By Rob and Maria
Pittsburgh woke up to a beautiful snow this morning! It seems like we haven’t really had winter since Thanksgiving, and while no one particularly enjoys cleaning icy remnants off their cars before heading to work Monday morning, there is something reassuring about the familiar seasons. Plus there is something ethereal about the muffled quiet of a city when it’s blanketed in snow, and something wildly fun about trompsing about outdoors in winter weather! Since nature has a lot more going on out there in the snow than you would expect or imagine, we went on a mini adventure through a city park this afternoon to explore it all. Check out what we found!
As we talked about when rehashing the Christmas Bird Count, there are still plenty of birds here in the winter. We heard many more than we saw today, but we still saw plenty! Some were hopping about, and we couldn’t get an ID on them, but we for sure saw these little feathered friends.
Note: all of the bird images below are from the Audubon Society, and we are using them for educational, non-commercial purposes only.
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
These are easy to confuse with hairy woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus), but the bill size is the easiest way to differentiate. The birds we saw today had distinctly stubby beaks, in comparison to what you would expect from a hairy woodpecker
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Not actually native to the US, house sparrows were introduced in New York from Europe back in 1851 and along the West Coast in the 1870’s. Highly adaptable, these Old World birds quickly spread across, well, most of North America.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
We saw a number of these bopping about in brushy thickets. You would just get one within sight of your binoculars, and it would flitter away. Even though you’d think they’re related to the House Sparrow, it’s a different family. Song Sparrows and New World sparrows in North America are actually in the family Passerellidae. Old world sparrows, who were introduced here from Europe, are in the family Passeridae. Confused? Don’t worry, we get them mixed up too!
By the way, scientist don’t even all agree on scientific classifications for some animals and plants. That’s part of the beauty and complexity of life. We humans like to have things all tidy, but nature doesn’t always roll like that!
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)
Another bird that isn’t originally from around here, house finches were originally from Western US, but were brought to this side of the continent as a part of the pet trade. They flourished in the East, feasting mostly on seeds and other plant materials.
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) [Easiest scientific name to remember!]
These are a few distinctive year-round residents! And as a little bit of state pride – the oldest known cardinal was from Pennsylvania! She lived to be fifteen years and nine months old.
Chickadee (Heard them rather than saw them)
Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are the species most likely to be in our part of Pennsylvania (as opposed to the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)), but we would say that neither of us has enough field experience to distinguish the two. However, the hybrid zone of black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees is moving northward as our climate changes, so that would add a bit more difficulty.
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) (heard something similar)
We didn’t see this one either, but heard a call that sounded like theirs. You can listen to an Audubon recording here.
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
So. Many. Crows. Noisy too. A few huge flocks have been roosting at night throughout Oakland and Schenley Park, maybe these birds were an extension of them.
Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Though it was a bit in the distance from us, this one was so large, Maria guessed it was female (female birds of prey tend to be about a third size larger than the males.
Have you paused to just admire lichen on the side of a tree? Lichens are a complex co-existence of algae or a type of bacteria along with a fungus. The result is a photosynthesizing “community” that spreads along the side of trees, boulders, or other inanimate objects in forests. There is so much variation in the colors, shapes, and sizes of lichens—they may be often overlooked, but they are anything but boring! Look at this little spot we saw today, surrounded by the new snow.
Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
Well, perhaps not the best thing we saw since it’s an invasive plant, but the berries do look stunning amidst a snowy backdrop. The Oriental bittersweet escaped cultivation, but if you would like a bright pop of color like this in your own gardening, we do have an American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) that is native to the eastern half of North America. It’s hardy and won’t choke native forests.
A Soothing Sound
This little brook swishes and trips down the hillside of the park. It’s hard to find a sound equal to the gentle, playful bubbling of the water as it splashes over rocks in the stream bed.
This little stream was a picture of gentle beauty, but it was an important reminder of an ecological principle. It’s easy to overlook small bodies of water like streams or seasonal pools, but they all play vital roles in our world. Both can be little “nurseries” to the eggs of fish, insects, or amphibians that wouldn’t stand a chance in larger bodies of water with predatory fish. Plus, small streams act as natural water filters for downstream bodies of water, and none of us are immune to the need for clean water.
Fungi that grow on trees are an excellent example of something you can appreciate even when you don’t know what it is 😊 If you’re in the Western PA area, and you are interested in learning more about mushroom identification, the Western PA Mushroom Club are a great group of folks who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Check them out!
The Darker Moments
Since were visiting a city park, signs of negative human impacts are inevitable. Some impacts are unintentional, the results of a well-loved gem in the city. Others though…
This honestly was a picturesque fallen tree, and it will go on to serve its community in a new capacity. But when we looked inside the stump…seriously, you would have to try to stuff that CheezIts box in there.The small-scale vandalism, though, echoed the destruction happening to our national parks currently. Who doesn’t understand to take their trash with them when they leave someplace with clearly overflowing trash cans? Who doesn’t understand that off-roading vehicles are prohibited for a reason? Our national parks are being destroyed because, well, clearly quite a few people don’t understand these principles. In Joshua Tree National Park, the namesake Joshua trees were even cut down to make roads for pleasure seekers. The pictures of the destruction and carelessness have been shocking.
The Hope and Silver Lining
As we walked through the park today, though, everyone we passed was happy, smiling, friendly—excited to be out with their family or walking their dog on a snow-sparkling day. Being in nature reinvigorates us, inspires us. Even with the national parks, for all of the visitors who apparently are living hot messes, there are more who are volunteering to clean up and raising money to help restore them.
There is undoubtedly a difference between enjoying nature from an extractive perspective or a reciprocal perspective.* An extractive perspective views everything in nature as purely for our benefit, use, and enjoyment. A reciprocal perspective views us and everything else within nature as part of an interconnected system that has already provided us with the food we eat, the home we live in, and our recreation as well; this perspective asks how we can give back, how can we ensure nature around us is thriving now and for future generations. The perspective we lean towards will affect the way we experience nature in parks or forests, or even in the decisions we make about our daily lives. Our hope, though, is that with enough experiences and connections to the outdoor world, we can all slowly appreciate the true magic that is our beautiful planet.
Today was a wonderful day for that hope!
*Ideas inspired by Carol Sanford’s paradigms for interacting with the world.