Nuts About Nuts: Squirrels in the Parks

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Photo: Melissa McMasters

As birds head south and the buzz of insects fades, the parks in late fall start to really quiet down. Except, of course, for the scuttle of a certain woodland creature that always seems to be on the move. Eastern gray squirrels, the most common species of squirrel in Western Pennsylvania, can be seen dashing across open fields and scaling tree branches like highly skilled trapeze artists.

If you think that squirrels seem to be always in a hurry, you’re right. For them, it’s all about survival in the form of finding — and hiding — food.

Local eastern gray squirrels (which can also be black in color) aren’t hibernators. In the winter they primarily survive on “mast,” or the nuts of hardwood forest trees such as oaks, beeches, walnut and hickory. These nuts are packed full of nutritious goodness that provides squirrels with the calories they need to build up layers of fat to survive the winter.

Gray squirrels store the nuts in “cache zones” (read: all over the place) so that they can access them during the winter months. They actually hide too many nuts to eat. So, inadvertently, squirrels are planting seeds throughout forest habitats that will someday grow to be new trees. These trees in turn provide food and shelter for forest animals, birds and other creatures that depend on hardwood trees for their survival.

Gray squirrels prefer to nest in tree cavities and will often take over abandoned woodpecker nests. They also construct nests by densely packing together leaves, sticks and other materials. Now is a good time to spot squirrel nests — just look for big bunches of leaves clustered near the tops of tree.

It’s easy to understand why squirrels are so skittish when you consider that their primary predators are birds of prey, particularly hawks and owls. Snakes and skunks also are glad to add squirrel to their dinner menu.

Getting a closer look at these little park residents is easy — building a squirrel feeder in your yard is a fun family activity that will keep your yard active all winter long. Find our squirrel feeder guide here!

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What Dreams May Come: Cliffside Artwork Makes Dreams Reality

One of Pittsburgh’s parks will soon make children’s dreams a reality.

Taking inspiration from Cliffside Park’s unique vantage and the dreams of little ones from the community, local artist Leslie Ansley is creating a new art piece to be installed in the renovated park.

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Ms. Ansley has developed designs that celebrate flight and soaring visions – peregrine falcons, kites, butterflies, dandelion fluff, and the like. On a recent Saturday, children from the Hill District put pencil to paper to share their own soaring thoughts and creativity at an open workshop; their contributions will be incorporated into this new piece of art.

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The work, to be applied to the park’s entry walkway and an adjacent retaining wall, will also reflect the dreams and aspirations of Amon Cashmere Harris, son of community leader and resident Tyian Battle, who died suddenly at a young age. His dreams of traveling to Paris to see the iconic city were the inspiration for the art deco inspired designs that Ms. Ansley has created, which are also evocative of the design vocabulary of the Hill District in its heyday.

Cliffside Park itself is a reality dreamt up by the community, the entire restoration having been driven and informed by neighbors in the Hill. Like art on a fridge, this art piece will give a sense of home to this community space.

Stay tuned for more information on this exciting project. Cliffside Park and play areas are currently under construction and will open in Summer 2016.

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Environmental Education in the Parks (Video)

As Director of Education Marijke Hecht recently penned in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op-Ed, “Outdoor environmental education cultivates curiosity and discovery in children, the fundamental building blocks of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy, and it encourages students to make science a part of everyday life.”

Starting this month, our school programs are once again kicking into gear, with kids ages three through 18 using the parks as classrooms. Through these programs, kids are learning not only in their schools but also in the parks, growing through curiosity and discovery along the way.

These programs not only equip kids from across the region with the skills to succeed in a myriad of disciplines, but they’re also FUN!

Don’t believe us? See what outdoor education means straight from the young minds out in the field:

Your support makes programs like these possible. Consider a donation to environmental education programs here!

9 Ways to Get Your Kids Exploring Nature — Anywhere!

Parks are not only some of the very best playgrounds, but also amazing classrooms. By observing, touching, smelling and hearing the natural world, kids (and adults!) are learning, sometimes without even knowing it.

This year, our Homewood Naturalist Educator and Parks Conservancy educators have been taking the parks to communities, showing kids and their adults that nature is wherever they are. Through Buzzword, Nature in Your Neighborhood, and Raising Reader events, we’re working with partners and getting kids active, learning, and jazzed about the outdoors.

Want your kids to stay curious? Read on for some of our favorite family friendly activities that you can do on a walk through your neighborhood, a hike through the park — anywhere!

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Cloud grin by Teri Clark

1. Keep Your Head in the Clouds

Is that a bird? A plane? What about a big fluffy marshmallow? Find a nice comfy spot on the grass, look up, and let your imagination do its thing.

2. I Spy with My Little Eye…

Nature! Keep your eyes peeled in your backyard or sitting on a park bench when you play “I Spy,” and you’ll be surprised at all that you see.

3. Match Swatches

With just a few color swatches from a hardware or paint store, you’re ready for a color scavenger hunt. Let the kids match colors from the swatches with those they find in a garden or even in a business district. The greater the variety of colors, the bigger the challenge.

4. Make Words Jump off the Page

Kids and parents had a blast bringing books to life on Raising Readers and Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes. After reading aloud books with outdoor themes, they took a walk to spot (and reinforce) what they read. Some fan favorites are Something Beautiful, Tree Pittsburgh’s If We Were to Plant a Tree, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

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Raising Readers hike with Parks Conservancy and PAEYC educators.

5. Pack a Lunch

The ingredients for the perfect picnic are simple: One large blanket or sheet; one basket of sandwiches, drinks, and fruit; and whoever wants to eat! Picking a spot is easy — grab the best patch of grass you can find, then sit on it.

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Painting a flower pot in Frick Park.

6. Have a Crafternoon

The limit to the number of projects that can be done with a little glue, paint, construction paper, and objects found on a hike is imagination. Paint a rock like a rockstar, make a daisy chain crown, or draw a picture of something you see in the parks.

7. Be a Good Helper

We all love to live and play in places that are beautiful. Your little ones can have a hand in making their favorite playground even better by being a good helper and cleaning up litter. Who knows, maybe this will even inspire them to clean their rooms!

8. Bug Out with Entymology

Creepy crawlies aren’t so creepy crawly when we give them a closer look. How many insects can kids find on a walk through the woods? Sweep insects into a net or a bug jar to get a closer look before setting them free.

9. Rain, Rain, Go and Play

Whatever the weather, there’s fun to be had outside. In fact, rainy days are sometimes extra special. Galoshes? Umbrellas? Mud puddles to jump into? Count us in!

Have more suggested outdoors adventures for kids? Leave them in the comments section below!

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Summer camp kids aren’t afraid of a little mud!

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.

What’s in Bloom — April 2015

Our regular “What’s in Bloom” feature typically highlights the exuberance of park gardens, blooming seasonally with all of the colors of the rainbow.

For this “What’s in Bloom,” however, we’re taking it to the trails, where wildflowers and native plants of all shapes and sizes are quietly blooming in living color.

Recently, we were delighted to see wildflowers flourishing along Falls Ravine and Nature Trail in Frick Park. If you’ll remember, many of this crop of ephemeral flowers and ferns were transplanted in preparation for the construction of the new Frick Environmental Center. We’re happy to report that they’re doing well in their new home!

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Twinleaf a-bloom.

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A transplanted fern unfurling on Falls Ravine Trail.

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Toadshade, or trillium sessile

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Dutchman’s breeches look like tiny little knickers on a line.

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A hillside covered with itty bitty spring beauties

Elsewhere in the parks, wildflowers are popping. Keep an eye out for all of the differently colored blooms.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit

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Bluebells start off pink, then turn blue when they open.

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Trout lily in Schenley Park

Want to brush up on your native plant know-how? Join us at these two upcoming events:

Bird and Nature Walk with “Outside My Window’s” Kate St. John
Sunday, April 26th
8:30 – 10:30am
Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center

Wildflower Walk and Campfire with the Urban EcoStewards
Thursday, May 7th
6:00 – 8:00pm
Frick Park
Register here!

Parks Are Gyms: Your Guide to Working Out

In the parks, we have a whole different approach to working out.

Smelly, sweaty gym socks? We’ve got blooming daffodils.
Recycled air? How about a cool breeze and wind through the trees.
Beige walls? Try chirping robins, rolling clouds, and kids riding bikes.

For the low, low membership fee of $0.00, you can sweat it out all day every day in the parks. Train for your first marathon, conquer hills on the bike sitting in your basement — just get out and get moving! Here are some ideas to start your new workout regiment in the parks:

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Tai chi in Mellon Square. Photo: John Altdorfer.

Tai chi in Mellon Square
Some call this Chinese traditional practice meditation in motion. Originally designed for practicing self-defense, this class is a splendid and graceful way to balance, strengthen, and de-stress. Take a class in the Modernist masterpiece park, Mellon Square, or in Schenley Plaza, for free all spring and summer. Schedule to be posted here.

Yoga in Schenley Plaza
Breathe in, breathe out on the Emerald Lawn in Schenley Plaza during these bi-weekly yoga classes. Bring your own mat or borrow one when you arrive at these free, open classes taught by expert instructors. Schedule to be posted here.

Disc golf in Schenley Park
Spread across rolling hills and sprinkled through shaded woods are 18 metal baskets that make up the Schenley Park Disc Golf Course. This go-at-your-own-pace course is an effective arm workout and a healthy walk, the length of which depends on how well you aim your shots. Find directions here.

Volleyball in Highland Park
Recently renovated, the sand volleyball courts in Highland Park are an ace place to work out while working on your tan. Find directions here.

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Biking in the park. Photo: Melissa McMasters.

Bike in Riverview Park
The popular Riverview Loop is all about the gluts. The topography of this two-mile loop is a challenge but takes you past amazing spots like the Chapel Shelter, Allegheny Observatory, and gardens throughout Riverview. See the Bike Pittsburgh bike map here.

Tennis in Frick and Arsenal parks
Serve it up on the red clay courts in Frick Park or the newly refinished courts in Arsenal Park for two unique playing experiences. If you’re game, there are a plethora of clinics and tournaments held on the many courts throughout the parks. Click here for the Frick Park Clay Court Tennis Club.

Have your own workout recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!