Category Archives: Books & Events

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)

Duck Hollow Outing, March 28, 8:30a

Eastern phoebe, Carondelet Park, 26 March 2017 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

22 March 2021

What a difference a year makes. COVID-19 has not disappeared — in fact it is resurging slightly in Allegheny County and the eastern U.S. (click for today’s map) — but we’ve learned more about how it spreads and the relative safety of being outdoors. This spring I’m resuming my outings in local parks with the COVID safety rules below:

  • Everyone must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
  • We will social distance 6 feet as we walk.
  • If the number of participants makes social distancing difficult I will divide the group and ask for volunteer(s) to lead the other group(s). Six people per group seems right but the number depends on the trail we use.

That said …

Join me on my first bird and nature outing of 2021 at Duck Hollow and Lower Frick Park on Sunday, 28 March 2021 — 8:30am to 10:00am.

Meet at Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road.

We’ll see migrating ducks and early songbirds and hope to see an eastern phoebe and tree swallows. Fingers crossed!

Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth (COVID safety rules above). Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars, field guides and a scope for river watching if you have them.

Hope to see you there.

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

Note: By participating in this event you are accepting full responsibility for your welfare.

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

One Year Later

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

15 March 2021

One year ago today the first coronavirus shutdown began in my home town. It was a scary time. There was so much we didn’t know.

Back then we were mistaken about a lot of things.

MARCH 2020: ThenMARCH 2021: Now We Know
Obsessively Washing HandsIt's airborne. Hard to catch from surfaces
Nowhere is safeOutdoors is safe when people keep distance
It's an urban disease (NYC)Rural areas hard hit
Mask confusion; bad messagingMasks stop the spread
Hoarding helpsNo it doesn't
Everything has to be shut downThe library is open!
U.S. won't have troubleU.S. has highest death toll in the world
This won't last longIt will last as long as people spread it

The best part is that now we have hope. There are three vaccines and they are becoming more available.

COVID-19 vaccination (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska leads the country in vaccine rollout. Pennsylvania hasn’t done so well. Though I am vaccine-eligible it was very hard to get one in Pittsburgh this winter. The logjam started to break up last month. I’m getting my 2nd Moderna shot on Friday!

If you’re fully vaccinated your life improves. According to the CDC:

If you’ve been fully vaccinated you can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. You can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household (e.g. relatives) without masks(*), and if you’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, you do not need to stay away from others or get tested unless you have symptoms(*).

CDC: When You’ve been Fully Vaccinated

Things are thawing slowly. Even if fully vaccinated we should wear masks in public, avoid medium and large-sized groups, delay domestic and international travel, watch for symptoms.

The pandemic will last as long as people spread it. Get vaccinated as soon as you can!

Last year, Fear. This year, Hope. Next year 🙂

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

Hays Bald Eagles Have a Happy Valentine’s Day

First egg of 2021 at Hays bald eagle nest, 12 Feb 2021, 5:55pm (snapshot from ASWP’s Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page)

14 February 2021

The Hays bald eagles are having a Happy Valentine’s Day with their first egg of the season just 36 hours old. The female laid her first egg on Friday 12 February 2021 at approximately 5:55pm. Their happy event was on the CBS Local news, at Trib-Live, and captured on the streaming cam on YouTube.

The female usually lays her second egg three days after the first so watch the Hays Nest Eaglecam tomorrow, 15 February, for the arrival of another egg.

Catch up on all the Hays Bald Eagle news at ASWP’s Pittsburgh Eagles Facebook page.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

(photo and video from ASWP’s Hays Eaglecam)

Great Backyard Bird Count! Feb 12-15

American goldfinches at the feeder, 2014 (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

6 February 2021

February’s weather is daunting and the pandemic keeps us stuck at home but there’s a fun project coming up next weekend. For four days — Friday February 12 through Monday February 15, 2021 — you can count birds at your feeders for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual citizen science project that tracks winter bird populations.

All you have to do is count birds for at least 15 minutes, note the highest number of each species, and record your count on eBird.

Visit the website for instructions on how to participate, a live map of eBird sightings, and ways to share your GBBC photos.

You can count birds anywhere, indoors or out. However …

If Pittsburgh’s 7-day forecast is correct you’ll prefer to be indoors. The weather will be super-cold, songbirds will be mobbing your feeders and you may even see a hungry hawk.

Screenshot of Pittsburgh 7-day forecast 6 Feb – 13 Feb 2021 (from Google

Stock up on bird seed, fill your feeders, and get ready for the bird count you can do in your pajamas, 12-15 February 2021.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Help Find Long-Eared Owls in PA

Long-eared owl in California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 January 2021

Native to Eurasia and North America, long-eared owls (Asio otus) are shy and secretive medium-sized birds that hunt open areas and roost in woodland edges and conifer stands.

Range map of long-eared owl (from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania they are present year-round and listed as Threatened, but are so elusive that it’s hard to keep track of them. The Game Commission plans to study Pennsylvania’s long-eared owls but needs preliminary data. They are asking birders for help.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is interested in learning more about long-eared owls in Pennsylvania, who are threatened and extremely vulnerable to disturbance [so] we’re asking birders to share their long-eared owl observations with us.

To protect the location of the birds, we are asking birders NOT to post their observations on eBird or other platforms at this time(*) but instead to send all observations–past or present–to Game Commission Wildlife Biologist, Patti Barber, at with “LEOW Observations” in the subject line. Include date, location, number of owls and evidence of owls in the area (seen, heard, pellets, feathers, heard etc).

Pictures are welcome, however, please maintain enough distance so as to not disturb the birds. Long-eared owls often abandon roosts when disturbed. Please do not walk on private property without owner’s consent. Thank you, in advance, for your help.

— partially paraphrased: Pennsylvania Game Commission, 19 January 2021 via Instagram

So how do you find a long-eared owl? Find is the hardest part. Long-eared owls are more strictly nocturnal than other owls so you’ll have to find them at the roost where they are masters at hiding in plain sight. Here are a few examples.

Roosting in dense deciduous woods in Minnesota:

Long-eared owl comouflaged in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Roosting in a conifer stand in Illinois, 2011. This owl looks like a fat branch with ear tufts.

Long-eared owl resembles a branch, Carlyle Lake, IL, 2011 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

Owl eyeing the photographer but still hidden.

Long-eared owl looks at the photographer, Illinois, 2011 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

I’ve only seen a long-eared owl three times in my life with each sighting 10 years apart. My last was in Beaver County in 2015 so I’m not due to see another one until 2025. I wonder if my quest will be successful.

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

(*) eBird reports: The Game Commission is working with eBird to develop a process to allow these observations to be entered while also protecting these sensitive locations.

Merlins, Peregrines, Crows and an Oriole

Merlin at Homewood Cemetery, 26 Dec 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

28 December 2020

Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count dawned bitter cold (13o F) and overcast on Saturday 26 December 2020. The weather was daunting, city roads were snow-covered, and birds were very hard to find. Though the official count isn’t in yet, there were notable exceptions less than three miles from my home — merlins, peregrines, 20K+ crows and a Baltimore oriole.

MERLINS (Falco columbarius): As of this writing 5 merlins were seen in the count circle on 26 December. Michelle Kienholz’s merlin at Homewood Cemetery (above) was typical of those seen at dusk, always perched high on a snag. Frank Izaguirre reported two at Calvary Cemetery and Mike Fialkovich saw two at Schenley Park golf course. I was at the golf course at dusk, counting crows, so I kept an eye on one of Mike’s merlins. It didn’t leave its perch until 20 minutes after sunset.

PEREGRINES (Falco peregrinus): So far, four peregrine falcons were seen in the count circle. By sheer luck I saw 3 of them.

On Saturday morning I was gazing out the dining room window when I saw two male peregrines fly by chasing each other. Yard Birds! It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Terzo-and-Ecco chase. Ecco and Morela bowed at the nest at 7:33a (slideshow below). I also saw Morela at the Cathedral of Learning gazing in the direction the males flew.

  • Morela, 12/26/2020, 7:33a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

CROWS: Counting crows is always a challenge despite our best laid plans. At dusk at the Allequippa Street Parking Garage, Claire Staples and Joe Fedor counted crows arriving from the north, west, and Allegheny Valley. At Schenley Park golf course I counted them flying in from the east. (The eastern group can’t been seen from Allequippa Street.)

It was so cold! The crows felt it too and used different flight paths than the day before. Erf! Even so, the three of us counted 20,000 to 24,000 crows.

Here’s what they looked like at Allequippa Street on 18 Dec 2020, photos by Mary Brush.

Crows near the Petersen Center, 18 Dec 2020 (photo by Mary Brush)
Crows near the Petersen Center, 18 Dec 2020 (photo by Mary Brush)

BALTIMORE ORIOLE (Icterus galbula): Most likely the rarest bird of the count was the Baltimore oriole at Izaguirre’s feeder in Oakland. Frank and Adrienne have been keeping him happy since he showed up on 20 December. In Frank’s photo below he’s slurping jam from the top of the suet cake. Yay!

Baltimore oriole at Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count, 26 Dec 2020 (photo by Frank Izaguirre)

In the typical absurdity of 2020, the weather on the day after the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count was partly sunny and 47oF.

As least we saw more than a few good birds.

(photos by Michelle Kienholz, Mary Brush and Frank Izaguirre)

Remembering A Falcon Sweep

Dorothy bathing at Duck Hollow during the 2013 Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (photo by Michelle Kienholz, 28 Dec 2013)

26 December 2020

The success of a Christmas Bird Count really depends on the weather. If the weather is good the birds are active and easy to find. In bad weather — heavy rain, snow, fog, high winds — birds are scarce.

Today is the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in the circle shown below. At 8am it’s 14 degrees F with gusty winds, overcast skies and light snow showers. It feels like 2 degrees F. What birds will I find in my city neighborhood under these conditions? Not many I fear.

Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count circle (map from

Seven years ago the 2013 Pittsburgh CBC had a Falcon Sweep at a single location. In one half hour there was a peregrine falcon (Dorothy), a merlin, and an American kestrel at Duck Hollow — all the possible Falco species — described in this 2013 article: Take Me To The River.

Merlin bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Today if I’m lucky in bad weather I’ll see a peregrine at the Cathedral of Learning and a merlin at dusk in Schenley Park. It would be a miracle if I saw a kestrel.

For old times sake, here’s a kestrel in June 2016 at an unusual city location.

American kestrel at the Gulf Tower peregrine nest on 9 June 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

More news later. Brrrr!

(photos by Michelle Kienholz and the National Aviary falconcam that used to be at Gulf Tower)

Eight Tiny Reindeer?

Santa Claus at Christmas Parade, Toronto, Ontario, 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.

… out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter …

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.”

excerpt from The Night Before Christmas, 1823 in The Troy Sentinel

24 December 2020

Miniature sleigh? Tiny reindeer? A human-sized Santa Claus needs a normal sleigh and full-sized reindeer to pull it. Just two reindeer take up a lot of space.

Santa in sleigh pulled by two reindeer, 2007, Torquay, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine eight of these!

Reindeer to take part in Christmas festivities, Yate, UK 2004 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), called caribou in North America, range in size from 5.3 to 7 feet long. Males weigh 350 – 400 lbs, females weigh 180 – 260 lbs. Both sexes have antlers though at different times of year.

Reindeer in Norway (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These are not small animals. Eight full-sized reindeer and a full-sized sleigh would damage any house they landed on. Santa really needs tiny reindeer. Perhaps he went to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, to get them.

Like other island species the reindeer on Svalbard have evolved to a smaller size. If you need small reindeer they’re the smallest on Earth, only 50-60% the size of other caribou.

Problem solved.

Christmas lights, Etobicoke, Ontario (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s safe for Santa to come tonight.

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