Relieve Stress Outdoors

Birding at Presque Isle State Park, a safe social distance (photo by Ramona Sahni)

During this stressful time of COVID-19, there’s a way to get some relief. Spending just 20 minutes connecting with nature lowers our stress levels and boosts our mental health.

Gardening, watching birds, walking and hiking are good ways to feel happier. We can easily maintain a safe social distance while birding. We can also connect with nature by watching our bird feeders.

Birding at Duck Hollow, a safe social distance (photo by Kate St. John)
Birds at Marcy's feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Connect with nature by watching your bird feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

The City of Pittsburgh is blessed with five large parks that provide a welcome release from stress — Schenley, Frick, Highland, Riverview and Emerald View.

My closest park is Schenley where I’m following the progress of spring.

Be Safe and Keep Others Safe in the parks from COVID-19:

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy offers these safety tips for park users. I circled the 6-feet physical distance message which is difficult when the parks become crowded! Plan accordingly.

Check the CitiParks website or Facebook page for updates on the City of Pittsburgh parks.

p.s. Here’s the Parks Physical Distancing list typed out so you can search for it later.

  • If you are exhibiting symptoms, don’t use the parks! (*)
  • Wash your hands before and after using the parks.
  • Stay 6 feet apart from other persons at all times.
  • Many restrooms and facilities are closed so be prepared (hint, hint).
  • Don’t touch handrails or playground equipment (By the way, the playgrounds are closed until further notice).
  • (And need I say this?!?) No play dates, no group games, etc. If an activity involves getting close to each other, don’t do it.

(*) Sorry to end on a down note but if you have symptoms, you and your household are contagious. Isolate yourself & quarantine your household for 14 days. Here’s what to do.

We Need A Laugh

27 March 2020:

Yesterday the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. exceeded the number in China. Those who became infected and contagious(!) 10 days ago are now feeling sick. Now more than ever we must stay at home and wait it out. It’s a very stressful time.

We need a laugh. Parrots are here to help.

p.s. If you have a pet bird you have lots of time right now to work with him on new tricks. 🙂

(video from Just Aww on YouTube)

Migration By Smell

Gray catbird (photo by Shawn Collins)

I have not seen a gray catbird in Pittsburgh yet but I know they’re on their way. Next month they’ll arrive from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central America. How do they get here?

Migratory birds are born with an innate sense of direction and distance to their goal but must learn how to get there on their first trip south. After they’ve made the trip once, they create a mental map and can use the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to return home.

Their sense of smell? Yes! Birds do have a sense of smell and they use it.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn how gray catbirds proved they navigate by smell in: Sniffing Their Way North.

(photo by Shawn Collins)

Signs of Spring, 18-23 March

Crocuses blooming in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 March 2020:

Around the world, more and more of us are under Stay At Home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yesterday Governor Wolf announced that eight PA counties — 45% of Pennsylvanians — must Stay At Home through 6 April. Fortunately residents are permitted to “engage in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking or running if they maintain social distancing” — i.e. stay at least 6 feet apart.

So I’ve been going outdoors alone … especially when the weather is drizzly, cold or gray because no one else is out there. I’ve seen lots of birds including red-winged blackbirds, hundreds of American robins, eastern phoebes, a brown-headed cowbird, a golden-crowned kinglet and a merlin(!) in Schenley Park.

I’ve also photographed some signs of spring, 18-24 March 2020. Flowers are blooming in Greenfield’s neighborhood gardens, above and below.

Daffodils in my neighborhood, 21 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The earliest trees are beginning to leaf out including the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) in Schenley Park.

Bud on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
New leaves on a bottlebrush buckeye, Schenley Park, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cornelian cherry trees (Cornus mas) are in bloom at Schenley. Photos of the whole tree and a blossom closeup.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) tree in bloom, 23 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) in bloom, 22 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yet the rest of the forest is still quite brown. The smaller American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) stand out with dry pale leaves. Photo from afar and a close-up.

A small American beech stands out with its papery dry leaves. Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Papery leaves of a American beech, Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Getting outdoors is not cancelled.

Stay safe.

(photos by Kate St. John)

What’s Up At The Pitt Peregrine Nest?

Morela and Terzo bow at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 23 March 2020, 9:05 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

24 March 2020, 7am:

Yesterday’s activity on the Cathedral of Learning falconcam indicates that …

Terzo is in charge and there is no other male peregrine around. Above, he bows with Morela at 9:05am.

Below, Morela is getting close to laying her first egg which is evident from her posture at the scrape and her extended vent feathers. She stays close to the nest, even in the rain.

Morela at the scrape, 23 March 2020, 18:59 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Watch for Morela’s first egg at the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Two New Eaglets At Hays

First eaglet at Hays, 21 March 2020 (photo from Bald Eagles in Western Pennsylvania – ASWP Facebook page)

While I was distracted by the COVID-19 emergency, the Hays bald eagles hatched two eggs!

The first eaglet appeared on Sat 21 March 21 at 7:40am, above. The second one hatched on Monday 23 March at 6:40am, below.

Second eaglet at Hays, 23 March 2020 (photo from Bald Eagles of Western Pennsylvania – ASWP Facebook page)

In the day between hatchlings, Audubon Society of Western PA captured this video of the mother rolling her second egg. Notice how carefully she holds her talons inward as she steps near her chick. What a good mom!

Watch the Hays bald eagle family online at

p.s. Stay safe, folks. Online viewing is best! Allegheny and seven other Pennsylvania counties are now under a Stay At Home order through 6 April. (Click for details) We are allowed to go outdoors but must stay six feet apart.

(photos and video from Bald Eagles of Western Pennsylvania — Audubon Society of Western PA)

Morela Is Looking Egg-y

Morela at the nest, 22 March 2020, 9:50 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Are you wondering when Morela will lay her first egg at the Cathedral of Learning peregrine nest?

Morela’s posture yesterday and her position at the scrape suggests she’s getting close to laying. She’s also staying quite close to the nest even when you don’t see her on camera. Yesterday at noon I saw her perched on the bulwark above the camera looking at the nest.

Stay tuned for her first egg at the National Aviary falconcam at Univ. of Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile if you can, please help the organization that hosts the falconcam …

As with all pubic venues, the National Aviary is closed for the COVID-19 emergency. Rest assured the birds are safe and receiving dedicated care from essential staff. However, the cost of care is no longer offset by visitor admissions, gift shop sales, animal encounters, etc. If you are able, please donate to the National Aviary during this time of crisis. Go to to make a gift online, or mail a check to the National Aviary, 700 Arch Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

A Little Bit of Peregrine News

Peregrine at Tarentum Bridge, 19 March 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

While we’re frozen in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 it’s hard to gather information about the region’s peregrines. Here are three bits of news.

Dave Brooke visited the Tarentum Bridge on Thursday 19 March and posted the photo above at Pittsburgh Falconuts saying:

[Photo at] the Tarentum bridge nest box, 3/19 at 1:30pm. I haven’t see both falcons together yet but also haven’t spent a lot of time there this spring.

Dave Brooke on Pittsburgh Falconuts

Dave saw only one peregrine and it was outside the nestbox. This means incubation hasn’t started yet, and perhaps there are no eggs either. Last year the Tarentum female laid her first egg around 29 March (a rough estimate).

Each female peregrine has her own laying schedule. Tarentum’s is late March. There are no eggs yet in Rochester, NY either, which is normal. Be patient. Morela is not an early bird like the ones in Harrisburg and Baltimore.

Meanwhile, on Thursday 19 March Karen Lang saw both peregrines at the Ambridge Bridge.

And early last week Lori Maggio walked to the Mt. Washington Overlook for a view of the Downtown nest site from a great distance. On Sunday 15 March there were no peregrines in the nest area but on Tuesday 17 March she saw one waiting at the Third Avenue site. It was probably Dori. The peregrine is at the bottom of the left hand two-cubby slot.

Peregrine in the nest area [bottom left slot], Third Avenue, 17 March 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Zoomed: Peregrine in the nest area, Third Avenue, 17 March 2020 (photo by Lori Maggio)

Thankfully getting outdoors is not cancelled!

(photos by Dave Brooke and Lori Maggio)

Frozen In Place

Downy woodpecker looks frozen in place (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen birds freeze in place when a hawk shows up?

Have ever you seen a squirrel become motionless in the presence of danger?

Squirrel “who thinks I won’t notice him if he holds really still” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Animals know that if they don’t move, the predator won’t see them and they’ll survive. The ones that keep moving become lunch for the hawk.

Doctors, public health officials, and governments know that if humans freeze in place — before we know anyone who’s sick — more of us will survive COVID-19. They see the hawk before we do.

This 8-minute science video shows why closures and quarantines save lives. It’s not scary. Here’s what we learn: The number of new cases matters, not the total count.

And here’s some happy news: This week China turned the corner. The rate of new cases is dropping every day in China and they’ve started to relax restrictions.

Yes, there is light at the end of this tunnel but we must be patient, stay apart for a long time, and wait it out.

p.s. Most of us don’t know how to wash our hands. (I didn’t!) Lather for 20 seconds. Here’s how:

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; videos from PBS and Google)

Signs of Spring This Week

Daffodil blooming at Raccoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2020

Spring is coming ready or not. Take a breather from COVID-19 news with some signs of spring. My friends and I have gone outdoors alone, then emailed updates and photos when we get home. Here’s what we’ve found.

Yesterday Donna Foyle found snow trillium and scarlet cup mushrooms at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)
Scarlet cup mushrooms, Cedar Creek Park, 19 March 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)

I’ve been to Schenley Park, Raccoon Creek, and Moraine State Parks where I’ve seen daffodils, coltsfoot, alder catkins, red maple flowers, and spring beauties. See the captions for descriptions, locations, and dates.

Coltsfoot blooming in Schenley Park, 8 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alder catkins, Schenley Park, 11 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Red maple blooming in Greenfield, 14 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty at Racoon Creek State Park, 18 March 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, an audio treat. Wood frogs and spring peepers were calling at Moraine State Park on Sunday afternoon 15 March 2020.

Getting outdoors is not cancelled!

Just maintain a safe distance from each other (6 feet) and wear muck boots. It’s mud season.

(photos & video by Donna Foyle and Kate St. John)