All posts by Kate St. John

Flying Only When Necessary

Interior of a moving van + JetBlue landing at Las Vegas (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

7 December 2021

In Case You Missed It.

Greater roadrunner, running (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) normally runs 15 mph to capture prey or faster in short spurts. He can’t fly well, just extended-wing glides, so walking takes him everywhere he wants to go. Around humans he can be so curious that he gets into trouble.

Last month while a family was packing a moving van in Las Vegas, a curious roadrunner walked into the van when they weren’t watching. The doors closed, the trip began, and the roadrunner was trapped inside for four days. He was discovered when they unpacked the van in Westbrook, a suburb of Portland, Maine.

The roadrunner traveled by land from Las Vegas to Portland, Maine (map from Wikimedia Commons, alterd)

Volunteers transported the roadrunner to Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine (another hour and a half drive) where he got expert care. Avian Haven tells his story here:

The roadrunner recovered so well that nine days later he boarded a direct flight from Boston to Las Vegas and was released in his old neighborhood by Nevada Department of Wildlife. The video shows his release in real time, then repeats in slow motion. I think he ran out of the carrier faster than 15 mph.

Though roadrunners prefer to travel on the ground, 6.5 hours in an airplane sure beats four days in a moving van. As the Audubon Guide to North American Birds explains:

The roadrunner walks and runs on the ground, flying only when necessary.

p.s. See news about the roadrunner at News3LV: His discovery in Maine: Roadrunner, going-faster, ends up in Maine after hitchhike, His Nevada neighborhood: Roadrunner Road Trip takes accidental cross country trip to Maine , His return: Roadrunner arrives home in Las Vegas after stowaway trip to Maine.

(Roadrunner news embedded from Facebook, map and photos from Wikimedia Commons. The first three photos are NOT from the actual event.)

Plastic in the Water is Smaller Than You Think

Plastic trash found along the Great Lakes shoreline (photo by Hannah Tizedes via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

6 December 2021

We usually think of plastic in the water as the bags, bottles and other items that arrive in flood debris.

Plastic bottles float at the edge of a flood at Duck Hollow, Sep 2018 (photo by Kate Sr. John)

But if you take a microscopic look at our waterways, as PennEnvironment did last year, you’ll find a host of microplastics less than 5mm across (see 1 cm = 10 mm in photo below). These include:

Nurdles (white pellets at top) the tiny pre-production plastic pellets that are the first output of plastic making. They are transported in bulk to factories where they are melted down to become plastic products.

Microbeads, used in cosmetics, 1 mm or less.

Microbeads found at the Great Lakes shoreline (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Fragments and films and …

Plastic debris and films found in the Great Lakes (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Fibers, usually from clothing. 60% of our clothing is made of plastic such as polyester, nylon, acrylic. Every time we wash our clothes they shed microfibers into the water and air (dryer exhaust). I can’t help but add to the problem as polar fleece is my favorite winter clothing. Aaarrg!

Plastic fibers found in Great Lakes (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Microplastics are omnipresent in Pennsylvania’s waterways and we are unwittingly ingesting them. After a study released by PennEnvironment last March found microplastics in all 300 water samples taken from 53 PA waterways including seven in Allegheny County Michael Machosky wrote in NextPittsburgh “How bad is the plastics problem in PA? It’s like eating a credit card every week.”

Sadly Pittsburgh is about to add to the plastics problem in a major way. Soon the new Shell Cracker plant in Beaver County will produce more than a million tons of nurdles each year.

Those nurdles can quickly become an environmental disaster as seen on the shore of Sri Lanka after the X-Press Pearl container ship burned and sank in May 2021 and dumped up to 70-75 tons of nurdles into the Indian Ocean. Nurdles are still washing ashore six months later.

Plastic in the water is much smaller than you think.

(flood photo by Kate St. John, all others from MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr with credit noted in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals. Michigan Sea Grant monitors the health of the Great Lakes including microplastics in their waters. )

P.S. Accidentally eating plastic source article: Revealed: plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week.

Fire Hawks

Hawks circle a bushfire in Australia as they hunt for escaping prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2021

Fire is a way of life in Australia where bushfires rage during the dry season and humans set controlled burns during the rest of the year. Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines, use fire as a tool on the landscape to “facilitate hunting, change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, reduce [wildfire] hazards, and increase biodiversity.”

Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Every living thing on the continent has adapted to fire including three species of raptors in northern Australia that hover over active firefronts to capture prey escaping from the flames (at top). Sometimes the prey hides too effectively so the firehawks carry burning sticks to set new fires and flush the prey.

The hawks’ behavior, unique to Australia, was reported in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia which said:

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.

— Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718.

The behavior is so uncommon that seeing it is often a once in a lifetime experience. The observer must be in front of the fireline, watching the controlled burn (as shown below) as a hawk picks up a burning stick. Needless to say there are no photos of the behavior yet, but there are many eyewitnesses especially among the Aborigines who have tended fires for thousands of years.

Controlled burn of grasslands in Australia (photo by MomentsForZen via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Who was the firehawk that tried it first among the three species?

The black kite (Milvus migrans),

Black kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) whose whistle sounds like this … and…

Whistling kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the brown falcon (Falco berigora).

The firehawks add a complication to fire management in northern Australia. Read more in Australian “firehawk” raptors intentionally spread fires at

p.s. I note with pleasure that the principal author of the study is Mark Bonta, son of Marcia & Bruce Bonta of Plummer’s Hollow, PA. Marcia Bonta is a great nature writer who wrote for the PA Game News for 28 years and retired this month. Her Farewell on 1 Dec 2021 is here.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Leaves Lingered

Though most trees are bare, the hilltop oaks still have leaves on 30 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

4 December 2021

Last weekend many homeowners in Pennsylvania were annoyed that they had to rake leaves after Thanksgiving. A decade ago this would never have happened because the trees were bare by 5 November. Nowadays the leaves linger. Our warmer climate keeps them on the trees.

The delay in leaf drop has been increasing for at least a decade. In 2008-2012 most of the trees were bare by 2 or 4 November. In 2017-2021 the trees waited until 25-30 November. (*)

Meanwhile the height of fall color is later and lackluster. Twenty years ago we used to go leaf peeping on Columbus Day. This year the height of color in Schenley Park was on 13 November and not particularly breathtaking.

Fall color at Westinghouse Memorial in Schenley Park, 13 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees need a particular weather combination to trigger fall colors and leaf drop.

The timing and quality of color changes depend on a combination of temperatures, precipitation and sunlight. The best fall color displays occur after sunshine-filled days and cooler nights, following healthy doses of rain in the summer.

Washington Post: Fall foliage flopping: How climate change is dulling and delaying your leaf peeping

But it was way too warm in October. In fact it was the world’s fourth warmest on record.

U.S. Temperature Outlook for October 2021 issued 30 Sep 2021 by National Weather Service

The leaves lingered and finally by 30 November 2021 most of the trees were bare. Note that this date and all dates mentioned above are assessments of this same hillside in Schenley Park.

More than half of the trees are bare, Schenley Park, 25 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Read more about the disappointment of this fall’s foliage — and the economic impact — at the Washington Post: Fall foliage flopping: How climate change is dulling and delaying your leaf peeping.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from the National Weather Service)

Quick Quiz for a Friday

3 December 2021

QUICK QUIZ: Name the two birds of prey pictured in these tweets. Leave a comment with your answer.

(The hawk tweet below is from September.)

(tweets by @geococcyxcal and @GetToKnowNature)

P.S. Everyone’s getting the answers right. Check the comments.

Why Don’t Sleeping Birds Fall Off the Branch?

African gray parrot and common grackle, each sleeping on a perch (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

2 December 2021

We take for granted that birds sleep on a perch without falling off, yet we drop whatever we’re holding when we fall asleep. (Many’s the time that my book falls off the bed!)

How do birds continue to hold on after they fall asleep? The answer is in this vintage article.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click in the caption to see the originals)

Cactus With A Pittsburgh Connection

Saguaro silhouettes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 December 2021

This iconic symbol of the Sonoran Desert has a Pittsburgh connection.

The only member of its genus, the saguaro cactus was given the scientific name Carnegiea gigantea to honor Andrew Carnegie who established the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill for native plant research in Tucson in 1903.

Saguaro cacti at Saguaro National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though now a symbol of deserts everywhere, this unusual “tree” is native only to the Sonoran desert of Arizona, California and northwestern Mexico.

Saguaro (pronounced “sah-WAH-ro“) grows to 50 feet in height; its tremendous weight, up to nine tons, is supported by a skeleton of about two dozen spongy, wooden rods. Accordion pleats [expand and] contract as they gain and lose moisture. White flowers open after nightfall and close by late afternoon the following day. Saguaro has fleshy red fruit. Giant, leafless, columnar tree cactus with massive, spiny trunk and usually 2-10 stout, nearly erect, spiny branches. Saguaro cactus account

The saguaro’s woody skeleton is exposed when the plant dies. Click here to see a skeleton with arms.

Skeleton of saguaro cactus (photo by Jay Iwasaki via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The pleats expand and the trunk looks fat after the rainy season.

Saguaro with expanded accordion pleats (photo by Kate St. John)

The plant reproduces via cross-pollinated flowers that bloom at the tips. The saguaro grows arms to produce more flowers.

Flowers are at the tops of saguaro branches (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saguaro flowers closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds, animals and humans make use of this cactus.

Native Americans made use of the entire cactus. … Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers make round holes near the tops of branches for nests that are used afterwards by elf owls, cactus wrens, and other birds. Wildlife, especially white-winged doves, consume quantities of the seeds. Saguaro cactus account
Gila woodpecker feeds on a saguaro flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
White-winged dove at saguaro fruit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Saguaros can only survive where the temperature never drops below 28oF. They grow in Phoenix because of its urban heat island.

Read more cool facts about saguaro in this abbreviated account by C A Martin at Arizona State.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Jay Iwasaki on Flickr with Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Do They See What We See?

GG looks up from a meal (photo by Chad+Chris Saldin)

30 November 2021

We humans assume that what we see is what everyone else sees, including other species. But this isn’t so.

Peregrines see much finer details at a greater distance that we do. The details don’t blur for them in a 200 mph dive. (Click the link to learn more.)

Tellus in a stoop (photo by Chad+Chris Saldin)

Cats cannot see red-green nor distant details, but they see much better in the dark. Who needs distance vision while looking for a nearby mouse at night? Click here to see photos of our vision versus cats’. Notice the normal vs. red-green-color-blind examples below.

Domestic cat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Normal vision vs deuteranopia (red-green color blind) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer see regular blaze orange as gray but if the orange has fluorescence it stands out for them. Their vision is best in the blue range so that they see well in twilight.

White-tailed deer at Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Non-fluorescent blaze orange looks gray to deer ( sign from PA Game Commission, Blaze Orange Vest on Amazon)

Birds see ultraviolet light though we cannot. Here’s how we know this and a hint at what birds look like in ultraviolet light.

Do other species see what we see?

No. Birds see more.

(peregrine photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, deer photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Pair Bonding in Late November

Morela and Ecco nearly touching beaks, 28 Nov 2021

29 November 2021

Despite the fact that egg laying is more than three months away, Ecco and Morela have been visiting their nest at the Cathedral of Learning. Yesterday the camera captured them pair bonding and nearly touching beaks.

You can tell the two birds apart by size and plumage contrast. Morela is larger and her body, wings and tail colors are essentially uniform (on left above). Ecco is smaller with a sharp contrast between his gray body and the dark/black tips of his wings and tail.

Peregrines are brightening our gloomy winter days.

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

Crows Recognize Their Friends

American crow at Laval University, Quebec City (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 November 2021

Smart crows are naturally wary around humans. Though most people don’t even notice birds, crows know that some humans are malicious.

Crows notice us noticing them. They watch us back while they assess whether we’re dangerous or beneficial. They learn the faces of enemies so they can recognize them later. They also remember their friends.

A friendship with crows can run both ways when the crows bring gifts.

An “enemy” can become a friend if he’s consistently kind and trustworthy, as was this mailman in Vancouver, BC.

Peanuts were the treat that turned an “enemy” into a friend.

Crow with peanuts in Newfoundland (photo by Felip1 via Flickr Creative Commons license)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Felip1 via Flickr Creative commons license. Embedded videos from YouTube. Click on the captions to see the originals)