Category Archives: Books & Events

How Many Blue Jays?

Great Backyard Bird Count 2019

In the winter of 2012 Pittsburghers noticed we had very few blue jays in our area. It was such a mystery that I posted an article in February asking folks to tell me if they’d seen any blue jays lately. Seven years later the responses are still coming in.

Most people respond when they don’t see any blue jays because they miss them. It turns out that blue jay frequency varies throughout the year and can drop locally when the habitat changes, especially if oaks are cut down. (Blue jays rely on acorns.)

Our blue jay count surges during spring and fall migration because a lot of them breed north of us. In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) there’s also a mysterious mini-surge every year in mid February. What’s that about?

eBird frequency of blue jays in Allegheny County, PA, 2014-2019

See seven years of blue jay reports and musings at Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?

Count your own blue jays during the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. How many birds will you find?

(image credits: Great Backyard Bird Count poster, eBird report on frequency of blue jay sightings in Allegheny County, PA, 2014-2019; click on the captions to see the originals)

Pittsburgh Parks Listening Tour, Now Through April

Schenley Park, Panther Hollow lake, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you live in the City of Pittsburgh and visit our parks you’ll want to participate in this survey, available now through April 2019.

Pittsburgh has 165 parks sprinkled throughout our neighborhoods from small playgrounds to regional parks — Schenley, Frick, Riverview, Highland and the future Hays Woods. The City’s goal is to have well maintained parks within a 10-minute walk of every resident.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that infrastructure is crumbling in many of them. The park system gets big donations for capital improvements (bricks & mortar) but not for maintenance, so we have new buildings like the Frick Environmental Center but deteriorating playgrounds, landscape and trails. How do we fix that inequity and how much will it cost?

The City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have teamed up for the Parks Listening Tour, a citywide initiative to hear what neighbors love about our parks and what they would love to improve.

The Listening Tour includes meetings in every neighborhood and online tools. Attend a meeting to find out more or go online to view the presentation and take the survey. Click here for the schedule and online tools.

This is your chance to speak up for the parks. Your comments will shape their future.

(acknowledgements: text and tour logo from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, photo of Schenley Park by Kate St. John)

Count Birds, Feb 15-18

One week from today — February 15-18 — the Great Backyard Bird Count will take a real-time snapshot of birds around the world. You can help.

Since 1998 the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) has enlisted volunteers like us to count the birds we see for four days in mid-February.  Last year our worldwide effort counted 6,459 species and nearly 29 million birds!

Everything you need to know is at including this slideshow that explains how to do it. It’s as easy at 1-2-3.

  1. Register for an eBird or GBBC account if you don’t already have one. (GBBC uses eBird so you don’t need both.)
  2. Count birds for at least 15 minutes during the four-day period.  You can count in more than one place and longer than 15 mins if you wish. Keep track of the highest number of each species you see with a separate checklist for each new day, for each new location, or for the same location if you counted at a different time of day.
  3. Use your computer or the eBird mobile app to submit your observations.

If you love to take photographs submit your best shots to the GBBC photo contest. Click here for contest information.

You can count birds anywhere —  in your backyard, in a park, at the shore, or on a hike.  If the weather’s bad, stay indoors and count birds at your feeders.

On your mark… Get set… Go! February 15-18, 2019

(2019 poster from

Baby Eagle Owl At The Aviary

Baby Eurasian eagle owl at the National Aviary, 18 Jan 2019 (photo courtesy National Aviary)

Super Bowl Sunday is “Superb Owl Sunday”

Hatched at the National Aviary on 12 January 2019, this Eurasian eagle owl chick is growing up fast. In the photo above he’s six days old.

His parents are education birds at the National Aviary and he(*) will be, too. To prepare him for this role he’s being hand-raised with lots of love and attention and began close encounters with a few Aviary visitors at the tender age of 17 days.

By the time he’s four weeks old he’ll look like this owlet — one of his siblings from 2013.

Baby Eurasian Eagle Owl at the National Aviary, April 2013 (photo courtesy of the National Aviary)

When he grows up he’ll look like his parents. By then he’ll be a very big bird.

Eurasian Eagle Owl adult at the National Aviary (photo courtesy National Aviary)

Eurasian eagle owls (Bubo bubo) are virtually the world’s largest owl. Native to Europe and Asia, they can weigh up to 10 pounds with a wingspan more than six feet long. That’s 1.5 times larger than North America’s great horned owl. You can tell the difference between the two species — even in photographs — when they open their eyes. Adult Eurasian eagle owls have orange eyes. Great horned owls have yellow eyes.

Watch the owlet grow up at the National Aviary‘s Avian Care Center window or schedule a close encounter to meet him in person. Participants can touch the chick’s downy feathers, take photos, and interact with him under the supervision of National Aviary animal care experts. The number of encounters is limited and available for only a few weeks. Click here to sign up for an owlet encounter.

(photos courtesy of the National Aviary)

(*) I said “he” in this article but we really don’t the owlet’s sex without a DNA test!

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day

Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tomorrow is the mid-point of winter, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s also Candelmas in the Christian church and Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

A very special groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will make his prediction just after dawn tomorrow morning, 2 February around 7:20am. I don’t know if he’ll see his shadow and predict six more weeks of winter, but I do know it won’t feel so wintry tomorrow. We’ll be out of the deep freeze at last! A high of 41oF in Pittsburgh and 37oF in Punxsutawney.

Watch Phil’s prediction online at Read more about Groundhog Day at Penn Live.

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

Seed & Plant Swap, 23 Feb

Bottle gentian seeds (photo by Kate St. John)

Get ready to garden!

In just over a month Grow PittsburghPhipps Conservatory, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will hold their seventh annual free Seed and Plant Swap.

What: A Celebration of Seeds, the 7th annual Seed and Plant Swap
Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main (in Oakland).
When: Sat. 23 Feb 2019, 11a – 3p
Event Partners: Grow PittsburghPhipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Seed Swap at Carnegie Library in 2018 (photo by Nick Shapiro, courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

Free! Seeds, seedlings and perennials donated by local gardeners, farmers, and seed companies. Workshops on seed saving, seed starting and organic gardening.

Swap! Bring your own untreated, non-GMO seeds and plants to share and you’ll gain early entry to the swap (11a) and be eligible to win raffle prizes.  The swap opens to everyone at 11:30a.

Workshops and Activities:

  • Hands-on activities for children and teens
  • Seed stories
  • Gardening experts available to answer your questions
  • 3 free workshops, noon to 3p, in the North Wing Music Room. Click here for details.
Seed Swap 2018 (photo by Nick Shapiro courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

For directions and more information, see the event announcements at Phipps and Carnegie Library.

(photo of seeds in hand by Kate St. John, photos of Seed Swap by Nick Shapiro courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

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)