Category Archives: Books & Events

Let’s Get Pileated

Pileated woodpecker (photo by Dick Martin), Statue of a peasant wearing a pilos and carrying a basket (photo of a statue in the Louvre from Wikimedia Commons)

How did the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) get its name?

The word pileated comes from the name of a brimless felt hat, the conically shaped pileus of Ancient Greece and Rome. Those who wore the hat were pileated just as those who wear caps are capped.

In Ancient Rome the pileus was a sign of one’s place in society since it was normally worn only by freed slaves. However, that practice was turned on its head during Saturnalia celebrations.

On Throw Back Thursday, learn why all the Romans wore peaked caps in late December in this vintage article: Being Pileated is a Saturnalian Tradition.

Let’s get pileated.

(photo credits: woodpecker by Dick Martin. Statue in the Louvre from Wikimedia Commons, click on this link to see the original)

Holiday Lights And Flowers

Entrance to the Holiday Magic Winter Garden at Phipps, 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’re in Pittsburgh between now and Sunday January 6, don’t miss the beautiful lights and flowers at Phipps Conservatory’s Holiday Magic display. I was there in late November.

For the full effect, visit after dark.

More beauty awaits indoors.

To enhance your experience Phipps is issuing timed tickets so it will never be too crowded. Be sure to call ahead (412-622-6914) or go online to schedule your visit.

For directions, hours, and more information visit “Holiday Magic” on the Phipps Conservatory website. (Note: Phipps closes at 5pm on Mon Dec 24 and reopens at 9:30am on Wed Dec 26. )

(photos by Kate St. John, video from Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden on YouTube)

Dramatic Difference in Daylight

21 December 2018

The southern (or winter) solstice will occur in Pittsburgh this evening at 5:23pm. By then we’ll have lived through a very short day, 9 hours and 17 minutes of rainy gloomy overcast daylight.

If we were in Manchester, UK there would be even less daylight. Today they have rainy overcast skies too, but they also have fewer hours daylight, 7 hours 28 minutes. The flip side is that Manchester has more sunlight in June. 

Scott Richards decided to compare both solstices in Manchester side by side.  He filmed the entire day — sunrise to sunset — on June 21 and December 21, then sped up the film so we don’t have to watch for 20 hours. Instead it lasts six minutes.

I’ve started his video, above, near sunset on the winter solstice (right) side.  If you watch for a minute you’ll see the moon rise in winter while the summer sun is still so high that it leaves the video frame.

There’s a dramatic difference in the amount of daylight from solstice to solstice. No wonder I feel sleepy in December.

(video by Scott Richards on YouTube)

Christmas Bird Counts Have Begun

Yikes!  Where has the time gone!?  I’m late! 

The 119th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) begins today (Fri 14 Dec 2018) and runs through Saturday 5 Jan 2019.  As I write this post some Christmas Bird Counts are already underway.

Counting birds at Christmastime is an annual international tradition, coordinated in the U.S. by the National Audubon Society. Each “Count” is a 15-mile diameter circle manned by volunteers who count the birds they see in a single 24-hour period. Each circle has a Compiler who makes sure there’s no birding overlap.

In the Pittsburgh area there are 14+ circles shown in the map and table below.  Some are as early as tomorrow, Sat Dec 15.

It’s easy to participate.  Volunteer to count at your own feeders or out in the field.  But first, be sure to call or email the compiler to confirm your assignment. 

Screenshot of 2018 Audubon Christmas Bird Count map; Click to see the real map

This list of Pittsburgh area counts is a subset of Pennsylvania’s CBCs.  Please see the PSO Nov 2018 newsletter for the real thing.

Count NameCounty (general area)DateCoordinatorContact Info
BeaverBeaverSat Dec 15Rick 724-847-0909
Buffalo CreekWashingtonSun Dec 16Larry 412-508-0321
Buffalo Creek ValleyButler, ArmstrongSat Dec 15George, 724-353-9649
Bushy RunWestmorelandSun Dec 30Dick 724-593-3543
ButlerButler, Lawrence, MercerSat Dec 15Glenn Koppel & Mary Alice 703-203-3362
ClarksvilleGreeneSat Dec 22Terry 724-998-7099
Sun Dec 23Bob
IndianaIndianaWed Dec 26Roger & Marg Higbee724-354-3493
OhiopyleFayette, SomersetSat Jan 5Matt Juskowich412-999-0394
PittsburghAlleghenySat Dec 29Brian Shema, ASWP Christmas Bird Count
South Hills
AlleghenySat Dec 15Nancy Page412-221-4795
RectorWestmorelandSun Dec 23Luke 724-593-7521
RyersonGreeneSat Dec 29Marjorie 724-852-3155
South ButlerButlerSun Dec 16Chris 412-963-6100
WashingtonWashingtonSat Dec 15Thomas 724-223-6118

I’ll be counting in the Pittsburgh circle on Sat. 29 Dec 2018.  Coordinated by Brian Shema at AWSP, the Pittsburgh CBC has so many participants that it’s divided into sections with compilers for each one.

Check the CBC map on the National Audubon website to find a circle near you.

Now’s the time to count.

(photo by Kate St. John, screenshot of CBC map from National Audubon)

Yes, We Can Fly

Male wild turkey in flight (photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

On Thanksgiving 2018

Despite their size and ungainly appearance, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can fly.  They have to be airborne twice a day to get to and from their roosts in trees.

Most of us never see them fly but here’s some indirect evidence. The wild turkey below was photographed on Thompson Island in the bay east of Boston, Massachusetts. The photographer’s mobile phone provided GPS.

Wild turkey on an island (photo by Sophia Lai via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the wild turkey’s location.

Google map of wild turkey’s location (image from Google maps)

He didn’t swim. He had to fly.  But the wild turkey’s flight range is only 1.6km = 1 mile. 

My guess is that he landed at the south end Thompson Island, 0.83 miles from the mainland. At 60 miles per hour — yes, that’s the wild turkey’s top speed — it would have taken him less than a minute. 

Who knew that wild turkeys could move that fast?

(photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

World’s Fastest Animal on NOVA, Nov 21

World’s Fastest Animal premieres on NOVA, 21 Nov 2018 on PBS (screenshot from NOVA)

Peregrine Fans, our favorite bird is coming to PBS NOVA on Wednesday evening November 21.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour when diving to capture prey.  PBS NOVA will show us how peregrines are designed to reach these speeds and will follow a falconer that believes his bird can go even faster. We’ll also see the family life of peregrines at a nest in Chicago.

Click here or on the caption above to watch the preview.

Don’t miss the World’s Fastest Animal, premiering on Wednesday November 21 at 9pm ET on PBS.  Check your local listings for re-broadcast times in case you’re busy Wednesday night. In Pittsburgh, watch it on WQED.

(screenshot from the trailer of World’s Fastest Animal on PBS NOVA)

Eleven Years Outside My Window

child writing with a pen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 November 2018:

Happy Bird-thday, Outside My Window!  Eleven years ago today I published my very first blog post.  I had no idea it would change my life.

For starters, it’s made me a Morning Person.  I write best with a mug of coffee before dawn so I get up at 4am to have enough time to publish the day’s entry by 7am. Unfortunately a good article takes 3 hours to construct and illustrate. That’s if I’m lucky.  It often takes longer, as it did today.

Second, it’s made me keenly aware of interesting topics. In the old days I would flail around on deadline without any ideas.  (If you’re a writer you know what I mean.)  Nowadays I keep an “Ideas” list online and dip into it for inspiration.  Thank you to everyone who suggests new topics. If you don’t see your contribution right away, it’s on the list.

Third, I’ve met you!  Every day about a thousand of you read my blog. Readership drops to 700 in the depths of winter and soars to 4,000 at times of peregrine excitement.  I’ve made a lot of new friends.

I couldn’t have blogged for eleven years without you.  Your enthusiasm keeps me going every day.  Thank you, my readers!  And a big thank you to all the photographers who let me use your photos.  Without photos this blog would be just a pile of words.

Happy Bird-thday to the blog! Here to celebrate is Carmencitav’s opera diva, a double yellow-headed amazon.

p.s. This is my blog’s birthday, my own is in May.

(image of a hand writing from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original. video by carmencitav on YouTube)

Sad In Pittsburgh, Birds Help

At the end of today’s walk at Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, 28 Oct 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sad in Pittsburgh:

We are sad and subdued today in Pittsburgh after a gunman killed 11 people and injured 6 at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, 27 Oct 2018, in Squirrel Hill. It is the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history

All of us remember where we were when we heard the news.  Many of us know someone directly affected by it.  I live 2 miles from the synagogue.  I know someone, too.

Dan Leger is one of the two civilian survivors (other four injured are policeman).  I met Dan four years ago when my husband was hit by a car & sustained nine broken ribs, a broken nose and a concussion.  In the confusion of the accident scene, Dan found out my phone number and the hospital where Rick would be taken. He called to let me know my husband was hurt and assured me he hadn’t lost consciousness. Dan and his wife came to get me in their car (I was walking in Schenley Park at the time) so that I could get to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital where Rick was taken by ambulance.  Dan Leger is so kind, so wonderful. He was hit in the torso, has been undergoing many surgeries, is in ICU.  Please pray for Dan Leger’s recovery.

Birds Help:

In the face of this tragedy it was a real relief to get outdoors this morning and see some birds at Duck Hollow.  By the end of the walk the birds made us smile. Pictured above are Claire, Jack, Dan, Rebecca, Donna and Sue. (Ramona had to leave early.)

Best Birds were great for late October at Duck Hollow: a blackpoll warbler near the parking lot, a green heron along Nine Mile Run, and an immature white-crowned sparrow on the trail.  We also saw two backlit birds that we couldn’t identify — maybe eastern bluebirds.

I didn’t add the ‘maybe’ birds to the list but here’s everything else.

Birds do help.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Forecast For Duck Hollow on Oct 28

A calm October day at Duck Hollow, 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Sunday’s forecast for the Duck Hollow outing (described below) says:  “Showers likely, mainly after 11am. Cloudy, with a high near 48.”   This is good weather for ducks and acceptable weather for people, so the outing will happen.

I will be there, however my car is in the shop.  I can walk to Duck Hollow from my house (a 35 minute walk) but I am able to bring my scope because I got a ride!

Bird and Nature Walk at Duck Hollow and Lower Frick Park    
Sunday, October 28, 2018 — 8:30am – 10:30am

Meet at Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road. We hope to see waterfowl on the river and walk part of nearby lower Nine Mile Run Trail at the south end of Frick Park if it’s not too wet.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides — and a birding scope — if you have them. 

It ought to be fine weather for ducks.

(Duck Hollow photo by Kate St. John; common merganser by Chuck Tague)