The Largest Jack O’ Lantern

Jack O’ Lanterns face off (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 October 2020

Halloween is almost here. Who has the largest jack o’ lantern?

Two pumpkins in Jersey would like to win the honor. They’re nearly as wide as a picnic table.

They would lose to this 905.5 pound pumpkin from Ohio. Even if scooped out it would break the picnic table.

No squash can match the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden when dressed for Halloween. At 360 feet in diameter it’s wider than a football field, the largest jack o’ lantern in the world.

Ericsson Globe arena in Halloween costume, Stockholm, Sweden, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, the universe wins the prize for size. The Jack O’ Lantern nebula is a cosmic cloud of radiation and particles emitted by a huge star 15-20 times heavier than our sun. This 2019 animation from NASA/JPL-Caltech shows why it’s called The Jack O’ Lantern.


Jack O’ Lantern nebula animation from NASA/JPL-Caltech via Wikimedia Commons

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

Ticks Are Still Active!

Yesterday damp weeds brushed our clothing as two friends and I walked a creek side trail in the drizzle. When we got back to our cars we checked for black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and found many on our clothing. I also found one on the car seat where I’d dropped off my backpack and gloves. Yikes!

Relative size of black-legged ticks (image from
Relative size of black-legged ticks (image from

Black-legged ticks transmit Lyme disease and other bacteria that can ruin your life for a very long time so it’s important to be vigilant about them.

You don’t have to go far to find them. Of course they are in the woods but they’re also found in backyards in Allegheny County. Damp weeds are a favorite habitat. Click on this photo of Japanese barberry to read why.

Needless to say I felt itchy all over after finding the ticks. When I got home I took a careful shower and put all my clothes in a hot dryer for 10+ minutes. Really. Dryers desiccate ticks. In 10 minutes they’re all dead.

Keep yourself safe by following these guidelines –> Forewarned is Forearmed.

Don’t be fooled. Black-legged ticks are still quite active in western Pennsylvania.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Where Will The Crows Sleep This Winter?

Winter crow flock flies over Soldiers and Sailors, 24 Oct 2020, 18:30 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 October 2020

Since moving to Oakland three months ago I’ve had a front row seat on the crow population. From a family group of six crows in late July the numbers grew to 200 in mid-August, 1000 in late September, 5000 in mid-October and now, in late October, 10,000 crows come to Oakland every night. The question that worries everyone who has trees is this: Where will the crows sleep?

Crows roost in mature trees or on flat roofs where there’s ambient light, white noise and no disturbance. They want the lights on so they can see danger coming, especially owls. They like white noise — the sound of traffic, rushing water, or humming fans — but they don’t like sudden loud noises.

About 10 years ago the crows chose Pitt’s campus (photo below, December 2017).

Hundreds of crows roost in a tree at Univ of Pittsburgh, moon and Heinz Chapel in background, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two winters ago they moved one block north to Schenley Farms, a small neighborhood of mature trees and historic homes where their noise and slippery feces are overwhelming. This year Schenley Farms is going to encourage the crows to sleep elsewhere by making sudden loud noises before the crows settle for the night.

The first step, however, is to find out what the crows are doing. I volunteered for that job and I love it.

I’ve learned that crows move into Oakland almost exactly at sunset, land in final staging areas 1-3 blocks from the roost, and swirl around for 30-45 minutes until they settle.

Crows heading for Oakland at sunset (photo by Joanne Tyzenhouse)

Last Saturday the crows didn’t choose Schenley Farms but I couldn’t see their final roost west of Soldiers and Sailors because of intervening buildings. On Monday evening at 8pm Michelle Kienholz photographed them roosting on trees and buildings near the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH).

Crows roosting on the treetops across from GSPH, 26 Oct 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

They’re hard to see in her photo below …

Crows roost near Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, 26 Oct 2020, 8pm (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

… so I removed the brown and circled them in red. They line the roof edge and the treetops. One is flying in the dark!

Crows roost on 26 Oct 2020 at 8pm near GSPH (photo by Michelle Kienholz with markup)

So far so good. The crows aren’t sleeping near the Cathedral of Learning. They’re not at Schenley Farms.

There’s still a possibility they could choose Schenley Farms but if they do the residents will use “clappers” like those Pitt has found effective for dispersing crows — simply two boards connected by a hinge that can make a loud clapping sound.

Crow “clappers” used at Pitt (photo supplied by Alex Toner)

If clappers don’t work Schenley Farms will warn the crows before they roost by making really loud noises — pyrotechnic “screamers and bangers.” So far it hasn’t come to that.

Where will the crows sleep this winter? Perhaps far away.

Let me know if you find them.

(photos by Kate St. John, Joanne Tyzenhouse and Michelle Kienholz. Clappers photo via Alex Toner at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Rolling Backwards In The Sky

Birmingham roller pigeon (yellow), Scottish flying breeds show, 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasia is home to wild rock pigeons (Columba livia) where people domesticated them for food and fancy (Columba livia domestica). 10,000 years later there are a thousand different breeds. Some are pets. Some are messengers. Some are racing pigeons. But have you ever heard of stunt pigeons? Birmingham rollers? They were news to me last week.

Birmingham rollers are popular domestic pigeons that were first bred in Birmingham, England for their tendency to do backward somersaults in flight. Some of them spin so rapidly that they look like a plummeting ball but they recover and continue flying. Pigeon fanciers enter them in competitions with high points for multiple birds tumbling at the same time.

Much of this video is in slow motion show you can see how the pigeons move.

Some pigeon breeders have taken things a step further by selecting to the point where the rollers cannot fly, merely tumble backwards on the ground. Clearly these birds would not survive in the wild. (Compilation video includes footage from the one above.)

Knowing peregrine falcons as I do, I can imagine what one thinks when it sees a Birmingham roller in flight. Mmmm hmmm!

p.s. Thank you to Scott Young for telling me about Birmingham rollers.

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

Yesterday Morning in Schenley Park

Witch hazel blooming in Schenley Park, 25 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Sunday morning 25 October 2020 three of us braved the suddenly cold weather and were rewarded with lots of birds and witch hazel in bloom.

Though we saw only 23 species bird activity was intense at the wetland near Panther Hollow Lake. A large flock of robins fed on fruit and bathed in the creek. White-throated sparrows poked through the underbrush, woodpeckers fed on fallen logs and ruby-crowned kinglets flitted in the trees. (Our eBird checklist is here.)

None of us had a camera so Joanne Tyzenhouse contributed this ruby-crowned kinglet photo she took in the spring.

Ruby-crowed kinglet (photo by Joanne Tyzenhouse)

Despite the cold weather I’m glad we went.

p.s. I forgot to take our picture so you will have to imagine what we looked like.

(photos by Kate St. John and Joanne Tyzenhouse)

Hurricanes and Smoke

23 October 2020, 9:10a: Satellite shows Hurricane Epsilon near Bermuda and smoke from Colorado’s East Troublesome Wildfire crossing the Atlantic (image from GOES East, crop+description from Yale Climate Connections)

2020 has been a prolific year for heat, fires and hurricanes.

Last month was the hottest September on record, dangerous western wildfires have been burning since late July, and the Atlantic has had so many storms that the National Hurricane Center ran out of English alphabet letters and began naming storms using the Greek alphabet.

On Friday, 23 October 2020, Yale Climate Connections reported that a weather disturbance in the Caribbean is likely to become the sixth Greek alphabet storm, Zeta. That’s number 32. In the report they included an intriguing GOES EAST satellite image, above, with this explanation.

Smoke from Colorado’s second largest fire on record, the 170,000-acre East Troublesome Fire, was carried by the jet stream to the northeast of Hurricane Epsilon (upper right of image).

Yale Climate Connections: Disturbance in the western Caribbean likely to become Tropical Storm Zeta

As this moment Colorado’s East Troublesome Wildfire is burning through Rocky Mountain National Park and threatening Estes Park (click here for video). I’m not surprised the smoke showed up near a hurricane.

See more reports at Yale Climate Connections:

(image from GOES East cropped by Yale Climate Connections)

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)

Wonders of the Deep

The Nautilus Exploration Program of Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) explores the ocean using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) launched from their research vessel, E/V Nautilus.

In early September 2019 the ROV was a mile below the surface near uninhabited Southwest Baker Island in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument when they came upon an octopus, one of three species in the Cirroteuthidae family.

About 4.2 feet long, the octopus expanded and contracted its tentacles, flapped its Dumbo-like “ears” and transformed itself into a circus tent, perhaps in an effort to look big to the deep sea machine.

Like the crew we are all amazed by this wonder of the deep.

Read more about this encounter at the YouTube video. See more Nautilus explorations at

(video from EvNautilus on YouTube)

They Eat Poison Ivy

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

22 October 2020

When you see a bird eating white berries from a hairy vine you might not realize it’s eating poison ivy. Birds are blissfully immune to the urushiol in poison ivy sap that gives us humans a nasty rash.

By late October poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) doesn’t look like the plant we’ve been avoiding all summer. The leaves are red or missing, the vine is exposed, and bunches of white berries hang from the branches. It’s easy for migrating yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) to find the food they’re so fond of.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Resident birds such as downy and pileated woodpeckers munch on the berries all winter.

Pileated woodpecker eating poison ivy berries (photo from Flickr by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons license)

It makes me feel itchy to think of it!

p.s. Deer eat poison ivy, too.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Flickr via Creative Commons licensing by Dendrioca cerulea and Jen Goellnitz; click on the captions to see the originals in Flickr)

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.