All posts by Kate St. John

In Tidewater Virginia

Sunrise over the Pagan River, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 July 2021

This week my husband and I have been visiting family in Tidewater Virginia, our first long trip since the COVID-19 shutdown. Everyone’s vaccinated (& some had COVID last winter) so at last we’re making the “Real Hugs Tour.”

It is hot. 92 degrees F near the water, 100 degrees on the roads in the interior. Every morning I take a walk before it gets too unpleasant.

At the ocean I was pleased to see saltwater birds and southern songbird species. Favorite birds on the bay side of First Landing State Park were least, royal and sandwich terns plus a blue grosbeak (eBird checklist here).

View of the bay from First Landing State Park, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I also encountered a lot of bug sounds …

… and a dragonfly that repeatedly perched on a twig in the stiff wind. Its behavior reminded me of a kestrel.

Dragonfly holding onto a twig in a stiff wind, 14 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is beautiful and welcoming until you stand in the sun.

Low tide at Windsor Castle Park, Smithfield, Virginia, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Blackberries ripen in the heat.

Blackberries, Smithfield, 16 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

House finches are prolific breeders in the hanging baskets on my sisters porch. This brood froze as we peeked under the fern in one basket while another house finch couple was building a new nest in the next basket.

House finch nestlings in a hanging basket, 15 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Pittsburgh it is 10-15 degrees cooler but we will miss the sea breeze when we get home tomorrow.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Oystercatchers Grow Up

American oystercatcher with chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 July 2021

Though American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) breed on barrier beaches and shelly islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, few of us get to see it. The birds want peace and quiet far from humans when they raise a family.

@GetToKnowNature brings us this video of oystercatchers growing up, thanks to her long lens.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from @GetToKnowNature)

Going Dry

Lake Mead bathtub ring, Feb 2017 (photo by Karen on Flickr Creative Commons license)

15 July 2021

This month a curious discovery in 2014 that predicted low water in the Colorado River and Lake Mead has come to alarming fruition. Lake Mead is going dry.

Lake Mead and Hoover Dam aerial view, May 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The 20 year drought in the U.S. West is now severe, shown on the U.S. Drought Monitor map below.

Drought Monitor as of 8 July 2021 (image from U.S. Drought monitor, unl.edu)

Consequently the Colorado River is running very low and Lake Mead reached a crisis point last month. The Guardian reports:

In June [2021], the level of Lake Mead plunged below 1,075ft, a point that will trigger, for the first time, federally mandated cuts in water allocations next year. …

Should second tier cuts occur, Arizona will lose nearly a fifth of the water it gets from the Colorado River. Nevada’s first-round cut of 21,000 acre-ft (an acre-ft is an acre of water, one foot deep) is smaller, but its share is already diminutive due to an archaic allotment drawn up a century ago when the state was sparsely populated.

The Guardian: Severe drought threatens hoover dam reservoir and water for us west

The crisis is due to lack of precipitation but we learned in 2014 that loss of rain and snow is dwarfed by the depletion of groundwater.

Using nine years of NASA’s GRACE satellite data from the Colorado River Basin, UC Irvine and NASA scientists made an alarming discovery.  From December 2004 to November 2013 the watershed lost 53 million acre-feet of water, an amount almost twice the size of Lake Mead.  More than 75% of that loss was from groundwater.  No one knows how much water is underground but it’s going fast.

Outside My Window: Even Less Water Than We Thought

It’s a little spooky to see such a recent discovery come to pass so soon. Learn about the discovery in this vintage blog: Even Less Water Than We Thought.

Read about the current situation at: Severe Drought Threatens Hoover Dam Reservoir — and Water for U.S. West.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, drought map from US Drought Monitor; click on the captions to see the originals)

How Shallow Is Lake Erie?

Sunset over Lake Erie at Presque Isle State Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 July 2021

In summer, folks in western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio flock to Lake Erie‘s shore to beat the heat. The water provides a respite but in July the western end is hotter than anywhere else in the Great Lakes. That’s because Lake Erie is shallow and shallow water is quick to take on the temperature of the surrounding air. So how shallow is Lake Erie?

Lake Erie is the fourth in line of the five Great Lakes and happens to be fourth largest by surface area — 9,940 square miles.

map of the Great Lakes (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

But as you can see in this bathymetric map it is also the shallowest (blue is deep, red is shallow). Lake Erie’s average depth is only 62 feet with the deepest spot just 210 feet near Long Point, Ontario.

Great Lakes bathymetry map from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easier to see how shallow it is in this diagram from Michigan Sea Grant. Even Lake Ontario, the smallest by surface area, is 3.8 times deeper! (Lakes Michigan and Huron are superimposed on each other because they have the same pool level, 577 feet above sea level. Click here to see the complete diagram.)

Great Lakes System Profile (cropped diagram from Michigan Sea Grant via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Since the shallowest water is first to heat and first to freeze, the surface temperatures roughly match the lake depths. As of yesterday, 13 July 2021, the water at the western end of Lake Erie was close to 80 degrees F.

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis, 12 July 2021 (map from Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

Fortunately the temperature has not yet spawned harmful algae blooms (HAB). If you’re going to the western end of Lake Erie this month, check the Lake Erie HAB forecast here before you go.

The lake is warm because it is so shallow. See the current temperature map here.

(photo and first two maps from Wikimedia Commons, Great Lakes system profile from Michigan Sea Grant, Great Lakes Suface Temperature from NOAA; click on the captions to see the originals)

What Is It About Box Elder?

Box elder planted in a yard (photo by Tom DeGomez, University of Arizona, Bugwood.org)

13 July 2021

In Pittsburgh we hardly think about box elder (Acer negundo). It’s a native tree that grows by the river. No one plants it. It’s not a “bad” tree. So I was puzzled by this 1950’s story from my mother.

I never hear of box elder that I don’t think of your grandfather.  He never had a bad word to say about anyone.  He was a man of integrity and the absolute worst thing I ever heard him say was [this] about a member of the town council: “He was the kind of man who would plant box elder.”

— 1950’s family anecdote from my mother

My grandfather lived in a village in suburban Chicago in the heart of the Midwest where box elder is considered bad, ugly, weedy and invasive. Wikipedia provides this insight on how it got a bad reputation:

“After World War II, box elder’s rapid growth made it a popular landscaping tree in suburban housing developments despite its poor form, vulnerability to storm damage, and tendency to attract large numbers of box elder bugs. … It can quickly colonize both cultivated and uncultivated areas. … It grows around houses and in hedges, as well as on disturbed ground and vacant lots.”

In Wisconsin box elder is so disdained that the Urban Ecology Center wrote a blog in defense of it: Native Tree Spotlight: In Defense of Box Elder.

Box elder isn’t invasive in Pittsburgh so I had to go look for it on its home turf at Duck Hollow. There I found that as a shade tree it can look pretty good. This one is two box elder trunks intertwined.

A large double-trunk box elder shading the bike trail at Duck Hollow, 11 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

However some of them die back leaving ugly bare branches at the top.

Box elder dying back, Duck Hollow, 11 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And if you cut box elder or chop it down it grows suckers from every crevice.

Midwesterners agree that box elder is bad. Why don’t Pittsburghers have this aversion? I think it’s because we are on the eastern edge of box elder’s range, we never planted it as a street tree, and it isn’t particularly invasive here.

Box elder range map (image from Wikimedia Commons)

What is invasive here? Japanese knotweed! Originally planted as an ornamental, we don’t think it’s pretty anymore.

Japanese knotweed has taken over large portions Duck Hollow, 11 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

If my grandfather had lived in Pittsburgh perhaps he would have said “He was the kind of man who would plant Japanese knotweed.”

Aha. Now I get it.

p.s. Later this summer box elder bugs will appear though not in huge numbers at Duck Hollow.

Box elder bug (photo by John English)

(photo at top by Tom DeGomez, University of Arizona, Bugwood.org, remaining photos by Kate St. John and John English)

July Is Goldfinch Month

American goldfinch (photo by Chuck Tague)

12 July 2021

While most songbirds began nesting in May and some have finished for the year goldfinches wait until now to start a family.

Unlike most birds American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are totally vegetarian. They eat only plant matter, never insects, worms or meat so they wait to nest in July when their favorite foods are plentiful. Foods such as thistle seed.

Male American goldfinch on thistle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The female goldfinch builds her nest in a shrub or sapling, laying a foundation of spider silk and adding rootlets and fibers. Then she lines the nest with soft down, often using thistle fluff.

Female American goldfinch in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

She lays one egg per day for a clutch of five and starts incubation at the next-to-last egg. In 12-14 days her babies hatch.

American goldfinch nest with young (photo by Chuck Tague)

It’s still July. Now the fun begins!

The parents make many trips back and forth from thistle fields to the nest where they feed by regurgitation. Sometimes the adults munch on leafy vegetables, even in gardens, which earned them the nickname “Salad Birds.”

If the nest had a cowbird egg in it that brown-headed cowbird nestling dies within 3 days because it can’t survive without insect protein.

Meanwhile if you listen for the male in his looping courtship flight you might be able to find the nest inside his circle. Listen and watch for “potato chip.”

You’ll also hear a new call if anything dangerous shows up near the young. The warning is “beer BEE.”

While scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and northern rough-winged swallows have finished nesting, July is goldfinch month.

(photos by Chuck Tague and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Flash Floods Every Day

Flash floods on Nine Mile Run last week left flood debris up to my ears! (photo by Kate St. John taken on 10 July 2021)

11 July 2021

Southwestern Pennsylvania has always been prone to flash floods but last week was exceptional with a flash flood every day, three days in a row.

At 3pm on Wednesday 7 Jul 2021 a heavy downpour in the Nine Mile Run watershed caused a flash flood recorded by Upstream Pittsburgh‘s stream cam (video below, blurry because it’s raining). The downpour was so localized to the East End that it did not register on Pittsburgh’s official weather gauges. Flood debris showed that if I’d been on the Nine Mile Run Trail the water would have been up to my ears! (photo at top taken at 40.4263341,-79.9068387).

07 July 2021 Storm Timelapse at Nine Mile Run from Aaron Birdy on Vimeo.

On Thursday 8 July at 7pm a downpour over Pleasant Hills had devastating results as reported by CBS Pittsburgh.

And on Friday 9 July another localized thunderstorm let loose for half an hour in Squirrel Hill. I have no photos because I was driving down Braddock Avenue in the downpour, hoping the river on the road would not become a car-swallowing lake under the Parkway bridge. Fortunately the water ran off into Nine Mile Run. Another flash flood. I’m glad I was not on the trail.

As crazy as this is, it should not be a surprise. Pittsburgh is prone to flash floods, especially in Allegheny County as shown in the 35-year map of Flash Flood Reports from the National Weather Service.

Number of flash floods in 35 years by county, 1986-2020, in NWS Pittsburgh forecast area (image from NWS Pittsburgh)

We don’t need a particularly wet year for this to happen. Pittsburgh’s 2021 rainfall is actually 0.93 inches below normal as of today. The problem is that the rain falls all at once, especially in June and July.

Climate change is making the problem worse. A 2019 study found that extreme precipitation has increased 55% in the Northeastern US in my lifetime.

Heavy rain has increased across most of the United States, 1986-2016 (map from climate.gov)

This trend will continue in southwestern PA through the 21st century. (Click here to see where frequent heavy downpours will increase in the U.S.)

Brace yourself, Pittsburgh, for a lot of flash floods in the future. Sometimes every day.

About Nine Mile Run per Upstream Pgh (formerly Nine Mile Run Watershed Association): “Nine Mile Run is a small stream that flows through Pittsburgh’s East End, mostly underground. The 7 square mile Nine Mile Run watershed is home to the largest urban stream restoration in the United States, completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006.” Upstream Pgh got its start with this project and now works throughout the region on community-oriented stormwater management projects, large and small, plus much more. Click here for their website.

p.s. If you’re not from the area you might not realize that “Pgh” is an abbreviation for Pittsburgh. We’re the only Pittsburgh with an “h.”

(photo by Kate St. John, videos from Upstream Pittsburgh and CBS Pittsburgh, maps from NWS Pittsburgh an climate.gov; click on the captions to see the originals)

Photos From a Humid Week

Peppergrass, Duck Hollow, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 July 2021

Pittsburgh’s weather fluctuated this week from pleasant to oppressively humid. Always late to get outdoors, I missed the best part of each day. The flowers were open but the birds were hiding at:

  • Duck Hollow and Lower Nine Mile Run on 3 July. 73 degrees, a pleasant day!
  • Montour Trail on 5 July. 85 degrees in the shade, cooler in Enlow Tunnel.
  • Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the South Side on 6 July. Almost 90 degrees and very sunny.
Echinacea, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tall meadowrue, Montour Trail, 5 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fringed loosestrife, Montour Trail, 5 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
White avens, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bush honeysuckle fruit, Lower Nine Mile Run Trail, 3 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I was dripping with sweat on 6 July when I found this namesake plant, St. John’s wort (Hypericum prolificum), pushing up from a crack in the sidewalk. What a hardy plant standing tall on a hot day. I wilted after 30 minutes in the sun.

St. Johnswort pushing up from a crack in the sidewalk, South Side Pittsburgh, 6 July 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. A story about peppergrass.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Backyard Cats

Bobcat in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

9 July 2021

Backyard cats in Arizona are a lot more interesting that the ones we have in Pittsburgh.

Instead of small domestic pets or feral cats, both Felis catus, Arizonans have bobcats (Lynx rufus) that come to drink from the water bowls …

Bobcat in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

… then lay down in the shade …

Bobcat yawns in a Tucson backyard (photo by Donna Memon)

… and have a nice long sleep.

Be careful when you open the door!

(photos by Donna Memon; embedded tweet from @KateSmithAZ)

I Don’t Look Like My Parents

Juvenile chipping sparrow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

8 July 2021

Summer is a challenging time to identify birds when fledglings look quite different from adults. Here are seven species whose babies can honestly say, “I don’t look like my parents.”

American robin adults (left) have plain rust-colored breasts. Juveniles (right) have spotted breasts.

American robin: adult and fledgling (photos by Steve Gosser and Charity Kheshgi)

The differences between juvenile and adult downy woodpeckers are subtle. Juveniles (left) have a faint red patch on top of the head while adult males (right) have a vibrant splash of red on the back of the head. (Don’t be fooled by the red flower behind the male in this photo.)

Juvenile downy woodpecker (left) being fed by father (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Red-bellied woodpecker juveniles (middle photo) are very plain with no red on their heads. Adult males (left) are red from bill to nape while adult females (right) have red napes, pale foreheads, and a spot of red at the bill.

Red-bellied woodpeckers: adult male, juvenile, adult female (photos by Marcy Cunkelman and Cris Hamilton)

In breeding plumage adult European starlings (left) are iridescent glossy black while fledglings are dull brown (right). Check out the shape of the fledgling’s beak and how he opens it. He has that in common with his parents.

Adult and juvenile European starlings (photos by Chuck Tague and Charity Kheshgi)

Juvenile northern cardinals (dark bird on branch) resemble their mothers but the juveniles have dark beaks. Their mothers (at right) have orange beaks.

Northern cardinal: Adult male feeding juvenile, female has orange beak (photos by Bob Kroeger, Cris Hamilton)

Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds never look like their foster parents. These dull brown, chunky birds have short, fat necks and “fat” beaks. The beak is the clue.

Brown-headed cowbird chick begging from song sparrow host (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, young chipping sparrows look so different from their parents that you’d think they’re another species. The juveniles are stripey brown (photo at top) while their parents have plain pale breasts and rusty caps. The best way to identify a fledgling chipping sparrow is to watch who it begs from.

Adult chipping sparrow tries to ignore its begging youngster (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

A Hat Tip for this topic goes to Mary Ann Pike who described it in a comment yesterday.

Did you find any fledglings hard to identify this year? Let me know in a comment.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman, Steve Gosser, Charity Kheshgi, Cris Hamilton, Bob Kroeger, Wikimedia Commons)