All posts by Kate St. John

Not Afraid to be Seen

Wind-blown Morela on Halloween 2019 (photo by Dr. Alan Juffs)

If your office is high in the Cathedral of Learning you may have seen a peregrine outside your window.

Since early autumn the new female peregrine, Morela, has made herself at home at Pitt, choosing her favorite vantage points even if they have windows nearby.

Above, she perches in the wind outside Dr. Alan Juffs’ window on Halloween.

Below, she dines on pigeon in early November on the south face of the building, photo by Anonymous.

Morela at the southwest dining ledge, week of 4 Nov 2019 (photo contributed by Anonymous)

Morela’s acceptance of human faces in the windows reminds me of her predecessor, Dorothy, who didn’t mind seeing people indoors. I’m sure that quite a few people became peregrine falcon fans when they saw Dorothy outside the window.

Here’s a montage of Dorothy near the windows from 2009 to 2011.

Like Dorothy, Morela is not afraid to be seen.

(photos by Dr. Alan Juffs and Anonymous)

Nacreous Clouds

Nacreous clouds at Lake Mjosa, Norway (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Near the poles in winter there are sometimes pearly-looking clouds glowing high above the Earth.

Polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs), also called nacreous clouds for their pearly appearance, form in the lower stratosphere at 49,000 to 82,000 feet — 1.5 to 2.6 times higher than a jet. They’re a winter phenomenon because they only form in the presence of super low temperatures, minus 108oF and colder.

Here you can see that they’re high above our usual clouds.

Nacreous clouds can cause trouble. Those made of water are benign but some are made of nitric acid + water that reacts with ozone in the stratosphere and creates a hole in the ozone layer. Stratospheric ozone protects Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It’s bad to have a hole in it!

Though we’ll never see these pearly clouds in Pittsburgh, we can appreciate their beauty from afar.

Polar Stratospheric Clouds over Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. The irony of ozone: Ground level ozone is bad; it burns plants and our lungs. Stratospheric ozone is good; it protects us from ultraviolet light. Ozone’s value depends on where it is.

Expanding Their Winter Range?

Peregrine at the Freeport Bridge, 9 Nov 2019 (photo by Dave Brooke)

13 Nov 2019:

Since last August when Sean Brady reported peregrines at the Freeport Bridge, Dave Brooke has spent time at the Treadway Trail parking lot beneath the bridge hoping to take their pictures.

Here are two of Dave’s photos: 9 Nov 2019 (above) and 10 Oct 2019 (below).

Peregrine with dots on breast, Freeport Bridge, 28 Oct 2019 (photo by Dave Brooke)

As I examined the October photo I noticed that the peregrine’s dotted breast and darkly lined chest look familiar. Few other peregrines look like this, but the female from the Tarentum Bridge does.

For comparison here are two photos of her from last February.

Female at Tarentum Bridge, Feb 2019, two photos by Steve Gosser

Female peregrine (dots on breast) at the Tarentum Bridge, 19 Feb 2019 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Meanwhile Dave’s November 9 photo is not a dotted-breast bird. It is possible though, that it’s the Tarentum male. The female would readily tolerate the presence of her mate but probably not another peregrine.

Compare the top November 9 photo to this one.

Male peregrine at Tarentum Bridge, 25 March 2019

Male peregrine at Tarentum Bridge after mating, 25 March 2019 (photo by Dave Brooke)

Peregrines expand their hunting territory as soon as their youngsters are able to hunt. They expand even further in winter when their primary prey — birds — have left on migration.

It would not be unusual for the Tarentum peregrines to be five miles from their nest site, only minutes away by air. The area has an additional attraction. Ducks gather at the Allegheny River Lock & Dam #5 just upstream from Freeport.

(photos by Dave Brooke and Steve Gosser)

Interesting eBird note: The Freeport Bridge crosses the line where four PA counties meet: Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland. The peregrines could be in any one of 4 counties depending on where they perch.

Trees Remember Their Lives As Seedlings

New red oak leaves, April 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Just as our own experiences shape our response to the future, trees remember their lives as seedlings and it shapes their responses to environmental stress.

Arborists had long suspected a “nursery effect” in which transplanted trees of the same species seemed to respond differently to the same environment depending on the nursery where they were grown. A 2011 study by the University of Toronto at Scarborough used poplar tree nursery stock to examine this theory.

Poplar trees (Populus sp) are propaganted clonally so a cutting grown from a parent tree is genetically identical to the parent. The study obtained stem cuttings from the same parent poplar tree regrown in widely separated nurseries in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They then regrew the trees in Toronto under identical conditions with half exposed to drought, the other half well watered.

Putting down roots: an acorn puts out a shoot, April 2017, Ohiopyle (photo by Kate St. John)

Amazingly the clones from Alberta responded differently than those from Saskatchewan. They even used different genes in their response.

“The findings were really quite stunning,” said Malcolm Campbell, lead author of the study. “Our results show that there is a form of molecular ‘memory’ in trees where a tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment.”

Red oak seedling, April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

That’s why it’s unwise to transplant a tree grown in Somerset County, PA to a backyard in Pittsburgh. The origin and destination climates are too different. The tree’s triggers are incorrectly set for its new life. (Somerset is zone 5b, Pittsburgh is 6b, on the Plant Hardiness Map).

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map for Pennsylvania as of May 2018 (map from

This applies to forest trees too, even though they aren’t transplanted. Their previous experience could help their survival in the face of climate change, diseases and pests.

As winter arrives this week, watch the trees respond with their own history as a guide.

Resources: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Forest trees remember their roots from Science Daily

(photos by Kate St. John, map from USDA)

Vigilant Against Red-Tails

Morela scans the sky, 8 Nov 2019, 1:09pm (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

November is a busy time for raptors on the University of Pittsburgh campus. Migrating red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks pass overhead while the Cathedral of Learning peregrine pair, Terzo and Morela, watch the skies and defend their territory.

Morela is especially vigilant against red-tailed hawks. Months before we knew she was on campus, @PittPeregrines noticed a peregrine kept chasing red-tailed hawks away from the Cathedral of Learning.

  • Aug 26, 2:40pm — Red-tailed hawk hovering over the 20th Century club is chased north and hit repeatedly by a Pitt peregrine.
  • Sep 13, dusk — A peregrine leaps off the Oaklander Hotel and chases a red-tailed hawk, grounding it on the lawn at William Pitt Union.

Hope and Terzo didn’t bother with red-tails so something had changed. It was Morela.

Was she involved in this incident? On Friday Nov 8, Pitt Police and a PA Game Commission Game Warden rescued an injured red-tailed hawk from the patio at Tower B. (The tweet says “falcon” but don’t worry, it’s a hawk. No news on its injury.)

In their photo tweet you can see the Barco Law Building in the background. Kim Getz works there and has been keeping track of the red-tailed hawks that hang out at the Law School. She hopes the injured bird wasn’t this adult that keeps the rodent population under control …

Adult red-tailed hawk dining at the Barco Building (photo by Kim Getz)

… or this curious youngster.

Immature red-tailed hawk at the Barco Building (photo by Kim Getz)

By 3pm Saturday afternoon, 9 November 2019, I was sure that at least one adult red-tailed hawk was doing just fine. I watched it glide low just below tree height on its way to Frick Fine Arts while Terzo and Morela performed a courtship flight at the Cathedral of Learning.

At 4:12pm Morela made a round of her territory from Schenley Plaza to Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning.

All is calm. Morela rules.

(photos from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh, @PittPolice and Kim Getz)

What Swans Do With Their Heads Underwater

This week Britain’s BBO Wildlife Trust shared a glimpse into the underwater world of swans and ducks.

Mute swans have such long necks that they can feed on the bottom while floating on the surface. Ducks have to dive.

While the swan is feeding tufted ducks come and go, their bodies so buoyant that their feet must flap continuously to keep them submerged.

If this had been filmed in North America they would be our own species: tundra swans and ring-necked ducks.

(video from Jack Perks via BBO Wildlife Trust)

12 Years Of Blogging

12 Years of blogging (photo by Kate St. John)

Twelve years! Can you believe it?

Twelve years ago today on 9 November 2007 I posted my first entry at Outside My Window. After more than a decade the blog has …

Most people tune in for the peregrine nesting season but there was a big surprise this year. The most popular article by far was my 25 February prediction of 17-year cicadas in May: Let Me Be The First To Tell You. With over 6,400 readers it was a two-day wonder.

This 12th anniversary is an opportunity to thank you, dear reader, for your enthusiasm, comments, suggestions and “shares.”   Thank you for sticking with me. You inspire me to keep going every day.

Thank you, also, to the many excellent photographers who’ve contributed photos and videos, to Wikimedia Commons for their vast store of Creative Commons media, and to YouTube and Twitter videos that allow embedding on my blog. Without photos and videos my blog would be just a pile of words.

Happy Bird-thday Blog!

(photo by Kate St. John, retouched)

Courting Cahows

Pair of Bermuda petrels at Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, 31 Oct 2019 (screenshot from Cornell Labs Bermuda Cahowcam)

November is courtship time for one of the rarest seabirds on earth.

The Bermuda petrel (Pterodroma cahow) or cahow (pronounced ka-HOW) ranges across the Atlantic Ocean, returning to land only once a year to court and breed at Bermuda.

Cahows nest in dark burrows which they access only at night, so secretive that they were presumed extinct until 1951 when the last 17-18 pairs were discovered on an isolated Bermuda island.

Every year the odds are against an egg becoming an adult. However the birds’ long breeding lives, 30-40 years, ensure the species will survive as long as there are safe places to nest — and that’s the rub. Rats were eradicated from their breeding colonies but many of the burrows are on islands threatened by hurricanes and sea level rise.

Since 2001 the Cahow Recovery Program has been setting up safe breeding burrows on Nonsuch Island and translocating a few pre-fledgled birds to the burrows in hopes they will return there to breed when they reach maturity at 3-6 years of age. So far so good. There are now 15 pairs on Nonsuch, two of which use burrows equipped with live streaming Cahow cams under infrared light.

November is the time to watch the cameras at Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Petrel Cams. The pairs return to their burrows, prepare the nest, court and copulate. In the video below a pair touches beaks and preens in the courtship behavior called allopreening.

Watch the Cahow cams this month, especially at night. The birds are most active on the darkest nights of the New Moon.

Cahows leave their burrows in December, then the female returns in January to lay her single egg. If all goes well a chick will fledge in July.

The long process of creating and raising a single cahow chick has just begun.

p.s. Here’s an amazing fact about cahows: Notice that the birds have tube-like noses. These structures take the salt out of saltwater so they can drink it. They sneeze the salt out of their noses. There are more amazing cahow facts here.

(screenshot and video from Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Petrel cams)

A Bird That Smells Like Manure

Hoatzin in Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an amazing bird unlike any other. Found in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins of South America, the pheasant-like hoatzin (pronounced Watson, Opisthocomus hoazin) eats leaves as 82% of its diet.

Leaves are really hard to digest so the bird has a huge crop that ferments the leaves and makes adult hoatzins smell like manure. The breath of mammal ruminants — cattle, sheep, goats, deer — may smell sweet. Not so with the hoatzin!

The hoatzin’s huge crop allows little room for flight muscles, so the bird is barely able to fly but that doesn’t matter. No one eats a bird that smells this bad.

Hoatzin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hoatzin nestlings don’t smell bad yet so they have to escape predators. During development in the egg, the young birds retain vestigial wing claws that all other birds lose during gestation. Before they can fly, hoatzin nestlings can climb back into their nests!

Read more about hoatzins and see video of a nestling crawling back into the nest at this vintage blog post: Watson, I Presume.

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

How to Recognize Morela On Camera

Morela at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 17 Oct 2019 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Now that the female peregrine, Morela, visits the Cathedral of Learning nest nearly every day you may be wondering how to identify her.

Here are her unique traits that you’ll see on camera, listed from easiest to hardest.

1. Morela has no bands on her legs. She often stands with her bare ankles showing.

2. All the normally white places on a peregrine — chest, face and cheeks — are peach-apricot on Morela. Even her belly beneath the stripes is peach-apricot, not white. This is noticeable in all photos.

Morela showing her right side, 17 Oct 2019 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

3. Morela’s breast is clear with no spots or flecks of gray except at the edges (tiny flecks highlighted in photo below).

Morela’s breast is clear except for tiny flecks of gray at the edges, highlighted (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

4. Peregrines have a broken necklace of charcoal gray that forms a frame on their cheeks below the malar stripe. Morela’s necklace is very wide when she turns her head, especially the necklace on her left side (necklace highlighted in photo below).

Morela has a wide necklace when she turns her head, especially on this side (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Morela shares some traits with other peregrines:

  • Morela is much larger than Terzo. This is a female trait in peregrines.
  • Morela’s forehead is pale where it meets her beak. Terzo has this trait, too, but Hope did not.
  • Morela’s head and nape are quite dark. So are Terzo’s.
  • There is very little color contrast between Morela’s head and back. This is typically a female trait in peregrines. Terzo has much more contrast — dark head, light gray back.

For comparison on camera here are two photos of Terzo in 2016 and 2017. Notice how white he is!

Male peregrine Terzo (N29) at the Cathedral of Learning nest,29 Mar 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Terzo (N29) at the Cathedral of Learning nest, 29 Mar 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Terzo shows his left foot doesn't feel good, 30 April 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Terzo is very white and so is his forehead, 30 April 2017 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Watch for Morela on the snapshot camera. See if you can identify her.

p.s. Stay tuned on the National Aviary’s snapshot camera at the University of Pittsburgh. Streaming video from the National Aviary will resume in early 2020.

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