Category Archives: Books & Events

Schenley Park Outing, Oct 25, 8:30a

White-throated sparrow reaches for a berry (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in March I canceled all my 2020 outings because of COVID-19. The disease has not disappeared — in fact it’s resurging now in the U.S. and Allegheny County — but we’ve learned more about how it spreads and the relative safety of being outdoors. Today I’m announcing my first and probably last outing of 2020 (winter is coming).

Next Sunday morning, 25 October 2020, I will hold an outing in Schenley Park with restrictions to keep us safe.

  • UPDATE: FEW PEOPLE HAVE SIGNED UP (cold weather) so there is no chance of too many of us. Meet me at 8:30am at Bartlett Shelter(*) .
  • Everyone must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
  • We’ll social distance as we walk.

We’re sure to see fruits, seeds and fallen leaves. Birds may be few but there will certainly be acorns, chipmunks and blue jays. Will we find a white-throated sparrow? I hope so.

To prepare: WEAR A MASK. Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Visit my Events page before you come in case of changes or cancellations.

(*) ORIGINAL TEXT SAID: Participation will be limited. To join you must “register” by leaving a comment on this blog post (not in Facebook). I will respond via email & tell you where and when to meet.

Without Columbus

12 October 2020, Columbus Day in Pennsylvania

This statue in Schenley Park was celebrated when it was erected by the Italian-American Sons of Columbus in 1958 but has been a source of controversy in recent decades. Last week the decision came down to send it to a private location. The only remaining questions are where and when.

Columbus meant nothing in the British colonies until writers began celebrating him (in female form “Columbia”) when we broke with Britain in the 1760s. We needed a non-British origin story so after we won independence the legend expanded, was added to textbooks, and was used to gain Italian immigrant support (especially in NYC) beginning in the late 1800s. The legend started to crumble in the 1970s when we began discussing the real history of the man and his era in the Americas.

His legend was created to fill a gap and now the legend is fading. What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic? Here’s how things might have been different.

The coronavirus pandemic gives us an inkling of what it was like when Columbus and the Spanish explorers brought pandemic to this part of the world. It changed the western hemisphere.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than that of Europe. The landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people living in North, Central and South America.  When European explorers accidentally left behind pigs that carried human disease, native Americans encountered the free-range pigs, had no immunity and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

Illustration of female passenger pigeon (from Wikimedia Commons)

Without Columbus the Americas would have been a very different place but the pressure of human population growth would have prompted someone to come here anyway, just not him.

Find out more about the New World before Columbus in this book –> 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)

p.s. The history of the Christopher Columbus legend is described here in the Washington Post.

Today the Schenley Park Columbus statue is covered in white plastic, probably to protect it from the vandalism that targets it on Columbus Day since 1997.

Christopher Columbus statues is shrouded, October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Monitors Needed: Let’s See How Goats Help Birds

Mile-a-minute at Clayton East, 18 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’ve been to Frick Park’s Clayton Hill lately you’ve seen a plant blanketing the open area down east of Clayton Hill Loop. Invasive mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata) was thick on the ground and climbing every upright when I took these photos in July.

Mile-a-minute blankets Frick’s Clayton East, 18 July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even if I wanted to walk through this area I wouldn’t. The plant has thorns.

Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)
Mile-a-minute stem (photo by Kate St. John)

Invasive plants are discouraging but I have hope they’ll be gone some day. The Allegheny Bird Conservation Alliance (ABCA) is conducting a multi-year project to remove invasive plants from Frick Park.

ABCA partners — Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy — are working with Allegheny GoatScape to remove invasive plants like bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) from Frick Park at Clayton Hill to restore native forest habitat for birds and other wildlife. Goats will be “working” areas around Clayton Hill during summer and fall 2020 and again in 2021.

ABCA Ongoing Projects

The restoration area is shown on the ABCA map below.

Map of Frick Park restoration zones from ABCA

What’s hard for us to do by hand is easy for Allegheny Goatscape’s goats. They eat anything. Here’s how it works.

Prior to bringing the goats, Allegheny GoatScape clears a fence line and sets up the fencing and a shelter for the animals. The herd arrives at the site and immediately goes to work eating the vegetation. … Once the goats eat through the vegetation on site, they are transported to their next [assignment] location.

Allegheny Goatscape: How It Works
Allegheny Goatscape goats at work (photo from Allegheny Goatscape)

I haven’t seen goats at Frick but the fenced area at Clayton East looks like goats have been inside it. There’s a lot less mile-a-minute inside the fence.

Now that the goat project is underway ABCA wants to know how the birds respond and is asking birders to count birds in the four restoration zones per hotspot in eBird. Observations are especially needed during August and September fall migration.

Let’s see how goats have helped the birds. Find out more, including the eBird hotspots names, at Allegheny Bird Conservation Alliance: Ongoing Projects.

Bring on the goats!

(Mile-a-minute photos by Kate St. John. Goat photo from Allegheny Goatscape. map from ABCA)

Fireworks Escape To The Wild

Backyard fireworks party, unknown location, Nov 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 July 2020

Municipal 4th of July fireworks celebrations are canceled in Pennsylvania because of COVID-19 but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any explosions. Amateurs have been setting them off in neighborhoods and fields ever since the weather turned warm. Complaints are blossoming as fireworks “escape to the wild.”

In 2018 a new Pennsylvania fireworks law permitted Class-C “consumer grade” aerial fireworks like those shown below. This released a firestorm of complaints from residents, local firefighters and police — and complaints this year from New York City.

The city ballpark in my Pittsburgh neighborhood has always been a magnet for amateur fireworks activity so we’ve learned to cope. Some call the police (who can’t do anything if the fireworks are legal). Meanwhile we wait for the noise to go away. The birds wait, too.

Find out how wild birds cope with fireworks in this vintage blog: What Do Birds Think of Fireworks.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

p.s. M-80s, cherry bombs and similar explosives are still illegal under federal law.

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)

Birding In Someone Else’s Shoes

Kate St. John birding in Florida, Feb 2010 (photo by Chuck Tague)

3 June 2020

Have you ever felt threatened by humans while birding in a public place? It shouldn’t happen and it rarely does to most of us. I can count the few incidents I’ve experienced on one hand.

During Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas, 2004-2009, I surveyed an under-reported block in Somerset County, walking the edge of a public road. I listened for birdsong and scanned the adjacent open field with my binoculars. I was startled when a resident from the other side of the road started up her car and began following me slowly, creeping behind me at my walking pace. She pulled alongside, drove next to me, and stared hard. She never spoke. Her threat was clear. I left immediately and I never went back.

That incident 15 years ago was one of the few times I felt threatened by humans while birding. I take my own safety for granted but some people cannot. This week I’m learning what it’s like to go birding in someone else’s shoes.

Birding by kayak in Florida (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife via Flickr)

On Memorial Day in Central Park a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the cops on black birder Christian Cooper (no relation) when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. That incident, and many others, became the catalyst for #BlackBirdersWeek organised by #BlackAFinSTEM May 31 to June 5, 2020.

The event aims to increase visibility of Black birders, who face challenges and dangers that non-Black people do not experience when recreating or conducting fieldwork in the outdoors.

To many Americans, wilderness represents freedom and a space that should be open to all. In reality, it is not. Black Birders Week is a way for Black birders, who may have not seen another Black birder, to join together and encourage more participation and diversity in outdoor spaces.

Forbes, Magazine, Opening the Outdoors: Inaugural Black Birders Week.

It’s already Wednesday (sorry I’m late reporting this!) but there’s more coming up this week.

As @Ologies said on Twitter: “If this initiative has opened your eyes to how our Black friends feel unsafe in outdoor areas, how that impacts the fieldwork they do, the careers they choose: tweet about it. Follow them. Cheer them on.” It’s #BlackBirdersWeek.

This is the week we go birding in someone else’s shoes.

p.s. Here’s the story of a black birdwatcher who created signs to explain his presence after so many people called the police on him: https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2020/06/05/people-called-police-this-black-birdwatcher-so-many-times-that-he-posted-custom-signs-explain-his-hobby/

(photos by Chuck Tague and Florida Fish and Wildlife on Flickr Creative Commons license, #BlackBirdersWeek schedule via #BlackAFinSTEM)

Every Day is Mother’s Day

American avocet with chicks (photo by NPS/Patrick Myers via Wikimedia Commons)

8 May 2020

Though Mother’s Day officially occurs once a year (this coming Sunday 10 May) motherhood is not confined to a single day. Far from it!

Being a mother is hard work with rewards spread along the way. This is especially true for birds whose care giving is compressed into a few short weeks or months. They raise young every spring and send them on their way.

Shown here are four mothers: American avocet, American robin, peregrine falcon and Canada goose including this avocet family: “Mom, it’s starting to rain. Let me in.”

Every day is mother’s day.

American robin on nest with chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Indus feeds her chicks at the Cleveland Clinic peregrine nest, 5 May 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)
Canada goose with gosling on back (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(peregrine photo by Chad+Chris Saladin, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Rainforest Week at the National Aviary

Christa Gaus with Palm Cockatoo at the National Aviary (screenshot from YouTube video)

Though the National Aviary is closed to the public during the COVID-19 crisis, essential staff are providing care to the birds and online encounters for us at home.

Each week has a theme plus activities for kids. This is Rainforest Week at the National Aviary.

Rainforest Week at the National Aviary

I missed telling you about Tuesday’s Facebook Live encounter but more activities are planned. Today at 1pm (Wed 15 April 2020) you’ll find Ask the Expert with Dr. Pilar Fish on the National Aviary’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, have fun viewing this cool page of videos including Benito and Sapphira, flamingo courtship dances, a Harris hawk, Penguin Awareness Day 2018, and baby sloth Vivien (2017).

And here’s an added bonus: Christa Gaus with Bubba the Palm Cockatoo.

Check out the Rainforest Week web page for this week’s activities.

Visit the National Aviary’s Education page any time for more to watch and learn.

(screenshots and videos from the National Aviary)

Movie Event: A Birder’s Guide To Everything

On Tuesday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m, as part of their Science on Screen series, the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley will be showing A Birder’s Guide to Everything, a film about teens wanting to make birding history. The film is paired with an introduction by Dr. Brian Wargo, an educator and official Audubon Society counter at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch. He will be talking about the successful recovery of bald eagles and peregrine falcons from extirpation in our area.

What: Presentation + movie: Dr. Brian Wargo speaks about the recovery of bald eagles & peregrine falcons followed by the 2013 movie A Birder’s Guide to Everything, a comedy rated PG-13.

When: Tuesday 3 March 2020 at 7:30pm

Where: The Tull Family Theater, 418 Walnut Street, Sewickley PA 15143 (412.259.8542)

Here’s the trailer:

(screenshot from A Birder’s Guide to Everything)