Life Goes Wherever Water Flows: Keeping Our Watersheds Healthy

Watersheds play an important part in maintaining healthy biodiversity in our local environment. Watersheds can carry sewage, pesticides and other harmful elements that can damage our ecosystem. What many people may not realize is that we all live in a watershed. Nine Mile Run and Panther Hollow are two examples of area watersheds the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy are working to restore in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh and other area non-profits. Through the Carnegie Science Center’s “Take a Hike!” program sponsored by The Sprout Fund, our own director of education, Marijke Hecht, shows us what we can do in our own backyard to help keep area watersheds clean and thriving. For more information on the Nine Mile Run Watershed or Panther Hollow Watershed, visit our website To learn how you can get your own rain barrel to help divert extra water from the sewer systems, visit the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association website at

Mission Ground Truth – Teaching Science With Nature

Mission Ground Truth Team in Frick Park

Environmental education is one of the most fundamental investments we make in the future of our parks. At the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy we understand that through educating and engaging youth, we can grow a new generation of park stewards. Our High School Urban EcoSteward program takes students from six area High Schools out into the parks to learn ecological restoration and maintenance techniques. This service learning technique benefits the communities in which the students work. We are also preparing to begin construction on the new Environmental Center at Frick Park which will be a state of the art environmental education facility with a focus on hands on learning.

Our newest endeavor, Mission Ground Truth, is a collaboration between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Frick Environmental Center, the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Schrader Environmental Center at the Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, West Virginia. The program will be tailored to middle school students with a foundation in scientific processes of discovery. In Pittsburgh, the course will pilot in April with Propel schools.

Special nets are used to collect bugs

On February 22, 2012, members of the Mission Ground Truth team met in Frick Park to finalize the curriculum which will focus on stream and forest health. “We want to teach kids what ecological services the parks are doing for us,” says Parks Conservancy Education Coordinator, Taiji Nelson. “We want to show kids that science is a real job and that they can do it, not all scientists are in white lab coats.”

When learning about forest health, students will focus largely on the composition of wooded areas. What type of forest is it? Maple, Oak, Hickory? They’ll learn about fragmentation which occurs when small areas of a forest are cut down, dividing a large forest into smaller pieces – this most often occurs for the creation of roads and walkways. Since different plants and animals favor forest interiors versus edge habitats, fragmentation can dramatically affect the ecology of a particular forest.

Collecting data with a Pasco GLX Xplorer

There are a couple of ways Mission Ground Truth students will evaluate stream health. One is through measuring the chemical characteristics of a stream using Pasco GLX Xplorers which Taiji says is like “taking the temperature” of the stream to determine its health. The GLX Xplorers will measure the water’s ph, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and conductivity which is basically the amount of pollution that is dissolved in the stream. Waterbots, which have been developed by CREATE Lab, will be placed at different points within the Nine Mile Run Watershed and take similar readings constantly to show the students how variables such as time, season, and rainfall affect the stream health.

Equally important to understand the health of a stream is to discover what bugs and vegetation are present. Using special square nets, the kids will be responsible for cataloging the bugs (benthic macroinvertebrates) that are found in a one meter area. By disturbing the water and turning over rocks they will find and count the different varieties of bugs which they can identify using a guide provided to them. Since some bugs can survive select pollutants and others can’t, the final bug counts they produce will be telling.     

 Mission Ground Truth has been in operation at the Schrader Environmental

Cranefly larva found in Frick Park stream

Center for 10 years. The program is coming to Frick Park with the help of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Frick Environmental Center and support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. Additionally, the Parks Conservancy is helping to refocus the curriculum, define learning goals, implement assessment tools, and find ways to make the data usable. The CREATE Lab at CMU will incorporate technology through the use of Gigapan and waterbot technology, as well as by developing an online platform to share data, stories, and questions.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions Mission Ground Truth will make is that the information collected by our budding scientists and by the CREATE Lab waterbots will be made public. In this way the students will be learning and simultaneously contributing to a data pool that will help us to better understand the health of our parks. This new knowledge will be integrated into the management plans for the care of our parks by the Parks Conservancy and other organizations.

If you have questions about the program feel free to contact us. Visit our website at  

Pick a Spot and Stay There.

Last Thursday I wasn’t feeling terribly well, but I’d been in the office all day and hadn’t taken my photo-of-the-day for Project 365.  Some days when this happens I just trudge outside my apartment and take photos of my neighbors’ flowers, but I was feeling slightly more ambitious.  So I decided to go down to Nine Mile Run, which I’ve been doing a lot lately (macro photos can be really addicting!).  Since I wasn’t feeling like walking, I decided to follow the old nature-photography adage that often the best photos come to you when you just pick a spot and stay there.  After a little while you become part of your surroundings and the creatures don’t notice you enough to keep their distance.

So I picked a spot with a lot of blooming milkweed plants and stood there for about 45 minutes.  Here are some of the small citizens of Nine Mile Run that I encountered in my milkweed patch and along the trail as I was headed home.

A grasshopper that was not terribly shy about my being in his face:


A brown butterfly (which, unfortunately, I can’t ID!):


A damselfly that was even more elusive than they usually are:


A curious-looking moth with a blue body and a red proboscis that I think may be a yellow-collared scape moth:

Scape moth

A ladybug just hanging around:


Right around this time I spotted a hummingbird, which unfortunately was a little too fast for me (there’s a picture of a big gray blur that represents my best effort).  Still it was exciting to watch.  I think it was somewhat scared off by this very active Eastern tiger swallowtail, which was flying at the same flowers:

Luckily, the next best thing to a hummingbird flew right into my focus point moments later: a clearwing hummingbird moth.  I LOVE these guys.

Hummingbird moth

Then something started making quite a racket, and I looked up and saw this bird.  I’m not sure what type of bird it was, but I also saw a great blue heron right when I was taking up my perch in the milkweed.


I assumed this was another kind of grasshopper, but after poking around trying to identify that moth, I now think it might be a katydid.


I believe this is a viceroy and not a monarch because it has an extra band of black on its wings.


This skimmer must not have detected me, because I can hardly ever get this close to them.


A bug I’m going to intelligently identify as “orange guy” (edit: a soldier beetle, perhaps?):

Orange guy

A red spotted purple whose wings really complemented the stream color (and unfortunately, the color of the trash):

Red spotted purple

The last thing I saw was (I think) a pearl crescent.

Pearl crescent

Spotted any interesting bugs lately?  Maybe you should enter a picture of them in our photo contest!  (Wink wink, nudge nudge…)

Nine Mile Run, close-up

Last Friday I had the privilege of accompanying naturalists Chris Tracey and Pete Woods on one of their periodic surveys of the Nine Mile Run wetland restoration area.  Every now and then, they head down to the stream and record whatever species they find there–from grasses to wildflowers to the tiniest insects.  It’s a great way to keep up with the increasing biodiversity that’s present since the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association’s restoration of the site was completed several years back.  It’s also an important way to monitor whether invasive species are beginning to take over any parts of the landscape.

I’m not great with scientific names or identification, but I do love taking photos that make nature’s tiniest residents seem larger than life.  With the exception of the first photo, all these were taken with a macro lens.  Thanks to Chris and Pete for the species IDs!

A wide view of the stream, with lots of purple chicory in bloom.


An up-close look at the chicory and its blue stamens.  What a gorgeous flower.


We guessed that this one was a member of the extended tomato family, eventually settling on horsenettle.


A lovely slender spreadwing damselfly with perfectly translucent wings.


On the left is a dense blazing star, which Chris speculated might have been introduced by someone.  It was the only one we saw in the whole area, so it hadn’t been part of the planting mix.  On the right is common teasel, which blooms in a unique way: flowers initially form in a ring around the head.  The ring grows for a few days, but the flowers don’t last long so the ring may die, giving way to a second ring, which seems to be what happened here.

Blazing star and teasel

A red marsh hawk dragonfly:

Red dragonfly

A large milkweed bug on swamp milkweed:

Milkweed bug

Now a bee on swamp milkweed (how do they ever choose what to forage?):

Bee on milkweed

A close-up look at Queen Anne’s Lace:

Queen Anne's Lace

A purple damselfly (called a variable dancer–Argia fumipennis) and his mate.  I love how in nature the males are the ones who have to be all attractive to impress the females; I sometimes think our culture could learn a little from that!

Purple damselflies

And the shot of the day: the purple damselfly was an incredibly cooperative photo subject.  I wish the ebony jewelwings I’m forever chasing around would show the same willingness to be still!

Closeup damselfly

Four Unsung Spots #4: Nine Mile Run

If you asked me to name my favorite spot in all of the four parks, I would probably say the area of Nine Mile Run that goes from Commercial St. down to the Monongahela River. It’s a low-traffic spot that is teeming with interesting flora and fauna, so it somehow manages to be both totally peaceful and exciting at the same time.

Fall is a perfect time to discover this area of the park. Before you start hiking, pass under the Commercial St. bridge and check out the restored wetland habitat that was created as part of the Nine Mile Run aquatic ecosystem restoration.  This is my favorite place in the parks to watch dragonflies and damselflies, because there’s a whole rainbow of them down here.  I hadn’t realized until a few explorations in this area that we had orange damselflies around here.

Just a few of the dragonflies and damselflies Ive spotted at Nine Mile Run.

Just a few of the dragonflies and damselflies spotted at Nine Mile Run.

You can start your journey down to the river one of two ways: you can use the “Jeep Trail,” which is a functioning trail on the Swisshelm Park side of the stream, or you can pick your way through an overgrown trail on the Summerset at Frick Park side of the stream. This trail is getting harder and harder to use as the wildflowers and grasses grow in, and sometimes it can be completely impassable. So I’d recommend taking the Jeep Trail, which takes you high above the stream and (in the fall) past a stunning, bright yellow stand of maple trees.

Nine Mile Run before the slag came in (from the 1923 Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh)

Nine Mile Run before the slag (from the 1923 Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh parks report)

Along your way, you may encounter anything from deer to a family of ducks to a great blue heron sailing overhead.  If you’re on the Jeep Trail, you’ll pass a big pile of slag to your left, and if you glance to your right you can make out the Summerset at Frick Park development through the trees.  These slag heaps are reminders of Pittsburgh’s industrial past and of the long and difficult journey this area endured on its way to becoming parkland.  It’s a fascinating story that I plan on exploring in more detail in an upcoming blog, but the short version is that this area was part of a grand plan for a water recreation center in Pittsburgh.  A combination of funding issues, the prioritization of playgrounds over other park amenities, and the fact that the Duquesne Slag Company had purchased 94 acres in the Nine Mile Run Valley before government re-zoned it doomed Nine Mile Run for the rest of the 20th century.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the turnaround began, and project partners began to convert the slag heap into a residential development and the abandoned valley into parkland.  The annexation of the Nine Mile Run Valley added 106 acres to Frick Park, officially making it Pittsburgh’s largest park at 561 acres.  So when you’re on your hike, you are in the newest section in all the regional parks.

Eventually (after you’ve properly contemplated all this history, of course), you’ll come to a point where the Jeep Trail and the makeshift trail link up again.  This is my very favorite part, because the reflections of the trees in the water are really beautiful, and the small splash of a single leaf or rock sends off such beautiful ripples.  Funny to think that in the middle of what was once an industrial waste site, it’s the natural beauty that’s so overwhelming.

If you’re on the Jeep side of the trail, you’ll have to cross the stream to continue heading to the river.  This is fairly easy if you’re adept at hopping over rocks, but a lot of park users can’t wait for the new bridge that’s slated for this area to be installed.  The last time there was a bridge in this area of the park, it was so that slag could easily be hauled from one side of the dump site to the other.  Now, the plan is for a pedestrian and bike-only bridge that will increase connectivity between the park and the river.

I talked to Brenda Smith, the Executive Director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, about this recently, and she said, “Since I came to the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association in January 2008, I’ve probably been asked about the bridge more than any other subject.  Even though that area seems remote, it is quite frequently used.  People have been finding ways to pick their way across the stream, but they are very excited to have a bridge there again.”    

Beyond the bridge (which has been delayed due to difficulty in securing funding), the Urban Redevelopment Authority is planning to complete a new trail that goes to Old Browns Hill Road and links up with the existing trail down to Duck Hollow, where park users can access the river.

For now, though, if you actually want to make it all the way to the river, you’ll have to just pretend there’s a trail leading you there.  Hang a right and go up the hill towards Summerset at Frick Park.  Eventually if you keep walking you’ll come out near Browns Hill Road and can make your way down to Duck Hollow, where you can stand on the shore and watch all the shoppers at the Waterfront across the river. 

Hopefully you’ll have a chance to explore this lovely stretch of land that has beat all the odds and finally become part of our parks.  To learn all about Nine Mile Run (including the stretch that runs through Fern Hollow, which we didn’t cover here), visit the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association’s website at