All posts by Kate St. John

Who’s Herding Who?

Border collie herding sheep (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 October 2022

Some dogs are bred to herd sheep and the instinct is so deep that they try to herd at every opportunity.

However, training helps. So does experience, as shown in this tweet from @SlenderSherbet.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded tweet from @SlenderSherbet)

When Will The Chipmunks Disappear?

Eastern chipmunk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 October 2022

The hardest thing to notice in Nature is the date of an absence. When did the last junco leave in the spring? When did the last groundhog go into hibernation?

Right now eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are busy gathering nuts to store in their underground burrows for the winter. As the season changes and temperatures drop they will disappear into their burrows to enter torpor, sleeping off and on through the winter.

The warm winters of climate change can fool them into not entering torpor but the result is deadly. Only 10% survive. Find out why in this vintage blog:

Meanwhile I will hope our chipmunks disappear and will try to figure when they do it.

Here’s how I notice an absence: I write down every day when I do see them and then scan my notes for days when I’ve not logged them anymore.

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

Chimney Swifts Go Back To Bed

Chimney swifts from Crossley ID Guide via Wikimedia Commons

3 October 2022

Migrating chimney swifts roost for the night in local chimneys and wake up when the sky glows before dawn. This morning the sun had not yet cleared the horizon when the swifts flew out of Cathedral Mansions chimney and circled the chimney over and over again, testing the air. It was 41 degrees F.

Though the sky is clear this morning and the wind is from the north, the swifts (probably) decided there were not enough bugs flying so there would be nothing to eat on their way south. They would be cold and hungry if they left now but the bugs will come out as the day warms up. They decided to wait for that to happen.

So they all went back to bed. Here’s a photo of them pouring back into the chimney. (They are just dots in my cellphone photo.)

Chimney swifts re-enter Cathedral Mansions chimney to wait for the day to warm up, 3 Oct 2022, 7:22am (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Hanging Out at the Nest

Visiting the Pitt peregrine nest, 30 Sept 2022, 9:48am

2 October 2022

Though the breeding season is six months away the Pitt peregrines visit the nest almost every day and bow together to strengthen their pair bond.

Here they are on the last day of September.

  • Arrival at dawn

The streaming camera is off for the season but you can see live snapshots at Cathedral of Learning Falconcam Snaphots.

(all photos from the National Aviary snapshot camera at University of Pittsburgh)

Scenes From Acadia, September 2022

  • Snowball bush, Northeast Harbor, Maine, 24 Sept 2022

1 October 2022

Last week, after a four-year hiatus, my husband and I enjoyed revisiting Acadia National Park. The scenery was beautiful and even the fog was gorgeous, as shown in the slideshow above. Jordan Stream was in full flow after a long day of rain.

We also learned a few things about Acadia and ourselves in 2022.

  • The park is jam-packed with visitors even in late September. Labor Day used to be the the last big weekend — which is why we visited in mid/late September — but the number of people and cars on 23 September rivaled anything we’d seen in the past.
  • I used to drive up Cadillac Mountain on a whim to visit the Acadia Hawk Watch but now all visits are by reservation, reviewed at the checkpoint at the base of the mountain. The photo below shows why reservations are required. We did not visit Cadillac.
Sunrise is the busiest time on Cadillac Mountain (photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia embedded from
  • Four years ago we still climbed the mountains. This year we climbed a low one — less than 300 feet above sea level — and did not enjoy the challenging bits. Perhaps we are out of shape … but I think four years makes a difference at our age. Alas.
  • Seven days were too short for a vacation to Acadia because it takes so long to get there, even by air.

Acadia will be busy through Columbus Day weekend and perhaps beyond. Fall color still hasn’t peaked yet.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Hurricane Rain

Hurricane Ian spins northward (GOES East satellite Great Lakes sector, 30 Sept 2022, 3:40am to 5:30am from NOAA)

30 September 2022, 6am

UPDATE 30 SEPT, 6 PM. See UPDATED info at end

After wrecking a swath of Florida, Hurricane Ian popped out over the Atlantic Ocean, gained strength, and is bearing down on the Carolinas. Though Pittsburgh is quite far inland we will see the remnants of Hurricane Ian’s rain on Saturday.

These maps show total rainfall forecasts for the next three days as Hurricane Ian moves up the eastern U.S.

  • Quantitative Precipitation Forecast, Fri 30 Sep - Sat 1 Oct 2022 (map from NOAA)

Quantitative Precipitation Forecasts, Continental US, 30 Sept to 3 Oct 2022 (maps from NOAA)

Pittsburgh will receive less than an inch of precipitation because Ian is tracking south and east of here. Fortunately this is far different from our experience of Hurricane Agnes 50 years ago.

UPDATE 30 SEPT, 6 PM. I have corrected the captions on the slideshow based on an email from Dick Rhoton. Note that the slideshow maps show total rainfall potential, no matter what cause.

This map shows rainfall potential from Hurricane Ian alone — anything greater than an inch — as of 30 Sept 2022, 6am.

Hurricane Ian total rainfall potential, 30 Sep through 2 Oct 2022 (map from NOAA)

(maps and animation from NOAA; click on the captions to see the originals)

Deer Are Picky Eaters

Arrowwood viburnum, Schenley Park, September 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 September 2022

In western Pennsylvania, where we have a high deer population, gardeners have learned from experience that white-tailed deer will eat some plants and not others. They heavily browse their favorites to the point of killing them but leave others untouched, even plants in the same genus.

Viburnum is a case in point. Gardening advice at Rutgers University’s Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance indicates that arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is deer resistant. Pictured at top, these shrubs are healthy in Schenley Park where the deer population is more than 100 per square mile.

Deer also don’t like the Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum) which thrives as an invasive in Frick Park, shown below.

Viburnum plicatum fruit, Schenley, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

But they love our native hobblebush (Viburnum lactoides) and consume it to local extinction.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lactoides) is a favorite food of deer (photo taken in Maine by Kate St. John)

Read about hobblebush in this vintage article.

When it comes to viburnum, deer are picky eaters.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Eiders In Eclipse

Male common eider in eclipse plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 September 2022

In September large, dark brown sea ducks swim in rafts off the coast of Maine. When they aren’t resting on the water they dive for mussels and crustaceans or walk up on the rocks to stand among the seaweed.

Common eiders on seaweed rocks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They vaguely resemble the lead field guide pictures for common eider (Somateria mollissima) but their current plumage is motley and variable. Right now common eiders are in eclipse.

Like many ducks and geese, eiders completely molt their tail and wing feathers after the breeding season, rendering them flightless for 3-4 weeks. Flight is restored in time for fall migration, but then they molt their body feathers. All told the process takes 4+ months.

To see eiders in all their glory watch them in breeding plumage from January to early June.

Male and female common eiders in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And you’ll see them fly.

Male common eider running to take off, April, East Sussex UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Winter Finches Already!

Male red crossbill in hemlock, Jan 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 September 2022

If you’re birding on the coast of Maine you already know this is a good year for winter finches, but I’d just arrived from Pittsburgh so I was surprised to hear jip-jip-jip among the conifers last Saturday in Acadia National Park. Was I hearing crossbills? Yes!

The Finch Network’s Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 explains:

In eastern North America, there is a good food crop along the coastal areas of Maritime Provinces southward into New England, which should hold many finches this winter.

Spruce cones are everywhere at Acadia, littering the trails in various stages of ripeness from sappy to seedless.

Spruce cones at various stages, Flying Mountain, Acadia National Park, 25 Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Small groups of red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are almost everywhere, too. If you know what to listen for the birds are easy to find on Mount Desert Island.

Lots of people are seeing and hearing them as shown in eBird’s September 2022 map below. Note that the high density of crossbill reports is actually due to the high density of birders in the park.

Red crossbill species map, 26 September 2022 (map from eBird)

On Sunday at Flying Mountain I saw eight red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) eating spruce cones. This 2013 photo on a hemlock shows how they feed:

  • Use feet to grab the cone,
  • Use crossed beak to twist open the seed shield,
  • Lick the seed out of the pocket.
Male red crossbill feeding on hemlock cone, grabbing with feet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 predicts that points south along the coast will see crossbills this winter.

The “Northeastern Crossbill” (i.e. eastern Type 10) will be around this winter, but will they migrate down the coast to Long Island, Cape May and Delaware and points south, as they sometimes do as cone crops are depleted as we progress through the winter season.

Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023

Though Pittsburgh won’t see crossbills, check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2022-2023 for what we can look forward to in western Pennsylvania. If we’re lucky we may see:

  • Common and hoary redpolls
  • Purple finches
  • Evening grosbeaks, certainly in PA’s northern tier
  • Red-breasted nuthatches
  • And a big year for blue jays.

(photos from Kate St. John and Wikimedia Commons, map from; click on the captions to see the originals)

CANCELLED! Schenley Park Outing, 2 Oct, 8:30am

Goldenrod gall shaped like a green rose, Schenley Park, October 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

26 September 2022


In early October the weather’s fine and there’s plenty to see outdoors. Birds are migrating, fruits are maturing, and insects have their final fling.

Join me on a bird and nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday 2 October 2022 — 8:30am – 10:30am(*). Meet me at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center near Phipps Conservatory where Panther Hollow Road meets Schenley Drive.

We’ll look and listen for signs of fall, yellow leaves and chirping crickets. We many find a goldenrod “rose” like the gall at top. Or a million blue jays and chipmunks.

Blue Jay and chipmunk (photos by Chuck Tague)

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Before you come, visit the Events page in case there are changes or cancellations.  The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning (unlikely this coming Sunday but you never know).

From experience I can say … there will be lots of blue jays and chipmunks.

(*) If the birding is suddenly good at 10:30am we’ll have the option to continue to 11a.

(photos by Kate St. John)