All posts by Kate St. John

A Bear Was There

Black bear track with human hand and dog pawprint for scale, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

When four of us walked the Muddy Creek Trail at Moraine State Park last week we found something we hadn’t expected. In the mud at our feet was a very large footprint. A bear was there.

None of us knew much about animal tracks but the footprint was unmistakably a large black bear (Ursus americanus), easy to identify because it’s the only bear species in Pennsylvania. Debbie hovered her hand nearby for scale.

Why is this bear track so narrow front-to-back? Black bears don’t roll their feet heel-to-toe like we do so their heels don’t always register. This illustration from the National Park Service shows front and hind tracks. I have shaded the heels that leave shallow or no prints. Bears step forward on their tiptoes. (*)

Track of a black bear, shaded to show registration (image originally from Yellowstone NPS.gov)

Immediately we wondered how recently the bear had walked by. Was it hiding in a nearby thicket? The track tells a story, some of which I am too uninformed to decipher.

At first glance the bear print seems to show just palm pad, toes and claws, but a smaller print came later, superimposed on the bear’s shallow-registered heel. The smaller mammal walked by after the bear was gone, perhaps long gone.

Who was that smaller mammal? People walk their dogs on this trail. Was it a dog print? I know very little but I’ll attempt to identify it. (I used beartracker.com for these details.)

The print is round and doesn’t show any claws (canines usually show claws). The fourth toe is lower than the others, the second toe is highest. My guess is it’s a feline and too large for a house cat. Was it a bobcat? I should have taken more photos.

I did take more bear track photos. Here’s a hind foot. Notice the pointy heel.

Black bear track, hind foot, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)

And perhaps a front foot.

Black bear track, 22 July 2021, Moraine State Park Muddy Creek Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

In any case, both animals were gone before we arrived. Pennsylvania black bears avoid people unless habituated to our feed or garbage.

Why was the bear there? Bears use our trails and roads for the same reason we do. It’s easier than wading through the underbrush.

(*) Did you know that cats and dogs always walk on their tiptoes? A subject for another day.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Just a Hop Makes The Difference

Two trees called Ironwood: American hornbeam (left), American hophornbeam (right) (photos by Kate St. John)

26 July 2021

Two trees in the Birch family (Betulaceae) are common in the Pittsburgh area but I’ve struggled with what to call them because they have the same names.

Both are called Ironwood because their wood is hard, close-grained, and very strong. Ironwood is a poor name choice, though. About 160 species around the world are called “ironwood”.

Their scientific names are different but their default common names are very similar: American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Hornbeam refers to their hard, strong wood: horn (hard, bony structure) + beam (Old English for tree). Hop is the only difference.

Fortunately they are easy to tell apart in the field at any time of year. In the photo at top:

  • The bark of American hornbeam looks like sinewy muscles (top left).
  • American hophornbeam bark peels in narrow parallel strips (top right).

Both trees produce fruit enclosed in an involucre, a whorl or rosette of bracts surrounding the inflorescence. This is where “hop” comes in.

Both species with fruit and bark paired.

American hornbeam or blue beech, fruit and trunk (photos by Kate St. John)
American hophornbeam, fruit and trunk (photos by Kate St. John)

They differ by a hop.

p.s. Because of their similar names I sometimes call “hornbeam” by another common name: blue beech. More confusion!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Today’s Outing at Frick Park, July 25

Outing in Frick Park, 25 July 2021 (photp by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

Nine of us gathered this morning at the Nine Mile Trail parking lot to walk Frick Park’s Boardwalk and the upper Nine Mile Run valley. At the beginning it was very cloudy but it didn’t rain.

The birds were quiet. Many have stopped singing for the year and gray skies made the rest of them subdued. Nonetheless we saw northern rough-winged swallows feeding young in flight and heard the warning calls of wood thrushes, robins and tufted titmice in a spot where a barred owl often roosts. Alas, we never found the owl.

It’s hard to pick a Best Bird but easy to pick the worst smell. We had to walk (as far away as possible!) past a decomposing deer near Commercial Street. Where are the turkey vultures when you need them? We didn’t see any today. Our list has 24 species.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)  1
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)  2
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)  4
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  3
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens)  1
Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens)  1
Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)  1    Heard
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)  7    Pair chasing and harassing a blue jay
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  1
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)  2
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)  10
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)  10
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)  7
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  5
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  1
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)  4
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  20
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  2
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  4
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  5
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  2
Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)  2
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  10
Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)  1

View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/checklist/S92277306

Thanks to all who came out. Next outing is slated for 29 August.

(photo by Kate St. John)

True and False Sunflowers

Oxeye or false sunflowers at Jennings Prairie, August 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 July 2021

At Jennings Prairie Richard Nugent taught me a trick for identifying sunflowers true and false.

Sunflowers are daisy-like composites with a central disc surrounded by ray petals. The disc contains many tiny flowers.

True sunflowers: In true sunflowers, genus Helianthus, the fertile parts are all in the central disc where this bee is feeding. The ray petals are showy but not flowers in their own right.

Tall sunflower with bumblebee, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s easy to find true sunflowers at Jennings Prairie. Tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus) towered over our heads.

Tall sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

False sunflowers: False sunflowers have fertile rays in addition to the central disc. If you pull off a ray petal you’ll see a tiny pistil at the end where it was attached.

That’s why another name for oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) is false sunflower.

Oxeye or false sunflowers, Jennings Prairie (photo by Kate St. John)

This method is so much easier than deciphering the leaves among Helianthus species.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blooming This Week in July

Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) at Phipps fence, 19 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 July 2021

The weather came out of the northwest bringing cooler temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday and smoke from the Canadian wildfires more than 1,000 miles away. Even when the air quality was bad this week I went outdoors. Perhaps I was fooled that it was OK since it didn’t have that sulfur smell typical of Pittsburgh pollution.

This week I went further afield than Schenley Park. Here are highlights from Frick, Schenley, Aspinwall Riverfront Park and Moraine State Park. The captions tell the story.

Horse nettle (Solanum carolinense), Frick Park, 20 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Black Snakeroot (Actaea racemosa or Cimicifuga racimosa) at Moraine State Park, 22 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has small flowers that we rarely see up close because they bloom on a six foot spike.

Common mullein inflorescence, Aspinwall Riverfront Park, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

We definitely notice the spike. And then the rest of the plant.

Common mullein, Aspinwall Riverfront Park, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, my namesake plant is still blooming. This one was at Moraine State Park.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp.), Moraine State Park, 22 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Peregrine Success at 62nd Street Bridge

Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021, 10am (digiscoped by Kate St. John)

22 July 2021

Until this week we thought that peregrines did not nest at the 62nd Street Bridge since 2019. This spring we saw them along the Allegheny River from 62nd Street to the Aspinwall railroad bridge, but not reliably.

Then on 19 July Marie posted this comment:

: Hi Kate, My friends and I were kayaking on the Allegheny River yesterday (July 18) and saw 2 Peregrines at the 62nd Street Bridge. We also heard them. One of the people I was with is a proficient birder and he was certain that they were Peregrines. I couldn’t ID them as adults or juveniles, though. — Marie

62nd Street Bridge over the Allegheny River, 2007 (photo by Dan Yagusic)

Marie’s sighting set off a flurry of activity including news from Mike Smith who reported what he saw in late June:

Approx. 3 weeks ago, I watched 2 Peregrines fly east above Allegheny River Blvd from 62nd St. bridge toward Highland Park bridge and then turn back westward and pass my location again. They were wailing/ screaming the entire 1 1/2 minutes that I observed them. They appeared to be play/ harassing each other. I was working and didn’t have binos, so plumage coloration/ age was not determined…the constant wailing was unusual behavior from my experience.

— email from Mike Smith, Tuesday 20 July 2021

Mike and I were both motivated to visit the bridge yesterday, 21 July 2021, to look for more peregrine activity. At noon Mike saw one peregrine flying upriver too far away to age. At 10am I got lucky.

Right off the bat I saw an adult peregrine perched and preening on the superstructure. I had my scope so I could see the bird was unbanded, had a very striped chest and a peachy breast with a few dots (not many), and was molting two central tail feathers that were visible when perched and in flight. She was probably female. I digiscoped a few poor quality pictures.

Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge is unbanded, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)
Adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)
Unbanded adult peregrine at 62nd Street Bridge, 21 July 2021 (digiscoped by Kate St. John)

At one point she kakked at something on the north shore but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Her territorial warning told me that the 62nd Street Bridge is her nesting home, not just a place she visits on her travels.

After she flew off I was packing up my scope to leave when I saw and heard a juvenile peregrine chasing her and begging loudly. The juvie was the same size as the adult, so probably female too.

I watched the juvie soar upriver until it disappeared toward the Highland Park Bridge. Then I drove to Aspinwall Riverfront Park and discovered that you can see the 62nd Street Bridge from the Aspinwall Railroad Bridge.

3 bridges: Highland Park (foreground), 62nd Street (distant background) as seen from underneath the Aspinwall RR Bridge, 21 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

At only 1.77 miles apart the 62nd Street Bridge and the Aspinwall RR bridge are in the same peregrine territory. Based on the adult’s behavior, she nested at the 62nd Street Bridge where there is a nestbox. Success!

Of the 11 peregrines sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, we now know they were successful at seven of them. The Rt 422 Graff Bridge in Kittanning is the last big mystery. Has anyone seen peregrines there?

UPDATE on 23 July: Jeff Cieslak saw 1 peregrine at Kittanning yesterday. Earlier this week a friend of Dana Nesiti sent a photo of 1 peregrine at the Speers RR Bridge.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Future Summers Will Last Half The Year

Hot summer sun (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 July 2021

Withering heat, parching drought, devastating floods, dangerous wildfires.

As unpleasant as this summer has been in the Northern Hemisphere we comfort ourselves that better weather will arrive with autumn in September. But even that is changing. A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters predicts that by the end of this century winter, spring and fall will retreat while summer will last nearly half the year.

For perspective on the future the researchers studied the past across the Northern Hemisphere, specifically the length of seasons from 1952 to 2011. They set the parameters for summer as the “onset of temperatures in the hottest 25% during that time period, while winter began with temperatures in the coldest 25%.” Spring and fall filled the gaps.

During those sixty years, summers got longer while the other seasons shrank. The slides below show the historical seasons 1952 and 2011 plus the study’s prediction for the year 2100. By then summer will run from May to October.

Average seasonal lengths in Northern Hemisphere, information from Phys.org

For those of you who don’t like winter this sounds like a great idea but the reality will be unsettling. The long summers and short winters will continue to have extreme temperature and precipitation swings with stunning storms like those we’ve seen in recent years. Imagine the heat of July lasting three months or more.

Meanwhile pleasant days will become scarce. My favorite seasons, spring and fall, will be shorter.

Our great-grandchildren will live in a very different world.

Read more and see the large version of this animation at Northern hemisphere summers may last nearly half the year by 2100 at Phys.org.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, simple pie charts by Kate St. John, embedded animation from Phys.org)

Frick Park Outing, Sun. July 25, 8:30a

Chicory at Frick Park, 20 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 July 2021

Schenley Park is closed 23-25 July for the Vintage Grand Prix. This outing will be at Frick Park at Commercial Street. Park at Nine Mile Run Trail parking.

Summer flowers are blooming and songbirds are wrapping up the breeding season.

Join me for a bird & nature walk in Frick Park on Sunday, July 25, 2021, 8:30a – 10:30a.

Meet at the Nine Mile Run Trail Parking lot to walk Frick Park’s boardwalk and Nine Mile Run loop.  

We’ll see chicory (Cichorium intybus), flash flood effects and goldfinches.

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

Before you come, visit my Events page in case of changes or cancellations. The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning or heavy rain.

Hope to see you there!

p.s. If you read this blog on Tuesday you saw me promise that we would see moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria). That was before I walked the planned route and found out that moth mullien has gone to seed. Here’s what it looks like right now at Frick Park’s Commercial Street entrance. Interesting, but not pretty.

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Little Pair Bonding

18 July 2021

This spring Ecco and Morela successfully raised four young peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning. All four fledged in early June and became independent in the subsequent weeks. One or two stopped by for a handout in early July but Ecco and Morela were having none of it. “You’re on your own.”

Now that the “kids” are gone (wrong! see below), Ecco and Morela are molting and staying close to home. In the past two days they have visited the nest several times and bowed together for a little pair bonding.

p.s. In the slide with Morela’s open wings, notice that she is replacing her middle two tail feathers. The white tips are halfway down her tail.

UPDATE 18 July 2021 at 5pm: The “kids” aren’t all gone. One of the youngsters was circling and begging loudly at 5pm at the Cathedral of Learning.

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