Category Archives: Musings & News

New Year’s Resolution: Get Outdoors

Kate St. John photographing a tree bud to identify later, 23 December 2020 (photo by Donna Foyle)

1 January 2021

2020 was an awful year and it will take a while before 2021 is any better, but no matter what’s happening there’s a way to take your mind off the mess and calm down: Get outdoors.

Lots of people took this advice and discovered birding in 2020. A new year, a new month, a new day is a great time to see more birds.

This week I rediscovered good resolutions for the New Year in an interview I gave on The Allegheny Front in the summer of 2009(*).

Go outdoors, look around, look up.  You’ll get a view of things that are bigger than yourself. … I find it very calming to see that life goes on despite whatever is going on in my head. Nature is still rolling.

Allegheny Front radio interview with Kate St. John, 2009
Allegheny Front radio interview with Kate St. John, 2009

So despite the tedium of putting on winter clothes, trudging in gray weather, and dealing with foggy glasses, make the effort. Get outdoors. Look up. There’s always something out there.

Hot tip: If you’re in the Pittsburgh area go see the evening grosbeaks at North Park (photos at this link). They’ve been at this location for several days including yesterday, 31 Dec 2020. Park at the north end of the Spillway Lot.

Notes on the interview(*) A lot has changed in 12 years. In the interview I said that I work at WQED (No. I retired in 2014), that my blog is on WQED’s website (No. It’s been at since 2015), that I hike alone (No. Now that I’m retired and due to COVID restrictions, hiking/birding is my one opportunity to see friends). And I’m older now with a lot more wrinkles under that mask. 😉

(photo by Donna Foyle, audio from The Allegheny Front, 2009)

Reindeer Can See Hissing Spots On Power Lines

Reindeer in Lappland, Sweden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever been near a power tower whose lines are hissing? We can hear the electrical discharge but we can’t see where it’s coming from. Reindeer can see it!

You’ve probably experienced hissing power lines and wondered about the source of that noise. Sometimes the sound is so bad that it makes us worry. I remember hiking through a power line cut in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands(*) where the lines were crackling. The sound was so spooky that I practically ran to the other side of that clearing!

Pylons in Briar Creek Twp, Columbia County, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The hissing is a corona discharge, the ionization of the air surrounding the high voltage conductor (wire). As electricity leaks into the air it creates hissing and crackling sounds and flashes in a spectrum we cannot see.

Since 2011 scientists have known that reindeer can see ultraviolet light. They’ve also noticed that reindeer avoid power lines by as much as 3 miles (5km). At that distance there’s no way the animals can hear the lines hissing so what is it? It’s flashing ultraviolet light!

Power companies use UV cameras to see the faults in their power lines so they can fix the leaks.

p.s. It turns out that most mammals can see some level of ultraviolet light. Humans and monkeys cannot.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. *NOTE: The tower photo shows a typical power line cut in Pennsylvania, not the one I ran across!)

Four Outrageous Feathers

A life reconstruction of Ubirajara jubatus (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1995 the fossil of a chicken-sized dinosaur was found in a gypsum (chalk-like) formation in northeastern Brazil. Twenty-five years later the dinosaur got a name — Ubirajara jubatus or “Lord of the Spear” — after x-rays revealed four long filaments on its shoulders and a feathery mane (jubatus) on its back. Ubirajara is the first feathered dinosaur found in the Southern Hemisphere.

What were the feather spears used for? Did this dinosaur raise his mane?

A modern bird, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise (Pteridophora alberti), gives us a good idea what this fancy “equipment” was used for.

See a colorful illustration of Ubirajara jubatus at Science Alert: Newfound Dinosaur Had Outrageous Feather-like Decoration.

p.s. The announcement of Ubirajara brought the fossil to the attention of the Brazilian government. The fossil was exported to Germany in 1995 but it has been illegal to export fossils from Brazil since 1990. Brazilian fossils can be loaned but not owned overseas. Read about the controversy here.

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

Dino Days Were Half an Hour Shorter

Life reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus, Cretaceous period, San Juan Basin, NM (illustration by Sergey Krasovskiy via Wikimedia Commons)

19 December 2020

As we approach the shortest day(*) of the northern year we can take heart that our days are as long as they are. 70 million years ago, in the age of the dinosaurs, the Earth spun faster than it does today. Rather than having 86,400 seconds per day to get things done, dinosaur days were half an hour shorter.

This discovery came to light when paleontologists used lasers to study the growth rings of a rudist bivalve fossil found in the mountains of Oman. During the Cretaceous period rudist bivalves lived in tropical seas and grew throughout their lifetimes, laying down new shell material every day.

Fossil of rudist bivalves (Vaccinites) from the Cretaceous of the Omani Mountains, United Arab Emirates (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The lasers were precise enough to identify four to five data points within each day cycle and see that …

The composition of the shell changed more over the course of a day than over seasons, or with the cycles of ocean tides. The fine-scale resolution of the daily layers shows the shell grew much faster during the day than at night. Ancient shell shows days were half hour shorter 70 million years ago

Thus “the growth rings allowed the researchers to determine the number of days in a year and more accurately calculate the length of a day 70 million years ago.” They also discovered information on the Moon’s formation and proximity. —

The Earth, like all of us, is slowing down with age. Every day is infinitesimally longer than the last. (It sure has felt that way during the COVID-19 pandemic!) On the bright side, even when we feel rushed we can be glad we have that daily half hour the dinosaurs missed.

Read more at: Ancient shell shows days were half hour shorter 70 million years ago.

(illustration of dinosaurs from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

(*) The winter solstice is at 5:02am ET on 21 December 2020.

Support the National Aviary FalconCam!

Morela hopes you’ll support the National Aviary & the falconcam

15 December 2020

If you enjoy watching the National Aviary’s peregrine falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning please donate toward its support!

The COVID-19 pandemic has ranged from difficult to devastating for every public venue in the U.S. including the National Aviary. The Aviary relies on visitors for much of its income but visitors are few and far between during the pandemic and sometimes — as is happening now until January 4 — the Aviary must close because of COVID-19 restrictions. They care for their birds even while money is tight. The streaming falconcam feels like a luxury.

Now is the perfect time to make your gift because an anonymous donor is matching every dollar donated through January 2021, up to $100,000! Your donation will be doubled!

Put a smile on Morela’s face.

Support the National Aviary and the peregrine falconcam. Click here to donate.

Thank you in advance for your support.

(photo of Morela from the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning with Santa hat courtesy of John English)

p.s. To specifically mention the falconcam in your donation you can check mark “Give in Honor of…” on the donation screen and write in the Pitt peregrine falconcam.

Giraffes and Gentoos Have Something in Common

Giraffes (southern) at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, Gauteng, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What do giraffes and gentoo penguins have in common?

Though both were (or are) listed as a single species researchers say they should be four.

In 2016 DNA testing on giraffes revealed that the single species (Giraffa camelopardalis) is really four species. The proposed 2016 species split looked like this on the map …

Map of genetic subdivision in the giraffe based on mitochondrial DNA sequences (map from Wikimedia Commons)

… and is described as:

[Replace] Giraffa camelopardalis with four new ones: the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in scattered groups in the central and eastern parts of the continent. The one remaining subspecies is the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis) of Ethiopia and South Sudan. It is a distinct subspecies of the northern giraffe.

Scientific American, DNA Reveals Giraffes Are 4 Species–Not 1, 9 September 2016

This year a DNA study on gentoo penguins revealed that they should be split in four species, too.

Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) breed on Antarctica and islands in the southern hemisphere reaching as far as the Falklands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Island. Two populations are considered subspecies; they don’t intermingle. In 2012 the subspecies map looked like this:

Range of gentoo penguin showing subspecies as of 2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The proposed split elevates both subspecies and adds two more!

The researchers suggest the two subspecies [P. p. ellsworthi and P. p. papua.] should be raised to species level and two new species created.

The four species we propose live in quite different latitudes – for example P. ellsworthi lives on the Antarctic continent whereas P. poncetii, P. taeniata, and P. papua live further north, where conditions are milder, and so it’s not that surprising that they have evolved to adapt to their different habitats.

Birdwatchers Daily, Split Gentoo Penguin into four species, researchers say, 4 Nov 2020

The split could be good news for the most vulnerable gentoo penguin populations since it would allow a focus on saving them.

Will the gentoo penguin officially split like the giraffe? We’ll have to wait and see.

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

p.s. Locations of the four species as described as follows at The Conversation blog: We suggest the designation of four species of gentoo penguin: Pygoscelis papua in the Falkland Islands, P. ellsworthi in the South Shetland Islands/Western Antarctic Peninsula, P. taeniata in Iles Kerguelen, and P. poncetii, in South Georgia.

The Virus That Kills Birds

  • Ruffed grouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As we struggle with a nearly out-of-control coronavirus pandemic I was stunned to learn there’s an equally deadly virus among birds. The discovery came when I found the answer to Craig’s question: “Kate, why is the ruffed grouse population in decline in Pennsylvania? Habitat destruction?” No, West Nile Virus is killing them off.

West Nile Virus arrived in North America more than 20 years ago and spread across the continent in just five years, killing native raptors and songbirds in its wake. When it struck Pittsburgh’s bird community in 2002 it was fairly common to find dead crows. That was a long time ago and I don’t see dead crows anymore so I thought birds were now able to survive the virus. Instead a 2015 study found that West Nile Virus is still wiping out birds in North America. It affects each species differently.

Some such as wild turkeys, chickens and house sparrows had a die-off when the virus arrived and then recovered with apparent immunity. Others never developed that resilience. The virus ravages their bodies so quickly that they die without reproducing.

The birds in the slideshow above are some of WNV’s most devastated victims. Every year their populations decline in a downward spiral. Greater sage-grouse and yellow-billed magpies have such restricted ranges that WNV may push them to extinction. This explains why I haven’t seen so many warbling vireos, purple finches and American goldfinches as I did a decade ago.

In 2016 the PA Game Commission studied the plight of the ruffed grouse and found that birds never exposed to WNV had only a 10% survival rate. This 9-minute video tells the whole story.

It’s ironic that we worried so much about West Nile virus when it’s actually a bird disease. Read more about West Nile Virus In Birds at

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, J. Maughn, Steve Gosser and Chuck Tague,)

Coronavirus: The Fire Is Out Of Control

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 November 2020

When COVID-19 surged in Allegheny County in late June I wrote about the coronavirus as one very, very difficult forest fire. That surge ended and summer was good. We were able to eat together outdoors. We became complacent. Yet the fire still smouldered waiting to erupt. And now it has.

On Tuesday 17 November 2020 the White House Coronavirus Task Force said:

“There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding, broad community spread across the country reaching most counties, with no evidence of improvement, but rather deterioration. Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”

White House Coronavirus Task Force report, 17 Nov 2020

Allegheny County saw a record-setting surge in the last 5 days and is now under a stay-at-home advisory. If we can’t turn the tide in Pennsylvania we’re in danger of running out of ICU beds all at the same time.

How severe is the pandemic where you live? This map from shows risk levels by U.S. congressional district per 100,000 people as of 20 Nov 2020 at 7am. Red is bad!

“How severe is the pandemic where you live?” Risk level by U.S. cogressional district, 20 Nov 2020 (screenshot from

The coronavirus fire is so out of control that there are some U.S. counties where in a group of 15 people you have a 99% chance of eating Thanksgiving dinner with someone infected with COVID-19. Think about that. You can’t eat with a mask on. 15 people, 99% chance of COVID in the room. What if someone in your family comes from one of those counties?

Every current news article about the virus says that private gatherings are now a major force driving new infections.

And so I’m going to join with many other voices and say, Don’t gather at Thanksgiving.

Two vaccines are almost ready. We could lose loved ones if we gather at Thanksgiving this year. Next Thanksgiving will be fine. Is it worth having Mom die this year when *one time* of carefulness would have avoided it?

Connie Schultz says it really well in This Thanksgiving, Choose Love.

This is the year to focus on the gratitude part of Thanksgiving. Let’s start with the people we love. Not tolerate. Love.

Make that list, and then ask yourself, “Which of these people am I willing to lose?”

Do the right thing. I’m begging you.

This Thanksgiving, Choose Love by Connie Schultz

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, map from; click on the images to see the originals)

Who Are My Closest Reptile Relatives?

Common grackle in Toronto, Ontario (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 November 2020

Since the 1980s scientists have known that birds are highly specialized dinosaurs that survived the K-T extinction 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs were reptiles. Therefore so are birds. Who among the reptiles is the bird’s closest relative?

The cladogram below shows how mammals and reptiles had a common “stem reptile” ancestor. However, during the Carboniferous period mammals diverged from the rest of reptiles and became very different (left branch).

(from a diagram at, Creative Commons license)

During the Permian, Turtles diverged from the rest of the reptiles. Later the Archosaurs did, too (far right branch). Some of the Archosaurs resembled crocodiles.

Rutiodon validus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Crocodiles didn’t change much in the past 80 million years.

Crocodile (image from Wikimedia Commons)

But dinosaurs changed a lot and the Theropod dinosaurs became birds!

Microraptor gui (artistic restoration from Wikimedia Commons)

These unlikely relatives reunite at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park where wild birds nest in the trees above the crocodiles.

Rookery at St. Augustine Alligator Farm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saltwater crocodile at St. Augustine Alligator Farm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, diagram derived from Creative Commons licensed cladogram; click on the captions to see the originals)

How To Find Dinosaur Teeth

Closeup of Tyrannosaurus rex , a theropod from the Cretaceous of South Dakota, Field Museum, Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do paleontologists find fossils? Better yet, how do they find small bits such as tiny dinosaur teeth?

Saurornitholestes and his teeth (screenshot from video)

In Wyoming they get help from ants.

In the video below Australian paleontologist Mikael Siversson (“Birds are dinosaurs”) describes a trip he and a colleague made to Wyoming dinosaur country in the late 1990s. The video starts with a picture of the Badlands as he begins to tell the story. Watch for four minutes — or longer if you want to learn about dinosaur teeth. It involves bathtubs.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from video; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. The toothy mouth pictured at top is the reconstructed skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a theropod ancestor of birds. Did birds have teeth? You bet!