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!

What’s the Word in Homewood? Buzzword!

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Heron perched in Panther Hollow Lake.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re reading a children’s book all about our city’s parks. The colorful pictures on each page would illustrate and introduce you to trees and plants in our parks: sycamores and horse chestnuts, beeches and ferns. You would probably also meet some of the local residents: wrens, thrushes, maybe some larks. Perhaps a kingfisher or heron, if the book visits Panther Hollow Lake or Nine Mile Run.

Now, grab a giant imaginary eraser. Erase those plants and birds. And half of the words. Erase all of the letters, except for one or two. And really, anything about those pictures that seems familiar. What do you think of this book now? How does this change your understanding of the parks?

This storybook scenario isn’t fiction for many kids. Today’s youngest generation experiences what has been called nature deficit disorder, a disconnect from the natural world around them. Many find themselves on the wrong side of the reading gap when they start school. Studies have shown that children from lower-income homes may know only one or two letters of the alphabet when entering kindergarten, compared to children in middle-class households who will know all 26. And when they do learn to read, they may find that words like ‘attachment,’ ‘blog,’ and ‘broadband’ are deemed more relevant than ‘acorn,’ ‘beech,’ and ‘chestnut.’ (Not to mention all of those other nature words mentioned above: sycamore, horse chestnut, fern, wren, thrush, lark, kingfisher, and heron.)

Here in Pittsburgh, we’re changing the story. We’re looking for a happily ever after.

One word at a time, we’re working with Buzzword Pittsburgh and the Homewood community to bring the outdoors and all of the wonderful words that describe it to area youth. By exciting children and families to discover the world and words that are all around them, Buzzword is expanding children’s vocabulary and conversation skills. With the support of PNC Grow Up Great and alongside Carnegie Science Center, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Buzzword engages families and community organizations in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and the greater community.

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Homewood Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

Starting this month, our Homewood Nature Educator Will is tag-teaming with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater for six weeks of free family sessions at Homewood-Brushton YMCA to learn words like ‘habitat,’ ‘observe,’ ‘senses,’ ‘garden,’ and many more. Additionally, we’ll be out and about on Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes showcasing the nature that’s all around us — wherever we live and play!

We hope that you’ll take part in these free and fun family programs. These programs are particularly designed for children younger than 10, but all ages are welcome. Find the full listing of activities on our calendar and the Buzzword website and join us to see what all the buzz is about!

Lead Your Child Outside: Fun, Affordable, and Family Friendly Happenings

Few voices have resonated deeper or carried further in the crusade to encourage kids to explore and find joy in nature than Richard Louv.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”
– Louv in Last Child in the Woods

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The Parks Conservancy is in the business of nature discovery. The hundreds of acres of public parkland within Pittsburgh are our classrooms; on dirt trails, in streams, and through meadows, our educators guide thousands of children to learn about the natural world around them. Last year, over 600 students from 1st through 12th grades made countless discoveries with our small but mighty team of educators in our park classrooms through our school programs.

This year, we’re joined by even more outstanding educators from the Frick Environmental Center. With these extra passionate nature lovers, we’re determined to leave no child inside. We invite you to lead your child outside and join us in enjoying our world-class outdoor spaces and battle nature deficit disorder with these family-friendly events:

Earth Day in Frick Park
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our chidlren’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” 
Carrying on the longstanding tradition of the Frick Environmental Center, we’re jazzed to invite the entire community out for this annual celebration of Earth Day. This two-day party is all about spending time outside in the parks. Did we mention it’s free?! Here’s what you need to know:

Community Campfire
Saturday, April 12th
6 – 9pm
Pack your favorite campfire treats (s’mores, hot dogs, veggie dogs, and mountain pies are all fair game!), and we’ll provide the fire and roasting sticks. This is an all-ages community campfire under the stars is the perfect spot to spend time with your family on a Saturday night.

Nature Walks and Hikes
Sunday, April 13th
Every hour between 11:30am – 4pm
Sign up for any number of hikes with themes like Bald Eagle Nest Building, Critters in the Litter, Nature Story Hike – The Lorax, plus many more on this full day in Frick Park led by expert naturalists. No prior registration is necessary, but arrive early to sign up for preferred hikes.

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Ultimate Play Day
“If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.”
Let loose and play with the Pittsburgh Play Collaborative! We’re cooking up a day of fun, free activities in Oakland for kids and adults. Play on the Imagination Playground, run with giant cardboard soccer balls, crawl through the Lozziwurm, and of course, discover nature!

Sunday, April 27th
Schenley Plaza, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Carnegie Library
1 – 5pm

Summer Camps
“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Pittsburgh’s parks aren’t only our children’s classrooms. They’re also the coolest spots for summer vacation. Whether your young one is three or 13, we have an age-appropriate camp to challenge their skills and creativity. Camps run on a weekly basis, and the price can’t be beat. See which camps have openings here.

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PNC Carousel
“If you can’t live in the land you love, love the land you’re in.”
Bopping sea horses, humpty-backed camels, and mythical dragons make for imaginative family memories in faraway lands never forgotten. For less than the price of one video game, score your family a season pass to the PNC Carousel, valid for two adults and up to four children. The carousel is wheelchair accessible and open extended hours throughout the summer. Purchase your season pass here.

Get Outside!
“The Environmental Protection Agency now warns us that indoor air pollution is the nation’s number one environmental threat to health — and it’s from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution.”
Rally your family to make a long-term pledge to play outdoors. Be active, have fun — and go outside! Take the pledge with your family, organization, or neighborhood to connect to nature all year long. We think the best place to start is bringing the gang out to volunteer with us during one of our upcoming volunteer days.

See you outside!
All quotes from this blog are taken from Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Savings our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Read more about Louv and Children and Nature Network here.
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High School Urban EcoStewards – Engaging youth in urban environmental stewardship

Westinghouse student using lopper to cut away invasive species

“And how mad were your parents when you decided not to go to Law School?” joked Phil Thompson, Coordinator of the Lighthouse Project, as we walked back to the truck after lunch. “It didn’t matter, I found something I love,” I smiled back at him. It’s a surprisingly warm day at the end of November; we are out with a group of students from The Academy at Westinghouse for our High School Urban EcoStewards program. The students have adopted a quarter acre plot of land in Frick Park, and have come out this year once before and learned how to properly identify and remove invasive species and plant native trees at their site. Today’s session is a park walk; we spent time doing stewardship removing invasive vines within their site before setting out on a long hike through Frick Park to learn about managing ecosystem health within our city parks. One of our field ecologists has also joined us to talk about restoration practices in the park and to introduce the students to some different jobs in the Environmental Science field.

Sawing invasive vines

I began working in Environmental Education when I was a summer camp counselor at the Frick Environmental Center in 2010. I was majoring in Politics and Philosophy at Pitt, all set to continue on to Law School when I realized I didn’t have a job lined up for the summer.  I heard about Frick Environmental Center from one of my friends in the Geology department. I grew up outside with my brothers LARPing in Slippery Rock’s local woodlands, hiking all over McConnell’s Mills, and swimming in Moraine State Park. I needed a summer job, and they had an opening where I could work outside.  I went into it thinking it would be a fun thing to do for the summer, but it actually changed the course of my career. I got paid to teach lessons about the natural world and enjoy the outdoors with children. Could it get any better?

Nature journaling and photography

It did. Here I am two years and some odd months later and the kids teach me more than I could ever hope to teach them. If there’s one thing I consistently take away from my job as an informal educator it’s inspiration, particularly with this group. Today we’re working with students who are part of the YMCA Lighthouse Project at Westinghouse. A few of them have done the High School Urban Eco Stewards program before, for some it’s their first time. This forces us to be flexible, sometimes letting the returning students take the lead, sometimes going into more depth about concepts they’re already aware of.  This is one of my favorite aspects of my job:  every day is different.  While this is the third High School Urban Eco Stewards park walk of the week, it’s the first walk in Frick Park and because of the Lighthouse’s media focus; there are new components we haven’t covered with previous schools.

Capturing a different perspective for nature photography

Every session of High School Urban Eco Stewards incorporates a journaling component for students to practice making good scientific observations. Sometimes we sketch or we’ll write poems, other times we’ll free write for a determined period of time. But today is different. The Lighthouse has a photography module the students can choose to participate in, and while only a few of the students here today are also in the photography module, we jumped at the chance to incorporate photography into our science lessons. We were able to obtain a digital camera for each of the students to use. After our Education Program Coordinator, Taiji, briefly introduces some strategies to compose a good shot, with the Lighthouse coordinator adding a few thoughts, each student searches for one thing they find beautiful and one thing they find intriguing. The trick is that they get just one shot each. They must take their time utilizing their observation skills we’ve been developing to locate that one beautiful thing or that one intriguing visual. After they’ve decided what they want to capture, they must move around, change their perspective, change the lighting patterns, until they find that perfect shot.

Then they write about it in their journals. I prompt them to justify their decisions. I hear myself tenaciously asking why? I try to play it cool and be discerning about their choices when photographing but inside I am just thrilled. At 15 or 16 years, old these students are incredibly inspiring. Learning about their lives and aspirations is refreshing; these students are dedicated and hardworking. To be able to share my love of the outdoors with them and possibly cultivate that same feeling within them is a unique opportunity I am grateful for every day. They stay after school at the Lighthouse until 7:00pm Monday-Thursday (mind you their school day starts around 7:00am), they argue about who is going to be valedictorian, and at times they really challenge me, asking, “Why are we out here doing this when there are people starving?”

The Academy of Westinghouse High School Urban EcoStewards and our Education Team

As I’m compiling all of their photos, from the day I can’t help but smile and think about what Phil had asked me about law school. I eagerly abandoned a potential life of working long hours stuck behind a computer, working my way up to someday maybe occupying that corner office with the view. At best, I’d sit at my desk captivated by the magic occurring on the other side of my window, only to look glumly back at all of the paperwork I had to do. As an informal environmental educator, I spend days at a time in “the field,” teaching students about ecology, watersheds, and biodiversity while facilitating a deep and informed appreciation for and relationship with the natural world. “No,” I smirk “my parents aren’t mad at all.”

Below are a few of the breathtaking photos the Westinghouse students took during the day. The students meticulously set-up each shot and there are no filters applied to these photos. It’s so powerful to see nature through someone else’s eyes.

Dayvon’s Site Photo

Kielle’s Site Photo #1

Kielle’s Site Photo #2

Ramon’s Site Photo

Shawn’s Site Photo

Bailey Warren is the new Education Program Assistant at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy through a 10-month apprenticeship with Public Allies Pittsburgh AmeriCorps program. Visit our website to learn more about our High School Urban EcoSteward program and how you can get involved.

What’s In Bloom – June 2012

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy gardener, Angela Masters has been busy adding splashes of color to our City parks.  With the weather warming up, now is a perfect time to take a stroll through our June blooms.

Highland Park Entry Garden

Allium (Allium caeruleum)

Annabelle hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle”

Asiatic lily, Lilium Apeldoorn

Coral bells, Heuchera x brizoides

Hardy Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides

Montauk Daisy, Nipponanthemum nipponicum

White Trumpet Lily, Lilium regale

Yarrow, Achillea “Parker’s Gold”

A beautiful day at the Highland Park Entry Garden

Mellon Park Walled Garden

Astilbe

Daylily, Hemorocallis ‘Happy Returns’

Hardy Geranium, Geranium x ‘Brookside’

Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia

Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’

Riverview Park Chapel Shelter

Yarrow, Achillea

Don’t just take our word for it, get out to the parks and spend the day relaxing among the flowers!  If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, join us for Weeding Tuesdays at the Mellon Park Walled Garden or for Weeding Wednesday at the Highland Park Entry Garden.  For more information, visit our volunteer page or email us at volunteer@pittsburghparks.org.