Sunrise over Joshua Tree, California, 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 January 2021

Little did we know a year ago today when the first known case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. that we were heading for a year of recurring fear, illness, death, isolation, political unrest and economic hardship. By now almost everyone knows someone who tested positive. Too many know someone who died.

Yesterday the U.S. COVID-19 death toll reached 400,000. To put this in perspective, that’s the entire population of Tulsa, Oklahoma or Tampa, Florida or 1/3 of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

For a year we have been grieving alone or in small groups. Yesterday for the first time we mourned as a nation for the lives lost to the coronavirus. A nurse from Livonia, Michigan who cares for COVID patients sang Amazing Grace as a tribute to those we’ve lost.

We’ve been going through a very dark time but we can work together for a brighter future.

Today let us take solace in the beauty of nature and begin to hope.

(video by Terje Sorgjerd at El Teide Mountain, Spain, April 2011; music by Ludovico Einaudi)

Like a Furry Robot

Jumping spider on a human finger (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you have ever approached a tiny spider that jumped suddenly far and fast you’ve probably seen a jumping spider (Salticidae), one of 6000 species on Earth.

Jumping spiders are harmless to humans and can be identified by the position of their eyes. They have four pairs(!) with the largest front and center. As for jumping, they use their back legs.

Jumping spiders’ well-developed internal hydraulic system extends their limbs by altering the pressure of their body fluid (hemolymph) within them. This enables the spiders to jump without having large muscular legs like a grasshopper. Most jumping spiders can jump several times the length of their bodies.

Wikipedia: Jumping Spider

When not jumping I’ve seen them move in a jerky fashion.

Like a furry robot.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Another Name for a Run in a Hollow

Nine Mile Run joins the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 27 Oct 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 January 2021

At the end of yesterday’s blog post about Panther Hollow and Four Mile Run I explained a local naming convention that’s a mystery to people from other parts of the country. The noun “run” means the act of running or a route taken on a regular basis yet in Pittsburgh it also means “creek.”

A stream is called a “Run” in Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Maryland. Derek Watkins’ map of Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous U.S., generated from GNIS data, shows the places where people use different words for Creek including: Branch, fork, run, brook, kill, stream, bayou, swamp, slough, wash, cañada, arroyo, rio. (Click here to see his map.)

— from The Rise and Fall of Panther Hollow Lake by Kate St. John

Using the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), Pfly generated a map of just two words — “Run” in red and “Branch” in blue. South of here, Branch and Run coexist then Branch takes over.

Branch vs. Run (map by Pfly on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing)

There are other anomalies as well. Hollow, as in Panther Hollow, is our name for a narrow valley. The term is used throughout Appalachia and in places where Appalachians settled later such as the Ozarks, Utah, Texas, and parts of Oregon and Wisconsin(*). Everywhere else out West a narrow valley is a Gulch. Since the West is dry we think gulches are dry, but they don’t have to be.

Here’s Pfly’s map of Hollow in orange versus Gulch in blue.

Hollow vs Gulch (map by Pfly on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing)

So a Run in a Hollow could be called a Branch in a Gulch.

Nine Mile Branch in Duck Gulch is pictured at top.

It just doesn’t sound right.

(photo by Kate St. John, maps by Pfly on Flickr, Creative Commons licensing)

p.s. (*) The Hollow vs Gulch map is interesting from a Western migration perspective on places where Appalachians settled later. For instance,

  • Utah was settled by Mormons from Upstate New York.
  • Parts of Texas were settled by Appalachians looking for more land. For instance, my great-grandparents emigrated from Appalachian Tennessee to northeastern Texas near the town of Paris.
  • Southwestern Wisconsin uses both Branch and Hollow, terms from the southern Appalachians. Derek Watkins speculates that this patch may have come from Appalachian in-migration “during a regional lead mining boom in the early 19th century.”

The Rise and Fall of Panther Hollow Lake

Panther Hollow Lake: Normal level (left) 29 Dec 2017, Flooded (right) 4 Dec 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

16 January 2021

This winter Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park rose to flood level in late November, remained flooded for almost two months, and fell suddenly last week. Here’s the story of the rise and fall of Panther Hollow Lake.

Panther Hollow Lake, which is actually the size of a pond, was built around 1904 by damming the fresh water of Panther Hollow Run and piping its outflow into the combined sewer system of what had been Four Mile Run, the creek that used to receive it. Buried in Junction Hollow the big pipe passes under a neighborhood called The Run on its way to the Monongahela River.

For decades that pipe has been too small to handle heavy rain so sewage backs up in The Run, dangerously flooding streets and basements. In 2019 as part of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Project, a smart valve was placed in the lake’s outflow pipe to hold back fresh water during heavy rain events, then release it slowly after the danger passes. In this way Panther Hollow Lake rises and falls a little to protect the downstream neighborhood.

Normally the water level is low enough that the concrete-step edge is visible as shown at top left and on 19 Nov 2020 below.

But the valve malfunctioned or clogged in late November. By 25 November water was climbing the edge and by 4 December the lake was obviously flooded (top photo at right). An alternate channel kept the water from rising further but you couldn’t walk around the lake until someone beat a path above the water line.

On Wednesday 13 January I circumnavigated the still-flooded lake. The next day someone fixed the valve and the lake began to fall rapidly, cracking and levering ice around the edge.

Here’s what it looked like on Friday 15 January 2021, back to normal water level.

Sheets of ice lever up as Panther Hollow Lake level falls, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ice thickness revealed, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ice stranded above water at Panther Hollow Lake, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ice was still settling and cracking when I stopped to record the sound last Friday. Listen to it pop and groan. You can also hear a Carolina chickadee and a song sparrow at the end.

Read more about the Panther Hollow Watershed and the origin of Panther Hollow Lake in this March 2018 blog by Krissy Hopkins: From Hill to Hollow The Evolution of Panther Hollow Watershed.

p.s. And, yes, a stream is called a “Run” in Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Maryland. Derek Watkins’ map of Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous U.S., generated from GNIS data, shows the places where people use different words for Creek including: Branch, fork, run, brook, kill, stream, bayou, swamp, slough, wash, cañada, arroyo, rio. (Click here to see his map.)

Note: Watkins did not include regional pronunciations such as “crick” because the data he used from GNIS spells it “creek.”

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Clouds Predict

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 15 January 2021, 7:26am (photo by Kate St. John)

16 January 2021

Red sky at morn, sailors forewarn.

Sunrise on Friday 15 January was a deep crimson red. Though it was sunny for a couple of hours yesterday, gusty wind arrived at 9:30a and rain followed five hours later.

Mackerel sky without rain.

Sky over Frick Park, 9 Jan 2021, 2:30pm

A mackerel sky can predict rain 6-8 hours later, but that wasn’t the case over Frick Park on Saturday 9 January 2021. The day was brilliantly sunny for two hours but became overcast by 5p. These clouds were the leading edge.

Are they a “mackerel sky” or not? What do you think?

Meanwhile, I’d say the bottom right corner is a Harbinger of Gloom.

p.s. See the comments below and this video for the definition of a mackerel sky. Indeed this is an altocumulus one.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Another Polar Vortex?

15 January 2021

Seven years ago we were in the grips of subzero temperatures as the wobbly jet stream drove arctic air south over the U.S. It was called the arrival of the Polar Vortex.

Seven years ago on 6 January 2014 much of the U.S. was below zero as shown on the map below. Pittsburgh was above freezing that day but the warmth ended soon as the blob of cold air headed east.

This winter has been mild and the jet stream has been behaving. But a sudden stratospheric warming event occurred in the arctic in early January 2021. The warmth made the arctic vortex unstable. Meteorologists speculated: Are we in for another polar vortex in the Lower 48? Will we have a major cold snap?

Not necessarily. NEWS CENTER Maine in Portland has a good explanation of what’s going on, published on Monday 11 Jan 2021. (This news is for Mainers but it applies to us, too.)

Meanwhile it’s quite warm across the U.S. Here’s the same U.S. temperature map seven years later, published today 15 January 2021.

Read about the original polar vortex in this 2014 article: Polar Vortex.

(graphics from NOAA; click on the captions to see their origins)

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Ravens In Pittsburgh!

Raven in Schenley Park, 4 Jan 2021 (photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis)

13 January 2021

The smartest bird in the western hemisphere, the common raven (Corvus corax), has come to town and is claiming nest sites in the City of Pittsburgh. Ravens have been seen in Schenley Park, above, and are regularly found at Forbes Avenue in Frick Park. This is a big deal because…

Common ravens were extirpated from eastern North America by 1900. After 1950 they slowly recolonized remote areas of the north and Appalachians but were rarely seen in eastern cities. We were very surprised when a pair showed up at Brunot’s Island in October 2007 and eventually nested there. Since then, very slowly, ravens have become more visible in Pittsburgh.

Common raven flies by Western Penitentiary, 13 Oct 2007 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s Birding Magazine, sparked a discussion of city ravens in his blog post: How to Know the Birds: No. 51, The Impossible Raven.

Ted has Pittsburgh roots from the time when ravens were scarce, but now lives in Boulder, Colorado where ravens are common in town. His tweet prompted lots of feedback from Pittsburgh birders.

Michelle Kienholz contributed video of ravens at Forbes Ave in Frick Park including a second video of a raven “whispering” sweet nothings to his/her mate. (Michelle’s remark refers to a photo of the raven diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History taken by Mike Fialkovich.)

[When the car noise abates briefly at 0:19 below you can almost hear what the raven is saying, a muted “whup … whup”.]

Watch and listen for ravens in the city. “Brock! Brock!”

(photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis and Chuck Tague plus embedded tweets)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Zoopla; click on the captions to see the originals)

Birds Wearing Little Red Hats

Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 January 2021

In this irruption winter of northern birds in southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ve seen pine siskins (Spinus pinus) and evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) but I had not seen common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) until finally, last week, they were present every day in a sunflower field in Butler County.

Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.

Common redpoll on a sunflower, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.

Documentation photo: Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 9 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S78940944)

I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.

Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 10 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S79026167)

Thank you, Matt, for alerting us to these rare birds. If you’d like to see them here are the two locations I visited: Meals Rd, Butler County and Bethel Green, Allegheny County.

The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Matt Juskowitch)