Archive for the 'Books & Events' Category

Nov 07 2015

The Right Wind

The view from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (photo by Kate St. John)

The view from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch (photo by Kate St. John)

Though many birds have migrated away from Pennsylvania our hawk watch sites are still going strong.  November brings more red-tails, sharp-shinned hawks, and this month’s main attraction — golden eagles.

The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, pictured above, was particularly good for golden eagles earlier this week (27 of them on Tuesday!) when the wind was from the southeast.


It doesn’t make sense that we’d watch hawks flying into a head wind until you realize that this beautiful view at the Allegheny Front is facing east.  There’s no mountain edge on the west, just the Allegheny Plateau, so the best winds for watching are those with an easterly component that create an updraft and lift the hawks right above our heads.

Yesterday the weather changed, so the wind is now from the west and north. Other sites will be better for hawk watching.

Today and tomorrow, 11/7 and 11/8, the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology is visiting Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch near Carlisle, PA.  This site is on a ridgetop with great views in all directions and lots of raptors passing through in November, especially on a northwest wind.  At this time of year Waggoner’s Gap often has the highest hawk count of any watch in the state.

For the best raptor viewing, pick a site with the right wind.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Nov 03 2015

55 Years Ago Today: A Victory For Birds

Published by under Books & Events

Misty Morning at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Misty Morning at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Fifty-five years ago today an Act of Congress preserved this place in Morris County, New Jersey for wildlife.  It was a victory for the land, water, birds, mammals, plants and everything living in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

What good is a swamp?

In 1959 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey thought the Great Swamp would be the perfect place for a huge new airport to serve metro New York.  After all, swamps are useless until they’re drained and filled and cease to be swamps … right?  The residents disagreed.

Can an individual make a difference?

You bet!  The swamp would have become an airport, but four women stood up and said no.  Residents Kafi Benz, Joan Kelly, Esty Weiss, and Betty White found out about a December 3, 1959 meeting, not open to the public, that was intended to promote the airport’s construction.  They went to the meeting and got thrown out of it.  The newspapers picked up the story, opposition to the airport mobilized, and within a year supporters of the Great Swamp had bought enough land to make it a National Wildlife Refuge.  Morris County would have been blindsided if four women hadn’t made the news.

Today the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a 7,768-acre patch of undeveloped land in a sea of suburbs.  Half the land is a Wilderness Area, a quiet haven for wildlife.  Though it’s only 26 miles west of New York’s Times Square it’s a great place to find birds, especially during waterfowl migration when ducks and geese stop by to rest and refuel.  244 species have been tallied at Great Swamp NWR.

Thanks to the hard work of dedicated people 55 years ago, this land is wild today.  It was a victory on so many fronts, and in retrospect a victory for birds.


(photo by Billtacular via Flickr Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 31 2015

Spooky Time

Published by under Books & Events

Yellow and purple puppets looking frightened and surprised, Vienna (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What are these puppets frightened of?

When they came back from Trick or Treating their clocks looked like this!

Clock turned back (photo by Kate St. John)


Happy Halloween and don’t forget to turn your clocks back tonight.  😉


(photo of frightened and surprised puppets in a Vienna park from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Photo of clock turned back by Kate St. John)

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Oct 30 2015

Bald Eagle Rendezvous

If you’re a fan of bald eagles, here’s a site to put on your travel plans for next month.

Every November bald eagles congregate on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam just south of the Pennsylvania border in Maryland.  Eagles like the area because the fish are easy to catch after they pass through the dam’s gateway.  We like the area because there are so many bald eagles and it’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

As you can see from the video above, it’s a popular place for photography.

If you don’t mind crowds and want to see a wide selection of raptors, visit on Saturday November 14, 2015 for Conowingo’s Bald Eagle Day.

Here’s a video from last year’s event.  Yes, there are crowds but you’ll see cool birds, too.

For more information, follow Conowingo Bald Eagles on Facebook and click here for event information.


(videos from YouTube)

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Oct 18 2015

Nature Events: Inside And Out

Published by under Books & Events

Nature Events: Inside and Out

Even though winter’s coming there are still many opportunities to participate in Nature events indoors and out.  Here’s a list of activities, plus an online resource for finding more.

Walk in Schenley Park, Sunday October 25, 8:30am

Meet me at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center on Sunday October 25 at 8:30am for my last guided walk in the park in 2015.

NOTE: Schenley Drive will be closed until 9:00am for CMU Buggy Practice so your best bet is to park at Anderson Playground and walk across the bridge to the Visitors Center. Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Click here for updates in case of cancellation or bad weather.

Wings and Wildlife Art Show at the National Aviary, November 7-8

The Wings and Wildlife Art Show returns to the National Aviary after a 10 year hiatus.  This juried art show and marketplace will include 46 locally and nationally known wildlife artists from 5 states working in paint, photography, jewelry, ceramics, wood, and more.  Click here for more information.

Nature Events year round. Find one near you!

Attend outings, indoor presentations and hands-on learning sessions throughout the year.  Find out what’s happening, where, and when at Adam Haritan’s Learn Your Land website.  Learn Your Land has easy searching tools to find an event near you.

Listen, Learn, Participate on the web

Every week WESA’s Allegheny Front presents environmental topics of interest in western Pennsylvania — from birds to kayaking, from air quality to Marcellus Shale’s impact.  Click here to hear. is a community climate and weather journal where you can post your climate observations and questions.  Listen to The Allegheny Front for answers.

Yale Climate Connections compiles quick stories on people responding to our warming world. Their October 14 Weird Weather episode features my comments on changing weather patterns in Pittsburgh.  Click here to hear.


(photo by Kate St. John, poster from the National Aviary’s Wings and Wildlife Art Show)


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Oct 17 2015

Get Out To See Fall Colors, But Don’t Take The Bridge

Fall color (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are still colorful in Pittsburgh but frost is coming tonight.

Get outside today to take in Nature’s beauty … but don’t expect to cross the Greenfield Bridge into Schenley Park.

Greenfield Bridge as seen from the Parkway East (photo by Pat Hassett)

Greenfield Bridge as seen from the Parkway East July 2015 (photo by Pat Hassett)

The Greenfield Bridge is closed now for 18 months (probably 2 years!) while it’s dismantled, blown up and replaced.

Today, October 17, there’s a party on the bridge — Greenfield BridgeFest — from 4:00pm to midnight. Music headliner: Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. Win a chance to be the one to blow up the bridge.  Click here for more info.

Come on down!


(fall color photo by Kate St. John; Greenfield Bridge photo by Pat Hassett)

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Sep 21 2015

White Snakeroot + Schenley Walk Reminder

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

White snakeroot, flower close up (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Walk:
Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday September 27, 8:30am – 10:30am.

This time we’ll meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road.  This is not the usual meeting place at the Visitor’s Center.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk must be canceled for bad weather.

White Snakeroot:
On the August walk we saw white snakeroot and we’re sure to see it this month, too.  At the time I called it tall boneset, a confusing alternate name.  What was I thinking?!  I should have used its most common name.

White snakeroot grows 1 – 5 feet tall with opposite, toothed, egg-shaped leaves and branching clusters of bright white flowers.  Each flower head is a cluster of very tiny flowers, shown above.

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

White Snakeroot in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant is similar enough to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) that it used to be in the same genus, but it’s been reclassified to Ageratina altissima.   To avoid confusion with unrelated boneset I’ll call it “white snakeroot” from now on.

Unfortunately “snakeroot” is confusing, too.  White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is not related to black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa, black cohosh).  Arg!

In any case, we’ll see it next Sunday.


(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE: 27 September 2015:  We were a small group but we saw some cool things including this Best Bird:  A red-tailed hawk hovered above Panther Hollow and then screamed in (silently!) with talons extended to catch something on the ground! But he missed it.  We weren’t in the line of fire but we were certainly impressed!

Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Participants in 27 Sept 2015 Walk in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)


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Sep 06 2015

Master Asters

Published by under Books & Events,Plants

Asters (photo by Kate St. John)

Asters (photo by Kate St. John)

September is the month for asters and goldenrods but these plants are so hard to identify that I usually say: “It’s an aster (or goldenrod) but I don’t know which one.”

Now there’s hope for the aster-onomically challenged.  Pennsylvania Botany is offering a one-day seminar on identifying asters and goldenrods on September 22 at Nescopek State Park.  Participants will use keys and floras and get plenty of hands-on practice.

Master asters at this seminar.  It’s open to the public but is not free.  See the links below for more information.

Aster and Goldenrod Identification Workshop
September 22, 2015 • 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Nescopeck State Park, Environmental Education Center
1137 Honey Hole Road • Drums, Pennsylvania 18222
Directions/information on Nescopek State Park.


(photo by Kate St. John)

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Sep 05 2015

Today Is International Vulture Awareness Day

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Turkey vulture in flight (photo by Chuck Tague)

Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, the day when we remember vultures under threat and thank them for saving us from disease.

International Vulture Awareness Day, 2015 logo

Originally founded by Birds of Prey Programme in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England this annual event teaches the benefits of vultures and our actions that threaten them.

The most famous vulture crisis happened at the turn of this century when public health officials, conservationists, and birders became alarmed that 95% of the vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal had died-off in only 15 years.  It was the fastest bird decline in history and became painfully obvious when the landscape was swamped by decaying animal carcasses.  Research revealed that the solution was rather simple: Ban diclofenac, a painkiller given to cattle that’s deadly to vultures.  The drug was banned in 2006 but vulture populations are severely damaged — down 99.9% — perhaps irretrievably.

Vultures in Africa and Europe are declining as well and could face extinction within our lifetime.  In Africa the threats are complex; click here to learn more.

If you think our vultures are secure, think again.  The largest land bird in North America, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), is a vulture and is so critically endangered that they’ve been captive-bred since 1987.  Every California condor you see today comes from that program.

California condor in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

California condor in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And in South America Andean condors are near-threatened.  You can see and learn about them at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary.

Thankfully our turkey and black vulture populations are stable, but we often don’t realize the good work they do for us.  They usually eat carcasses before we smell them and save us from the diseases harbored in rotting meat.  Did you know vultures can eat anthrax safely because their powerful stomachs protect them?  Thank you, vultures!

So when you see a vulture today give him a nod and thank him for his efforts.

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day!


(turkey vulture photo by Chuck Tague)

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Aug 17 2015

Reminder: Let’s Walk in Schenley Park, August 23

Published by under Books & Events

Yellow Touch-me-not. wilting, 16 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)Just a reminder that I’m leading a bird and nature walk on Sunday August 23, 8:30am in Schenley Park.

Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive.  (No confusion this time.  We’ll meet at the regular place.)

Dress for the weather. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Click here for more information and updates if the walk is canceled for bad weather.

I’m sure we’ll see signs of drought … like this wilting jewelweed, alas.

See you soon.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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