The Clouds Predict

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 15 January 2021, 7:26am (photo by Kate St. John)

16 January 2021

Red sky at morn, sailors forewarn.

Sunrise on Friday 15 January was a deep crimson red. Though it was sunny for a couple of hours yesterday, gusty wind arrived at 9:30a and rain followed five hours later.

Mackerel sky without rain.

Sky over Frick Park, 9 Jan 2021, 2:30pm

A mackerel sky can predict rain 6-8 hours later, but that wasn’t the case over Frick Park on Saturday 9 January 2021. The day was brilliantly sunny for two hours but became overcast by 5p. These clouds were the leading edge.

Are they a “mackerel sky” or not? What do you think?

Meanwhile, I’d say the bottom right corner is a Harbinger of Gloom.

p.s. See the comments below and this video for the definition of a mackerel sky. Indeed this is an altocumulus one.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Another Polar Vortex?

15 January 2021

Seven years ago we were in the grips of subzero temperatures as the wobbly jet stream drove arctic air south over the U.S. It was called the arrival of the Polar Vortex.

Seven years ago on 6 January 2014 much of the U.S. was below zero as shown on the map below. Pittsburgh was above freezing that day but the warmth ended soon as the blob of cold air headed east.

This winter has been mild and the jet stream has been behaving. But a sudden stratospheric warming event occurred in the arctic in early January 2021. The warmth made the arctic vortex unstable. Meteorologists speculated: Are we in for another polar vortex in the Lower 48? Will we have a major cold snap?

Not necessarily. NEWS CENTER Maine in Portland has a good explanation of what’s going on, published on Monday 11 Jan 2021. (This news is for Mainers but it applies to us, too.)

Meanwhile it’s quite warm across the U.S. Here’s the same U.S. temperature map seven years later, published today 15 January 2021.

Read about the original polar vortex in this 2014 article: Polar Vortex.

(graphics from NOAA; click on the captions to see their origins)

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Ravens In Pittsburgh!

Raven in Schenley Park, 4 Jan 2021 (photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis)

13 January 2021

The smartest bird in the western hemisphere, the common raven (Corvus corax), has come to town and is claiming nest sites in the City of Pittsburgh. Ravens have been seen in Schenley Park, above, and are regularly found at Forbes Avenue in Frick Park. This is a big deal because…

Common ravens were extirpated from eastern North America by 1900. After 1950 they slowly recolonized remote areas of the north and Appalachians but were rarely seen in eastern cities. We were very surprised when a pair showed up at Brunot’s Island in October 2007 and eventually nested there. Since then, very slowly, ravens have become more visible in Pittsburgh.

Common raven flies by Western Penitentiary, 13 Oct 2007 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s Birding Magazine, sparked a discussion of city ravens in his blog post: How to Know the Birds: No. 51, The Impossible Raven.

Ted has Pittsburgh roots from the time when ravens were scarce, but now lives in Boulder, Colorado where ravens are common in town. His tweet prompted lots of feedback from Pittsburgh birders.

Michelle Kienholz contributed video of ravens at Forbes Ave in Frick Park including a second video of a raven “whispering” sweet nothings to his/her mate. (Michelle’s remark refers to a photo of the raven diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History taken by Mike Fialkovich.)

[When the car noise abates briefly at 0:19 below you can almost hear what the raven is saying, a muted “whup … whup”.]

Watch and listen for ravens in the city. “Brock! Brock!”

(photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis and Chuck Tague plus embedded tweets)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

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

Birds Wearing Little Red Hats

Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 January 2021

In this irruption winter of northern birds in southwestern Pennsylvania, we’ve seen pine siskins (Spinus pinus) and evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) but I had not seen common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) until finally, last week, they were present every day in a sunflower field in Butler County.

Last week was too overcast for a good photo but Steve Gosser returned yesterday for these stunning pictures.

Common redpoll on a sunflower, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Common redpoll, Meals Rd Butler County, 10 Jan 2021 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Then on Saturday 9 January 2021 the birds were even closer to home. Matt Juskowitch found a dozen redpolls at Bethel Green in Allegheny County. Here’s Matt’s documentation shot, proving that the birds are real. Notice the red hat! Adult male redpolls also have a pink wash on their chests.

Documentation photo: Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 9 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S78940944)

I went to Bethel Green yesterday, 10 Jan 2021, and saw 9 redpolls eating birch catkins. Here’s one of Matt’s photos from his eBird report yesterday afternoon.

Common redpoll at Bethel Green, 10 Jan 2021 (photo Matthew Juskowitch embedded from ebird checklist S79026167)

Thank you, Matt, for alerting us to these rare birds. If you’d like to see them here are the two locations I visited: Meals Rd, Butler County and Bethel Green, Allegheny County.

The birds are moving around from place to place so they may show up at your own birches, alders, sunflowers or feeders. Watch for small finches with red on top of their heads (“poll” means head). They are only as big as goldfinches.

(photos by Steve Gosser and Matt Juskowitch)

Peregrine Update, Jan 2021

Banded peregrine at Tarentum Bridge, 28 Nov 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

10 January 2021:

In the next 10 weeks peregrine falcons will court and claim nest sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, then lay eggs mid-March to early April. Right now through mid-March is the best time to see them. Here’s an update on recently active sites and information on locations where observers are needed. Get outdoors and look for peregrines! I hope you can help.

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh:

It’s easy to watch peregrines at the Cathedral of Learning because they’re on camera. The snapshot camera captured Morela and Terzo courting on 8 Jan 2021 as shown in the slideshow above. Stop by Schenley Plaza and look for them on or above the building. The streaming camera will start running in February.

Downtown Pittsburgh:

Third Ave nest site, used for the past 3 years (photo by Kate St. John)

If I was to bet where the Downtown peregrines will nest this year, I’d say there’s a 90% chance they’ll be at the Third Avenue site, shown above, where they’ve nested for the last three years. Though the roof rehabilitation project is done at the Gulf Tower, the nestbox probably hasn’t been reinstalled. I’m awaiting news from the Game Commission. Meanwhile, observers are needed Downtown! Let me know if you see anything.

Gulf Tower, location of nest as seen from Flag Plaza (photo by John English)
Gulf Tower nestbox last used in 2017 (photo by John English)

OHIO RIVER, Neville Island I-79 Bridge — no nest in 2021 and 2022.

PennDOT’s rehabilitation of the Neville Island I-79 Bridge will encompass the full length of the bridge through the 2021 and 2022 peregrine nesting seasons. Peregrines will be excluded from the bridge during that entire time so they can’t start to nest and then fail. We hope the bridge pair finds an alternate site nearby, but we won’t know where they are until we look for them. Observers needed! Look for peregrines in the Ohio Valley. Be alert for battles over an existing site.

OHIO RIVER, Monaca Railroad Bridge:

  • Peregrine on South Tower, Monaca Railroad Bridge, 4 Jan 2021 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Speaking of the Ohio Valley, on 4 Jan 2021 Jeff Cieslak found a peregrine pair at the Monaca Railroad Bridge, perching, bowing and flying as shown in the slideshow above. If you’d like to see for yourself, stop by the north shore of the Ohio River in Beaver and Bridgewater PA at the sites marked by Jeff Cieslak on the map below.

OHIO RIVER, Ambridge Bridge:

Ambridge Bridge, 20 Feb 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Again in the Ohio Valley, Mark Vass saw a peregrine at the Ambridge Bridge on 3 Jan 2021. This bridge had an active pair in spring 2020 though nesting was not confirmed. Watch this bridge for more excitement.

TURTLE CREEK, Westinghouse Bridge:

Peregrine at Westinghouse Bridge, 2 Jan 2021 (photo by Dana Nesiti)

The Westinghouse Bridge pair is gearing up for nesting as seen by Dana Nesiti on 2 Jan 2021. Click here for more photos.

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Tarentum Bridge:

Male & female peregrines at Tarentum Bridge, 29 Dec 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

Both peregrines were at the Tarentum Bridge when Dave Brooke stopped by on 29 Dec 2020. Click here for more photos.

ALLEGHENY RIVER, Rt 422 Graff Bridge, Kittanning:

U.S. Route 422 bridge over the Allegheny River at Kittanning, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Route 422 bridge over the Allegheny River at Kittanning, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret and Roger Higbee saw a peregrine at the Graff Bridge on 6 Jan 2021 (and also in December). Peregrines have nested here since 2016. Stop by to see for yourself.

Two other bridges were active in 2020 / 2019 which may be active this year as well. Observers are needed at:

  • OHIO RIVER, McKees Rocks Bridge, active in 2020
  • ALLEGHENY RIVER 62nd Street Bridge, active in 2019, not in 2020.

Get outdoors and see peregrines! Let me know what you find.

(photos by National Aviary snapshot camera at Cathedral of Learning, Kate St. John, John English, PENNDOT, Jeff Cieslak, Dana Nesiti, Dave Brooke, Wikimedia Commons)


Murmuration of starlings in Rome, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2021

Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.

This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.

And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.

Unfortunately, the murmurations are smaller than they used to be. Starlings have declined 80% in the UK and 49% in the U.S. since 1970.

Murmuration of starlings in Studland, Dorset, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Falconry Moves Portland’s Winter Crows

screenshot from OPB video: Urban Falconry in Portland Oregon

7 January 2021

Huge flocks of crows roost in Portland, Oregon in the winter just as they do Pittsburgh. By 2017 the city realized that the crows’ huge sanitation problem could not be solved with cleanup crews and pyrotechnics so they turned to a team of falconers.

This 9-minute video from Oregon Public Broadcasting, published in November 2018, shows how trained Harris hawks — which normally operate during the day — move the crows at night. Awesome!

(screenshot from OPB video; click on the caption to see the original)