Archive for October, 2012

Oct 11 2012

How’s The Water?

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s waterways are scenic but in many places the water is bad.  This photo of the notch where Stony Run meets the Conemaugh River is a case in point.  See the orange tinge on the river bottom?  That’s bad water from abandoned mine drainage.

How prevalent is bad water in our area?

PittsburghTODAY recently published a map of non-attaining waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Using Department of Environmental Protection data, the yellow lines show where water quality is compromised by abandoned mine drainage, agricultural runoff, sewage, and other causes.  The good water is blue.

Even in this thumbnail it’s easy to see that most of Allegheny County has bad surface water while most of Greene County is good.  The white space in the middle of Allegheny County is the City of Pittsburgh where the streams were buried as the city was built.  Click on the image to see the large map at PittsburghTODAY and drill in for a close-up.

The region's bad water affects both our quality of life and the natural world.  Where water’s impaired aquatic life is poor, there are fewer fish, fewer birds, fewer mammals and bad water for us to drink.

So why is a lot of the map yellow?  It's the legacy of coal.

During the heyday of deep mining in the early 1900's Pennsylvania had weak or non-existent environmental laws and the state did not collect money from industry for clean up of the inevitable abandoned mine drainage.  Pennsylvania eventually enacted laws to prevent new damage but there's no money to turn all of the yellow lines into blue.

One would hope that Pennsylvania learned from this history but in my opinion (not necessarily the opinion of WQED) our state has not.  Though damage is predictable from new industrial threats like Marcellus shale drilling, the state still begins with weak laws, suffers new damage, then changes the laws after the damage is done.  (Click here for examples of bad water and changed laws.)

So… how’s the water?

(photo by Tim Vechter; map from  Click on the map to see the details)

One response so far

Oct 10 2012

They’re Baaaaack!

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Pittsburgh's crows are back!

The winter flock is building.  Hundreds gathered last evening near Bigelow Boulevard at Craig Street.  As sunlight faded in the western sky they left to roost  ... where?

This morning Tony Bledsoe dodged the "rain" from their roost in the trees near Clapp Hall.  His guess at the size of the flock?  500.   And this is just the beginning.   By November they'll build to a crescendo of crows.

Where do they gather at dusk?  Leave a comment with the news ... or tweet me the location of Pittsburgh's crow flock @KStJBirdblog  (hashtag #pghcrows)


(photo of hooded crows in Denmark, by Jens Rost via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original.)

15 responses so far

Oct 10 2012

Making Waves

Published by under Weather & Sky

These rare Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds look like waves on the ocean.

In fact they are breaking waves generated by the same fluid dynamics that creates wind-driven waves on water.

Both are caused by Kelvin-Helmholtz instability which occurs at the boundary where two fluids flow by each other at different speeds or densities.  The air above these clouds is moving faster left-to-right than the air below them.  The boundary is very turbulent and becomes more so when the waves break.

Kelvin-Helmholz instability can be described mathematically and its effect plotted over time.  This silent video by VanjaZ shows a yellow fluid on top flowing faster than the black fluid on the bottom.  Talk about turbulence!


We rarely see K-H clouds because the atmosphere has to be just right to make them stand alone. The curling waves disappear in seconds, wiped out by chaos as soon as they break.

(photo by GrahamUK on Wikimedia Commons; video by VanjaZ on YouTube)

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Oct 09 2012

How Stakes Hurt Trees

Every day on my way to work I pass this unusual tree in Schenley Park.  It was planted with care, probably more than 40 years ago, when stakes were provided to stabilize the young tree.

But the stakes were never removed.  The tree grew and grew.  The trunk had nowhere to go except outward.  Slowly it engulfed the stakes.

Now this tree's in a world of hurt.  The rubber guide and wires disappeared long ago.  The stake on the right is still outside the trunk but only a short length of wire is visible (below).


The other stake is completely surrounded.  Its top is inside the trunk.

And now the stakes can never be removed.  Though they've created a weakness in the trunk, they're the only support the tree has at that spot so they have to stay.  The damage is done.

It's too late to save this tree, but you can help others.  Examine staked trees to make sure the guides are not girdling the trunk.  Remove the stakes 1 to 2 years after planting.

For more information see Bartlett's plant health guide for newly planted trees.

(photos by Kate St. John)


3 responses so far

Oct 08 2012


Published by under Plants

Pretty berries, right?

Wrong.  You don't want them!  These are the fruits of mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata), an invasive species that earned its name because it grows really fast -- up to 25 feet in a single growing season.

Mile-a-minute arrived in Stewartstown, PA from Japan in the late 1930's and spread from there.  Because birds and animals eat the berries, the plant spreads easily to new and remote locations. I've seen it growing on top of Laurel Mountain; Dianne Machesney photographed these berries at Green Cove Wetlands.

Mile-a-minute can take over a sunny spot very quickly and choke out every plant that underlies it.  You can recognize it by its triangular leaves, barbed stems (it's called a "tearthumb") and cup-shaped shield leaves at the stem joints.

Because mile-a-minute is an annual with shallow roots you can eradicate it if you're vigilant.  Put on stout gloves and pull it out.   If it's gone to seed -- as it has by now -- collect the seeds first, then pull.

Here's what to do in a fun video from the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension.


(photo of fruit by Dianne Machesney, photo of leaves in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons, video from University of Maryland Extension)

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Oct 07 2012

Bluebird Open House

Published by under Bird Behavior

Friends who have bluebird boxes tell me it's very common to see small groups of bluebirds checking out the nest boxes in the fall.  They aren't going to nest, so what are they doing?  I don't really know but I imagined ...

Maybe autumn is real estate Open House time.  The bluebirds stop by each home and inspect the interior.  "Look at that carpet!"  "I like how they remodeled the kitchen."  "The living room's too small but the bedrooms are nice."

Or maybe, as Marcy Cunkelman suggested, they're asking ...

"Is this where we grew up?"

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

3 responses so far

Oct 06 2012

Fall Color

The maples are changing color in Schenley Park. The weather is changing too.

If you haven't turned on the furnace yet, you'll need it tonight. Fall is here.

(photo by Kate St. John)

One response so far

Oct 05 2012

Peregrine Hunting Dunlin

Published by under Peregrines

Have you ever seen a flock of shorebirds fly up in a tight ball and waited for the drama to unfold?

On November 28 and December 4, 2010 Martin J. Muller brought his camera to Samish Flats in Skagit County, Washington where thousands of shorebirds rest and feed at high tide. The concentration of dunlin attracted two peregrine falcons looking for a meal.

Martin's 10 minute video condenses 11 hours of observations.  In the background are the mountains of Puget Sound and the Olympic peninsula.  In the foreground, the drama of the chase and lessons learned by an immature peregrine.


(video by MartinJMuller on YouTube)


p.s. Speaking of ubiquitous human noise, the occasional roar on the soundtrack is the noise of passing cars, not the birds.

2 responses so far

Oct 04 2012

The Largest Acorn

Published by under Quiz,Schenley Park,Trees

Crack open your field guides!

Today's quiz is:  Identify this enormous acorn.

Here are some of its characteristics:

  • The acorns are huge.  The cups measure 1.25" across.
  • The outside has a rough diamond pattern with a fringe at the edge.
  • The inside of the cup is smooth.
  • The acorn itself is dark brown (see last photo).
  • I found them in Schenley Park.

Here's a close-up of the cups...

...and an acorn inside the cup.

Do you know what species this is?

Leave a comment with your answer.

(p.s.  The answer is now in the comments section.)

(photos by Kate St. John)

14 responses so far

Oct 03 2012

Help Categorize Hurricanes

Published by under Weather & Sky

The National Climate Data Center has 300,000 images of tropical cyclones (hurricanes) from 30 years of satellite observations.  Unfortunately the method for categorizing them has changed over time and from place to place.

Is a cyclone labeled "Category 3" in 1988 the same intensity as a Category 3 today?  Maybe not.

The database needs to be standardized but reclassifying this many storms is an impossible task for NCDC staff.  How can they solve this problem?  Crowdsource it!   Once you know the color scheme, anyone can easily recognize patterns and pick similar images.

And so was born.

Pictured above is Hurricane Gilbert from 1988.  It has the classic cyclone swirl and an obvious eye in the middle.  The intensity is also shown in color.  Dark blue clouds are the very tallest, then red, orange, yellow, with pink-gray the lowest.  Gilbert is one intense storm!

Now you're ready to try your own storm.  Here's what you'll find at

  1. The very first time you visit:  Watch the demo and click on the "?" Help symbols.  If you want, you can create a login so you get credit for your storms.
  2. Occasionally the first step presents you with two images and asks you to click on the more intense storm.
  3. For every storm:  A single image is presented on the left.  Pick its pattern:  Eye, Embedded center, Curved band, Shear, Other.  Click the "?" Help buttons to get used to the patterns.
  4. Now pick the image that most closely matches your storm.
  5. Repeat for #3 and #4 for five more time-lapse images of the same storm.

Don't worry if your first attempt seems clumsy.  There is no right answer.  Everyone can do it.  All of us can help.

Read more about the project here or go directly to to try your eye on a hurricane.

(image of Hurricane Gilbert, 1988, from the Cyclone Center)

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