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.


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.


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.


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.

Let’s Talk About Parks

Let’s Talk About Parks

When my brothers and I were kids, the first person to reach the morning news would claw their way to the cartoons section, grab a bowl of cereal, and post up on the corner of the couch. Tough luck to the next one of us that tried to pry them away from their comics; might as well grab another bowl of sugary cereal and wait for your turn in line. (Which could take quite a while; there are seven of us.)

Starting last month, there’s another section of the newspaper that kids can squabble over (or share, if they’re a little more civil than my family). Every other Tuesday, we have a special section for our younger park pals: Let’s Talk About Parks. In it are tips to identify park life, explore trails, play and learn in the natural world. (Don’t tell the young ones, but adults can also read this section, too.) Here’s a bit of what we’ve shared so far:


Taiji with bullfrog

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator/professional frog catcher.


The wetlands and ponds in the parks (we recommend the seasonal pools in Highland Park) create excellent habitat for frogs. Here are some commons ones that you can see and hear:

  • Spring peepers. You can hear for their raucous nocturnal singing after spring and summer storms.
  • American bullfrogs. Spot these big hoppers during the day, Chances are, they’ll see you before you see them and dive into any nearby water.
  • American toads. Found in damp, cool areas of the woodland floor where their coloring — brown to gray accented by spots and warts — provides excellent camouflage. Find these amphibians deeper in the parks.

Salmanders are always looking for the best rock or downed tree to hide under. Students in our Young Naturalists program this year studied salamander habitat by laying out wooden boards in the woods, turning them over once a week to see what had started living there.


Do not touch the salamanders! Sincerely, the Young Naturalists.

When looking for salamanders, carefully turn rocks and logs over, being sure to put them gently back in place when you’re done. If you find a salamander, don’t touch it! Salamander skin is sensitive, even a small amount of handling can harm or kill them. Northern dusky and red back salamanders are especially common species in our area.

With winter approaching, amphibians will soon go into hibernation. Green frogs will stay at the bottom of ponds or streams, while wood frogs, distinguishable by a black mask around their eyes, hide in the leaf-litter before entering a semi-frozen state until spring. If you find one of these “frogsicles” in the winter, they will appear to be dead. But don’t be fooled; their bodies manufacture an anti-freeze to protect their internal organs until warm weather returns.


Young Naturalists flipping over boards in Frick Park to observe what creatures live there. Boards were purposely set up over five weeks to survey forest floor habitat.

Fall flowers


Goldenrod in Highland Park. Photo by Melissa McMasters.

While we’ve had to bid a fond farewell to summer wildflowers, fall has its own impressive display of flowery color and texture. Here are some that you can spot on just a short walk through Schenley Park:

  • Goldenrod. Growing extra tall in the meadow at the Bartlett Street Playground, this hardy yellow flower is often confused with ragweed, a common cause of pollen allergies.
  • White wood asters and purple New England asters. Sprinkled among the meadow grasses, these plants produce clouds of delicately fringed flowers atop thin dark stems. Asters provide nectar for butterflies and other pollinators, as well as seeds for songbirds after their bloom is completed.
Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

  • Obedient plant. This spikey plant is distinguished by clusters of pink tube-shaped flowers and named because its individual flowers can be bent in any direction and will stay in that position “obediently.”
  • Snakeroot. Found in the shade of the woodland on the Panther Hollow Trail, Snakeroot’s dark green leaves are contrasted by puffy white flowers that are fuzzy to the touch.
  • Pokeweed. This plant can reach heights of 10 feet and is adorned with clusters of reddish-purple berries.
  • White Baneberry or Doll’s Eyes. Identify this plant by its white berries with a black center.
porcelain berry

Pokeweed in Schenley Park

Learn more about exploring and discovering your parks through the bi-weekly “Let’s Talk About Parks” segment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The next feature, set to print September 23rd, features biking in Frick Park!

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

On the Lookout: Asian Longhorned Beetle and the Parks

On the Lookout: Asian Longhorned Beetle and the Parks

Friends, Pittsburghers, park enthusiasts, lend us your eyeballs.

There’s a Pennsylvania-wide game of nature “Where’s Waldo?” happening right now, and we invite you to play along. Rather than searching for a man in a red-and-white striped getup, though, we’re all keeping our eyes peeled for the white-and-black striped Asian longhorned beetle.

Have you seen Bug Eyes here? Photo: “5 Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) Chewing Egg Site” by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Used under CC by 2.0/modified from original.

What is the Asian longhorned beetle?

An invasive, or non-native, species of beetle originally from Korea, China, and Japan, the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) migrated to the United States sometime in the 1990’s as a stowaway in shipping pallets. Since then, slowly but steadily, the insect has really sunk its mandibles into U.S. forests.

Part of what makes the Asian longhorned beetle such a large threat is its diet. A pickier eater would be more predictable: If it loved just one particular tree, we would know to monitor that tree type and watch for infestation. However, even though ALB is partial to red maples, it will make do with a wide range of host tree species: horsechestnuts, buckeyes, birches, planes, sycamores, willows, elms, boxelders, and other maples.

Once it finds a tree to inhabit, females burrow under the bark to lay eggs. After hatching, larva burrow throughout the tree to feed on the tree’s sugars and nutrients, eventually killing its leafy host. ALB is also a significant threat because it doesn’t respond to any known biological or chemical controls; once it infests a tree, that tree must be removed.

The stories of ALB infestation can be heart-wrenching. But, even though ALB has been found in surrounding Ohio, New Jersey, and New York, we don’t think it has found its way to Penn’s Woods quite yet. And that gives us a lot of hope.

Early detection


This week, a grouping of exceptionally knowledgeable arborists and naturalists (plus a few of us amateurs) busted out binoculars for an Urban EcoSteward training on spotting signs of the Asian longhorned beetle in Frick Park. Many a success story (such as the oak wilt trees in Schenley Park) of invasive insect/plant and disease eradication starts with an alert citizen speaking up when they see an issue.

And here’s where we need your help!

The more people on the lookout for ALB, the better the chances of spotting this unwanted visitor before thousands of our street and park trees are threatened. Keep a sharp eye out for these signs:

  • Chomp marks. Mature Asian longhorned beetles have a distinct way of dining. They love eating the veins of leaves, as well as the bark of young twigs. Infestations typically start from the apex of the tree, so check for easy-to-spot dead/dying leaves at the top of the tree.
  • Exit holes. Adult beetles exit the tree by burrowing. Check tree trunks for perfectly round holes, usually smaller than a dime.
  • Frass. Beetle burrowing can leave behind a sawdust, or frass, pile.
  • The actual beetle. About .75 – 1.25 inches long, the adult beetle is black with irregular white spots on the wing covers. They have distinct black and white antennae that are longer than their body. Blue hairs on their legs can give them a bluish tinge.

Exit holes are about the circumference of a dime. Photo: “Damage exit hole egg site” by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Used under CC by 2.0.

Now for the most important part: If you see something, say something. Even if you’re not 100 percent sure of what you’ve found, snap a photo. If possible, catch the beetle in a jar or a box. Then, report your sighting by calling the PA Department of Agriculture at 1-866-253-7189 or by emailing them at badbug@state.pa.us. If signs are spotted in the parks, please also let us know at info@pittsburghparks.org.

We’re not all doom and gloom over the Asian longhorned beetle (see photo below as proof). With watchful eyes and this week’s launch of the Park Tree Fund, we’re working hard to keep our park trees safe.

Much of the information from this blog was found through the University of Vermont’s stellar ALB resource pages. Read much more information about ALB here

Joe from Tree Pittsburgh sporting in extremely stylish ALB-wear.

Joe from Tree Pittsburgh sporting extremely stylish ALB-wear.

Like a Moth to a Flame: Mothing in Frick Park

Like a Moth to a Flame: Mothing in Frick Park

When prowling for nocturnal winged insects, follow the guy with ‘Mothapalooza 2014’ written on his shirt in glow-in-the-dark print.


Mothers use a bright LED light to attract moths in Frick Park.

One week each year, naturalists pay homage to an animal that you might often overlook, at least until you turn on your porch light: the moth. During Moth Week this year, a gaggle of us Parks Conservancy folks had a blast getting to know these creatures of the night in Frick Park with Pete Woods, Ecologist at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and expert “moth-er.”

Around dusk, we found our way to the bottom of Falls Ravine where Woods had set up a picnic table base camp: moth and caterpillar identification books; a tripod with a bright LED light; a clothesline strung with a white sheet; and a pinkish concoction in a Nalgene bottle. A mixture of beer, wine, bananas, maple syrup, and yeast, this was going to bait nearby trees with a tasty slurry (at least to moths… the few of us that tried it weren’t about to ask for seconds). It was almost like a landing strip, directing moths our way.


Painting moth bait to attract them by smell.

We painted a few trees with the moth bait and flipped on the huge LED light beside the white sheet. Within seconds, insects of all shapes started to gather, drawn to the light like, well, moths to a flame. (Side note: Pete explained that moths are drawn to bright light because they it looks like the moon, which they use for navigation.) Woods and a few other mothing pros named each one that dropped by.





A basswood leaf roller moth.



A gorgeous Bad Wing moth.

Taking the time to really see these insects, you can see why Pete and other serious moth enthusiasts get all a-flutter over them. They’re incredibly diverse in shape, color, and design. Plus, they have a mysterious nighttime draw that sometimes makes you stand in the park at 11pm huddled up against a spotlit white sheet (another side note: Pete had a permit for this excursion).

Pete’s plans are to hold more events like this to carry out a moth survey. We still have a lot to learn about what creatures call Frick Park home, and surveys like this are important to understanding the big picture. Stay tuned for upcoming moth watches from Pete. And if you’re free tomorrow, July 26th, join the Pitt Ecology Club and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for a moth watch in Schenley Park. Contact pittecologyclub@gmail.com for details!



Out for the Count

“Who here knows how to count to five?” asks Gabi.

“I AM five!!” exclaims a little girl in the front row, nearly bouncing off her seat.

“Good!” our instructor, Gabi Hughes, chuckles, “then you can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.”

Watching a feeder at the Audubon’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve

On this bright Saturday morning, Taiji and I have ventured out to the Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve to learn what it takes to be a part of the Great Backyard Bird Count (the GBBC to those in the know). We’re sitting around a room of parents with their children and people of all ages, as Gabi, Environmental Educator with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, lays out how to take part in the count. It’s a crash course in basic bird watching, and we are being upstaged by the younger ones as they shout out the names of birds on the pictures Gabi shows.

Learning about birds while eating worms (the gummy kind)

Personally, I’m embarrassed at how little I know about birding. Sure, I can impress you with my skills in pointing out a Blue Jay or Cardinal. I’ve seen ducks at Lake Carnegie. I even got the lens covers off of the binoculars by myself one time. But sitting next to Taiji, Naturalist Educator here at the Parks Conservancy, as he identifies birds based on their calls and beak length (“Downy… no, that’s a Hairy woodpecker!”), I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in my abilities to contribute to this great effort of citizen science.

In the two hours at the reserve, though, Gabi teaches us extreme novices (I’m talking about myself) how to identify a dozen of the most common birds in our area and the importance of these bi-annual counts: Bird populations are dynamic, and scientists would never be able to get the big picture on birds without this project. With the help of over 100,000 citizens since 1998, the count has made a huge impact on what we know about our avian friends, their habits, and our natural environment in general.

So, when you have even 15 minutes this weekend, I encourage you to get out to the parks — or even just watch from your kitchen — to take part in the GBBC. Here’s the skinny:

Learn a handful of area birds
Assuming that we all have a handle on Blue JaysCardinals, and Canada Geese, add a few common area birds to your repertoire. See the photos and information below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to start. Click on the pictures to learn more:

American goldfinch Photo by JD. Used under CC by 2.0.

American goldfinch Photo by JD. Used under CC by 2.0.

American Goldfinch
These cuties have short, conical bills; small heads; long wings; and notched tails. Males are bright yellow with black forehead/wings and white patches above and beneath the tail. Females are duller yellow beneath, olive above. In winter they’re drab, unstreaked brown, with blackish wings and two pale wingbars. These finches are active and acrobatic.


House sparrow. Photo by Jimmy Smith. Used under CC by 2.0.

House sparrow. Photo by Jimmy Smith. Used under CC by 2.0.

House Sparrow
House Sparrows are pudgy; full in the chest; large, rounded head; and stout bill. Male House Sparrows are brightly colored with gray heads, white cheeks, a black bib, and rufous neck and may be duller in cities. Females are a plain buffy-brown overall with dingy gray-brown underparts. Their backs are noticeably striped with buff, black, and brown. House Sparrows are noisy!

Dark-eyed junco. Photo by Jean-Guy Dallaire. Used under CC by 2.0.

Dark-eyed junco. Photo by Jean-Guy Dallaire. Used under CC by 2.0.

Dark-eyed Junco
Medium-sized; dark gray or brown colored; pink billed; rounded head; short, stout bill; and a long, conspicuous tail. Their white outer tail feathers periodically flash open, particularly in flight. Dark-eyed Juncos are birds of the ground.


Tufted titmouse. Photo by John Flannery. Used under CC by 2.0.

Tufted Titmouse
Pointed crest (like a mohawk!); soft silvery gray above and white below; rusty or peach-colored wash down the flanks; and a black patch just under the bill. Their signature stout bill identifies them even in silhouette. Tufted Titmice are acrobatic foragers. Their flight tends to be fluttery but level.

Mourning Dove

Plump-bodied; short legs; small bill; and a head that looks particularly small compared to the body. The long, pointed tail is unique among North American doves. They match their open-country surroundings and are delicate brown to buffy-tan overall, with black spots on the wings and black-bordered white tips to the tail feathers. Powerful wingbeats, sometimes making sudden ascents, descents, and dodges.

Carolina Wren

Small but chunky; round body; long tail that cocks upward; large head with very little neck; and a distinctive long, slender and downcurved bill. Both males and females are a bright, unpatterned reddish-brown above and warm buffy-orange below, with a long white eyebrow stripe. The tail is cocked upward while foraging and held down when singing.

Learn to count

First, create a free account.  Next, get the details on the count at the Great Backyard Bird Count site. When you’re familiar with how to count and record your data, you can submit it on that site. (This is also a wonderful resource for birding in general.)

Keep being a citizen scientist
If, like me, you’re still easing into this citizen scientist thing, I encourage you to take advantage of great local organizations that can help you along the way. This Saturday, visit Beechwood Farms for your very own tour and count with the Audubon Society or one of their upcoming tours or trainings. And keep on broadening your skills with even more citizen scientist trainings around the city.

See you out for the count!

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, striving to become the next great birder.