All posts by Kate St. John

Expect Red-breasted Nuthatches And …

Red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Chuck Tague)

21 September 2020

According to this year’s Winter Finch Forecast we should expect red-breasted nuthatches and two winter finch species in Pennsylvania this winter.

The Winter Finch Forecast is an annual tradition founded by Ron Pittaway and carried on by Tyler Hoar. Combining information on bird movement and food availability in northern Canada, it predicts whether finches and three other species(*) will bother to leave their northern homes this winter. The birds only irrupt into southern Canada and the U.S. if the cone and seed crop is low.     (* red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, bohemian waxwings)

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) began leaving Canada in mid-August and the vanguard is here, as you can see by these eBird sightings in Allegheny County, 1 Aug through 20 Sep. Offer black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet if you want to see them at your feeders.

The forecast says that most purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) will leave Canada this winter and some are already on the move. They’ve been seen at least 10 times in Allegheny County since August 1.

Be careful when you identify a purple finch as it closely resembles the house finches we see every day. Female purple finches have sharp brown stripes compared to blurry gray-brown on female house finches. Male purple finches are rosy-purple as if dipped head first in berry juice. They have rosy flank stripes, not brown.  Check out this guide for telling the difference between Purple and House finches.

Purple finch, 2009 (photo by Brian Herman)

The forecast also says that evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) are now moving south in the highest numbers seen in 25 years. These coniferous woodland finches are expected to come to Pennsylvania but they prefer the forest so don’t expect to see them unless you’re near a woodlot. If you live in suitable habitat, they’ll come to your feeder for black oil sunflower seeds.

Evening grosbeak, January 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Remember this sound and you’ll hear them coming.

And finally, the forecast for pine siskins (Spinus pinus) is mediocre but Steve Gosser has already seen one in his Allegheny County backyard last Saturday. Listen for their chatter and distinctive zipper sound and you’ll know they’re here. They like nyger seed just like goldfinches.

Pine siskin in Steve Gosser’s yard, 19 Sept 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Check out the Winter Finch Forecast 2020-2021 to learn more and find out what Canada’s blue jays are up to.

p.s. You can learn where a particular species is within a particular timeframe by going here to explore eBird. Choose species, then date range, then location.

(photos by Chuck Tague, Brian Herman and Steve Gosser. screenshot of eBird red-breasted nuthatch sightings)

Signs of Fall

Sun rays on a misty morning in Schenley Park, 8 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 September 2020

Fall is in the air in Pittsburgh as sun rays peek through autumn mist in Schenley Park.

Below, though the large ash trees have died of emerald ash borer the small ones still put out leaves that turn unique colors. These are on their way from yellow to lavender.

White ash leaves turn a variety of colors in fall, Schenley Park, 18 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Teasel flower heads (dipsacus sp.) have dried, leaving the husk that’s a “natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.” It’s hard to imagine holding this prickly husk to do the job. Use gloves, of course.

All summer we noticed curly dock (Rumex crispus) leaves and not the flowers. Now our attention is reversed because the seeds have turned a rich brown. The stalk is ugly, however the seeds are fascinating up close, each one surrounded by the calyx that produced them. The papery wings allow them to float on water and fly a bit in the wind.

Curly dock, gone to seed, Schenley Park, 17 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The most obvious sign of fall is the temperature. 43 degrees F at dawn today. Speaking of gloves, you’ll need them when you go birding in the morning.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Birds Burst Into The Sky After Sunset

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 September 2020

Birding in Pittsburgh has been great this week and will continue today and tomorrow, Saturday & Sunday 19-20 September, as shown on BirdCast’s local migration alert for Pittsburgh below.

screenshot of BirdCast local migration alert for Pittsburgh, PA, 18 Sept 2020

Birding is great on the morning after high migration because the birds travel at night. They start their journey after sunset and land before sunrise, flying over us when it’s too dark to see them.

On good weather nights they’re so anxious to leave that they burst into the sky after sunset, a phenomenon that’s visible on time lapse weather radar. The slideshow below shows this effect on the evening of 15 September 2020 when the birds took off only 20 mins after sunset.

Note that the image is circular because the radar’s reach is circular and it is fainter on the edges because radar fades as it gets far from the source.

Who was flying that night? In addition to warblers, which will be waning soon, we now see thrushes, tanagers, and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The grosbeaks may resemble females, but don’t be fooled. If they have a touch of orange or red color on their breast they are immature males as shown at top. Here’s another immature male.

Immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend is a great time to go birding in Pittsburgh. Let’s get outdoors!

p.s. Click here to get BirdCast local migration alerts for your hometown.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, slideshow from KPIT weather radar, Migration alert screenshot from BirdCast; click on the captions to see the originals)

Massive Die Off of Birds in New Mexico … why?

Dead orange-crowned warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons used as an illustration, not taken in New Mexico)

18 September 2020

In late August reports started trickling in that high numbers of migratory birds were being found dead in New Mexico. The first report was at White Sands Missile Range on 20 August but as time passed the reports became more frequent, the locations increased, and so did the death toll. By now experts believe that hundreds of thousands of birds have died — perhaps millions — not only in New Mexico (red on map below) but in Colorado, Arizona and western Texas (orange highlight on map).

General area of U.S. where massive bird die off is occurring (map from Wikimedia Commons). New Mexico is red

Austin Fisher took a video of the carnage last Sunday, 13 September 2020 in Velarde, New Mexico.

Science Alert reports that only migratory birds are affected, not the local residents. Most of the dead birds are warblers, swallows and flycatchers and “the affected travelers seem to act strangely before their deaths, spending more time on the ground than perched in trees, and generally appearing dazed, sleepy, and lethargic.”

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth at Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes the smoke from the western wildfires is a big factor.

While birds migrate south through the Rockies this fall they must fly through the ubiquitous wildfire smoke blowing across the US from California, Oregon and Washington. Here’s what it looked like via satellite on August 20, the first day dead birds were reported in New Mexico. Notice that the smoke had reached New Mexico that day.

Satellite image of wildfire smoke across the U.S. west, 20 August 2020 (image from NASA)

Unfortunately birds’ respiratory systems are so different from ours and so efficient that they succumb quickly to bad air.

We turn oxygen into CO2 in one breath — in/out. Every exhalation releases the CO2/remains of the air we just breathed in.

When birds breathe, the air that enters their bodies stays inside for two breaths — in/out + in/out. During its 4-step journey, the air molecule travels through the lungs, two sets of air sacs and into the birds’ hollow bones where it waits for the next step. Click on the diagram below to watch the airflow inside a bird.

Birds’ respiratory system, screenshot from animation at Oxford Learning Link

Sadly, the western fires are damaging much more than we realize. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wildfire smoke is killing migratory birds a thousand miles away. … Another unexpected outcome of climate change.

Read more about the bird die off at Science Alert and the New York Times.

UPDATE: For another perspective on the bird deaths in New Mexico, see this article by Jenna McCullough in the ABA Blog: The data behind mysterious bird deaths in New Mexico.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NASA and a screenshot from Oxford Learning Link. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Nature’s Moisture Indicators

Norway spruce cone, closed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pines cones open and close in response to moisture. Above, a closed Norway spruce cone. Below, an open one.

Norway spruce cone, open (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If a cone is closed is it wetter than one that’s open?

On Throw Back Thursday find out in this quiz: Which Cone is Wetter?

Or bypass the quiz and watch this video.

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

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

16 September 2020

This week’s spooky sunsets and hazy skies in eastern North America are due to smoke from the massive wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California. The smoke is so intense that it’s dispersing across the continent and across the Atlantic, causing haze in Europe.

Near sunset on Monday 14 September the sun was a strange shade of pink in Pittsburgh, captured above in true color by Jonathan Nadle.

We can’t see the smoke coming but the satellites do, blowing eastward in two paths on Tuesday 15 September: one over the Northern Plains and Great Lakes, the other over Nebraska to Kentucky and Virginia.

It’s also blowing west over the Pacific, shown here on Friday 11 September.

The haze is inconvenient for us but truly hazardous on the West Coast. The dark brown colors on the map below are the worst air quality in the world. The air is so bad that people are leaving the area. I know of at least one person who’s fleeing from San Francisco to Pittsburgh.

By now the fires cover 4.5 million acres, an area so large that it’s hard to imagine. To help you visualize it The Guardian has created an interactive map comparing the fire acreage to well known cities and your own hometown — click here or on the tiny screenshot below. NOTE: The comparison below is for New York City. I compared the fire acreage to Pittsburgh and found it would run from approximately I-80 to the PA-West Virginia line!

Meanwhile the sunsets are still creepy.

Strange sun at sunset in Pittsburgh (filtered), 15 September 2020 (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

None of us are immune to this huge effect of climate change. Smoke gets in our eyes.

UPDATE: Janet Campagna, who lives in California, remarked that the days are much cooler because the sun can’t get through the smoke. This reminded me of the volcanic winter which results from smoke in the atmosphere after giant volcanic eruptions such as Krakatoa in 1883 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

(photos by Jonathan Nadle, screenshot of AirNow map from airnow.gov, screenshot of article from The Guardian)

Emergency Rest Stop For Birds

Mount Desert Rock, 2006 (photo by Justin Russell via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

If this were a normal year(*), my husband and I would be at Acadia National Park right now and I’d go on a whale watch tour in the Gulf of Maine to see shearwaters, storm-petrels and (rarely) a south polar skua. Overhead, far from shore, I’d also see migrating songbirds crossing the water from Nova Scotia to Acadia, still traveling during the day in order to make landfall.

Their journey across the Gulf of Maine — about 100 miles — mimics their 600-mile journey over the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to the Yucatan which takes 15-25 hours of non-stop flying. Even during the shorter Gulf of Maine journey some have to make an emergency rest stop on Mount Desert Rock, an inhospitable way station for songbirds, shown above.

Gulf of Maine (left) and Gulf of Mexico (right) — not to scale — non-stop journeys for migrating songbirds (maps from Wikimedia Commons)

This week millions of songbirds are crossing both the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Mexico.

Read about what they find if they stop on Mount Desert Rock in this 2013 article No Food, No Water.

p.s. (*) Alas, it’s not a normal year. We wish we could go to Maine but COVID-19 precautions canceled any idea of flying and even if we drove to Maine we’d have to quarantine in the hotel for 14 days, using up our entire vacation and prohibiting any whale watch tour. Sigh.

La Niña This Winter

Average location of the jet stream and typical temperature and precipitation impacts during La Niña winter over North America. (Map by Fiona Martin for NOAA Climate.gov)

Pittsburgh will be warmer this winter because the Pacific Ocean’s “skin” is colder than usual at the equator. This ocean change is called La Niña.

During a period of La Niña, the sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3 to 5 °C (5.4 to 9 °F). It persists for at least five months.

definition of La Niña, Wikipedia

Here’s what the sea surface temperature looks like in this anomaly map from November 2007. Blue is colder than normal, orange is warmer.

Seas surface temperature during La Niña in Nov 2007 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

La Niña affects weather worldwide, causing “more rain than average through Indonesia, drier weather in southeastern China” and a variety of colder/warmer and wetter/drier effects in North America as shown on the map at top.

Pittsburgh will be affected but it won’t be extreme.

Check out these December-January-February 2020-21 predictions for the continental U.S.

3-month Temperature Anomaly Outlook for Dec-Jan-Feb 2020-21 (map from NWS Climate Prediction Center)
3-month Precipiation Anomaly Outlook for Dec-Jan-Feb 2020-21 (map from NWS Climate Prediction Center)

The Gulf Coast is really going to feel it!

(maps from NOAA and National Weather Service. Click on the captions to see the originals)

September Poison Ivy Quiz

Photo#1: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)

On a walk last week I encountered two plants with poison ivy’s telltale three-leaf arrangement including a long stem on the middle leaf. One was poison ivy, the other was not.

Here they are, shown at top and below. Which one is poison ivy?

Photo#2: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s another clue in two more photos — leaves and fruit. One is poison ivy, one is not.

Photo#3: Is this poison ivy? (photo by Kate St. John)
Photo#4: One of the plants has samaras (photo by Kate St. John)

Poison ivy bears fruit in berries that turn white in the fall. The mystery look-alike plant bears fruit as samaras.

Quiz! For each of the four photos tell me if it’s poison ivy. (Use photo# in the caption.)

Bonus: What’s the name of the not-poison-ivy plant?

(photos by Kate St. John)

Porcelain and Primrose

Porcelain berry, Three Rivers Heritage Trail, 7 Sep 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In September porcelain berry’s (Ampelopsis glandulosa) beautiful porcelain-like fruits show why the plant was imported as an ornamental.

Porcelainberry, 3 Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh, 7 Sep 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately this Asian vine is terribly invasive, engulfing small trees and draping itself over large ones.

Porcelain berry drapes a hillside in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Some people call it “wild grape” but you’ll never see grapes on it. Just porcelain berries.

This month you’ll find common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) blooming in meadows, along roads and bike trails. The name implies that it opens only in the evening but I photographed these at midday. The flowers are 1-2 inches wide. The plants are hard to miss at six feet tall.

Common evening primrose, Eliza Furnace Trail, 7 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Common evening primrose buds, Eliza Furnace Trail, 7 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, bug love continues. This pair of goldenrod soldier beetles (also called Pennsylvania leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus)) are perched on a flower in the Aster family while working to continue their species.

Spend time outdoors this week while the weather is good. Autumn is beautiful and all too short.

p.s. Thank you to Monica Miller and John English for correcting my bug identification mistake!

p.p.s. Did you notice that Pennsylvania is misspelled in the bug’s scientific name (only 1 ‘n’). This is not the only species with this misspelling. Can you name another?

(photos by Kate St. John)