All posts by Kate St. John

These Tadpoles Migrate Every Day

Screenshot of western toad tadpoles from Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration

2 April 2021

Three weeks ago frogs were singing and laying eggs in the vernal ponds of southwestern Pennsylvania. Many of the eggs have hatched by now. What do the tadpoles do next? This video from a remote lake on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada provides a hint.

Maxwel Hohn spent four years filming a tiny migration we never see. Every morning western toad tadpoles (Anaxyrus boreas) swim from their nighttime shelters to feeding areas in the lake, then back again to hide at night. The result is his award-winning 8+ minute video: Tadpoles: The Big Little Migration.

Our eastern American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) are closely related to western toads so I wonder if they do this, too.

Meanwhile, if the video wasn’t amazing enough for you, here are two more amazing things about tadpoles and toads:

  • Don’t worry that our tadpoles won’t survive the freezing temperatures this morning in eastern North America. Even if the ponds freeze, tadpoles are able to overwinter under ice. See photos at What’s Under the Ice? Wow! Winter Tadpoles from Oakland Twp, Michigan.
  • Do you know where North America’s toads came from? South America. And they didn’t walk! “Based on DNA sequence comparisons, Anaxyrus americanus and other North American species of Anaxyrus are thought to be descended from an invasion of toads from South America prior to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama land bridge, presumably by means of rafting. — from the Wikipedia description of the American toad.

House Sparrows Are In Trouble

House sparrows at the Walmart, 29 Jan 2021 (photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

1 April 2021

Yes, today is April Fool’s Day but it’s no joke that house sparrows are in trouble. Though still considered pests in North America their population has declined dramatically, even in their native range. Seven years ago their disappearance was a mystery. Has anything changed?

Native to Eurasia and northern Africa, humans introduced house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to continents and islands worldwide in the 1800s, making them the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. (Green is native range, yellow is introduced in the map below.)

House sparrow range map: green=native, yellow=introduced (map from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows were successful worldwide — too successful — but as recently as 30 years ago they began a steady decline. They are down 84% now in North America and 60% in Europe. In the UK they are red-listed as a species of high conservation concern.

There have been many studies but no one cause for decline. The reasons include:

The one thing we do know since 2014 is that there is no lack of nest sites.

In North America house sparrows are not just in trouble, they are trouble because of their aggression toward native species while nesting.

We’ll be happy to see them go but their mysterious decline should make us think. If a bird as hardy and human-oriented as the house sparrow is declining, it bodes ill for us too.

For more information read :

(photo by Tim Vechter at Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club on Facebook)

Three Is Not a Crowd at Hays

Feeding time for 3 eaglets at the Hays bald eagle nest, 30 March 2021 (snapshot from ASWP’s Hays eaglecam)

31 March 2021

Yesterday was a great day to watch the three eaglets at the Hays bald eagle nest. It was warm and sunny so the nestlings were very active. The oldest (H13) even challenged his mother. “Feed me!” She gave him a stern look.

Today we’re in for all-day rain and falling temperatures to a low of just 24 degrees on Friday morning. At 6:30am today, rainwater beaded up on mother eagle’s back as she brooded them.

The eaglets are still so tiny that three is not a crowd — yet — at the Hays bald eagle nest. Watch them at ASWP’s Hays Bald Eagle Nestcam.

News from last Saturday 27 March: This year for the first time since 2014 all three eggs hatched at the Hays nest. The first two (H13 and H14) hatched 18 hours apart on 23 March. The last (H15) hatched on 27 March. In this snapshot from 3rd Hatch Day the oldest is four days old, the youngest is seven hours old.

Hays bald eagle nest on 3rd Hatch Day, Saturday 27 March 2021 (snapshot from ASWP’s Hays eaglecam)

(photos and video from ASWP’s Hays Bald Eagle Nestcam)

Goldfinches Turning Yellow

Male American goldfinch, almost all yellow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 March 2021

Here’s a sure sign of spring: American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are turning yellow.

In winter both male and female goldfinches are dull. The males have citrine yellow faces, whitish chests, and black wings with white stripes. The females are dull olive brown with buffy stripes on brownish wings.

Goldfinches at Green-Wood Cemetery, NYC, March 2019 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female American goldfinch on echinacea (photo from Wikimedia Common)

In February goldfinches begin to molt into breeding plumage but they’re in no hurry to finish since they won’t breed until July. At first the males have “dirty” foreheads and a few yellow patches (below). When a male is nearly finished he’ll have a few dull patches among yellow feathers (top).

Male American goldfinch turning yellow, 2006 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

His goal is brilliant yellow.

Male American goldfinch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Look closely at goldfinches and you’ll see them turning yellow.

(photos by Marcy Cunkleman and from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring Unfolds, late March

Harbinger of spring, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 March 2021

For more than a week the temperature has not dipped below freezing in western Pennsylvania, providing a chance to watch spring unfold.

On 24 March at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve my walking route took me past harbinger of spring (top), hazelnut catkins, skunk cabbage, spring beauties and cutleaf toothwort.

Hazelnut catkins, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Skunk cabbage after the flood, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cutleaf toothwort about to bloom, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 26 March my favorite northern magnolia in Schenley Park began to bloom.

Northern magnolia flower, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The buds looked like this only three days before.

Northern magnolia bud, Schenley Park, 23 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I also found spicebush in bloom, bottlebrush buckeye leaf out, and Ohio buckeye buds bursting.

Spicebush in bloom, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bottlebrush buckeye leaf out, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ohio buckeye bud, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ohio buckeye bursting buds, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are still bare but European willows provide a spot of green and maple flowers add a hint of red and orange.

Bare trees lean toward the light at Pymatuning Lake, 27 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering sugar maple, Pymatuning State Park, 27 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tonight the temperature will dip close to freezing in the city and will reach a low of 24 degrees on the night of April Fools Day. No fooling! Get outdoors before that happens. Many flowers will be brown on April 2.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Today at Duck Hollow

Raining over the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow (photo by Kate St. John)

28 March 2021

This morning at Duck Hollow it was raining often, and sometimes hard. I really did not expect anyone to show up for the outing I announced last Monday but I was there anyway as a good excuse to look at the river on a wet day.

Best Birds were a green-winged teal, five lesser scaup, two hooded mergansers and a small flock of white-throated sparrows.

Best flowers were the blooming purple deadnettles which were dripping with rain.

Purple deadnettle at Duck Hollow, 28 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

At 10am I was glad to go home.

My next outing is planned for Schenley Park on Sunday 25 April at 8:30am. Stay tuned.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Male Ducks Use Their Heads

Male common goldeneye (photo by Steve Gosser)

28 March 2021

In early spring male ducks use their heads to put on a show for the ladies. What most impresses their females? For many it’s a toss of the head.

During courtship common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) seem to have rubber necks. Click here to see their vigorous head tossing.

Among hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) the head tossing is enhanced by their white hoods? Click here to see.

Male hooded mergansers, 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

(photos by Steve Gosser)

The Worm Moon is The Crow Moon

American robin pulling up a worm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 March 2021

You may have heard that tomorrow’s full moon at 2:50pm EDT (28 March 2021) is called the Worm Moon after the earthworm casts that appear as the ground thaws.

Did you know it’s also called the Crow Moon?

The more northern tribes of the northeastern United States knew this as the Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter.

NASA: The Next Full Moon is a Supermoon Crow Moon

Northern tribes didn’t have worms where they lived because the Ice Age wiped them out. Instead they noticed the change in crow behavior.

Nowadays we have earthworms that were accidentally imported from Eurasia so the Worm Moon makes sense to us.

In Pittsburgh the Crow Moon happens in December. 😉

Crows silhouetted against the supermoon, December 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Read more at The Next Full Moon is a Supermoon Crow Moon.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Osprey Back Yet?

Young osprey (photo by Dana Nesiti)

26 March 2021

There’s a Rule Of Thumb that says: Pittsburgh area osprey return from winter migration around St. Patrick’s Day.

This year the earliest eBird reports for southwestern Pennsylvania show osprey in Beaver and Butler Counties on 20 March 2021 and arriving this week along the Ohio River and at many lakes.

I haven’t seen an one yet so my goal this weekend will be to find an osprey, maybe at the Duquesne nest site.

My goal after that is to see an osprey do this …

(photo by Dana Nesiti)

Peregrine Update, Southwest PA, 25 March

Morela and Ecco are up there, Cathedral of Learning 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 March 2021:

Peregrine falcons in southwestern Pennsylvania are very active in the month of March so this is the perfect time for a regional update before the birds “disappear” during incubation.

This year we are watching — or not watching — 11 sites.

  1. Pittsburgh: Cathedral of Learning, Allegheny County
  2. Pittsburgh: Downtown, Allegheny County
  3. Monongahela Watershed: Westinghouse Bridge, Allegheny County
  4. Monongahela River: Speers Railroad Bridge, Washington County
  5. Ohio River: McKees Rocks Bridge, Allegheny County, NO NEWS
  6. Ohio River: Neville Island Bridge, NO PEREGRINES DUE TO CONSTRUCTION
  7. Ohio River: Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, Beaver County
  8. Ohio River: Monaca Railroad Bridge, Beaver County
  9. Allegheny River: 62nd Street to Aspinwall Railroad Bridge, NO PEREGRINES NOW
  10. Allegheny River: Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny & Westmoreland Counties
  11. Allegheny River: Rt 422 Graff Bridge Kittanning, Armstrong County

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh:

Morela with 4 eggs, 24 March 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Unit of Pittsburgh)

Morela laid her fourth egg yesterday at 3:38pm (real time, 3:42pm camera time). As you can see from the 24 March timelapse video, she and Ecco rarely step away from the eggs. Morela stood up at 3:38pm to lay the fourth egg then settled down again as soon as it dried.

Hatch day is expected sometime between April 20-25. We don’t have any history with Morela but I do have history with Dorothy so my guess is April 24-25. Click here for details on my calculation.

Watch Morela and Ecco “live” on the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh.

Downtown Pittsburgh:

Peregrine in the Third Avenue nook, 20 March 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Best viewing of the Third Avenue nest site is from Grandview Avenue on Mt Washington next to the Monongahela Incline. On 20 March Jeff photographed a peregrine perched inside the nook. At that point it appeared they were choosing this location, not Gulf Tower.

Yesterday afternoon, 24 March, I confirmed nesting. When I set up my scope I immediately saw a peregrine in the back left corner standing in the about-to-lay-an-egg posture. As I waited and watched she laid at egg at 3:23pm, paused, raised her foot, then carefully stepped around it and stood waiting for it to dry. Dori laid her egg just 15 minutes before Morela laid hers.

Jeff Cieslaks’ photo insets from Tuesday at 5:43p show an incubating peregrine where the egg was laid … so maybe I saw Dori laying her last egg.

Third Avenue, incubating peregrine, 23 March 2021, 5:43pm (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Monongahela Watershed: Westinghouse Bridge

Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 21 March 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Dana Nesiti photographed the Westinghouse Bridge peregrines mating on 21 March 2021. They are certainly planning to nest!

  • Male peregrine flies toward female, Westinghouse Bridge, 21 March 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

Monongahela River, Speers Railroad Bridge:

Peregrine pair at Speers Railroad Bridge, 21 February 2021 (photo by Joe Ciferno)

The Speers Railroad Bridge peregrines have been identified thanks to photos by Joe Ciferno and Dana Nesiti. Both birds are banded:

  • Female – 07/BS Black/Green, banded on 5/18/2017 on the Commodore Barry bridge over the Delaware river in Chester, Delaware County, PA.
  • Male – 68/AC Black/Green, banded on 5/23/2012 at the Cathedral of Learning University of Pittsburgh Allegheny County, PA.

Ohio River, McKees Rocks Bridge: No news. Observers needed!

Ohio River, Neville Island I-79 Bridge: No peregrines due to construction. The underside of the bridge is completely covered. No nest access.

Ohio River, Ambridge Bridge: Peregrines are present throughout the year. Karen Lang has recently seen a single bird, apparently the male, perched on the bridge — Sunday 22 March at 4pm and Wednesday 24 March at noon. Perhaps this pair is incubating.

Ohio River, Monaca Railroad Bridge:

Peregrine on the Monaca Railroad Bridge, 21 March 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Jeff Cieslak was in Monaca on 21 March and photographed the peregrines perching and flying around the superstructure. Sometimes they are hard to see.

Peregrine at Monaca Railroad Bridge, 21 March 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Allegheny River, 62nd Street Bridge to Aspinwall Railroad Bridge: No peregrines. One was present in January and February but no sightings since then.

Allegheny River, Tarentum Bridge:

Peregrine incubating, Tarentum Bridge nestbox, 16 March 2021 (photo by Dave Brooke)

Dave Brooke’s 16 March photo shows a peregrine very low in the nestbox. (Can you see her?) It appears this pair is already incubating.

Allegheny River, Rt 422 Graff Bridge, Kittanning:

Kittanning Bridge, May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 14 March I walked under the Graff Bridge at Manorville and immediately saw a peregrine perched on the upriver side. Peregrines are present. Are they nesting?

Observers needed! Visit these sites and tell me what you see.

(photos by Kate St. John, National Aviary falconcam at Cathedral of Learning, Jeff Cieslak, Dana Nesiti, Joe Ciferno, Dave Brooke)