Category Archives: Schenley Park

Coffee Beans in Schenley Park

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod from Schenley Park (photo by Kate St.John)
Kentucky coffeetree seed pod with penny for size comparison (photo by Kate St.John)

Last week I found these large, dull gray seed pods beneath a tree in Schenley Park with "coffee" beans inside.

The Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is a rare tree with a wide distribution from Oklahoma to Ohio.  It was planted in Schenley Park as an ornamental more than 100 years ago.

The tree earned its name because Native Americans used to grind the roasted beans to make a beverage like coffee.  When coffee and chicory weren't available the settlers drank this beverage, too, but they didn't like it as well.

The pods are very tough and hard to open.  I quickly learned that the flattest ones have no beans so I chose a broken one and pried it open with a knife.

Kentucky coffeetree seed pod opened, found in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Kentucky coffeetree seed pod opened, found in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The beans are dark brown, round, and hard to photograph.  I moved the biggest one so you can see it better.

Did a squirrel eat the other beans?  If so, I hope he's immune to the cytisine alkaloid inside them.  When not fully roasted, these beans are poisonous to humans.

Want to try some Kentucky "coffee?"  No thanks. I'm sticking with Starbucks.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Seasonal Movements: One Owl

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I mentioned that a pileated woodpecker lives in Schenley Park, but only in the winter.  Here's another bird that seems to do the same thing.

On sunny days this eastern screech-owl perches motionless in an unusual tree opening.  He's not there every day in winter, but he's never there when spring comes.

Though the range maps says eastern screech-owls live in Pittsburgh year round, this individual bird probably lives in Schenley during the winter and goes somewhere else to nest.

Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)
Range map of eastern screech-owl (linked from All About Birds website)


Sorry ... I'm not going to tell you exactly where he is because too much public attention will scare him off.  And if you find him, please don't publicize his location for the same reason.


(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  In January this blog has 400-700 readers a day.  That's a lot of public attention.

Last Bird, First Bird

American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)
American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

What species was the last bird you saw in 2016?  Which one was your first of the new year?

Mine were the same species.  Black birds in a black sky.  American crows.  Here's why.

Yesterday was the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  I counted birds in my neighborhood (best bird: red-breasted nuthatch) and gave tips to Schenley Park's counter, Mike Fialkovich, on where to find the best raptors.

By noon, Mike had not seen the eastern screech-owl nor the merlins, and he'd only seen one peregrine at Pitt.  Oooo!  I carved out some time at dusk to run over to Schenley and have a look.  Mike did too, but I didn't know that.

Dusk came early.  At 4pm I raced around by car and on foot to find the owl (yes!) the merlins (yes!! two!) and both peregrines (alas, none).  Interestingly, Mike and I saw the merlins at the same time but did not see each other.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but see hundreds of crows coming in to Schenley and Pitt for the night, still flying after sunset.  By the time I got home no other birds were out.  Crows were my Last Bird of 2016.

This morning before dawn they flew over my house on their way from the roost.  American crows were my First Bird of 2017.

Happy New Year!


p.s. When I stepped outdoors to hear the crows, I heard an unexpected Second Bird of 2017: an American robin singing his spring song, Cheerily Cheerio.

(photo by Peter Bell)

Seasonal Movements: One Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker (photo by Dick Martin)

Range maps can obscure the seasonal movement of birds.

For instance, the range map for pileated woodpeckers, below, shows them in western Pennsylvania all year long but they're not everywhere. There are none in Schenley Park in the spring and summer.

Pileated woodpecker range map. Green means year-round. (from Wikimedia Commons)
Pileated woodpecker range map. Green means year-round. (from Wikimedia Commons)

However, a male pileated woodpecker comes to Panther Hollow for the winter.  He announces his presence when he sees me on the trail.

It's a treat to see him as I walk through Schenley Park.


(photo by Dick Martin, range map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the map to see the original image)


Variably Icy

Icy path in Schenley Park, Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)
Icy trail in Schenley Park, Feb 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain.

From 5 degrees F on Thursday night to 53 degrees with freezing rain today, we've had it all.  And there's more to come.  Tomorrow night will be 15 degrees.

This yo-yo weather reminds me of what we learned during the polar vortex in January 2014:  Climate change is making the jet stream wobble so we get shots of very cold air and then warm air soon after, as shown in drawing(c) below.

Jet stream Rossby waves (graphic from Wikimedia Commons)
Jet stream Rossby waves (graphic from Wikimedia Commons)


Be careful today!  It's variably icy out there.


p.s. I've used an old photo of ice because it's too icy to step outside this morning!

(photo by Kate St. John.  Drawing from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Cars And Deer

Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)
Deer spooked near the road (photo by Mike Tewkesbury, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

It's that time of year again when cars and deer come into conflict.

From October through December white-tailed deer hormones surge for the mating season.  Males become aggressive, spar with their rivals, and challenge anything they see as a threat.  Both sexes roam in search of mates and barely pay attention to their surroundings.  Cars are the last thing on their minds.

Last year, Pennsylvania won the "prize" for the most deer-vehicle collisions in the U.S.   According to a September 2015 article by Ad Crable at Lancaster Online, we hit 127,275 deer with our cars -- and those were only the collisions reported to insurance.   When compared to hunting season, which took more than 353,000 deer that year, we're making a sizable dent with our vehicles.

A case in point is in Schenley Park where hunting is prohibited, as in all Pittsburgh City Parks.  Deer used to be rare but they moved in about 10 years ago (perhaps longer) and their population has exploded in the past five years.  I knew we'd reached a milestone when I saw a first ever road-killed deer in the Park along the Boulevard of the Allies, hit on November 5 or 6.

I'm sure the person who hit that 6-point buck was very, very surprised.  So are those whose dogs are challenged by aggressive deer.  Every year since 2015, a buck has killed a dog in the City's east end parks.

So be careful out there, especially at dusk and dawn when deer are most active.  Use your brightest headlights and slow down.  Don't become a statistic.


Reminder: Deer (rifle) season begins tomorrow, Monday November 28, in Pennsylvania. Wear blaze orange when you're outside the city.

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

Merlins This Month At Schenley Park

More than a decade ago four merlins used to hang out at Schenley Park Golf Course every winter.  They were often seen at dusk in the area near the club house just before they flew to roost.  For a few years they were reliable every winter and then they were gone ... until now.

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small falcons that eat birds for a living, though they choose smaller prey than peregrines do.  You could mistake one for an immature peregrine except for this:  Merlins are smaller and darker, their malar stripes are less pronounced, and they are very fast in level flight, rapidly pumping their wings.

Most merlins nest in Canada and migrate south with their prey.  Some go as far as South America.  Others stay in the southern U.S. and a few, very few, spend the winter in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This month two merlins came back to Schenley Park.  Just like those a decade ago, these birds prefer perches with long views in every direction.  You can find them at dawn or dusk at the highest elevation of the golf course near Darlington Road at Schenley Drive. They perch on treetops or dead snags near hole #2 and the fairways of holes #3 and #4.

If you've never seen a merlin, watch this video of a falconer's merlin on the hunt to get an idea of their size and flight style.


p.s.  If you go look for the merlins, keep in mind that this is a golf course.  You must stay out of the way of golfers and not tread on the tees and greens!  Watch from the sidelines.

(video by Primitive Tim on YouTube)

This Morning’s Outing in Schenley Park

Participants in Schenley Park outing on 16 October 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Participants in Schenley Park outing on 16 October 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning it was jacket weather with lots of dew (wet shoes!) as 14 of us gathered at the Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park.

We found plenty of birds -- at least in terms of individuals.  Not only were there many blue jays and robins but midway through the walk several hundred common grackles showed up to snatch the bread cubes scattered beneath the oaks near Bartlett Shelter.

A low-swooping red-tailed hawk kept the chipmunks and jays on their toes and a flock of cedar waxwings stopped in to eat porcelain berries.

Best Bird: Blackpoll warbler.   Fall blackpoll and bay-breasted warblers have many of the same field marks -- warbler size, thin warbler beak, wing bars, yellow wash on throat, faint eyeline, olive back with subtle stripes, faint stripes on chest -- but blackpolls have orange feet and sometimes orange legs, too.  This one was immature with black legs and and orange feet. Click here and scroll down to see an immature blackpoll up close.

Best mammal: We saw a very plump raccoon climb a tall tree and finally insert itself into a hollow space at the top.  "Insert" is a good description.  The raccoon was so plump that it took a while for him to ooze into the crack and disappear.  Perhaps he exhaled to make himself thin.

Here's the complete list of birds.  (You'll notice that I didn't count most of them -- too hard to both to count and lead.)


(photo by Kate St.John)

Daisy Fleabane

Fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Daisy fleabane blooming in Schenley Park, 10 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

You've probably seen these small, thin-petaled "daisies" just about everywhere.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is a native plant with a long blooming period -- May to October -- so you'll see these flowers for months to come.

Click here to read about fleabane's daily exercise program (I'm not kidding!) at The Bane of Fleas.


(photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday’s Walk at Schenley Park

Our Schenley Park outing, 19 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Our Schenley Park outing, 19 June 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning 15 of us took a walk on the Lower Trail in Schenley Park.  Highlights include ...

  • Two ephemerals:
    • Inky cap mushrooms that dissolve into ink the same day they appear. Click here to see what they look like.  Thanks to Adam Haritan of Learn Your Land for identifying them.
    • Ohio spiderwort flowers that last only a day before they wilt:

Ohio Spiderwort, 14 June 2014 (photo by )

  • Sights and sounds of birds including a busy flock of common grackles, a young wood thrush perched on a log and singing rose-breasted grosbeaks and acadian flycatchers.
  • The bug-eat-bug world of aphids sucking juice out of tall flower stems while ladybugs and harvestmen (daddy longlegs) pursued them.
  • And two deer, one with a big rack in velvet.

Thanks to all for coming.  My next outing will be on July 31 at Duck Hollow and Lower Frick Park.


(photo by Kate St. John)