Cheep and Chip, Tock or Knock

Chipmunk with full cheeks,  Cap Tourmente NWA, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 October 2023

Fall migration has been intense over Pittsburgh lately and promises to be excellent tonight and tomorrow as well. Yesterday morning I went birding at Frick Park, expecting to find loads of warblers. No such luck. The birds flew over without stopping. However, for chipmunks it was a fantastic day.

Despite the current warm weather, chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are frantically gathering food to store in their underground burrows where they’ll spend the winter. Since they can’t use their paws to carry food, they fill their enormous cheek pouches.

What could possibly make their cheeks so fat? How about acorns?

Chipmunk stuffing an acorn in his cheek (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With so many chipmunks scurrying in autumn, you rarely see two together. Chipmunks are antisocial but they like to make calls to warn each other of predators. Among their most common calls are two kinds of warnings.

Cheep or Chip: “Danger from the ground!” This call sounds almost like a bird and warns of nearby terrestrial predators such as a cat, fox, coyote or raccoon.

video embedded from @MarkCz on YouTube

Tock or Knock: “Danger from the air! I see a hawk!” This is a useful call for birders that tells us to search for a hawk nearby. However, chipmunks know that hawks fly rapidly through the forest so all of them take up the call, far and wide, even though the hawk is not near them. Tock! Tock! Tock! Where is that hawk? Erf!

video embedded from Mybackyardbirding on YouTube

Read more about the chipmunk’s calls at North American Nature: What Sounds Does a Chipmunk Make?

(credits are in the captions)

Dress For Hunting Season

I’m dressed for hunting season, winter 2021-2022 (photo by Linda Roth)

30 September 2023

Stylish blaze orange over purple, accented by a dayglo yellow hat!

Birders and hikers are out in the woods at all times of year. You don’t have to look as eccentric as I do but it’s important to dress for success during deer and wild turkey seasons in Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County has so many deer that bow hunting (Deer Archery Season) has been allowed in municipalities and County Parks for many years. This fall is the first time it will occur in the Frick and Riverview Parks. Some city dwellers are nervous, especially those who don’t spend time in the woods or in North or South Parks where hunting is allowed.

Bow season — officially called DEER, ARCHERY (Antlered and Antlerless) Season — runs Statewide in Pennsylvania Mondays to Saturdays, Sept 30 – Nov 17 (Nov 24 in Allegheny County) and Dec 26 – Jan 15 (Jan 27 in Allegheny County).

Here is my message to park users. I am not worried because …

For many years I’ve hiked in the woods alone even during hunting season including at Moraine State Park. I wear orange. So do deer hunters. You should too (blaze orange shown above). I understand being worried because this is a new experience for most park users. Thirty years ago I was worried because it was new to me. Experience put my fears to rest. I have *never* encountered a problem in 30 years of hiking during hunting season nor have any of my birding friends who are out in the woods as well. It is rare to see a hunter except in the parking lot. They are never hunting in the parking lot.

So dress for hunting season. And don’t expect to see a hunter. The hunters are in tree stands deep in the woods where the deer are, not where people are. (Don’t miss my update below.)

I encourage you to read all about bow hunting in Frick and Riverview at WESA-FM: Bowhunting season in two city parks will begin September 30.

If you want to know about the City of Pittsburgh’s deer overpopulation read my Deer Category here. (Some of the articles are on more general topics with photos of deer in Frick and Schenley.)

UPDATE, noon on 30 Sept: I went birding in Frick Park this morning for 2.5 hours and saw zero hunters and among all the other visitors only one person wore blaze orange. When the day warmed up I took off my coat and gave up on my orange running vest. This is what I wore. (OK, so I broke my own rule but really, there were lots and lots of people and no hunters in sight.)

For all my preaching, this is what I ended up wearing at Frick Park on 30 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Note: PA Game seasons have many special dates, times and arms. Click here to download a pocket guide that lists all the nuances for 2023-2024.

(photos by Linda Roth and Kate St. John)

It’s Time to Hear the Elk

Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)
Elk bugling in Elk County, Pennsylvania (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

29 September 2023

If you’ve been waiting to hear the elk bugling in Pennsylvania, now’s the time to make the trip to Benezette, PA.

In September and October Pennsylvania’s elk (Cervus canadensis) are in the rut, their annual period of sexual activity. The bulls gather harems, pursue the females, antler-spar with other males, and “sing” a bugling love song.

Like white-tailed deer, male elk grow new antlers every year but these cervids are huge. Males are 25% larger than the females and can weigh up to 1,100 pounds with antlers that can span five feet.

Consequently it’s a bit surprising that the bugle is such a high-pitched call. Its bell-like echoing carries far in the woods and fields.

Visit the Elk Country Visitor’s Center in Benezette to see and hear the elk, perhaps even in the parking lot.

If you can’t be there in person, watch the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s live stream

p.s. Elk, also called wapiti, were reintroduced in Pennsylvania in 1913 after we extirpated them in the late 1800s. Did you know white-tailed deer were reintroduced to Pennsylvania, too? 

(photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Young Red-Tail Hunts at the Hospital

28 September 2023

On Saturday 17 September, my friends Mary and Bea were walking to the Bloomfield Saturday Market when they couldn’t help but notice a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) hunting on the lawn at Shadyside Hospital. Mary stopped to take his picture.

Perched on the blue sign, I can tell the bird is immature because his tail isn’t rusty red. In early June he was still in the nest. Soon he learned to fly, then to hunt. Now, months later, he can feed himself but he’s not an expert. It takes time and luck to get a meal.

In autumn young red-tails disperse on their first migration and every place they stop is completely new to them. Those that grew up in urban environments are unbothered by traffic and people so they may gravitate to open areas near buildings in search of prey.

This hawk was so focused on hunting that he ignored Mary while she took his picture. Read more about the hawk’s single mindedness in this article from 2009.

p.s. This red-tail may have been attracted to the noise of house sparrows tweeting inside that bright green hedge. There are always lots of them in there, but they shut up as soon as I look so I rarely see one. As far as I know, I’m the only one — other than a hawk — that peers inside that hedge. 😉

(photos by Mary Tuttle)

Be one of 5 Visitors to Hays Woods Bird Banding, Tues Oct 3

Nick Liadis of Bird Lab holds an ovenbird to be banded, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 September 2023

Only 5 people can come on this outing. You must sign up by leaving a comment on the blog form below. First come first served.

Come with me to Pittsburgh’s newest city park on Tuesday Oct 3, at 8:30 am (rain date Wed Oct 4) to see Bird Lab’s Nick Liadis band migratory birds at Hays Woods.

Meet me at the Hays Woods Agnew Rd Trailhead parking lot at 8:30am.  From there we will walk through the woods for 20 minutes to get to the banding site.   Expect to spend at least an hour on site, then a 20 minute walk to return.

Nick Liadis & Lisa Kaufman at Bird Lab banding, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Every day is different during migration. When I visited the banding operation on 7 September 2022 we saw warblers and a female cardinal. Best Bird was the ovenbird pictured at top.

I can’t predict what birds we’ll see but we will certainly see them up close. It’s sure to be good.

For a sneak preview see Linda Roth’s Facebook Live video of the banding on Tues 26 Sept:

Some logistics:

Bird Lab is a non-profit supported by donations and grants. For group hikes like ours, a donation to of $15/person is required. (More than $15 is always welcome.) You can also donate online at

Learn more about Bird Lab at

If you are one of the lucky 5 participants I will notify you via email. (Comments require that you enter an email address.)

Hays Woods is the City of Pittsburgh’s wildest, least developed park. The trail to the site is flat but don’t expect amenities. The only porta-john is at the parking lot.

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Closer Look at Sleeping Bumblebees

Two bumblebees sleeping on goldenrod, Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 September 2023

Last week at Duck Hollow I found two bumblebees asleep on goldenrod. The temperature was a little chilly but the morning was bright and sunny. Were the bees waiting to warm up in the sun?

Bumblebee sleeping on goldenrod, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eight weeks ago I highlighted the reason why male bees sleep on flowers in July and August. Males don’t live in a hive so they sleep outdoors. They are solitary, searching for a mate, and nearing the end of their lives.

Female bumblebees return to the hive at night if they can. In the hot months of July and August females are indoors at night. However bad weather or chilly temperatures may force them to sleep outdoors until they warm up the next morning.

So I wondered are these sleeping bumblebees male or female? I can tell with a closer look at the bees.

Female bumblebees bring food to the hive so they have pollen sacks on their hind legs. If you see a full pollen sack on a bee’s hind leg you can be sure it’s female, as shown on the right in the photo below.

Male and female bumblebees (photo by Kate St. John)

A bee without pollen, like the one on the left, is either a female who delivered her pollen and has just come back for more, or it’s a male without a pollen sack.

I can see two obvious differences between male and female in these photos.

HindlegsHairySmooth convex-shaped structure for holding pollen. (This one contains pollen!)
Stinger at back end (pink arrow)No stingerHas a stinger

There are even more clues than this! Read all the details at How to tell if a Bumblebee is male or female.

And finally, were these two near the end of their lives?

Yes, both will die this autumn. Only fertilized queens make it through winter. Every hive starts with a lone queen in the spring.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Loves Disturbed Soil

Pilewort seeds blow away in the wind, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 September 2023

Have you seen white fluff blowing in the wind lately? The fluff is not from dandelions. At this time of year it’s from pilewort.

Pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) is a native plant in the Aster family that looks very weedy, even ugly. At two to eight feet tall the flower heads on the tips of the branches look like seed pods because they barely open to expose pistils and stamens. To appreciate the flower you need a magnifying glass. Its beauty is microscopic.

It doesn’t take much wind to set it going. Do you see the flying fluff in this closeup? Look for the tiny yellow arrow in this photo and the one at top.

Pilewort near Phipps’ parking lot, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Why is it called pilewort? The common name literally means “hemorrhoid plant.” Penn State Extension explains.

Native Americans used American burnweed [pilewort] to treat rashes caused by exposure to poison ivy and poison sumac. Medicinally, it has also been used as an emetic and to treat dysentery, eczema, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. It has been used to create a blue dye for wool and cotton and, despite its intense flavor, can be eaten raw or cooked.

Penn State Extension: American burnweed

Pileweed’s other common name is American burnweed because it grows easily after brush fires. It loves disturbed soil and is easy to find by the side of the road, in churned up gardens, and in urban areas. In this age of bulldozers, roto-tillers and garden digging, pilewort has many opportunities to germinate.

I found a lot of it at Duck Hollow.

Pilewort at Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pilewort at Duck Hollow, 18 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Perhaps it’s a good thing that pilewort grows prolifically. A 2002 study in Japan found that Erechtites hieraciifolius is good at absorbing the greenhouse gas, nitrogen dioxide, turning it into an organic form.

It may not be beautiful but pilewort plants itself by the side of the road and then cleans the air.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Want Stronger Concrete? Add Coffee Grounds

Fresh ground coffee (photo by Kate St. John)

24 September 2023

A new study from Australia has found that adding used coffee grounds to concrete makes it 30% stronger!

Block of concrete (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To prepare coffee as a concrete additive, the study team collected spent coffee grounds and turned them into biochar in a low-energy process without oxygen at 350 degrees Celsius.

Used coffee grounds (photo by Kate St. John)

Not only did coffee make the concrete 30% stronger but the already used grounds did not end up in a landfill, a significant savings since the world’s coffee drinkers create 10 billion kg (11 million tons!) of spent coffee every year.

If the idea catches on, coffee waste will reduce the need for sand in concrete …

Portable concrete plant in Austin, TX (photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

… which will reduce the need to mine so much sand, a finite resource.

Sand mine (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Will piles of sand at concrete plants be replaced by piles of biochar coffee? Imagine what it would smell like at a cement plant, like this one along the Parkway East near Uptown, satellite view below.

Google satellite view of Heidelburg Materials Concrete / Lindy Paving, 2nd Avenue, Pittsburgh

Read more about this innovation at Science Daily: Coffee Offers Performance Boost for Concrete.

I hope it catches on.

(credits in the captions)

Hey, Bees!

Large carpenter bee sips from a passionflower, Phipps, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 September 2023

Last Wednesday I watched an enormous carpenter bee sipping from passionflowers at Phipps Conservatory’s outdoor garden.

The passionflower’s nectar treat is directly below its overhanging anthers and stigmas. On Wednesday the anthers were in position to touch the hairy spot on the bee’s back. The stigmas were too high to touch the bee.

The pollination parts of a passionflower. An anther touches a bee, 20 Sep 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Later, the anthers and stigmas will trade positions. The anthers will pull back. The stigmas that collect pollen for the ovary will touch the bee.

This photo embedded from University of Florida, IFAS: The Passion Fruit in Florida shows how it works.

photo embedded from Univ of Florida IFAS Extension: Xylocopa virginica (eastern carpenter bee) with pollen on passion flower (P. incarnata). Credit: Mark Bailey, UF/IFAS

Passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata) have many lures to attract the large insects that pollinate them.

“Hey, bees! ” say the passionflowers, “Come here!”

Read more about passionflowers and their fruit at Univ. of Florida IFAS: The Passion Fruit in Florida

(photo credits in the captions)

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawks Learn to Hunt

Two juvenile Cooper’s hawks in Frick Park, 14 July 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

22 September 2023

Every year young Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) fledge in June/July and learn to hunt in July/August. As soon as they’re self sufficient they disperse, and then they start to migrate.

Cooper’s hawks eat birds for a living so they migrate with their prey. Their peak migration continues now through mid October at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.

How did they get to this point? Let’s take a look back to August as some young Cooper’s hawks perfect their hunting techniques in New Jersey. It involves a lot of jumping.

video embedded from PTZtv on YouTube

(credits and links are in the captions)