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!

Life and Love Celebrated in Schenley Plaza

You might see a flower bed in Schenley Plaza with a plaque in tribute to Jacqueline Reid Gerjuoy among the daffodils that reads, She loved gardens. We loved her. A few feet away a circular bench also stands in her memory, She lived with love for all and malice towards none. “That was Jac,” smiles Ed Gerjuoy, her husband for 68 years.

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Gerjuoy met Jackie at UC Berkeley in 1938. He was a graduate student in physics, she was a junior undergrad. The couple married in 1940 and eventually had two sons while Gerjuoy went on to be a physics professor at the University of Southern California.

In the summer of 1952 Gerjuoy took a temporary position in the Westinghouse labs. He found Pittsburgh beautiful and told Jackie how nice it was in his calls to her. He was offered a permanent position at Pitt (where he is still professor emeritus) and took it, relocating Jackie and the boys to the steel city. “I didn’t know that there was a steel strike going on that summer,” Gerjuoy remembers. Two days after his wife’s arrival the mills again started churning steel and emitting huge clouds of dust. “That almost ended my marriage,” Gerjuoy laughs.

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The family stayed in Pittsburgh and when Jackie passed in 2008 Gerjuoy selected the Parks Conservancy’s brand new Schenley Plaza to commemorate her. He also established the Jacqueline Reid Gerjuoy Nature and Environmental Resources Collection at the nearby Carnegie Library. “Half my money is hers and I wanted to spend it on her,” he says. “The only thing that makes me sad is that I didn’t tell her my plans before she died. She would have loved to be in Schenley Plaza.”

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Days before Gerjuoy’s 97th birthday, on a dreary-turned-sunny Sunday, a dozen kids from Temple Sinai and their adults kneel in those garden beds, bringing them to life. In a flurry of trowels and small garden gloves, hundreds of flowers take root.

Nearby, Gurjuoy and his two sons sit on the bench devoted to Jackie, laughing and chatting with the Parks Conservancy’s own Jaci, the caretaker of the Plaza gardens.

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Jackie loved gardens.

Sweaty and smiley, the kids finish planting and head over to where Gerjuoy and his family sit. Slowly, someone starts singing “Happy Birthday.” Everyone chimes in.

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And they love her.

Learners to Leaders: Learning Pathways in the Parks

What does it mean to be a life-wide learner? How does one travel a learning pathway?

Educators talk about moments when students “light up,” or demonstrate curiosity and an interest in learning more. Last year, I had the opportunity to spark those light-up moments while working with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy educators as an Activation Lab Design Fellow, a position with the Activation Lab, funded by the The Grable Foundation.

My goal? Design life-wide learning environments (learning that takes place both in and out of school) that ignite interest in students and encourage persistent engagement.

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Young Naturalists teaching youth how to identify macroinvertebrates.

To do this, I worked with Parks Conservancy educators on designing learning pathways that would lead students from the High School Urban EcoStewards program (a program through their schools) into the Young Naturalists program (an independent summer opportunity).

Teachers were critical partners along the pathway. They identified students who would be a good fit for the Young Naturalist program and supported them through the application process. With teachers as “learning brokers,” programs successfully drew youth from multiple high schools and neighborhoods. Strategic social support encouraged students to explore opportunities offered by other organizations. In fact, this summer, two of the Young Naturalists will be involved in field study and conservation work in our national parks as Student Conservation Association crew members.

Informal learning programs encourage rich learning experiences that build on what happens in the classroom. Programs like these in the parks are more flexible in honoring joy, humor, compassion, spirit, risk-taking, innovation, and curiosity as essential elements of knowing, learning and relating. They allow learners those chances to “light up,” cultivate a deeper sense of interconnectedness, and create their own personalized learning pathways that break out of the often-rigid structure of schools.

We didn’t test the Young Naturalists to see if the program improved academic performance; rather, we observed them engage with the natural world around them with increasing confidence, ask questions to further their understanding, and listened to them as they described how they carried their learning into their everyday lives.

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The five Young Naturalists presented to hundreds at the Sprout Learning Pathways Summit at the end of their program.

Every run I have on Falls Ravine trail in Frick Park triggers a memory of the Young Naturalists guiding young summer camp participants in finding and identifying macroinvertebrates in the creek.

Every day I think about a conversation with one of the participants in which she explained how she now catches herself instinctively identifying trees on her walks to school.

These memories are evidence of how informal learning programs can enrich and empower our young people, and I draw from them often to inform my own research, which I hope will contribute to the design of practices and infrastructures that expand equitable access to rich learning contexts.

Imagine if learning pathways like these were available for every learner in our region for whatever topic they were interested in? The Parks Conservancy was successful in bringing together a diverse set of learners through social support on a pathway that spanned the divide between in-school and out-of-school learning. Organizational practices like this have the potential to transform our regional learning landscapes from a set of individual programs to truly interconnected learning contexts that support the learning and development of all youth.

Stacy Kehoe is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. Previously, she developed enrichment models for a public high school in Brooklyn, linking students to programs for travelling abroad, pre-college, visual and performing arts, the environment, and youth leadership. She is pursuing her graduate degree to study the incredible results she saw in Brooklyn and replicate them here in Pittsburgh.

Star Light, Star Bright: Shining the Stars at Mellon Park Walled Garden

The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Carl Sagan

All of our volunteers are all-stars. One group that recently worked in Mellon Park’s Walled Garden, however, was particularly star-studded.

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Seven volunteers from Macy’s joined Parks Conservancy Horticulturist Angela at the site of the Mellon Park art installation on a sunny Sunday to get the stars in the lawn to shine brighter than usual.

Armed to the teeth with toothbrushes, they spent the morning cleaning the 150 stone markers hidden in the lawn. The markers, part of an installation in memorial of Ann Katharine Seamans, reflect the stars and planets in the same alignment of Katharine’s birth in 1979.

Want to learn more about this special space? Read more about the Mellon Park Walled Garden art installation.

 

 

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These bright, shiny faces lit up the park. Many thanks, Team Macy’s!

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Interested in getting your company/organization out into the parks for a volunteer day? Click here!