Category Archives: Schenley Park

Living Fossils in Pittsburgh

Base of a dawn redwood in front of Phipps Conservatory, Jan 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month Tree Pittsburgh is featuring the dawn redwood as their Tree of the Month so I walked to Phipps Conservatory to see four of the living fossils. On the way I found a fifth near the Cathedral of Learning.

Dawn redwood on Pitt’s campus next to the Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Chapel in the background (photo by Kate St. John)

Endangered in the wild, the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is the only survivor of the genus Metasequoia from the age of the dinosaurs. It was thought to be extinct until a single living tree was discovered in 1941 in the village of Moudao in Hubei province, China.

The discovery happened in the nick of time. The tree would have gone extinct by now were it not for local protection and a seed-collecting expedition in 1947 that distributed seeds to ornamental gardens and arboretums around the world. Joe Stavish tells the story in Tree Pittsburgh’s video.

Tree of the Month: Dawn Redwood from Tree Pittsburgh on Vimeo.

Across the lawn the dawn redwoods at Phipps smile to other living fossils in Pittsburgh — the ginkgos that line Schenley Drive.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Rise and Fall of Panther Hollow Lake

Panther Hollow Lake: Normal level (left) 29 Dec 2017, Flooded (right) 4 Dec 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

16 January 2021

This winter Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park rose to flood level in late November, remained flooded for almost two months, and fell suddenly last week. Here’s the story of the rise and fall of Panther Hollow Lake.

Panther Hollow Lake, which is actually the size of a pond, was built around 1904 by damming the fresh water of Panther Hollow Run and piping its outflow into the combined sewer system of what had been Four Mile Run, the creek that used to receive it. Buried in Junction Hollow the big pipe passes under a neighborhood called The Run on its way to the Monongahela River.

For decades that pipe has been too small to handle heavy rain so sewage backs up in The Run, dangerously flooding streets and basements. In 2019 as part of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Project, a smart valve was placed in the lake’s outflow pipe to hold back fresh water during heavy rain events, then release it slowly after the danger passes. In this way Panther Hollow Lake rises and falls a little to protect the downstream neighborhood.

Normally the water level is low enough that the concrete-step edge is visible as shown at top left and on 19 Nov 2020 below.

But the valve malfunctioned or clogged in late November. By 25 November water was climbing the edge and by 4 December the lake was obviously flooded (top photo at right). An alternate channel kept the water from rising further but you couldn’t walk around the lake until someone beat a path above the water line.

On Wednesday 13 January I circumnavigated the still-flooded lake. The next day someone fixed the valve and the lake began to fall rapidly, cracking and levering ice around the edge.

Here’s what it looked like on Friday 15 January 2021, back to normal water level.

Sheets of ice lever up as Panther Hollow Lake level falls, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ice thickness revealed, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ice stranded above water at Panther Hollow Lake, 15 January 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ice was still settling and cracking when I stopped to record the sound last Friday. Listen to it pop and groan. You can also hear a Carolina chickadee and a song sparrow at the end.

Read more about the Panther Hollow Watershed and the origin of Panther Hollow Lake in this March 2018 blog by Krissy Hopkins: From Hill to Hollow The Evolution of Panther Hollow Watershed.

p.s. And, yes, a stream is called a “Run” in Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Maryland. Derek Watkins’ map of Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous U.S., generated from GNIS data, shows the places where people use different words for Creek including: Branch, fork, run, brook, kill, stream, bayou, swamp, slough, wash, cañada, arroyo, rio. (Click here to see his map.)

Note: Watkins did not include regional pronunciations such as “crick” because the data he used from GNIS spells it “creek.”

(photos by Kate St. John)

Photos of the Week: Cold and Warm

Icicles lean inward, deformed by the wind, 18 December 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 December 2020, Pittsburgh

Nestled between two bouts of winter on Dec 16 and 25 the snow melted and the birds fed frantically before snow and bitter cold returned.

The melting began right after heavy snow stopped on Dec 17. The wind that day was so steady that dripping icicles leaned away from it. Then the wind dropped and new icicles formed straight down. (photo above)

While the deep snow lasted I found many tracks in Schenley Park including evidence of humans and …

Evidence of humans in the snow, Schenley Park, 19 December 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

… evidence of white-tailed deer, below. With the rut still in progress it looks as if the deer are leaving “calling cards” on the snow. (Can you tell me more about this brownish (maybe) urine? I found it in several locations.)

Evidence of deer, footprints and dark urine, Schenley Park, 19 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 22 December the snow was mostly gone when I found a pumpkin graveyard on Aloe Street in Bloomfield.

Pumpkin graveyard, Aloe St. Bloomfield, 22 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The next day’s “red sky at morn” presaged Christmas Eve’s all-day rain.

Red skies forewarn a winter storm, 23 December 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 24 December cherry trees started to bloom on Craig Street. It was 57oF.

Cherry trees start to bloom in Oakland, 57 degrees F and rain on 24 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And then it turned cold.

A white Christmas, overcast sky, 25 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

More Than Nine Inches

City lights glow on the snow and clouds, Pittsburgh at dawn 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 December 2020

It began snowing here in Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, 16 December 2020, and didn’t stop for 17.5 hours. By 7:30 the next morning there were 9.25 inches of snow in Oakland. City lights glowed against the snow and clouds.

9.25″ of snow in Oakland, 17 Dec 2020, 7:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I took a long walk to Pitt’s campus, Carnegie Library and Schenley Park to appreciate the beauty. Here are a few of the scenes I encountered.

Red Euonymus leaves peek out of the snow, Univ of Pittsburgh, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
White trees frame the Cathedral of Learning, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bach, Shakespeare, and Dippy wear snowy blankets at Carnegie Museum, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Richard St. John)
This meadow near Schenley’s Westinghouse Fountain offers seeds for sparrows and juncos, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sweetgum seed balls wear snowy caps, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

On my way home I found one of Santa’s elves near the Library!

Santa’s elf or fire hydrant? 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Though the snow didn’t melt it did compress in 24 hours. Here are two snapshots of the Pitt peregrine nestbox at 7:30am on Thurs 17 Dec and Fri 18 Dec. Though there is still a lot of snow it is not as daunting, even if it hasn’t been shoveled.

No peregrines visited the nest yesterday but I know they are present. I saw Morela perched on a gargoyle.

UPDATE 18 Dec 2020, 4:08pm: Morela examines the snow.

(photos by Kate St. John; statues photo by Richard St. John)

Crow Update, Dec 14

Crows in winter (photo by Oliver via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 December 2020

Now that it’s mid December Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has chosen favorite roosts but continues to adjust the location in subtle ways, especially when it’s cold.

In October they switched sites abruptly — here today, gone tomorrow. In November they focused in Oakland and tried for Schenley Farms. On the 18th I watched the flock hover from four blocks away, then heard a distant BANG! a single banger firework. The crows made a U turn in the sky and didn’t come back.

This month the flock has split into several roosts including rooftops and trees at Bouquet and Sennott, at Fifth and Thackeray, and perhaps at University Prep in the Hill District. On 11 December I followed them to the Hill where I found them staging at Rampart Street, Herron near Milwaukee, and University Prep.

But I don’t know where they sleep. I plan to count them on 26 December for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count so if you see them sleeping somewhere let me know!

Meanwhile, the flock’s incursion into Oakland prompted this tongue-in-check tourism video by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy interns, posted on 20 November.

The crows and I recognize a lot of places in the video. 😉

(photo by Oliver via Flickr Creative Commons license)

p.s. Last evening I found 3,000 crows staging at the back of Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park but it’s not where they sleep. I saw them leave.

Picture Of The Week

Merlin eating a junco at sunset, 7 Dec 2020, Schenley Park golf course (photo by Kate St. John)

12 December 2020

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you’ve seen my best photo of the week, perhaps for the whole year, with only a brief description: Merlin eating a junco at sunset, Schenley Park golf course, 7 December 2020. Here’s the back story.

This week Pittsburgh suffered through six days in a row of unrelenting overcast “Pittsburgh Gray” skies. During that period there was only one moment when the sun made an appearance and I was determined to be outdoors with a big view of the sky when it happened: The Gleam At Sunset on Monday December 7.

During winter Pittsburgh often has overcast skies all day and clear skies at night. When the transition happens at sunset you can see clear sky approaching from Ohio but it will arrive too late to enjoy the sun. We have 10 minutes of happy sunshine and then it’s dark. The Gleam At Sunset.

The Gleam at Sunset, 30 Jan 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

A gleam was predicted for Monday so I walked to Schenley Park golf course to reach high open ground. The sky started to clear. The sunset was going to be beautiful.

Passing through Fezziwig Grove, I began to think about the merlin(s) that visit the golf course in winter. As I scanned the dead snags a merlin flew in with prey, a dark-eyed junco. My cellphone is not a robust camera so I positioned myself for the merlin silhouette.

I was lucky to photograph both: a merlin and The Gleam at Sunset.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Partly Cloudy?

Partly cloudy sky, Thanksgiving Day 2020, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Pittsburgh’s November cloud forecasts often leave me scratching my head. What does “Partly Cloudy” mean?

Thanksgiving Day was partly cloudy. See that tiny patch of blue, above? That’s the sunny bit. No, it did not rain.

The official NWS forecast Sky Conditions ought to shed some light (copied below). Though the cloud cover percentages are fixed the names are flexible and disappointing. Mostly Cloudy has two definitions (see italics) and Cloudy is an anemic word for Pittsburgh’s really Overcast skies.

National Weather Service Sky Conditions

Sky ConditionOpaque Cloud Coverage
Cloudy / Overcast88% - 100%
Mostly Cloudy / Considerable Cloudiness70% - 87%
Partly Sunny / Mostly Cloudy51% - 69%
Mostly Sunny / Partly Cloudy26% - 50%
Sunny / Mostly Clear6% - 25%
Sunny / Clear0% - 5%

Something was brewing in the sky below. Would it be Mostly or Partly Cloudy … or Partly Sunny?

An hour later it was calmer and “Mostly” something.

What would the weatherman call this sky condition (below)? Mostly Cloudy? Cloudy? Overcast?

Cloudy? (photo by Kate St. John)

While pondering the answer, look for four crows among the clouds.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Trees With Leaves Are…

Yellow leaves and bare trees, Schenley Park, 23 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 November 2020

By now all the leaves have fallen in the Pittsburgh area. Or have they? There are still a few trees with bright yellow leaves in Schenley Park — Norway maples.

As their name implies Norway maples (Acer platanoides) were imported from Europe where their native range extends further north than Pittsburgh.  Our short November days are the same length as those they experience in October back home.  The sun will be up for 9 hours and 39 minutes today, 24 November, in western Pennsylvania.  That’s the day length on 21 October in Oslo, Norway.

Right now our native trees are bare or retain just a few yellow leaves at the very top (tuliptrees) or dried brown leaves overall (oaks and beeches).

Because non-native plants are out of synch with our seasons late November is the best time of year to see them in the landscape.

The trees with leaves are aliens!

Fun fact: Pittsburgh’s latitude is very far south of Scandinavia. Did you know we are on the same latitude as Madrid, Spain?

Quiz: What North American city is nearly the same latitude as London, England? The answer is surprising.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Sunrise, Ice, First Snow

Sunrise, 19 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 November 2020

Last week it was again both cold and warm.

At dawn on Thursday morning, 19 November, sunrise lit the clouds after a clear, cold night. Ice had started to form on Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow Lake. It was 6 degrees below normal on the day before.

First ice on Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 19 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two days earlier we had our first daytime snow in the city.

By Friday 20 November the temperature was 17 degrees above normal(*).

No more ice.

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

(*) The normal average on 20 November is 41 degrees F in Pittsburgh.

A Week of Summer and Fall

Lichen at Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 November 2020

This week in Pittsburgh began with several days of summer and ended with autumn frost. The scenery was beautiful and well worth the time outdoors.

Above, lichen clings to a dead hemlock at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Below, as of Thursday 12 November 2020 the trees were not bare in Schenley Park.

The trees are not bare yet in Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Rick St. John)

But this one is.

Dead tree, blue sky, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ginkgos rapidly lost their leaves in the rain on 11 November.

Ginkgos dropping leaves in Schenley Park, 11 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Many fruits and seeds.

Porcelainberry ripening, Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Goldenrod gone to seed, 9 Nov 2020, Churchill Valley Greenway (photo by Kate St. John)

Can you tell me what plant this is? I found it at the base of red pines at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Is it parasitic?

Wrinkled club fungus, Moraine State Park, Muddy Creek Trail, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE 14 NOVEMBER 2020: Master gardener Dianne Machesney says this plant is Wrinkled club fungus (Clavulina rugosa). Judy Stark put my photo into iNaturalist and the app said so, too. Wikipedia says it is edible.

It’s colder now but there’s still time to get outdoors.

Outdoors is the safest place now that COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in the U.S. Pittsburgh Public Schools have gone fully remote again. Please wear a mask.

(photos by Kate & Rick St. John)