All posts by Kate St. John

Young Peregrines Are Fledging Downtown

Juvenile peregrine practicing for first flight, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

29 June 2020

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown there have been few eyes on the street in Downtown Pittsburgh so I was grateful when Point Park University police called me on Friday afternoon, 26 June 2020, with news of the Third Avenue peregrine nest. Unfortunately they had found a dead peregrine falcon fledgling. The good news is there are youngsters Downtown and they’re learning to fly. Maybe there are more. On Sunday morning 28 June Lori Maggio went Downtown to find out.

At 9:30am Lori texted me to report a youngster whining on the nest ledge and an adult watching from a gargoyle on Lawrence Hall.

Juvenile peregrine at the Third Avenue nest ledge, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Begging juvenile peregrine, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Begging at the Third Avenue nest ledge, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

The youngster was watching this adult who has a silver right leg band (color band is hidden from this view). This is not Dori. Her right leg band is pink. In addition, this bird doesn’t look like Dori and its plumage looks male to me — sharply contrasting head, tail, wings and pale back. If I’m right, the Downtown male is banded.

Adult peregrine with silver colored right leg band, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Adult peregrine, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Close-up of silver colored right leg band on Downtown Pittsburgh peregrine, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

As Lori watched, the youngster exercised her wings and made some practice flights along the ledge.

Juvenile peregrine wing-ercizing, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Wing-ercizing, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Pre-flight practice, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Hop, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)
Juvenile peregrine hops while testing his wings, Downtown Pittsburgh, 2020-06-28 (photo by Lori Maggio)

At 2pm I joined Lori at Third Avenue and we walked around looking for peregrines. There was still one juvenile at the nest ledge plus an adult on top of Oxford Center.

Interestingly, the adult intently watched a spot we could not see in the vicinity of Forbes and Cherry Way, staring at it for at least half an hour before flying away. This sort of intense watching is usually a sign that the parent peregrine is watching a juvenile. If so, there were at least three young at the Downtown nest this year.

This morning Lori is at Third Avenue again, observing one adult plus the youngster on the nest ledge. I hope she can get a photo of the color band!

(photos by Lori Maggio)

Coronavirus: One Very, Very Difficult Fire

Forest fire (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 June 2020

Coronavirus is surging in many southern and western U.S. states and has increased in Allegheny County at levels beyond our experience in late April.

The increase in Pittsburgh is ironic. Allegheny County had zero new cases on 17 June. On 27 June we had 90 new cases. At the time it was the highest single-day increase we’d ever seen. In less than two weeks we squandered two months of effort! (see Public Source)

What caused it?

After months of study we now know you’re most likely to catch coronavirus through the air, by proximity and time, near someone (often asymptomatic) who has COVID-19. In other words, not much from surfaces. The most likely place to catch it? Bars. (see video).

We know that wearing masks prevents it. Infected people spread the disease before they feel sick so all should wear masks. Your mask protects me, mine protects you.

Face masks for COVID-19 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, the human brain has a hard time grasping danger it hasn’t experienced yet. We humans don’t learn well from the history of others. And so …

“I think that wherever there’s wood to burn [people to infect], this fire’s going to burn – and right now we have a lot of susceptible people,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on NBC.

“I don’t think we’re going to see one, two and three waves. I think we’re going to just see one very, very difficult forest fire of cases.”

The Guardian: Half of U.S. states see coronavirus surge… 22 June 2020


  • Ongoing: Allegheny County is having record new case counts every day. The Public Source graph, above, is updated daily.
  • (*) 29 June 2020: Allegheny County bans on-site consumption of alcohol in bars and restaurants. This has been biggest source of the outbreak.
  • 1 July 2020: PA mandates masks for everyone who leaves their home.
  • 2 July 2020: Coronavirus cases more than double in 1 day: 233. Allegheny County closes bars, restaurants, casinos for one week.

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

This Week in Schenley Park

Spotted joe pye weed, flower buds in leaf axils, Schenley Park, 26 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week I found buds and bugs in Schenley Park.

Spotted joe pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), above, has buds in the leaf axils but when it blooms the showy flowers at the top attract all our attention. This year I’ll have to watch for the side flowers as well.

Enchanters nightshade (Circaea canadensis), below, blooms from the bottom up and has plenty of buds yet to open. The lower buds in the photo are on a different branch.

Enchanters nightshade, Schenley Park 21 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Bugs are quite evident now but they are difficult to photograph because they move(!). Below, this silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) appeared to be rubbing its abdomen on the bird dropping. Was it ovipositing?

Silver spotted skipper on a bird dropping, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Aphids are not plentiful this year — yet — but it’s only a matter of time. There’s only one winged adult in this photo but the juveniles will grow up, sprout wings, and fly to other Helianthus plants to reproduce. It won’t be long before I think there are too many.

Aphids on Helianthus stem (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, some bugs are never seen but we know they were there … as this leaf attests.

Insect damage on a leaf. No insect visible (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

You’d Think It Was March

Morela at the nest overnight, 2020-06-25, 2:20am

26 June 2020

It’s late June, the solstice has passed, and yet three Cathedral of Learning peregrines are courting and the female Morela spent most of Wednesday-Thursday night at the nest.

Female peregrines normally spend the night at the nest before egg laying. Don’t get your hopes up, though. It’s too late in the year for successful eggs.

On 25 June over a period of 9 hours Morela courted with suitors four times, twice with each male, Ecco then Terzo. Click on links on these images and captions to see video of each event.

Ecco and Morela bow for 3 minutes, 2020-06-25 at 5:50am
Ecco and Morela bow for 9 minutes, 2020-06-25 at 7:30am
Terzo arrives at 10:30am, 2020-06-25
Terzo and Morela bow for almost 4 minutes, 2020-06-25, 10:40am
Morela sunbathes at 10:48am, 2020-06-25
Morela and Terzo court for 5 minutes, 2020-06-25, 2:15pm

Here’s a quick video summary: Day in a Minute, 25 June 2020 7am to 7pm.

After a long failed nesting season, the peregrine soap opera continues at Cathedral of Learning. Is Morela enjoying all the attention? You’d think it was March.

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

Reindeer Are Off The Clock

Reindeer at Svalbard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know about you, but I often check my watch or cellphone to find out what time it is. Do you ever wish that the time of day didn’t matter? It doesn’t matter to reindeer.

Reindeer live in daylight all summer and darkness all winter so they threw out their daily internal clocks a long time ago. Find out how they did it in this vintage article: They’re Off The Clock.

My Sweet Emmalina is Gone

Emmalina in the bag, March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Instead of bird and nature news, today is devoted to my sweet cat Emmalina who passed away yesterday at age 14 with a massive tumor in her belly. She was the soul and spirit of our house and we miss her at every turn. If you’ve lost a pet I’m sure you understand.

We adopted Emmy at Animal Rescue League (now Human Animal Rescue) in September 2006 when she was five months old. She had been a stray and was very thin but she was beautiful. I chose her because she purred so loudly while I petted her on my lap.

Emmy just after she was adopted, September 2006

Emmy captured our hearts and earned a longer name, Emmalina, both of which I use when writing about her (see links below). She was an indoor cat but that didn’t mean her life was boring.

Emmy taught us tricks she wanted us to perform by using non-verbal communication. She inspired science blogs, chased house centipedes, watched birds outside the window and subdued a turnip (she hated turnips). In late 2011 she heard a mouse under the sunroom floor that lead to weeks of activity and three articles:

Here are some photo highlights of her life.

Emmy at the stair rail, December 2006
Miss Emmy, February 2007
Emmy objects to the Pet Rules posted on the refrigerator, January 2008
Emmy discovers the highest spot in the house, September 2008
Emmalina rampant, Let’s Play, June 2010
Emmy loves her treat ball, Nov 2018
Emmalina pensive in January 2020
Sniffing a treat, Feb 2020

In January Emmalina started losing weight but the vet couldn’t find anything wrong; the cancer was sneaky. This month she declined rapidly. Unable to eat, she slept most of the time and was no longer herself. We began to miss the kitty she once was.

Emmalina was very sick by the time this photo was taken, Monday 22 June 2020

Emmalina never lost her purr until her last days on earth. That’s how I knew her end was near.

Sleep well, sweet Emmalina. See you on the other side. Much love, Kate.

(photos by Kate St. John)

100 Degrees in the Arctic!

June sun in Siberia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In case you missed it: On Saturday 20 June 2020 the temperature hit 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle! This is the town that also sets coldest temperature records.

Verkhoyansk holds the record for both the hottest and the coldest temperatures ever recorded above the Arctic circle, with 38.0 °C (100.4 °F) and – 67.8 °C (- 90.0 °F) respectively.

Wikipedia entry about Verkhoyansk

The low in Verkhoyansk last November was -65.2oF. This month’s high of 100.4 is a 165oF swing. Talk about climate change! Check out this tweet.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; tweet embedded)

Closer To Ecco

Ecco and Morela appear to touch beaks, 16 Jun 2020, 8:17am (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

22 June 2020

Though the peregrine nesting season has failed at the Cathedral of Learning, Morela continues to visit the nest and bow with her suitors, Terzo and Ecco. In a normal year this activity would have ended with egg laying in March. This year, over a period of (now) four months, we’ve been able to observe individual behavior in the two males and Morela’s relationship with each one.

Indeed their relationships are different. I’ve noticed that during the longer courtship sessions Morela bows closer with Ecco than she does with Terzo.

During this five minute bowing session on 16 June, Ecco and Morela turn their heads side to side and nearly touch beaks. This is a more intimate form of bowing than merely bobbing up and down.

On 18 June, Terzo initiates a three minute courtship session that lacks such a close approach.

Since we are humans, not peregrines, we don’t know if the behavioral difference is due to the males’ personalities or Morela’s chemistry with each one. But we can see that Morela comes closer to Ecco.

p.s. This month Ecco has been bowing with Morela before dawn! Click here for a bowing session at 5:30am on Sunday 21 June.

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

Flowers Last Week

Chickory, Schenley Park, 18 June 2020

21 June 2020

Plants are getting interesting as the next flower season begins in Pittsburgh.

Last week I found chickory (Cichorium intybus) and thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) blooming in the city and a variety of flowers north of town.

Thimbleweed, Duck Hollow, 19 June 2020

On 17 June six friends and I gathered at Wolf Creek Narrows to bird watch and botanize.

I was hoping to find ramps (Allium tricoccum) in full bloom but we were too early to see the balls of flowers that become these unusual starburst seed pods. Note that the leaves in the background are a different plant. Ramps don’t have leaves when they bloom.

Ramps not yet in full bloom, Wolf Creek Narrows, 17 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

However, partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) were in full bloom.

Partridgeberry, Wolf Creek Narrows, 17 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Indian cucumber root, Wolf Creek Narrows, 17 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, as you examine the flowers, keep your eyes open for bugs. I found this one on golden alexanders in Schenley Park. Is he piercing that flower to suck the juice?

Insect on golden alexanders, Schenley Park, 13 June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Sunrise On The Longest Day

Summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge, 2005 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 June 2020

Today the summer solstice arrives in Pittsburgh at 5:43pm EDT giving us this year’s longest daylight of 15 hours 3 minutes and 54 seconds(*).

If you were tracking the sun’s location at sunrise you would see why “solstice” means “sun stands still” for it rises at nearly the same place for a day or two before it heads south again.

Stonehenge near Salisbury, England is the perfect place to watch this happen as the sun rises over the Heel Stone on the summer solstice.

Some of the crowd at Stonehenge sunrise, 2005 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Normally huge crowds gather at Stonehenge to watch this phenomenon but English Heritage has canceled the 2020 celebrations and is urging people to stay away because of COVID-19.

Fortunately we can all watch sunrise at Stonehenge via live stream on the English Heritage Facebook page. Tune in on Sunday June 21 at 4:52 am British Summer Time, which is Saturday 11:52 pm Eastern Daylight Time.

Night owls in Pittsburgh don’t have to get up early to watch sunrise on the longest day.

(*) Pittsburgh’s 20 June sunrise was at 5:49am, sunset at 8:53pm.

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