Category Archives: Musings & News

Loons Have Unexpected Relatives

Common loon family, 2009 (photo by Kim Steininger)

1 July 2020:

If like me you owned a field guide at the turn of the century you remember that loons were the first bird in the book. Ornithologists placed them there because they thought loons were the oldest evolved bird in North America but DNA sequencing changed all that. In 2020 loons are near the middle of the tree and they have unexpected relatives.

In this July 2019 phylogenetic supertree I’ve circled loons and their relatives in blue. Notice that they aren’t related to ducks at all. Ducks are related to chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest, circle and text added (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Here’s a closer look at the blue section showing that loons (Gaviiformes) stand alone after they split from a common ancestor of penguins, tubenoses, storks, cormorants and pelicans.

Here some of the loons’ unexpected relatives.

Penguins (Sphenisciformes) include king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus).

King penguins at Salisbury Plain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubenoses (Procellariiformes) include the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).

Storks (Ciconiiformes) include the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) that nests on roofs in Europe.

White storks on nest, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cormorants and allies (Suliformes) include the northern gannet (Morus bassanus) and the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Northern gannet, Bonaventure Island, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorants visit Pittsburgh in the non-breeding season.

A double-crested cormorant with ring-billed gulls, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh January 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Pelicans (Pelicaniformes) include the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) we see at the beach and in flight along the coast.

Brown pelicans, one with mouth open, North Carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Brown pelican in flight, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see a loon on a northern lake this summer, remember his unexpected relatives.

(photos by Kim Steininger, Jim McCollum and from Wikimedia Commons. Phylogentic supertree from MDPI, July 2019)

Coronavirus: One Very, Very Difficult Fire

Forest fire (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 June 2020

Coronavirus is surging in many southern and western U.S. states and has increased in Allegheny County at levels beyond our experience in late April.

The increase in Pittsburgh is ironic. Allegheny County had zero new cases on 17 June. On 27 June we had 90 new cases. At the time it was the highest single-day increase we’d ever seen. In less than two weeks we squandered two months of effort! (see Public Source)

What caused it?

After months of study we now know you’re most likely to catch coronavirus through the air, by proximity and time, near someone (often asymptomatic) who has COVID-19. In other words, not much from surfaces. The most likely place to catch it? Bars. (see video).

We know that wearing masks prevents it. Infected people spread the disease before they feel sick so all should wear masks. Your mask protects me, mine protects you.

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

However, the human brain has a hard time grasping danger it hasn’t experienced yet. We humans don’t learn well from the history of others. And so …

“I think that wherever there’s wood to burn [people to infect], this fire’s going to burn – and right now we have a lot of susceptible people,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on NBC.

“I don’t think we’re going to see one, two and three waves. I think we’re going to just see one very, very difficult forest fire of cases.”

The Guardian: Half of U.S. states see coronavirus surge… 22 June 2020


  • Ongoing: Allegheny County is having record new case counts every day. The Public Source graph, above, is updated daily.
  • (*) 29 June 2020: Allegheny County bans on-site consumption of alcohol in bars and restaurants. This has been biggest source of the outbreak.
  • 1 July 2020: PA mandates masks for everyone who leaves their home.
  • 2 July 2020: Coronavirus cases more than double in 1 day: 233. Allegheny County closes bars, restaurants, casinos for one week.

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

My Sweet Emmalina is Gone

Emmalina in the bag, March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Instead of bird and nature news, today is devoted to my sweet cat Emmalina who passed away yesterday at age 14 with a massive tumor in her belly. She was the soul and spirit of our house and we miss her at every turn. If you’ve lost a pet I’m sure you understand.

We adopted Emmy at Animal Rescue League (now Human Animal Rescue) in September 2006 when she was five months old. She had been a stray and was very thin but she was beautiful. I chose her because she purred so loudly while I petted her on my lap.

Emmy just after she was adopted, September 2006

Emmy captured our hearts and earned a longer name, Emmalina, both of which I use when writing about her (see links below). She was an indoor cat but that didn’t mean her life was boring.

Emmy taught us tricks she wanted us to perform by using non-verbal communication. She inspired science blogs, chased house centipedes, watched birds outside the window and subdued a turnip (she hated turnips). In late 2011 she heard a mouse under the sunroom floor that lead to weeks of activity and three articles:

Here are some photo highlights of her life.

Emmy at the stair rail, December 2006
Miss Emmy, February 2007
Emmy objects to the Pet Rules posted on the refrigerator, January 2008
Emmy discovers the highest spot in the house, September 2008
Emmalina rampant, Let’s Play, June 2010
Emmy loves her treat ball, Nov 2018
Emmalina pensive in January 2020
Sniffing a treat, Feb 2020

In January Emmalina started losing weight but the vet couldn’t find anything wrong; the cancer was sneaky. This month she declined rapidly. Unable to eat, she slept most of the time and was no longer herself. We began to miss the kitty she once was.

Emmalina was very sick by the time this photo was taken, Monday 22 June 2020

Emmalina never lost her purr until her last days on earth. That’s how I knew her end was near.

Sleep well, sweet Emmalina. See you on the other side. Much love, Kate.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Who Is This Mystery Bird?

Mystery bird, possible hybrid found by Steve Gosser, 6 June 2020

8 June 2020

On Saturday 6 June 2020, photographer Steve Gosser found a bird in the Pittsburgh area that doesn’t match any field guide. He looks like a cross between a rose-breasted grosbeak and a scarlet tanager. He sings like a scarlet tanager.

So I found this bird today that has all the expert birders scratching their heads. It appears to be a cross between a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Scarlet Tanager, possibly a hybrid! No one seems to have any records of a hybrid between these birds! I along with two expert ornithologists will try and relocate this bird in the morning and they are interested enough to possibly try and catch this bird and collect a blood sample so it can be DNA tested. It sang exactly like a Tanager, has black wings like a Tanager, a thinner bill like a Tanager, a red throat like a Tanager but the rest looks very much like a RB Grosbeak. I’ll keep everyone posted as to what we find out!

Steve Gosser Facebook post, 6 June 2020

Here’s who the mystery bird resembles: a male scarlet tanager on the left, a male rose-breasted grosbeak on the right.

Scarlet tanager + rose-breasted grosbeak (photos by Chuck Tague and Marcy Cunkelman)

Yesterday ornithologists Bob Mulvihill and Steve Latta netted the bird and took blood samples for DNA testing. Bob says the bird “bit hard but not as nimbly as a rose-breasted grosbeak.” Rose-breasted grosbeaks have very strong bills.

Mystery bird captured for DNA testing, biting Bob Mulvihill (photo by Steve Gosser)

Unlike a rose-breasted grosbeak, this bird has almost no red color in his axillaries (armpits).

Mystery bird still clamping on Bob’s finger (photo by Steve Gosser)

After the blood sample, Steve had the honor of releasing the bird.

Steve Gosser about to release the mystery bird (photo by Courtney Sikora)

We can hardly wait to find out who this bird is. Visit Steve Gosser’s Facebook page for news.

Congratulations, Steve! What a find!

(mystery bird photos by Steve Gosser and Courtney Sikora via Facebook; scarlet tanager by Chuck Tague, rose-breasted grosbeak by Marcy Cunkelman)

World Laughter Day

Laughing gull (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Hah! Hah!” says the laughing gull, “Today is World Laughter Day.”

First celebrated in 1998 by the founder of the Laughter Yoga movement, World Laughter Day is now an annual event held on the first Sunday in May.

Last December I wrote about laughing kookaburras (click here if you missed the video). Today I have two more laughing birds.

Below, a yellow-naped Amazon visits the vet:

And here, Johnny Carson interviews a common myna. If you’re near or over 60 you remember the (now almost laughable) clothing from 1976.

Hah! Hah! Hah!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, videos from YouTube; click on the caption or video logos to see the originals)

Lions Reclaim The Land

With South Africa shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, wild animals are taking back the human spaces in Kruger National Park.

Above, a pride of lions takes a nap on the road just outside Orpen Rest Camp on 15 April. Click on the photos in the tweet below to see closeups of the lions.

The BBC explains:

But why anyway, you might ask, would lions prefer tarmac to the softness of grass?

Probably for the simple reason that it had been raining on Tuesday night and, as Mr Phaala explained, “The tar was drier than the grass at the time – big cats and water don’t mix.”

— from Coronavirus: Lions nap on road during South African lockdown, BBC News, 16 April 2020

While the humans are away, the cats will play.

(tweets embedded from BBC News and Kruger National Park; video from The Guardian)

Your Mask Protects Me, Mine Protects You

Kate outdoors in her homemade face mask (self-portrait)

19 April 2020

Off the topic of nature and on the topic of science …

Face masks are in style now and in Pennsylvania they’re required, starting this evening 19 April 2020 at 8pm, for employees and customers at essential businesses. That includes grocery stores.

Since COVID-19 was first reported in the U.S. on 21 January 2020, the message about face masks has changed. Back then everyone asked, “What face mask will keep me safe?” Since then we’ve learned that staying safe is a community effort. If everyone maintains social distancing and wears a mask the disease can’t spread easily.

Here’s why.

  • We don’t know who has COVID-19 so we don’t know who to isolate:
    • COVID-19 can wait as much as 14 days to make a person feel sick; meanwhile they’re contagious.
  • COVID-19 floats in the air when a contagious person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes.
    • Coughing: See video below.
    • Singing: When 60 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale met for practice on 10 March someone in the crowd was silently contagious. Three weeks later, two were dead and 45 ill, a more than 75% infection rate. — from CNN, 2 April 2020.
    • Talking: “One January [2020] lunchtime in a car parts company, a worker turned to a colleague and asked to borrow the salt. As well as the saltshaker, in that instant, they shared the new coronavirus.” — from Pass the Salt, Reuters 9 April 2020

Face masks capture and divert the coughs, sneezes, and breaths away from the rest of us.

Unprotected coughs really travel far — further than 6 feet — and they linger in the air. Click on the graphic to see a 3-D simulation of this in the New York Times.

Though a few states still haven’t issued stay-at-home orders — let alone mask-wearing — businesses understand the importance of masks. Walmart is requiring their employees to wear masks nationwide beginning tomorrow, 20 April 2020.

I’m happy to participate in this community effort as you can see in the photo at top. I made(*) my face mask from a cloth napkin + elastic earpieces + a plastic twist tie sewn into the top edge of the mask.

Your mask protects me. Mine protects you. Please wear one.

(*) Here’s a video on how to make the face mask plus the PDF of the pattern. I added this feature: I embedded a plastic-coated twist tie inside the top of the mask to hold the mask to my face so my glasses don’t fog as much.

(photo by Kate St. John, video from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from the New York Times; click on the image to see the 3-D simulation)

p.s. How well are we doing on social distancing? Check out this Social Distancing Scoreboard that tracks trips and rates each state and county in the U.S.

Twirl A Squirrel

Squirrel reaches for the pole while the feeder gives him a wild ride (screenshot from Twitter movie)

10 April 2020: As expected the U.S. now has the most COVID-19 cases on earth.

We really need a laugh. Squirrels to the rescue.

Watch this bird feeder gave a squirrel a wild ride. He reaches out to grab the feeder pole but misses every time.

If you haven’t laughed enough, here’s a fox squirrel with more staying power. Imagine how dizzy he felt when he landed!

In case you’re wondering, this is Droll Yankee’s feeder called the “Yankee Flipper.”

(videos from Twitter and YouTube; click on the embedded video to see the originals)

Wildlife Returns While Humans Stay Indoors

Limpkin on patio railing in Boca Raton, FL (sent by Natalie Mitchell, 31 Mar 2020)

As we shelter indoors, wildlife is reclaiming our neighborhoods faster than we thought possible. Limpkins in Florida, deer in Pittsburgh, and wild boars in Italy!

Limpkins in Florida:

Now that human activity has slowed in Boca Raton, my sister-in-law says that limpkins have moved into the neighborhoods and are shouting all night to attract mates and establish territories. If you’ve never heard a limpkin you’d think it’s a human in distress and you might call 911. Ooops! It’s a bird. Limpkins are a thrill to birders but annoying if you’re trying to sleep. Here’s what one looks and sounds like from 2012. You can hear other limpkins in the distance.

Deer in Pittsburgh:

Deer are getting bolder and coming out during the day now that Pittsburghers are not outdoors. Yesterday, 31 March, Donna Foyle found a family group right next to a front porch in Brentwood.

On 25 March KDKA reported deer on Pitt’s campus in a photo and article.

Wild boars in Italy:

Wild boars can be dangerous but they usually avoid humans. This mama and youngsters were filmed strolling through Bergamo, Italy, posted to Twitter on 30 March 2020.

Have you seen any interesting wildlife in town lately? Leave a comment to let me know.

(limpkin photo sent to me by Natalie Mitchell on 31 Mar 2020, deer in Brentwood via cellphone from Donna Foyle)