadis, Bird Lab

This is a free event but you must Sign Up Here.

Hope to see you there.

p.s. The Hays Woods – Agnew Rd Trailhead has a small gravel parking lot. If this hike is well attended you may have to park on the street. GPS = 40.39852,-79.96324

(photo of Jared Belsky by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, all other photos by Kate St. John)

Honeydew Falls Like Rain

Sooty and white mold grow on honeydew deposited by spotted lanternflies feeding on Ailanthus, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 September 2023

The onslaught of invasive spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) continues in Pittsburgh until the first truly cold weather gives us a couple of frosts. This month the bugs are congregating on vertical objects, feeding on Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and laying eggs.

On Friday in Schenley Park the sun broke sideways through the trees to a large Ailanthus along the Lower Trail coated in lanternflies, sooty mold, and white mold (highlighted in yellow). The lanternflies were actively sucking on the tree’s sap.

White mold on Ailanthus beneath the spotted lanternfly feeding zone, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sunlight illuminated small bugs flying horizontally near the tree and something falling that looked like rain.

Spotted lanternfly honeydew drops like rain, Schenley Park, 15 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Uh oh! That rain is watery spotted lanternfly poop called “honeydew.” The honeydew is sugary and the air actually smelled sweet.

So stand back when you see a tree coated in sooty mold and spotted lanternflies. You won’t want to get rained on.

Here’s more about sooty mold.

p.s. Don’t worry about honeydew dropping from buildings and utility poles. The lanternflies aren’t eating there so they aren’t pooping either.

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

Peregrines Together in September

Ecco watches while Carla preens, 15 Sep 2023, 3:54pm

16 September 2023

Yesterday Ecco and Carla spent lots of time hanging out together at the Pitt peregrine nest. The snapshot camera’s motion detector captured their activity.

Beginning at 3:50pm the pair spent 45 minutes together, bowing, preening, and watching. When Ecco left, Carla continued on the perch for another half hour, then stretched and departed at 5:00pm.

Two minutes later Ecco landed at the exact same spot on the perch. Because female peregrines are larger than males, the switch from Carla to Ecco made it look as if the bird shrank.

Ecco preened for more than an hour, then stretched and vaulted up to leave at 6:13pm. All told, the peregrines were present on camera for nearly 2.5 hours.

This slideshow shows 144 minutes of their interactions in only 1 minute and 15 seconds. If you miss the captions on the first pass, don’t worry, the slideshow repeats.

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

Flying With The Birds

Ultralight leads whooping cranes on migration (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 September 2023

For nearly 30 years ultralights have been used to establish safe migration routes for endangered geese and cranes as they are reintroduced to the wild.

In 1993 ultralight pioneer Bill Lishman, along with Joe Duff, conducted the first ever human-led bird migration by guiding a small flock of young Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. His experiment proved that young geese imprinted on an ultralight will follow the aircraft and learn the migration route. After leading the birds just once, in one direction, the geese knew the route and returned on their own in the spring.

Christian “Birdman” Moullec was the first to do it in Europe when he guided lesser white-fronted geese (Anser erythropus) from their future breeding grounds in Sweden to new wintering grounds in Germany in 1999. He has since led red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis) and many other species.

Red-breasted goose and lesser white-fronted goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, to raise money for his conservation efforts, Christian Moullec offers tourists ultralight flights with the birds.

Learn what it’s like to take one of his flights in: A Man, a Tiny Aircraft, and a Flock of Geese: Flying Among Birds in France. See the magic in this video from National Geographic.

video embedded from National Geographic on YouTube

Visit Moullec’s website at Fly With Birds.

(credits are in the captions)

Migration! Arrivals & Departures, 14 Sep

Ovenbird, Oct 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

14 September 2023

Pittsburgh’s bird migration forecast looks great for three days in a row. Last night through Friday night will see a huge passage of birds overhead with excellent birding opportunities today, Friday and Saturday.

Here’s what migration radar looked like at 5:00am this morning.

Birdcast Live Migration screenshot for 14 Sep 2023, 5:00am

During this massive movement some species are departing, some arriving. Let’s take a look again at Birdcast’s regional list of Species On The Move, described in detail last month, to learn what we can expect to see.

Noticable Departures: Who Just Left?

Greater and lesser yellowlegs, April 2020 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

Lots of species left recently but most of them were shorebirds. Since Pittsburgh doesn’t have a shore we rarely see those listed below. Occasionally a lesser or greater yellowlegs is reported but don’t expect to find one now.

Here’s a quick summary of rapid departures as of 14 September 2023 in a screenshot from BirdCast. Note that cedar waxwings are here right now but will rapidly depart around 27 September. Yellow-billed cuckoos on the list because I always hope.

pared-down screenshot of BirdCast Species On The Move, noticeable Last Departures, Upper Midwest & Northeast

Peak Influx: What will we see this week? Warblers!

Nick Liadis checking the age of an ovenbird, Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

For the Upper Midwest and Northeast region, 13 to 17 September is the peak of warbler migration.

I’ve featured the ovenbird because yesterday (last night!) was its peak influx point. No surprise then that Nick Liadis banded one yesterday at Hays Woods during Linda Roth’s 40 Acres a.k.a. Hays Woods Enthusiasts live stream. Check it out here.

And if you thought you’d seen a lot of magnolia warblers already, the next few days will be exceptional. They reach their regional peak influx on Sunday.

Magnolia warbler in autumn (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s a screenshot of the Noticeable Peak Influx as of 14 September 2023. Note the exclamation point next to magnolia warbler in the chart below!

pared-down screenshot of BirdCast Species On The Move, migration Peak by species, Upper Midwest & Northeast

With so many birds on the move, now’s the time to get outdoors. Be sure to check BirdCast for the latest forecast.

(photos from Steve Gosser, Lauri Shaffer, Kate St. John. Tables are modified screenshots from BirdCast’s Species On The Move for the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Be sure to check BirdCast for the latest data)

Spotted Lanternflies Love Height and Heat

Dead spotted lanternfly at the base of a utility pole, 13 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

13 September 2023

They aren’t very smart but they know what they like: warmth and vertical objects.

If you haven’t been to Downtown or Oakland lately you’re missing an insect phenomenon. Our plague of spotted lanternflies (Lycorma delicatula) is quite attracted to tall buildings and utility poles, especially when it’s hot.

Spotted lanternflies love this utility pole when the sun heats it (photo by Kate St. John)

Like moths to a flame, spotted lanternflies are visually drawn toward and seemingly captivated by vertical objects such as utility poles …

[They] turn and land on the poles when they are less than about 10 feet away. They remain on the pole for many minutes, even hours, while crawling up toward the top to try to take flight again.

However, a large proportion of those launching themselves from the pole are drawn back to the pole, which serves as a sort of “visual magnet” from which the insects cannot escape for a while. 

Science Daily: Lanternfly’s attraction to vertical silhouettes could help monitor, trap it, April 2021

On hot days I see thousands above me, puttering toward the buildings, tapping along the structures as they try to find a place to land.

This building is especially attractive to spotted lanternflies, Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The bugs cling and fall off, leaving drifts of lanternfly carcasses on the ground below.

Spotted lanternflies litter the base of the Rand Building, 11 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

There’s a theory that the bugs like vertical objects because they are such weak fliers that they have to climb up and relaunch on their search for their host tree, the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). According to Penn State Extension, they “land on buildings for warmth, height and other unknown reasons.” After all, who can know the mind of a lanternfly?

Fortunately we can learn from Philadelphia where their spotted lanternfly plague hit in 2020 (during the pandemic). Here’s what happened at a taco shop on the ground floor of a high rise.

video from NBC10, Philadelphia, Sept 2020


Note that Philadelphia had their lanternfly plague in 2020 and now, three years later, they are wondering where all the bugs have gone. I’m sure we can expect 2-3 summers of this nonsense. Certainly by 2026 spotted lanternflies will just be a bad memory in Pittsburgh.

(credits are in the captions)

What is a -Wort?

Purple milkwort, Sewickley Heights Park, 8 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 September 2023

Why do some plants have the suffix “-wort” in their names?

The suffix “-wort” simply means “plant.” In earlier centuries, plant common names often referred to physical characteristics, resemblance, or recommended medicinal uses.

Univ of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum: Gardening with Native Plants: Worts and Weeds, pt. 1

Here are some recently blooming “-worts.”

Purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), above, is native to North America. “The genus name Polygala comes from the ancient Greek “much milk”, as the plant was thought to increase milk yields in cattle.” I have no idea if this works.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), related to ragweed, is used in cooking and has been used medicinally. It has a bitter flavor. Why “mug”? I don’t know.

Mugwort leaves are white underneath (photo by Kate St. John)
Mugwort leaves are white underneath (photo by Kate St. John)
Mugwort flowers are brown in September, Schenley Park, 23 Sept 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is a member of the Aster family that grows easily in disturbed soil. Quirky Science says the “reported uses include the treating of hemorrhage, dysentery, skin diseases, and cholera. It is a purgative and emetic. The name suggests it is good in treating piles (hemorrhoids).”

Pilewort, Pittsburgh East End, 28 Aug 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort flower heads and seeds (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort flower heads and seeds, Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum), imported from Europe, is so-named because it blooms in June and was traditionally harvested on St. John’s Day, June 24, to adorn homes and ward off evil. It is an herbal treatment for depression and has been planted nearly worldwide.

St. Johns wort, South Side of Pittsburgh, July 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)