Category Archives: Musings & News

50 Years Ago: How Museums Saved The Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine “Stammy” in Youngstown Ohio, 2008 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

30 May 2024

Fifteen days from now we will celebrate 52 years since the first big step was taken to save peregrine falcons from extinction in the U.S. Scientists had published studies showing that DDT was thinning raptor eggshells and causing all nests to fail. At that point there were no juvenile peregrines east of the Rockies to carry on the species. Thankfully, on 14 June 1972 DDT was banned in the U.S.

Morela’s shadow and her 4 eggs in 2021 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Where was the evidence that peregrine eggshells had thinned? In museum collections.

Read a bit of history and see …

Air Pollution Makes Pollen Allergies Worse

Kentucky bluegrass, Poa pratensis, a common lawn grass in PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 May 2024

Talk about allergies! Oak tree pollen is finally diminishing in Pittsburgh, but grass pollen allergies are ramping up. I’m allergic to lawn grass. I feel it already.

Red fescue, a common lawn grass in PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A study last year explained why we suffer more in the 21st century. Pollen season is getting worse every year because climate change is lengthening the growing season and increasing pollen production.

Unfortunately, a recent study explains that air pollution makes allergies worse. Pittsburgh has some of the worst particulate air pollution in the U.S.

“Plants that are grown in pollution-stressed situations are known to release more allergens,” says Elaine Fuertes, a research fellow at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London.

Depending on the plant species, air pollutants can change the chemical composition of pollen, increasing the potency of pollen allergens and triggering stronger allergic reactions in people. …

…Air pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides may also make the exine — the outer coating of pollen grains — from some plant species more fragile and, therefore, more likely to rupture into smaller fragments that can penetrate deeper into the lungs.

Yale Climate Connections: Allergy symptoms got you down? Blame pollen AND air pollution.

Learn more about the interplay between pollen, air pollution and our allergies at Yale Climate Connections article below.

BONUS FACTLET: While looking for lawn grass photos I learned that Pennsylvania’s most common lawn grass, Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), is not native to Kentucky nor to North America. Poa pratensis is from Europe, North Asia and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco.

Puzzling Objects Seen This Week

Leaf-out reveals the browseline, Schenley Park, 5 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 May 2024

This week I photographed a few puzzling objects for the record.

When I took a photo of Full Leaf trees in Schenley Park on 5 May I noticed something newly visible in the presence of leaves. Can you see it?

Look at the center of the photo where the path disappears in the distance. Above the path is a gap that allows you to see further under the trees. The gap flows to the right and follows the contour of the hillside. That’s the browseline, the cumulative effect of too many deer eating at the same location over and over.

I saw a native(!) honeysuckle this week. Pink with fused leaves, it’s called limber or glaucous honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica).

Limber or glaucous honeysuckle, Moraine State Park, 7 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Was this a cattle egret at Moraine State Park? If so it was a rare bird! Nope. It’s a white bag.

Cattle Egret at Moraine State Park? (photo by Kate St. John, 7 May 2024)

On 3 May a leaf-footed bug appeared to walk across the sky.

Leaf-footed bug walks across the sky, 3 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

During the Pittsburgh Marathon Dippy the dinosaur watched near the halfway mark.

Dippy wears black and gold for the Pittsburgh Marathon, 5 May 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

What puzzles will we see this week?

Supporting Each Other: A Shepherd’s Story

Ewe and lamb (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 April 2024

If you live in close contact with animals you get to know them well. Shepherds of small flocks develop an especially close relationship with their sheep because they tend them every day — and for 24 hours a day during lambing in early spring.

Paula Aarons, originally from Valencia PA, runs a small sheep farm in New Hampshire called the Dancing Pony Sheep Farm. Last month she appeared on Junction Fiber Mill‘s Millcast program to tell the story of her flock supporting each other and supporting her, their shepherd.

Our mutual friend Jeff Cieslak introduced her 15-minute video.

People: My friend Paula told this wonderful story about her sheep for a podcast. I watched it, and I wept a little, and now you, too, must weep.

Jeff Cieslak on Facebook

My endorsement: This story is worth every minute!

video embedded from Junction Fiber Mill on YouTube

Click here or on the screenshot below to see more Millcast stories on YouTube. Learn more about Junction Fiber Mill on their website.

screenshot from The Millcast on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)

These Are For The Birds

13 March 2024

Have you seen coils or fluttering tags on power lines? Not related to power transmission, these accessories are visual cues that alert birds to the presence of wires.

Bird diverters come in many shapes and have changed over the years as new products come to market and are approved by government agencies. California commissioned a 2008 study to evaluate the orange and fluorescent swinging tag below for use in the Sacramento Valley where hundreds of thousands of waterfowl spend the winter.

Aerial marking devices (flight diverters) are intended to reduce avian collisions with power lines by increasing power line visibility. From Testing the Effectiveness of an Avian Flight Diverter for Reducing Avian Collisions with Distribution Power Lines in the Sacramento Valley Published 2008

This (newer than 2008) model from Power Sentry glows in the dark and is visible in fog.

Hawk Eye Bird Flight diverter (photo embedded from
(video embedded from PowerLineSentry on YouTube)

It is also less expensive to install because it can be done by drones.

(video embedded from Manitoba Hydro on YouTube)

Those devices are for the birds.

These are for pilots.

Red ball markers make power lines visible to airplane and helicopter pilots and are usually installed near airports and on long lines over rivers and canyons.

Aviation red ball marker on power line. The helicopter is probably so close because it’s checking the power lines (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ironically, they have to be installed from helicopters. This 6-minute video filmed in West Virginia shows a job I could never do.

(video embedded from T&D World on YouTube)

Wondering about cones? They are also visual cues for pilots.

Power line cone to alert pilots (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. Some of you know more about this than I do. If I got it wrong, please leave a comment.

(credits are in the captions)

eBird, Merlin (and more) will be Down 19-21 March

Black-winged stilts moving to the cloud 😉

12 March 2024

It’s server migration season at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For two days next week these Cornell Lab of Ornithology services will be down as they migrate from local servers to the cloud.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology services that will be down on March 19-21

The following Cornell Lab services will be unavailable starting 6am ET March 19 until 6am ET March 21:

  •, including eBird portals and email Alerts
  • eBird API and data products
  • Merlin Bird ID save sightings and refresh life list (only recent locations will be available for ID and Explore)
  • BirdCast alerts and migration dashboard
  • Macaulay Library
  • Birds of the World
  • Bird Academy

You will also not be able to access any programs that require logging in with your Cornell Lab account during the outage.

— Team eBird news, Upcoming Maintenance: Cornell Lab Services Will Be Unavailable 19-21 March

I know from personal experience (my career in Information Technology) that there is really no good time to do a server migration and it always takes longer than users want it to. Cornell Lab says they’re migrating 1.6 billion bird observations and that if it goes really well some services may be up late on 20 March.

During the outage eBird will still work on your mobile phone in offline mode. This feature was built into the app long ago because the best birds are far away from cell towers.

The eBird app works in offline mode

So hang tight while Cornell Lab data goes into hiding for two days.

Read more at Team eBird news: Upcoming Maintenance: Cornell Lab Services Will Be Unavailable 19-21 March.

(black-winged stilts photo from Wikimedia Commons; logos from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; eBird screenshot from my mobile phone)

How Big is Africa?

The True Size of Africa compared to contiguous U.S. (screenshot from

6 March 2024

While visiting southern Africa in January I was impressed at how large the continent is. Africa is huge – so big that the contiguous U.S. can fit inside it three times, as shown above.

For instance, the air distance from top to bottom of Africa – Tunis, Tunisia to Cape Town, South Africa – is farther than Seattle to Toyko.

4, 894 air miles from Cape Town to Tunis (map from Wikimedia Commons, red notes added)
4, 792 air miles from Seattle to Toyko, Japan (map from Wikimedia Commons, red notes added)

This animation shows how Africa compares in size to other continents.

Asia is the only continent larger than Africa.

World map of 7 continents (image from Wikimedia Commons)

And Asia is the only continent with a larger human population than Africa’s. Africa comes in second in both cases.

World population by Continent (screenshot from Wikipedia)

To get an idea of this on your own, try to see how big things are.

(credits are in the captions)

Right Now You Can Kayak in Death Valley

Kayaking on Lake Manly in Death Valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 February 2024

In case you missed it …

During the Ice Age, the Pleistocene 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, there was a lake 600 feet deep in Death Valley where Badwater Basin stands today. Named Lake Manly(*) by geologists, it disappeared 10,000 years ago.

Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level so any water that reaches it can only evaporate yet the evaporation rate is so high that the basin is a salt pan. Occasionally — decades apart — there’s enough rain to make a shallow lake.

Badwater Basin in normal times, Dec 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past six months California has had two unusual rain events. On 20 August 2023 Hurricane Hilary dumped 2.2 inches and caused Lake Manly to re-form in place. (The deluge also closed the Death Valley National Park for two months.) Amazingly the lake persisted through the winter.

Lake Manly, Death Valley, December 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And then the Atmospheric River event of 4-7 February dumped 1.5 more inches of rain. Lake Manly grew to a depth of 1 to 2 feet so in mid-February the National Park Service opened it to kayaking.

video embedded from Associated Press on YouTube

The last time the lake formed, in 2005, it lasted only about a week. This time NPS estimates it’ll be gone — or at least too shallow for kayaks — by April.

So if you want to kayak in Death Valley, get out there now before Badwater Basin returns to normal.

Lake Manly typically looks like this in Badwater Basin, (photo from 2010 at Wikimedia Commons)

Read more here at ABC News: An ancient lake has reemerged at Death Valley National Park.

p.s. From Wikipedia: “The lake was named in honor of William Lewis Manly, who rescued immigrants from Death Valley in 1849.”

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

Dr. David Livingstone monument at Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe, 22 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari, 19 Jan – 2 Feb 2024

18 February 2024

This statue of Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone stands in Zimbabwe at the western end of Victoria Falls. After African independence, European monuments were removed and European towns renamed but Livingstone’s statue still stands, the falls still bear the name he gave them(2), and the nearest town across the river is Livingstone, Zambia.

Twenty years ago, two attempts were made to remove Livingstone’s statue but “resistance to the removals from the local community has ensured that Livingstone’s statue remains where it was first erected, gazing sternly out towards Devil’s Cataract.(1)

Our Zimbabwean guide pointed to a word carved on the monument that is key to Livingstone’s legacy in Africa.


Dr. David Livingstone, 1864 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In America we think of Livingstone as a great explorer but in Africa it is his never-ending fight to end the slave trade that holds him in African hearts. Livingstone went to Africa as a Christian missionary doctor and fell in love with exploring, ultimately mapping three long journeys in southern and eastern Africa covering 40,000 miles(2).

Journeys of Dr. David Livingstone, final journey in red (map from Wikimedia Commons)

During his second expedition to the Zambezi River (1858-1864) he witnessed the horrors of the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade and vowed to end it. Men, women and children were captured in the interior and marched to trading posts on the Indian Ocean coast, one of which was Zanzibar a British colony ruled by Arabs.

East African slave trade (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone reasoned that if he became famous for finding the source of the Nile he could influence the British government to end the slave trade so he returned to Africa in 1866 to accomplish both goals.

Five years later, in the absence of news, Livingstone was presumed dead or lost. Instead he was still exploring, very weak and sick with malaria and without quinine to treat it because someone stole his medical kit. Meanwhile he wrote letters to Britain describing the slave trade but the slavers were the only ones available to carry his letters to the coast. Knowing that Livingstone was against slavery, they delivered only one of his 44 letters.

Livingstone’s disappearance was such a great mystery that the New York Herald sent journalist Henry Morton Stanley to Africa where he caught up with Livingstone at Ujiji in October 1871 and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Henry Morton Stanley greets Dr. David Livingstone at Ujiji (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone did not want to leave Africa so Stanley took Livingstone’s dispatches to Britain where they exposed the appalling massacres and cruelty of the slave trade.

British reaction was swift but Livingstone did not live to see it. “One month after his death, Great Britain signed a treaty with Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, halting the slave trade in that realm. The infamous slave market of Zanzibar was closed forever.(2)

More than any of his contemporaries, Livingstone succeeded in seeing Africa through African eyes.

Princeton University Library: David Livingstone, 1813-1873

p.s. In the U.S. most of us don’t realize that the West African slave trade that our country participated in was not the only source of slaves. Britain outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 but it continued elsewhere. For instance, Mauritania in West Africa did not impose penalties on its local slave trade until 2007. Today slavery persists in some parts of Africa. Read about Slavery in Contemporary Africa here.

(credits are in the captions) Footnotes on sources.

  1. Information on Dr. David Livingstone’s Statue, Siyabona Africa website.
  2. Summary of Livingstone’s life, Princeton University Library.
    • “Victoria Falls was the only site in Africa that Livingstone named with English words.”

Watch Birds Where It’s Warm

Black-crested jay at Canopy Lodge, 10 Jan 2024 @PanamaFeederCam on Twitter

12 January 2024

The weather is going to turn nasty tomorrow and very cold next week so it’s time to stay indoors and watch birds where it’s warm.

Tropical birds and feeder-hungry mammals visit the Panama Fruit Feeder Cam at Canopy Lodge. The black-crested jay, above, takes a look at a potential meal while a mother agouti, below, brings her cubs to the banquet. Agoutis show up in dark too.

Agouti family: mother and cubs, 12 Jan 2024 @PanamaFeederCam on Twitter

Watch birds where it’s warm on Panama Fruit Feeder Cam.

Live Panama Fruit Feeder Cam on YouTube

Follow @PanamaFeederCam on Twitter for quick updates.