2011 Winter

Pittsburgh Quarterly Archives

On the Wing

The Elusive and Beautiful Green Heron

The green heron lay cradled in the crook of Bob Mulvihill’s arm like a baby, or at least that’s how I remember it. He blew on the bird’s belly and a cloud of powder down swirled forth, an adaptation that in all likelihood adds some moisture-​shedding resistance to the wing…

The Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbills are birds worth traveling for. Sometimes they even travel to us. Typically found on the Gulf Coast, the first time I spotted one was on a marathon birding adventure I took to south Texas in 2005. To bird far from Pittsburgh meant I’d see unfamiliar species in new…

The Cedar Waxwing

Pittsburgh has produced some renowned birders and ornithologists. Our hills and rivers attract a wide variety of birds, and they, in turn, inspire generation after generation to look to the skies — from John James Audubon, who painted the long-​extinct Passenger Pigeon while passing through the Gateway to the West (an old…

Give a Little Whistle

It’s not until chapter 10 of Harper Lee’s famous novel that we are told of the magic of mockingbirds. Atticus Finch, lawyer and father extraordinaire, says, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Benevolent Miss Maudie explains,…

The Scarlet Tanager

A bird on fire, a male scarlet tanager perched just above my eye level. He was in a tree at the edge of the Upper Fields Trail at Fox Chapel’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. Normally high in the forest canopy gleaning insects in spring and summer, this avian migrant, roughly…

The Blue-​Gray Gnatcatcher

One spring, I ventured south to Savannah, Georgia, for some sun and warmth. As a coastal locale and part of the Atlantic flyway, it was rich with avifauna heading back to nesting territories farther north in places like western Pennsylvania. It was March, and the streets of that wonderful city…

The Northern Cardinal

Winter puts birders in a different mood. There are birds about, but they are fewer and generally more muted — focused on finding food, staying warm and getting through. The birds that stick around for a Pittsburgh winter are hardier, more committed, the stalwarts. They are the loyalists of cold.

Swainson’s Thrush

Fall is a time of movement: college students packed in SUVs returning to classes, younger kids nervous to get back to school, the lazy days of summer fading fast. Millions of birds are moving, too, some passing through the Pittsburgh area en route to wintering grounds to the south.

Season of the Killdeer

One early summer day, I was walking the paved loops of Hartwood Acres in the North Hills. Off in the distance, a band was doing a sound check on the stage and bass notes were booming through the trees. As I headed west toward Middle Road, I passed some extended…

American Redstart

Are we separate from nature or part of it? Superior to all creatures, the apex of creation, or simply one species among millions? Does self awareness make us unique? What about our sense of past, present and future?

The Eastern Bluebird

Sometimes winter brings surprises. Some are massive, like a burying storm; and some are almost unnoticed, like an unexpected bird on a branch. Now is the season to look for the Eastern Bluebird, whose flash of color can be as brilliant as a winter sky after a big snow or…

Beautiful and bold

It is often the voice of the Blue Jay that initially attracts our notice. With a vocal range like its cousins the crows and ravens, the Blue Jay produces loud, strident calls, bounding whistling notes, as well as imitations of the scratchy shrieks of hawks and other birds. More than…

A Flash of Blue

A ratchety, staccato rattle announces the arrival of a Belted Kingfisher along one of Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, over a stream, or across a pond. I love the sound of the bird, so distinctive, as I scan for it in the sky. And I’m not alone. The great English poet Gerard Manley…

A little yellow friend

The potato chip bird. that’s how my students remember it. At first, they think it’s a canary. I show them pictures on the opening day of class, and they see yellow and call out “Big Bird?” “No,” then, “Canary?” “Wrong continent.” That’s before they’ve learned to use their eyes and…

Wintering in Pittsburgh

It may be funny to think of Pittsburgh in the same geographic thought as, say, Miami, but for dark-​eyed juncos, which spend many months to our north, we’re all sand and sunsets.
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