Do We Learn From Experience?

Flooding in Norristown, PA from remnants of Hurricane Ida, Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2021

From 100+ degree weather in the Pacific Northwest, to Hurricane Ida flooding in the Northeast and raging wildfires in the West, formerly safe places have become new danger zones. We are experiencing climate change but are we learning from it?

In Pennsylvania the increasing frequency and height of floods has come as a surprise. Climate change has boosted the risk from “one flood in 100 years” to 10 years or less. Despite this new calculation we still build and buy in major flood zones. Curious about your home’s flood risk? See the updated risk at

Flooding in Conshohocken, PA from remnants of Hurricane Ida, Sep 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons) Schuylkill River is behind the blue building

Wildfires in the West are worsening as heat and drought increase. California’s 2020 North Complex Fire was one of the worst.

Fire on the north flank of the North Complex Fire, Sep 2020 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spawned by lightning in August 2020, the North Complex Fire flared in September and forced towns to evacuate without warning. The fire killed 16, destroyed more than 2,300 structures, and plunged San Francisco into daytime darkness 150 miles away.

Darkness at noon in San Francisco due to smoke from the North Complex Fire 150 miles away, 9 Sep 2020 12:08pm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though the climate change risks are known we keep living in danger zones. Sometimes we can’t comprehend that it’s dangerous. Sometimes we cannot afford to leave. But that calculation is changing.

Yale Climate Connections explains how the cost of living in danger zones is about to rise significantly. Insurers have calculated the real cost and are raising rates or refusing insurance.

We may not learn from experience, but insurance companies do.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons of Hurricane Ida in Pennsylvania 2021 and North Complex Fire 2020; click on the captions to see the originals)

Crows Can Be Flexible

Crows flying to the roost (photo by Kate St. John)

19 October 2021

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is back in town with thousands gathering at dusk in Oakland. A week ago I counted 3,000 but more have arrived since then.

Crows hanging out at a staging location (photo by Kate St. John)

As their numbers grow to 10,000 or 20,000, the crows change their staging locations and move or split the roost. They’re looking for the perfect spot with mature trees, ambient light, and white noise where they’ll be safe from predators and not annoyed by humans.

Crows think of roosting at Schenley Farms, Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately the “perfect” spot is usually above sidewalks where hundreds (or thousands!) of crows create a stinky, slippery mess and lots of noise. The crows keep doing it night after night unless the site becomes unappealing to them. The best way to change the appeal is to annoy the crows with blinking lights or noise — for instance, the sound of wooden clappers.

Clappers used to disperse crows (photo courtesy Alex Toner, Univ of Pittsburgh)

I suspect “crow annoying” has already begun at Pitt and Schenley Farms because every evening the flock pattern is different. I’ve seen them head for Oakland, then return and circle over North Craig Street as they think about where to roost. When it’s very dark many of them go back to Pitt.

Last night they roosted near the Barco Law Building and made a ruckus outside Kim Getz’s window when they woke up to leave this morning. Notice that they’re on the tips of branches in her photo.

Crows wake up on Tuesday morning outside Barco Law Bldg, 19 Sep 2021 (photo by Kim Getz)

Pittsburgh’s winter crows are still picking roosts that annoy humans but that will change. Eventually they’ll figure out how to coexist with city humans.

“We’d love to stay overnight,” say the crows, “but we can be flexible.”

Flying to the roost, 16 October 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(crow photos by Kate St. John, clapper photo courtesy of Alex Toner at Univ of Pittsburgh)

It Looked Like Hail, But Was It Graupel?

Did we have graupel? Here is graupel on the ground in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

18 October 2021

Yesterday evening around 6pm rain obscured the northeastern horizon — Larimer, East Liberty and Shadyside. Eventually the cloud moved over us and dropped white pellets that clicked on the windows and bounced off the windowsills. There was no storm, just a dark cloud that ought to have been raining — except it wasn’t wet.

Was it hail? Was it sleet? Was it graupel?

I wasn’t outdoors to examine the pellets — they melted almost instantly — but I thought of graupel, also called snow pellets, because it was seven years ago this month (4 Oct 2014) that I first saw and wrote about it: Graupeling.

Did any of you see yesterday’s icy precipitation in the East End? What was it?

The National Weather Service has a helpful chart.

Chart from National Weather Service in Pittsburgh on 4 October 2014

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, chart from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh)

Which Ones Are Drupes?

Cherries (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 October 2021

In botany a drupe is a simple fleshy fruit that contains a single hard pit with a seed inside it.

Some of the photos in this article show drupes, some do not. Which is which?

White peaches with a cross section (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Black walnuts just fallen from the tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Avocado with a cross section (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Green (unripe) and black (ripe) olives (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Which are drupes? Leave a comment with your answer.

See the comments for the answer.

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

Seen This Week

Sunrise on Thursday 14 October 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 October 2021

It’s been three and a half weeks since the September equinox and every day is shorter than the last. Sunrise draws attention because it’s later every day. On Thursday the sky turned red before the sun appeared.

In the half light after sunset Morela prepared to roost.

Morela is ready to leave for her roost, 13 October 2021, 6:59pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

The days are the same length as in late February during peregrine courtship. Morela and Ecco visited the nest as if they are thinking of spring.

Morela and Ecco bowing, 13 October 2021, 6:14pm (photo from the National Aviary snapshot cam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Meanwhile most plants and trees have set fruit, including this streetside Callery pear.

Callery pear fruit, 14 October 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And in Downtown Pittsburgh I found a directional message on our tallest building.

“There is the sky, so that must be Up.”

There is the sky so that must be Up, Downtown Pittsburgh, 13 October 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Wild Zebras of Maryland

Zebras sneezing, Lake Naivasha, Kenya, 2007 (photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr Creative Commons license)

15 October 2021

The saga of Kodiak the Steller’s sea eagle who escaped from Pittsburgh’s National Aviary on 25 September ended when he was captured on 3 October. Not so for the wild zebras of Maryland. No one thought they would still be roaming in October and yet …

On 31 August, three (*not five) zebras escaped from an 80-acre farm off Duley Station Road in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. One was found dead in an illegal snare trap on 16 September. Now more than seven weeks later two are still on the loose in Prince George’s County. It’s not for lack of trying.

Zebras are genetically programmed to escape lions, hyenas and cheetahs so they’re naturally wary and very fast. They can’t be caught by chasing, they have to be corralled. Caretakers and Prince George’s County Animal Control have been trying to lure them into a pen. The zebras are having none of it.

At first there were many reports including this 7 September news story from NBC Washington. Click here to read the details. (Note: With six zebras in camera view, I believe this footage was taken above the farm.)

Plus this nighttime sighting reported by on 24 September.

But the news is quieter now. The zebras have plenty of grass to eat and lots of places to go. They’re winter-hardy and can be out there indefinitely.

Despite every attempt to domesticate them, zebras are forever wild.

p.s. For weeks the media reported that 5 zebras had escaped but on 14 October the Washington Post reported it was only three. At first three traveled together, then one died and it was two. Three + two = five? Not in this case.

UPDATE on 18 October: The latest plan for capturing the two zebras is to use more zebras!

(photo by Eric Brelsford via Flickr, embedded videos and tweet from NBC Washington, WUSA9. Check @MarylandZebras for updates)

It’s Time to Store Food

Blue jay carrying peanut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2021

Now that winter’s coming, birds are migrating to find favorable habitat and reliable food supplies. Those that eat seeds don’t have to leave if food is plentiful, especially if they cache seeds and nuts.

All About Birds explains:

Caching is like a giant game of concentration. … A bird must not only fly back and forth, one or a few seeds at a time, over hundreds of trips. They also have to make sure the caches aren’t stolen and remember where all the food is hidden when hunger comes a-calling. Most common North American feeder birds can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of separate caches scattered around their home ranges.

All About Birds: Where is that bird going with that seed...?

Chickadees, nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, and blue jays all use feeders as a source for the cache, visiting quickly to grab a nut. They even compete for the privilege. “Back off!” says the red-bellied woodpecker to the blue jay.

Learn more about the caching habits of blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers at these links.

Work quickly! It’s time to store food.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)

New Bird in Town?

Black vulture in Cartagena, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 October 2021

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are unusual in western Pennsylvania but may show up in low numbers outside the breeding season, especially in the Ohio valley. If you’re not used to what they look like you’ll want some tips on identifying this “rare” bird.

When perched, adult vultures are easy to tell apart by the color of their heads. Black vultures have gray heads. Adult turkey vultures have red heads. But oops! juvenile turkey vultures have gray heads so you’ll need other clues.

In flight …

Black and turkey vultures compared in flight (image from, annotated)

Black vultures have:

  • All black feathers with grayish white wing tips like white gloves.
  • Short square tails, only as long as their legs.
  • Gray legs visible against their dark tails from below.
  • Flap a lot between soaring bouts, especially when trying to gain altitude. Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap-flap Soar…Soar…Soar… flap-flap-flap-flap-flap.
  • Steady when soaring, not teetering.

Turkey vultures have:

  • Two-tone wings, brownish black at the leading edge, gray at the trailing edge.
  • Tails longer than their legs.
  • Red head.
  • Turkey vultures refuse to flap! When they do flap it is one huge bow like a great blue heron.
  • Soar in an obvious dihedral V while teetering back and forth. V is for Vulture.

Here are two more flight shots. Can you tell who’s who?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, I don’t think turkey vultures will stand on cars, but black vultures will. Sometimes they get bored and damage rubber seals or vinyl on trucks and SUVs, especially at boat ramps. Bob Kroeger took this photo at Conowingo in March 2020. He was glad this was not his car.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Black vultures on a minivan roof, Conowingo, March 2020 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

(photos by Bob Kroeger and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the wiki captions to see the originals)

Long Distance Migrant to …

Common swifts in flight (illustration by Jos Zwarts via Wikimedia Commons)

12 October 2021

North American birds that eat flying insects migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Where do Asian insectivores go? Until 2015 the winter home of the common swifts that nest in Beijing was a mystery.

Common swifts (Apus apus) breed across Europe and Asia from Ireland to North China. Those from Europe are known to winter in Africa but where do the far eastern swifts go?

Breeding range of the common swift (altered from range map on Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring of 2014 the Beijing Swift Project tagged 31 common swifts with geolocators at the Summer Palace. The birds nested in China, then left in July. When they returned nine months later in April 2015 thirteen were recaptured. Their geolocator data revealed that the swifts had traveled east to the Caspian Sea then south to South Africa, a round trip of 16,000 miles (26,000 km). During those nine months the birds never landed! Their destination is yellow on the map below.

Range map of the common swift from Wikimedia Commons

This tweet from October 2020 shows their journey.

Since Africa is this species’ winter home, those that breed in North China must travel farthest to get there. The journey is so long for Beijing’s swifts that they spend more time in Africa (4 months) than they do in Beijing (3 months).

Read more about the common swifts of China and see their migration maps at the Beijing Swift Project.

Common swift in flight; this one is from Barcelona (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos, maps and illustrations from Wikimedia Commons)

Easily Catch Spotted Lanternflies

Spotted lanternfly adult (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 October 2021

The invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) hasn’t taken over Pittsburgh yet but it’s only a matter of time. Since first seen in western Pennsylvania in January 2020 at the Norfolk Southern railyard in Conway, Beaver County, the bugs have expanded their population and range. They’ve been seen on the North Side, in Homestead, and elsewhere near the railroads that brought them here.

Fall is breeding time for spotted lanternflies which are now in their winged adult phase. The adults won’t survive the winter but their egg masses will, so the more adults we eliminate now before they lay eggs the better.

Adult spotted lanternfly (Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture,

Smashing a spotted lanternfly is easier said than done. The bugs have instant reflexes and jump when approached. However you can catch them in a water bottle. Easily! That’s why this video went viral.

Save a couple of plastic water bottles and lids. You’ll need lids to keep the bugs in the bottle.

photo by Kate St. John

Catch the bugs early in the day before they go too far up the trees.

Freeze the bottles containing lanternflies. The bugs die when they’re cold. Ta dah.

Good luck!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Bugwood and Kate St. John; videos embeded from YouTube)