Category Archives: Schenley Park

Seen This Week In Schenley Park

Witch hazel flowering in Schenley Park, 24 Dec 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I found three things in Schenley Park on Christmas Eve:

  • Witch hazel blooming,
  • Gray squirrels searching for nuts,
  • An eastern screech-owl at his roost.

Tiny spider webs span a few petals of the witch hazel flower shown above. These winter flowers are pollinated at night by owlet moths.

Squirrels were busy in Schenley Park this week. Some are so black that they look like a black hole in the landscape. Despite his color he’s just an eastern gray squirrel.

A gray squirrel who’s black in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

This particular eastern screech-owl has been spending the winter in Schenley Park since at least 2015-2016. I saw him on Christmas Eve but my cellphone photo was too poor to use. Here’s a photo I took in January 2017.

Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Eastern screech-owl, Schenley Park, 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t forget to spend time outdoors in late December. There are still cool things to see.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Helps Stop The Flood

These signs announcing the closure of Schenley Park’s Bridle Trail and some tree removals are actually good news. Here’s why.

Pittsburghers are among the 40 million people in the U.S. who use combined sewer systems that carry both rainwater and sewage. Built between the 1860s and 1920s the pipes dumped directly into our rivers until the 1950s when Allegheny County opened a sewage treatment plant. (Fortunately, Pittsburgh has been disinfecting drinking water since 1911.)

By now our sewers are over 100 years old and too small to handle heavy rain. In some places it takes only a 1/4 inch to cause a sewer overflow, sending toilet paper to the rivers. Meanwhile climate change has brought frequent heavy downpours that flood some valleys with sewage, including the neighborhood below Schenley Park.

That neighborhood, called The Run, is located at the base of Four Mile Run’s watershed where all the old sewers converge before reaching the Monongahela River (highlighted in red on the 3D map below).

3D map of Schenley Park and The Run from 4mr.org (notes in red by Kate St. John)

You’ve probably never visited The Run but you’ve seen it’s most famous building from the Parkway East, the onion domes of Andy Warhol’s family church, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church down in The Run (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Run bears the brunt of heavy downpours when the sewers back up into basements and streets. The Greenfield Community Association’s website has video plus photos of a manhole spouting 20 feet under the Parkway bridge.

Sewage floods The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

People are sometimes trapped by the floods in The Run. On 28 August 2016 a father and son had to crawl through the sunroof when their car was swamped on Saline Street. Click here for photos of the flood and rescue.

Father and son waiting for rescue, escaped through the sunroof of their flooded car, The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

The less rainwater that enters the sewer system the better it is for The Run. Toward that end the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PGH2O) is working in Schenley Park for the next several months, building detention swales along Overlook Drive and the Bridle Trail to channel stormwater away from the sewer system.

When the project is done they’ll plant more trees than they removed.

Schenley Park will help stop the flood.

For more information, see Channeling The Energy of Fast Moving Rain

(photos of signs by Kate St. John, photos of flood by Justin Macey, maps from 4mr.org)

A Very Thorny Problem

Invasive wineberry, Rubus phoenicolasius (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week this thorny alien showed off its armor in Schenley Park.

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) is an Asian member of the Rose family that was introduced to North America in the 1890s as breeding stock for raspberries. What a mistake! It became invasive in less than 100 years.

Wineberry is easy to distinguish from native raspberries because, in addition to thorns, the stems are coated with sharp red hairs. The stems look red from afar and dangerous up close.

Wineberry canes (Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

During the growing season wineberry resembles other raspberries with leaves that are white underneath and clustered flowers and fruits.

Wineberry leaves (photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)
Wineberry foliage and developing fruit (photo by Richard Gardner, bugwood.org)

However, wineberry fruits are bright red.

Wineberry fruit (photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org)

I’m sure the fruit is good for birds but it’s practically inaccessible to other wildlife because the plant is so formidable.

Whether you’re trying to pick its fruit, cross the thicket, or remove the plant, wineberry is a very thorny problem.

Read more about wineberry and its invasive properties at New York Invasive Species Information: Wineberry.

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from bugwood.org. See photo credits and links to the originals in the captions.)

Today in Schenley Park, Sep 29

Participants at Schenley Park outing on 29 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

This morning 12 of us gathered at the Bartlett Shelter to kick off a bird walk in Schenley Park. The weather was very gray and cloudy, almost foggy, and we worked hard for every bird for more an hour and a half.

Then the sun came out at 10am and so did the birds. Our best sightings were in the last 15 minutes. We ran overtime to see them!

Our list below, 27 species, has my favorites in boldface type. There were so many birds in the last 15 minutes that I may have missed some. Here it is on eBird: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S60218049

Mourning Dove 3
Chimney Swift 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 (First of fall)
Red-bellied Woodpecker 8
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 5
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Eastern Phoebe 1
Blue Jay 18
American Crow 1
Carolina Chickadee 2
Carolina Wren 3
European Starling 2
Gray Catbird 2
Brown Thrasher 1
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 16
House Finch 3
American Goldfinch 1
Song Sparrow 1
Common Grackle 100 (big flock flying over the golf course)
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 3
Northern Cardinal 6

Thanks to all for coming out today. Never expected it to be so great at the end!

p.s. Chipmunks did outnumber blue jays — barely — but common grackles beat them all.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Outing, Sep 29, 8:30a

Blue jay and chipmunk (photos by Chuck Tague and Brian Herman)

Fall officially arrived this week though it’s been in progress for a while. Trees and plants are gradually losing leaves, squirrels are storing food for the winter and birds are migrating. It’s a good time to be outdoors.

Join me for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday, 29 September 2019, 8:30a – 10:30a. We’ll meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street because the north end of Schenley will be hard to get to. Forbes and Fifth Avenues will be closed for the Pittsburgh Great Race.

We’re sure to see birds, lingering flowers, fruits and acorns. Acorns are a big attraction for chipmunks and blue jays. Last week the number of blue jays exploded when migrating jays arrived in town. Will there be more blue jays than chipmunks? Come and see.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them. NOTE that a fallen tree blocks part of the Falloon Trail trail so we’ll have to go off the beaten path. Be prepared to walk on dirt with roots and rocks. A walking stick may be useful.

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

(photo credits: blue jay by Chuck Tague, chipmunk by Brian Herman)

Fringetree Fruit

Fringetree fruit, 31 August 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

One advantage of botanizing the same place over and over again is that you get to know what grows where. You remember a plant that draws attention in the spring, forget it in the summer when it’s boring, then notice it again in fall. Because it’s in the same location, you know what it is.

The identity of this dangling blue fruit was a puzzle until I remembered that it’s hanging from the fringetree that put on a floral show in May.

One flower of a fringetree in Schenley Park, 18 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
One flower of a fringetree in Schenley Park, 18 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each flower can become a blue fruit.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Schenley Park Outing, Aug 25, 8:30a

Orange jewelweed, “touch-me-not” (photo by Kate St. John)

Late summer flowers are blooming, bugs are buzzing, and the first migrating birds are on the move.

Join me for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday, 25 August 2019, 8:30a – 10:30a. Meet at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center where Panther Hollow Road joins Schenley Drive. 

I know we’ll hear True Bugs and see lots of summer flowers. We might even catch a glimpse of a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding at orange jewelweed.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them. If it’s hot be sure to bring water, sunscreen and a hat.

Visit my Events page before you come in case of changes or cancellations. The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning.

Hope to see you there!

(photo by Kate St. John)

Is This Bug True?

Here’s lookin’ at ya! Deceased annual cicada, Neotibicen sp. (photo by Kate St. John)

All bugs are insects but not all insects are true bugs. Is this cicada a true bug? The answer is complicated.

According to Ask A Biologist, true bugs are insects with:

  • A long slender beak-shaped mouth part (proboscis) for sucking liquid food.
  • A partially hardened pair of front wings with clear tips and completely clear rear wings shorter than the front ones.
  • Few joints in the antennae and feet: antennae about five joints, feet usually no more than three.

Cicadas have these characteristics so they and 50,000 to 80,000 other insects are in the “true bug” Order Hempitera. This tiny green flatid planthopper is too.

Flatid planthopper hiding on a bottlebrush buckeye stem in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

But their status is more complicated. These two are true bugs but not true “True Bugs.”

Within Hempitera there’s a suborder of really True Bugs called Heteroptera. Cicadas, planthoppers, spittlebugs, aphids, and adelgids aren’t in this suborder. (See taxonomic chart from bugguide.net below.)

BugGuide’s taxonomy for the order Hempitera (screenshot from bugguide.net)

Encyclopedia Britannica says you can recognize Heteroptera by the X shaped design on their backs. Here are three true True Bugs I’ve seen in Pittsburgh this month.

This green and brown shield bug (probably Elasmostethus artricornis) is native to North America. I found several perched on American spikenard in Schenley Park.

A true bug, probably a shield bug (photo by Kate St. John)

The invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs are mating this month. I found this pair at Washington’s Landing.

Brown marmorated stinkbugs mating (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, I think this is a leaf-footed bug because of the swollen leaf-like segments on his hind legs.

Probably a leaf-footed bug (photo by Kate St. John)

Wondering if a bug is true? It’s a safe bet that it isn’t. Most insects are not, including dragonflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, flies and fleas.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Very Tame

White-tailed deer are numerous and very tame in Schenley Park. Last week I encountered a doe with twin fawns near the swimming pool.

The family became alert while I was staring at them, but the mother has learned that we humans aren’t dangerous and is teaching it to her kids. How many generations does it take for the herd to become this tame?

Doe in Schenley Park, 29 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)
Her twin fawns, 29 July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

In the past ten years I’ve seen the landscape change in Schenley Park while the deer population has grown exponentially. Where there used to be thick slopes of false Solomon’s seal and yellow jewelweed there is nothing green now, just carpets of fallen leaves. Having eaten the good stuff they are working on less tasty food, avoiding the poisonous plants such as white snakeroot at their feet in these photos. Some day their range will fail them.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like A Mountain,” A Sand County Almanac

p.s. Click here for a photo of an 8-point buck I saw in the park yesterday, August 3.

p.p.s. Also see this article: Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

(photos by Kate St. John, Schenley Park, 29 July 2019)

Why So Many Landslides?

After a rainy period or spring thaw in Pittsburgh we inevitably see devastating landslides on the news. Why does Pittsburgh have so many landslides and why are they associated with rain or moisture?

The problem is a combination of a particular bedrock with our steep hillsides. Where both are present the location is landslide prone, as shown on the City of Pittsburgh map below. (Click here to see the City’s interactive landslide-prone map and zoom in for details. Click here for the Allegheny County interactive landslide map.)

Landslide prone areas (screenshot from Pittsburgh GIS Data Download Page)

The house in the video above was inside a landslide zone on Semicir Street overlooking Riverview Park. Add water and … the house collapsed!

The bedrock at fault is Pittsburgh redbed, a claystone that disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces if exposed to pressure when it’s wet. Redbed is usually under pressure because it’s underneath solid rock and overlying soil. Add water to a steep slope and you have a landslide.

This sandstone boulder on the Bridle Trail in Schenley Park was part of the escarpment above it until the redbed layer beneath it gave way.

An old landslide in Schenley Park on the Bridle Trail, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s a future landslide on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail. This sandstone boulder, high above my head, will fall some day because the slow drip of water over the boulder has disintegrated the underlying redbed. Notice the reddish crumbled stones.

Sandstone boulder is undercut, a landslide waiting to happen at Lower Panther Hollow Trail, Schenley Park, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I had read that Pittsburgh redbed disintegrates when wet but I wanted to see for myself so I gathered some redbed rocks and ran an experiment.

Thousands of years ago these small crumbles were a much bigger solid rock but water had already acted on them. Will the crumbles disintegrate in the presence of water and pressure? I kept some rocks dry and soaked others for a day. Here’s my experiment.

Add water and pressure to Pittsburgh redbed claystone and … Watch out below!

p.s. For a really spectacular landslide, check out what happened to Route 30 in East Pittsburgh in April 2018.

(photos and redbed experiment by Kate St. John, house collapse video embedded from WTAE Pittsburgh on YouTube, map from Pittsburgh GIS Data)