Creatures of the Night: Moths in the Parks

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Hummingbird hawk-moth in Schenley Park

Spend time outdoors on a dark summer evening, and you will likely see the flickering dance of moths around street lights and other sources of light.

Moths — Lepidopterans to the science-minded — are plentiful in Western Pennsylvania, with about 300 different types making their homes in our area and in our parks.

Most people are more familiar with butterflies than moths. Although they are related, there are distinctive features that will enable you to tell them apart. One way is to look closely at their antennae. Butterflies have little balls at the end of their antennae, while the antennae of moths do not.

Moth wings may look like they have tiny scales, but they are actually modified hairs. These colorful hairs can come off on your fingers, making it harder for the moth to fly, so it’s best to observe but not touch. When moths are at rest, they typically flatten their wings against their bodies or spread them out like the wings of a fighter plane. Butterflies usually fold their wings back.

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A good way to observe moths is with a simple setup of lights pointed at a while sheet.

The sound of a moth bumping up against a light or a window is a familiar one. This repeated collision is due to “transverse orientation.” Moths navigate by flying at a constant angle relative to a distant light source, such as the moon. When they are around man-made lights such as a campfire or a flashlight the moth’s angle to the light source changes as it flies by. This confuses the moth, causing it to lose its orientation.

Like butterflies, moths undergo the wonderfully amazing process of metamorphosis. Their metamorphosis is holometabolous, meaning that they go through a complete body transformation to become an adult. Inside their pupa — or, cocoon — much of the caterpillar actually breaks down, changes form, and reforms into a moth.

Spend some time with these creatures of the night this week in celebration of National Moth Week, July 18th through 26th!

This week’s post comes from our Let’s Talk About Parks series, featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Read more from this series on our website.

Parks Prescription: Uniting Public Lands with Public Health

Which would you prefer: a day out in the parks, or a day in your doctor’s office?

Just like most adults would rather not spend their weekend in an exam room, kids would also rather be playing, especially outdoors. Turns out, encouraging them to spend time outside may keep them out of the doctor’s office after all.3456393613_9f5862d47b_z

This approach to health has spawned “parks prescription” programs in cities around the U.S., successfully getting kids outdoors and physically active. Soon, Pittsburgh will be joining the nationwide effort to combat and prevent childhood obesity through the incredible assets of our parks.

3457097892_f4d7dc1057_zThrough Pittsburgh Parks Prescription, or Pittsburgh Parks Rx, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is teaming up with the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Lawrenceville United, Pittsburgh Public Schools (Arsenal PreK – 5, Arsenal Middle and Woolslair), the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and other partners to create a pilot project that we hope will soon be a city-wide effort to tackle childhood obesity and other health challenges.

More than 80% of Americans are physically inactive; nearly one in every three kids in the United States is overweight or obese. Pittsburgh is no fitter. The roots of lifelong obesity are poor diet and excessive time spent in front of screens at a young age; kids are learning to lead inactive and sedentary lifestyles while they’re young. Inspiring kids to play in Pittsburgh’s many parks could lead them down a healthier path.

The project, currently in its early stages, will encourage children and families to fill prescriptions for parks, given to them through their primary doctor, school, or community center. Community leaders like primary care physicians, school nurses, physical education teachers, and counselors will write kids a prescription to spend time outside, and share with them a host of information and resources to keep it going. Their enrollment in Pittsburgh Parks Rx will come with a passbook filled with nature-oriented activities and maps to the nearest parks, as well as lots of opportunities to connect to the outdoors through school, after-school and community offerings.

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Armed with these resources, kids can fulfill their prescription through fun activities that encourage exercise and time outdoors. Kids and their parents can check back in with their doctor, nurse, or counselor frequently to track progress and advance their prescription. Follow-up visits will also measure weight, BMI, and blood pressure to monitor health improvement.

The pilot Pittsburgh Parks Rx is set to take off in Lawrenceville this fall. We are very excited to encourage Pittsburgh youth to explore the parks and lead healthier lives.

Who would’ve thought a prescription to play today would lead us to a healthier tomorrow?

Maddie Taylor

What’s in Bloom — July 2015

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

If gardens and libraries are everything you need, then you have to love Schenley Plaza. With the main branch of Carnegie Library just across the street, the Plaza gardens are the perfect spot to hunker down with a tasty book.

And all season long, the garden blooms put on quite a show.

These gorgeous flowers don’t happen by accident. Chosen based on bloom times, pest/disease tolerance and color, the flora in the Plaza are actually All-America Selections varieties. Qualified as an official display garden, the Plaza beds are tended frequently by Parks Conservancy gardeners, the flowers rotated throughout the season. Here are some that are in bloom right now:

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 Blanket flowers looking sunny.

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Four colors of zinnias.

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A pop of purple from purple coneflowers.

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A plethora of petunies.

A short way from the Plaza is the newly established meadow at Beacon and Bartlett streets. Seeded with native plants, the meadow is also in blossom. Stop by now to see for yourself this incredible field of black-eyed Susans (click the image below to enlarge!)

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Black-eyed Susans. Click image to enlarge.

Want to help us keep park gardens growing? Interested in learning more about what’s growing, and where? Find our new garden guide here on the website, and while you’re there, sign up as a horticulture volunteer!

iBirding: Birding with Apps

When you walk out into your yard or into the park, can you point out a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee? How about a red-winged blackbird or a dark-eyed junco?

This year for my senior project I had the opportunity to intern with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to create a digital field guide for anyone interested in knowing their local birds.

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Zoe out in the park with the iNaturalist app.

Called Common Birds of Pittsburgh Parks, the guide lives on the iNaturalist app and lists 56 of the most common area bird species. It uses the convenience of technology to connect with the outdoors, making birding accessible: you don’t have to carry around a huge book to identify birds in the park. Anybody can download the free app and use the mobile guide just about anywhere.

The guide gives a concise summary of bird species’ appearance, size, diet, habitat, and behavior, providing just enough information to be helpful in a simple format that makes it easy for beginner birders. The birds are also searchable by different tags such as size, color and habitat.

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Snapshot of the iNaturalist app.

To get the guide:

  1. Download the free iNaturalist app through iTunes or through Google Play.
  2. Open the app and click on the “Guides” tab.
  3. Type “Common Birds of Pittsburgh Parks” into the search bar.
  4. Open the guide and tap on each bird to see more information and photos about the species — scroll right to see photos, scroll down to read.
  5. Tap on the book icon in the upper right hand corner to open the menu of tags, and tap on the characteristics that match the bird you are trying to identify to narrow your search.
  6. Found one of the birds? You can add a sighting by clicking on the tab at the bottom labeled “Observe” and following the instructions to share!

Pro tip: Open the Parks Conservancy’ profile in iNaturalist, and you’ll also find guides to parks frogs, toads, trees, reptiles, mammals, and invasive plants!

If you’re interested in birding, the first step is going outside! Dress for the weather and bring your phone with the iNaturalist guide, and maybe a pair of binoculars. Look for birds in areas with woodlands, meadows, or streams. These could be in one of Pittsburgh’s beautiful parks, in your backyard, or even the side of the road. The great thing about birding is that you can do it anywhere. You can even attract birds directly to your home by setting up bird feeders and bird houses and growing different kinds of plants.

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Young Naturalists birding at Beechwood Farms with Audubon Society of Western PA.

Guide books can be intimidating. But iNaturalist’s simplicity and mobility encourages people to engage with their environment in a new way.

Zoe Merrell is a graduating Senior at The Ellis School in Shadyside.  She will be attending Smith College in the fall and plans to study Environmental Science.

Want more resources about bird identification? Check out Cornell’s website and their beautiful Merlin app and the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

If a Tree Falls: Human Impacts on Forest and Park Trees

Forests are natural, wild places. Trees burn, blow down, mature, and regenerate on their own.

At the same time, forests have fingerprints of Homo sapiens all over them. If you know how to look, a stroll through Frick Park’s shady paths can highlight just how human actions have molded one very visible part of the park forests: the trees.

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An eastern hemlock attacked by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Dude, where’s my hemlock?

You could scour Frick Park and never come across white pine (Pinus strobus) or our state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Until the 19th century both species were common throughout the state, but as the region industrialized, lumber companies prized these trees for their uses in tanning and construction and they disappeared from much of their former ranges. The result? The number of places in Pennsylvania where massive old-growth stands of white pine persist can be counted on your two hands. Afterwards, when forests began to regenerate, conditions did not always favor the return of these former giants.

If you do see a white pine or eastern hemlock in Frick (and there are a few of each), it was likely planted relatively recently by Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers. Much like logging these species, reforesting requires human labor.

A century later: Cherries

Though white pine and eastern hemlock have fared poorly in our forests over the last 200 years, the forests that regenerated after logging actually benefited other trees. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of these. North of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Plateau, it is estimated that black cherry trees made up less than 1% of the pre-logging forest. After extensive clear-cutting in the late 19th century, however, black cherry became a common part of the new forest that regrew there thanks to preference for sunny conditions and fast growth.

The same is true in Frick Park. Easily identifiable by their dark bark that looks like burnt potato chips or corn flakes, black cherries are common these days. You can find a large number of them where there once was a country club (now in the area where Riverview and Bench trails run). After the club’s annexation to Frick in the 1920s, forests regrew on these lands with black cherries. Some of these trees are actually now dying, as the species’ mortality typically increases after 80-100 years.

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Phil Gruszka, Parks Management and Maintenance Director, tagging a dead ash tree.

Invasive species, world travelers

Dead trees can also illustrate how humans have shaped our forests. Since 2007 when it was first detected in Pennsylvania, emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny green invasive insect, has left a path of destruction across Allegheny County, killing nearly all area ash trees (Fraxinus var.) in just a few years. The evidence is all over Frick Park, with standing and fallen dead ash trees exhibiting the tell-tale scars where EAB larva chewed through the trees’ energy-rich cambium, girdling them.

Globalization not only redistributes products, money, and people around the world, but also non-native plants, animals, and fungi, sometimes in ways that reshape our parks. EAB, for example, likely arrived in the U.S. in a shipping pallet from Asia. This pest, however, is not the first invasive species to change our forests. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, killed virtually all American chestnut trees, a species then common throughout the eastern U.S.

Trees on the move (and we’re not talking Ents)

Frick Park’s forests will keep changing as a result of human influence. In addition to the risk of future invasive species, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change promises big shifts for park trees. Just walk Rollercoaster Trail on the hills between Fern Hollow and Falls Ravine and look out on the sea of young sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that dominate the forest understory.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas, sugar maples will likely become significantly less important across Pennsylvania as the climate warms and stresses this species, eliminating it from the southerly parts of its range. More heat-tolerant trees may ultimately replace sugar maples in Frick Park and elsewhere in the state.

Learning from the past

Recognizing human fingerprints on our forests gives us opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of past generations. How can we leave fingerprints that will improve forest health? Parks are planned spaces, cared for by the people that use them. The team at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is constantly on the watch for invasives like the Asian longhorned beetle and oak wilt and replanting diverse, resilient species of trees to create strong forests that will be around for generations to come.

Kevin C. Brown is an educator with the Parks Conservancy, and a researcher-writer of a National Park Service-funded history of the Devils Hole pupfish, an endangered desert fish that lives in Death Valley National Park. You can read more about his work here.

Mellon Square Edges Get a Facelift

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Mellon Square interpretive wall from Smithfield Street. Photo: Scott Roller.

Just over a year ago, Pittsburghers celebrated the complete restoration of downtown’s Modernist park masterpiece. (We were so jazzed, we wrote this blog and this blog and this blog about it!) We’re happy to say that there’s still so much excitement for this fabulous space.

This summer, we’re taking this revitalization to the streets. Namely, Smithfield Street.

“Mellon Square was designed from curb to curb.  It integrates a park, retail stores, and a parking garage,” says Parks Conservancy Parks Curator (and newly named honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects) Susan Rademacher. “Every square inch of this world-renowned place should be special.”

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Visitors at Mellon Square’s grand reopening last May.

So what’s happening on Smithfield? The retail signs above storefronts along the street have been updated and a new interpretive wall has been installed to welcome and educate park visitors. The wall alerts pedestrians to Mellon Square’s presence above and provides a brief history of Pittsburgh’s first Renaissance and the park. Dylan, Talbott and Henry Simonds, the grandsons of Mellon Square’s designer John Ormsbee Simonds, funded the creation of the interpretive wall.

“This garden plaza is an oasis of calm and openness, where visitors can experience relaxation, renewal and reunion with the natural world,” say the grandsons. “People should be proud of a design that serves us all so well. We are.”

Stay tuned as this space continues to improve, possibly with street enhancements such as new curbing, sidewalk planters, benches and trash receptacles.

Visit the “square in the triangle” all season long. Need even more reason to visit? There are free classes, concerts, fitness events and more happening throughout the week! Find the full calendar here.

From Fires to Phenology: Meet Our New SCA Fellow!

One year ago, I left the land of cheese, beer, and badgers in search of new experiences and meaningful work.

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Parks Conservancy’s new SCA Green Cities Fellow Ryan, whose last stint was cuddling sea turtles in Florida.

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Ryan leading fearless volunteers into Jurassic Valley in South Side Park.

Thanks to the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps, I’ve lived, worked, and played in four different states. My most recent stint has landed me in the Steel City. After spending months in New York and Florida, Pittsburgh has the comforting feeling that I remember from Midwestern cities closer to home. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has welcomed me with open arms, and I’m already knee deep in a series of projects to be completed by Fall.

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Invasive Japanese barberry.

My primary project involves invasive species and their phenology. Phenology is the study of the significant stages in life cycles of plants and animals, e.g. the times of the year when garlic mustard leafs, flowers, seeds, and dies.  My goal with the Parks Conservancy is to research when and where invasive plants grow in the parks to aid in strategic restoration of those areas.

Already I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiking and crawling around Pittsburgh’s parks documenting the activity of plants. It wasn’t surprising to find that weeks of hot weather and reliable spring rainfall triggered quick, early growth for many plant species, including invasive plants. Garlic mustard was ready to begin seeding in early May. Poison hemlock started flowering a few weeks later. Usually, those plants’ life stages occur one month later than we’re seeing, but seasonal and inter-annual climate patterns have drastic effects on plant phenology. Cool and extremely wet springs can cause delayed growth. Warm temperatures and moderate precipitation — which Pittsburgh experienced this year — caused early growth.

The effects of climate change can already be seen and will continue to influence the timing of plant and animal life cycles.

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Invasive Jetbead.

The general pattern of plant phenology will keep leaning towards earlier growth as global average temperatures rise. My research will be used by the Park Management and Maintenance team at the Parks Conservancy as they work to control invasive plants. Invasives have the potential to drastically change the parks as they out-compete local plants. I’ll be making an interactive map showcasing when, where, and which species need to be managed, giving staff the tools to better fight invasives.

Using similar strategies, I will be looking at species diversity in the parks and discovering methods to prioritize and improve restoration sites. I will be keeping an eye out for the Asian Longhorned Beetle and predicting the potential impact it could have on our park trees. I will also be the volunteer crew leader for invasive sweeps at Highland Park on the second Thursday of each month (you can register for these here).

The next time you’re out in the parks, be sure to keep an eye out. There’s a tall, blond Wisconsinite roaming a park near you!

Ryan Klausch is from Wisconsin, but his name is not Yon Yonson. He’s serving as an SCA Green Cities Sustainability Corps Fellow through the rest of this year.

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Only you can prevent forest fires! (Unless Ryan is starting them as part of a controlled burn team with SCA in Florida.)

Learn how to remove invasive plants like the ones Ryan is studying at the upcoming Urban EcoSteward training on June 9th. It’s free and open to the public. Register here!