Monthly Archives: September 2012

Free Admission in Allegheny County

In the next three weeks over 40 venues and programs will offer free admission as a way of saying "Thank you for your support."

Here in Allegheny County we pay an additional 1% sales tax, half of which goes to the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) to provide funding for regional libraries, parks and trails, sports facilities, arts and cultural programs.

Every year RAD-supported organizations say "Thank You" to the public by offering free admission and programs during the Asset District's "RADical Days,"  this year from September 20 (today!) through October 13.

There are many, many arts and cultural offerings.  Listed below are nine fun and free science and nature activities coming up soon:

  • Today, Thursday September 20: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, free admission 9:30am to 5:00pm.   That's where this orchid was photographed.
  • Sunday, September 23:  Free admission to the Carnegie Science Center, 10:00am to 5:00pm.  Great exhibits and hands-on science.
  • Sunday September 23:  Free admission, 11:00am to 3:00pm, to Riverquest's EXPLORER, the world's first green educational vessel, docked next to the Carnegie Science Center.
  • Saturday, September 29:  Allegheny County Parks Hartwood Acres Hay Day.  Fun fall activities for kids of all ages.  Free admission 11:00am to 4:00pm.
  • Sunday September 30:  Free admission to the National Aviary, 10:00am to 5:00pm.  See birds!
  • Sunday September 30:  Free admission to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, noon to 5:00pm.  See dinosaurs!
  • Saturday October 6:  Upper St. Clair Boyce-Mayview Park free admission, 2:00pm to 8:00pm, to The Outdoor Classroom's guided creek explorations, birding, insect safaris, crafts, plus an evening campfire roasting marshmallows.
  • Sunday October 7:  Free admission to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, 9:00am to 5:00pm (admission gates close at 4:00pm).
  • Saturday October 13: Allegheny County Parks' South Park Hay Day.  More fun fall activities for kids of all ages.  Free admission noon to 4:00pm.

And that's not all!  Click here for the complete list of RADical Days events and all the information you'll need to participate.

(photo of an orchid at Phipps Conservatory by Sage Ross, March 2011, on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


p.s. WQED-FM is one of the many arts and cultural organizations offering free admission.  On Saturday October 13, noon to 1:00pm, take a free tour inside our Carolyn M. Byham Studio and meet “QED Morning Show” host Jim Cunningham as he broadcasts LIVE from Katz Plaza, 655 Penn Ave in the Cultural District, Downtown Pittsburgh.

Red Sky At Night

The sunset was gorgeous last night after yesterday's heavy rain.  It reminded me of the old saying:

Red sky at night, sailor's delight
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.

Though this saying is folklore, it's a fairly accurate way to predict the weather.

When the sun is at a low angle, its light passes through more of the atmosphere and the blue-green wavelengths are stripped out, leaving mostly red.  We see a pretty sunset when the reddish light reflects on the underside of clouds.

Clouds are key to the folklore weather prediction.  They come from the west, they indicate moisture, and they might bring rain or storms.

As shown in last night's photo, during a red sunset the clouds are close to us and the sky is clear in the far west.  Clear skies in the west mean good weather is on its way.

During a red sunrise, the clouds are overhead or in the west but the clear skies have already passed over to the east.   Morning clouds often indicate bad weather will arrive that day.

Taking a cue from last night's sunset, I can safely predict that today will be a very fine day.

NOAA says so, too.   😉

(photo by Kate St. John)

The Pirate

This morning the #ABArare Twitter feed is full of news of a piratic flycatcher at Rattlesnake Springs in Eddy, New Mexico.  I usually don't follow up on rare birds that far away but the name of the bird intrigued me.

Native from central Mexico to northern Argentina the piratic flycatcher is a small bird, 5.75" long, that eats insects and fruit.  Those on the edge of their range migrate toward the center.  The bird in New Mexico went too far or perhaps in the wrong direction.

And he's a pirate?

Yes.  He steals the nests of other birds.

Though smaller than a sparrow piratic flycatchers steal the domed nests of birds as big as crows!  Those of crested oropendolas, for instance.

They don't attack the nest owners.  Instead they keep showing up and vocalizing and being so totally annoying that the rightful owners abandon their nest even if they've laid eggs in it.  When persistence pays off, the pirates throw out the abandoned eggs and the female lays her own.

These birds even look like pirates.  They wear the pirates' mask.

(photo by Dominic Sherony from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

Does This Word Sound Like A Bird?

Can you recognize the name of a bird in a language you've never heard?

Last weekend I found a 2009 New York Times science quiz where you can test this skill.

The quiz is a sample from a study conducted by anthropologist Brent Berlin at the University of Georgia.  In it he showed that human names for the natural world usually incorporate qualities of the organisms, so we can tell the difference between a bird name and a fish name even if we've never heard the language.

The questions in the study, and the quiz, present pairs of bird and fish names in a very foreign language: the Huambisa language of Peru. Brent Berlin pronounces the words in audio clips.

The original study participants correctly guessed the bird name 58% of the time.  My hunch is that birders will score higher than that.

I did amazingly well, correctly choosing 9 out of 10 bird names.  This photo shows the bird whose name I missed.

Can you tell if a word names a bird?  Click here to take the quiz.

(photo of a male purple-throated euphonia by Dario Sanches from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

Life Bird at Conneaut

It's rare for me to see a Life Bird within a day trip of Pittsburgh but that's because I hadn't been to Conneaut harbor.

Conneaut, Ohio is on the shore of Lake Erie near the Pennsylvania line.  The harbor is protected by two long breakwaters whose arms reach out into the lake.  You can barely see them on Google's satellite view but they protect the harbor and a large, sandy mudflat that's grown between the boat launch and Conneaut Township Park.

Conneaut is excellent during migration so I jumped at the chance to join yesterday's Three Rivers Birding Club outing led by Shawn Collins.

We saw thousands of gulls and about two dozen shorebirds.  One of them was this buff-breasted sandpiper, a bird I'd never seen before. He's just slightly larger than a semi-palmated plover and very handsome with an almost innocent staring expression.

I love how he looks when he runs.

I traveled 142 miles to see him but he made a much longer journey to get there.  He flew about 2,500 miles from his Arctic summer home to Conneaut and is only 1/3 of the way to his winter home in Argentina at the Rio de la Plata watershed.

I feel privileged to have seen him.  Buff-breasted sandpipers almost went extinct in the 1920's due to overhunting.  They recovered but are declining again and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Thanks to Shawn Collins for leading the outing and for these beautiful pictures of my latest Life Bird.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

p.s.  A "Life Bird" is a species that you've seen for the first time in your life.

What To Our Wondering Eyes…

If you haven't had a chance to see the awesome results from International Rock Flipping Day last Sunday, here's what we found:

Nature Closeups -- cool views of a daddy long legs in Georgia
Alex Wild, Scientific American -- five treasures in Illinois
Rebecca in the Woods - a beaver makes it interesting in Wisconsin
Fertanish Chatter -- millipedes, spiders, and a little blue guy near D.C.
poikiloblastic -- a Notre Dame petrologist finds a rock with a defense strategy
Growing with Science Blog -- weevil with an elephant snout in Phoenix
Wild About Ants -- and a blog about the ants found near the weevil
Powell River Books Blog -- disappointment at Bellingham Bay
Walking with Henslow -- much to see in Madison
Roundrock Journal -- did that spoon really biodegrade? and an armadillo in Missouri
Mainly Mongoose -- dwarf mongooses in South Africa (so cute!)
Random Hearts -- a heart in a brick
Wanderin' Weeta -- spider sex in the Lower Fraser Valley, BC
Rock, Paper, Lizard (The Interpreter) -- a drama of search, imminent birth, and a rubber boa
Beasts in a Populous City -- a journey through Rock Creek Park, D.C.
Lilac Gate -- a toad has prepared for winter in Ottawa
Outside My Window - two camels and a leopard in Maine (that's my hand about to find them, above)
Skepchick -- Skepchick's readers contribute their rock flips

And a wealth of under-rock finds in the #rockflip Flickr pool.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Banner Waving

Two weeks ago the mountain was wearing a hat.  Today it's waving a flag.

Banner clouds are stationary, orographic clouds that only form in high wind on the leeward side of an isolated, steep mountain.  The Matterhorn, pictured above, is famous for them.

Banner clouds are so picky that we'll never see them in western Pennsylvania simply because we have no isolated steep mountains.

... except ...

Under the right moisture conditions a banner cloud can form above or just behind an airplane's wings. Click here for an example.

Airplanes form banner clouds because there's lower air pressure on top of their wings (to generate lift).  The lower pressure results in lower temperature which results in condensation.  Hence a cloud.

My favorite banners are the wing tip clouds that look like streamers.

And for a really weird effect, check out this cloud around a fighter jet on the verge of breaking the sound barrier.  The shape is so perfect it's hard to call it a banner.

(photo by Zacharie Grossen on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

Mosquito In The Car

Saltmarsh mosquito (image from COJ)
Saltmarsh mosquito (image from, FMEL)

I had such a great time birding at Maine's Popham Beach on Wednesday (Sept 5) that I went back the next day.

On Thursday the weather was warmer with much less wind.  By mid afternoon I'd tallied three Best Birds: a merlin, an American golden-plover and a pectoral sandpiper.

When I was ready to leave I dawdled in the parking lot with the car doors open while I stashed my gear and ate a snack.  Then I hit the road for South Portland more than an hour away.

I shouldn't have dawdled.

Halfway between Bath and Brunswick I felt a sharp burning pinprick on the skin near my ankle.  A pause... and then another pain right next to it.  A pause... and then a third pain on my shin.

This was happening to my driving leg, the leg that was maintaining a steady 50-55 mph on Route 1, the leg responsible for applying the brake, the leg sheathed in a hiking sock and long pants.  The leg I could not even look at until I found a place to pull off the expressway.

I remember wondering:  Is something wrong with my leg?  Had my nervous system developed a strange pain syndrome?   Three more pinpricks!!  What is causing this!??

And then a large mosquito flew up from the area near the gas pedal and headed slowly for the back of the car.

This was not a mosquito I was prepared for.  This was no ordinary Pennsylvania woodland mosquito, the kind you can escape if you just keep moving, the kind that can't cope with wind, that bites you almost painlessly, that can't bite through clothing and would just as soon bite your neck as your ankle.

No, this was a salt marsh mosquito, a persistent and repetitive biter, the kind that flies with you as you walk, that bites right through your clothing, that prefers to eat your ankles and legs, that ruins many a day at the beach.

I was outraged!  How dare she!

When I reached Brunswick the expressway ended.  I pulled over and parked in a fast food parking lot.  I looked in the back of the car and saw her resting on the wall near the back window.

Carefully, I opened the back passenger door.  And then in one swat I killed her.

She will NEVER bite me again!

(photo of the salt marsh mosquito, Ochlerotatus sollicitans via Likely from the University of Florida Medical Entymology Laboratory. Click here to see FMEL's mosquito identification page.)

Dish Hawk

Last evening as I left work I heard a scrabbling on the edge of this huge satellite dish behind WQED.  It sounded like claws scratching metal -- almost as unpleasant as fingernails on a chalkboard.  The noise attracted the attention of everyone nearby.

The sound was made by a red-tailed hawk who had landed on the dish to hunt rabbits in the weeds below.  Not a good move!   He slid down to the seam and stood lopsided, one foot higher than the other, gripping the edge.

Since he didn't care that I was watching I took his picture with my cellphone.  (He's in the exact center of the photo.)

Fortunately it doesn't matter if he hurts this dish as we haven't used it for years.  Trees have grown up around it and mossy dirt stains the inside.  Like many defunct structures it's too expensive to take down, so it's slowly surrounded by urban wildlife.

And topped off by a dish hawk.

(photo by Kate St. John)