Category Archives: Schenley Park

Sunrise and Heat

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 18 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 October 2020

Last week there was frost in the suburbs on 17 October. This week 23 October was unusually hot at 78-80 degrees F (26C) in Schenley Park. I had to wear summer clothes yesterday but will wear warm clothes tomorrow when it’s 38F. Join me at 8:30am at Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park. Wear a mask.

Though it felt like July this week I found some beautiful autumn scenes in Pittsburgh.

Above, the sun rose red at 7:34am on 18 October for 11 hours of daylight. Today we’ll have only 10 hours 45 minutes of cloudy light.

Frick Park was golden yellow on 21 October.

Frick Park, 21 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Panther Hollow Bridge cast a shadow on Schenley Park’s trees yesterday morning, 23 Oct.

Schenley Park, Panther Hollow Lake, 23 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. You can tell it was a hot week in Schenley by the presence of algae on the water’s surface.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Outing, Oct 25, 8:30a

White-throated sparrow reaches for a berry (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in March I canceled all my 2020 outings because of COVID-19. The disease has not disappeared — in fact it’s resurging now in the U.S. and Allegheny County — but we’ve learned more about how it spreads and the relative safety of being outdoors. Today I’m announcing my first and probably last outing of 2020 (winter is coming).

Next Sunday morning, 25 October 2020, I will hold an outing in Schenley Park with restrictions to keep us safe.

  • UPDATE: FEW PEOPLE HAVE SIGNED UP (cold weather) so there is no chance of too many of us. Meet me at 8:30am at Bartlett Shelter(*) .
  • Everyone must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
  • We’ll social distance as we walk.

We’re sure to see fruits, seeds and fallen leaves. Birds may be few but there will certainly be acorns, chipmunks and blue jays. Will we find a white-throated sparrow? I hope so.

To prepare: WEAR A MASK. Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.

Visit my Events page before you come in case of changes or cancellations.

(*) ORIGINAL TEXT SAID: Participation will be limited. To join you must “register” by leaving a comment on this blog post (not in Facebook). I will respond via email & tell you where and when to meet.

Fall Color at Its Best

Sassafras leaves, Schenley Park, 10 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week was a spectacular time for fall color in the Pittsburgh area. Schenley Park was especially beautiful as brilliant red sugar maples gave way to subtler sassafras, ash, buckeye and sweet gum.


Ash leaves, Schenley Park, 12 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Subtle violet tinge of ash leaves, Schenley Park, 12 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Buckeye leaves, Schenley Park, 10 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sweet gum leaves, Schenley Park, 10 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

By Tuesday the brightest red leaves had fallen to the ground. The forest shifted to yellow.

Fallen maple leaves, Schenley Park, 13 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bridle Trail, Schenley Park, 13 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Falloon Trail near Westinghouse Shelter, Schenley Park, 10 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Lower Panther Hollow Trail, Schenley Park, 12 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Watch For Amazing Flocks This Fall

Migrating flock of common grackles take over the trees (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the breeding season is over birds have gathered for migration and the winter.

Early this week 50 common grackles leapfrogged over the trees and forest floor as they searched for food and bathed in Panther Hollow Run. (This photo gives you an idea of their abundance.)

Cedar waxwing numbers peaked in Schenley Park in early October when they devoured most of the porcelain berries. They’ll spend the winter further south, for instance in Memphis, Tennessee where this photo was taken.

Cedar waxwing flock feeding on the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pine siskins were everywhere a couple of days ago. Are they still visiting your feeders? Where will they head next?

Pine siskin flock in Minnesota (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Starlings numbers are building in Pittsburgh as northern visitors arrive. Soon there will be thousands.

European starlings overhead, Maryland (photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Crow numbers are building too. Last weekend I counted 2,400 but more arrived last night. Eventually the flock will look like this video from 2011. Where will they roost? Stay tuned.

Watch for spectacular flocks this fall. Let me know what you see.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Mr. T in DC, video by Sharon Leadbitter. Click the captions to see the originals)

Without Columbus

12 October 2020, Columbus Day in Pennsylvania

This statue in Schenley Park was celebrated when it was erected by the Italian-American Sons of Columbus in 1958 but has been a source of controversy in recent decades. Last week the decision came down to send it to a private location. The only remaining questions are where and when.

Columbus meant nothing in the British colonies until writers began celebrating him (in female form “Columbia”) when we broke with Britain in the 1760s. We needed a non-British origin story so after we won independence the legend expanded, was added to textbooks, and was used to gain Italian immigrant support (especially in NYC) beginning in the late 1800s. The legend started to crumble in the 1970s when we began discussing the real history of the man and his era in the Americas.

His legend was created to fill a gap and now the legend is fading. What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic? Here’s how things might have been different.

The coronavirus pandemic gives us an inkling of what it was like when Columbus and the Spanish explorers brought pandemic to this part of the world. It changed the western hemisphere.

Before Columbus, the human population in the Americas was larger than that of Europe. The landscape, animals and birds were balanced by the pressure of so many people living in North, Central and South America.  When European explorers accidentally left behind pigs that carried human disease, native Americans encountered the free-range pigs, had no immunity and spread the plagues through human contact.

The Western Hemisphere suddenly lost 95% of its human population in only 150 years.  Remove the keystone species and you get some pretty weird results.  European settlers didn’t see the transformation so they thought what they found was normal including the endless forest, huge bison herds and billions of passenger pigeons.

Illustration of female passenger pigeon (from Wikimedia Commons)

Without Columbus the Americas would have been a very different place but the pressure of human population growth would have prompted someone to come here anyway, just not him.

Find out more about the New World before Columbus in this book –> 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)

p.s. The history of the Christopher Columbus legend is described here in the Washington Post.

Today the Schenley Park Columbus statue is covered in white plastic, probably to protect it from the vandalism that targets it on Columbus Day since 1997.

Christopher Columbus statues is shrouded, October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Signs of Fall

Sun rays on a misty morning in Schenley Park, 8 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 September 2020

Fall is in the air in Pittsburgh as sun rays peek through autumn mist in Schenley Park.

Below, though the large ash trees have died of emerald ash borer the small ones still put out leaves that turn unique colors. These are on their way from yellow to lavender.

White ash leaves turn a variety of colors in fall, Schenley Park, 18 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Teasel flower heads (dipsacus sp.) have dried, leaving the husk that’s a “natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.” It’s hard to imagine holding this prickly husk to do the job. Use gloves, of course.

All summer we noticed curly dock (Rumex crispus) leaves and not the flowers. Now our attention is reversed because the seeds have turned a rich brown. The stalk is ugly, however the seeds are fascinating up close, each one surrounded by the calyx that produced them. The papery wings allow them to float on water and fly a bit in the wind.

Curly dock, gone to seed, Schenley Park, 17 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The most obvious sign of fall is the temperature. 43 degrees F at dawn today. Speaking of gloves, you’ll need them when you go birding in the morning.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Porcelain and Primrose

Porcelain berry, Three Rivers Heritage Trail, 7 Sep 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In September porcelain berry’s (Ampelopsis glandulosa) beautiful porcelain-like fruits show why the plant was imported as an ornamental.

Porcelainberry, 3 Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh, 7 Sep 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately this Asian vine is terribly invasive, engulfing small trees and draping itself over large ones.

Porcelain berry drapes a hillside in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Some people call it “wild grape” but you’ll never see grapes on it. Just porcelain berries.

This month you’ll find common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) blooming in meadows, along roads and bike trails. The name implies that it opens only in the evening but I photographed these at midday. The flowers are 1-2 inches wide. The plants are hard to miss at six feet tall.

Common evening primrose, Eliza Furnace Trail, 7 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Common evening primrose buds, Eliza Furnace Trail, 7 Sept 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, bug love continues. This pair of goldenrod soldier beetles (also called Pennsylvania leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus)) are perched on a flower in the Aster family while working to continue their species.

Spend time outdoors this week while the weather is good. Autumn is beautiful and all too short.

p.s. Thank you to Monica Miller and John English for correcting my bug identification mistake!

p.p.s. Did you notice that Pennsylvania is misspelled in the bug’s scientific name (only 1 ‘n’). This is not the only species with this misspelling. Can you name another?

(photos by Kate St. John)

Yellow Leaves, Seeds and Goats

Spicebush hints at autumn, Schenley Park, 26 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 August 2020

It’s beginning to look like fall is coming though it hasn’t felt that way. This past week was hot and muggy yet spicebush leaves are starting to turn yellow and many flowers have gone to seed.

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) now has long green bean pods.

Wild senna seed pods, Schenley Park, 27 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

How did these flowers transform into beans?

Meanwhile at Frick Park the goats and their guard donkey are back in the large enclosure at Clayton East, munching away at invasive plants. The black goat at the fence is eating mile-a-minute weed on the fencing. Yay!

The goats are back! Frick Park, 28 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information about the goats see this month’s announcement. If you’d like to see the goats at work here’s a map of Frick Park’s Clayton area and the goats’ approximate location.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; see the captions for photo credits)

August Flowers, Spotty Rain

Tansy at the meadow at Frick Park, 14 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week brought a profusion of August flowers and very localized rain.

Above, tansy’s rayless flower heads look like daisies without petals. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) has only one kind of flower — the small yellow ones in the central disk. Daisies have two kinds — the central disk plus white flower rays.

Below, cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) is blooming in Schenley Park showing off the cupped leaves that give it its name.

Cup plant, Schenley Park, 10 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Leaves join at the stem to make a cup on cup plant, Schenley Park, 10 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) is invasive but the flower sure is pretty.

Spotted knapweed, Frick Park meadow, 14 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) can be invasive, too, though the flower lasts only a day.

Asiatic dayflower, Duck Hollow, 8 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

This week brought rain to our new home north of Schenley Park and continuing drought just south of here. At home on 11 August it rained so hard that a bug took shelter on our window. Its location 70 feet off the ground explains why chimney swifts fly so high.

A bug took shelter from the rain at our new home north of Schenley, 11 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

While the bug was avoiding rain north of Schenley, no rain fell in the park just a mile away.

There’s still a drought in Schenley Park, 12 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s a very localized drought.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Ravagers of Jewelweed

Jewelweed browsed by deer, Schenley Park, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seven years ago yellow (Impatiens pallida) and orange (Impatiens capensis) jewelweed were so plentiful in Schenley Park that their flowers attracted bumblebees, hummingbirds and my own curiosity. I often blogged about them as in this August 2013 article: Experiments with Jewelweed.

But all that has changed. In the last seven years the deer population in Schenley Park has exploded. Without predators deer can double their population in just two to three years. Two deer became 16 … and Schenley started with more than 2.

Meanwhile, edible plants have not increased exponentially and they can’t keep up with the heavy browsing. Jewelweed is a deer favorite so it’s routinely “mowed” to ankle height.

A large patch of jewelweed ‘mowed’ by deer, Schenley Park, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

A few individuals are able to sprout new leaves while the deer consume other areas but these recovering plants are few and far between.

This summer it’s hard to find a complete plant.

Jewelweed sprouts after deer browsing, Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The situation bothers me but has posed real problems for Andrea Fetters of the University of Pittsburgh who is studying pollen-associated viruses in Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida. She has so few study objects in Schenley Park that she’s had to add study sites north of Pittsburgh where jewelweed thrives because deer aren’t so plentiful.

Unfortunately the number of deer in Schenley Park is not going down any time soon. Predators, other than cars, would solve the problem. My friend Andrea Boykowycz suggests cougars, the “Pitt panther” mascot. It would be fitting to have two in Panther Hollow. Well, we already do but they’re frozen in place.

One of two panther statues at the Panther Hollow Bridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, the ravagers of jewelweed keep eating.

(photos by Kate St. John)