Backyard Wildlife

Turn on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, or Nat Geo Channel, and you will probably be able to find a couple cool shows about exciting animals. Fierce predators, insanely huge fish, marine mammals that you just want to cuddle to pieces – really interesting stuff! The downside is that most wildlife shows focus on “exotic” animals. You’ve probably even seen a show on something like arctic foxes from the tundra or elephants herd on the African grasslands, but a PBS Nature special your own backyard wildlife? Maybe not quite as common. So how about we take a firsthand look at what’s in our own neighborhoods together? How will we do that?

Ladies and Gentlemen, for my next trick, I would like to make pictures out of thin air! Well, I’ll take pictures with a strategically placed trail camera that is motion-and-heat-sensing to allow snaps of moving animals but not the blowing wind. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…ah well.

Trail cameras, or camera traps, are a fantastic way for researchers to observe elusive wildlife (like snow leopards or Andean bears), and state and federal agencies use them monitor wildlife populations across the country. I used a trail camera in my Wildlife Monitoring class that I taught at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and I’ve heard of some school districts allowing teachers to use them for class projects. But, honestly, they can also be useful for learning on your own or with your kids.

If you guys would like to play along at home, I bought this camera:


Sparkly background not included

It’s a Cuddeback trail camera that I got from Cabela’s for $99. Though often used by hunters, I just want to scope out what kind of wildlife is right there under my nebby nose. I’m setting this up today in the backyard of a friend’s house, so I will be sure to share with you all as soon as I have some images!

For those of you want to try this, I would highly encourage you to give it a whirl. If you’re concerned about the price, let me know and I can try to put folks in touch if they would like to share a camera. Land owners, you might be amazed with what visits your property. If you really don’t have any space (I don’t either, no worries), it might worth a try to ask a local park if they would let you do a trail camera survey for fun. They might be interested in what you find as well! Just be sure when you’re using a camera that you obey all local ordinances involving privacy, and if it’s not your land, ALWAYS get permission first!

Once you’ve found a camera, it simply needs to be placed (mine straps around a tree), and then left alone. Super easy. Do keep in mind where the camera is pointing, or you will have pictures of either all dirt of all tree top. I would also recommend checking your camera on a regular basis to be sure it isn’t stolen or damaged. Beyond that, if you’re just placing a camera for the joy of learning, it’s a very simple process. (If you are interested in more technical details for research or wildlife management, see here.)

In the past, I’ve used my trail cam in the Highland Park area in Pittsburgh. We’ll see what I find next in the North Hills!


That was MY clover!!


Female at night


Young buck at night


Ahh, the elusive Maria Sleeve.

Recycling – How it Happens in the ‘Burgh

Every other week in the city of Pittsburgh, 14 trucks per day are sent on routes that each include 900-1100 stops. At the different stops, the trucks may encounter a few small blue plastic bags, or they might find a large blue can or bin holding loose plastics, glass, and cardboard. An important yet largely thankless job, collectors work with materials that may be dripping with water from a heavy rain, or may be scattered around a curb, or they may be improperly contained—leading to confusion as to whether or not the materials were actually meant for them. These crews are our recycling collectors, and when their routes are done, they deliver an average of 60 tons of recyclables per day to a materials recovery facility, or a MRF (say “murf”).

Have you ever wondered what happens after that point? I tend to set out my blue bags at night, and *magic* they’re gone the next morning. Or have you ever wondered if there is any way that we as citizens can work with our city to maximize the efficiency of recycling? Since I was curious about all of this, I contacted the city’s Department of Public Works and spoke with Kyle Winkler, the city’s recycling supervisor. With his B.S. in Environmental Science and several years of experience in environmental non-profits before his current position, he was able to give me some great insights that I would love to share with you all.

Where Does our Recycling Go and What Happens to It?

That was my first big question, and I learned the city contracts recycling facilities to handle the processing of our commodities. Within Pittsburgh proper, Recycle Source in Hazelwood handles our recyclables, but other municipalities may contract other facilities in the area, including the MRF on Neville Island. These facilities then use a variety of methods to process and sort all of our leftover stuff like shampoo bottles, peanut butter jars, etc.

As a big picture, commodities are mainly sorted using mechanical processes, with some human quality-control mixed in. First things first, though, and that means breaking open those blue plastic bags many of us pack our materials into with a “bag breaker” and creating burden depths of materials on the conveyor belts that will ultimately carry materials into the proper machinery. This is an important step as dried, separated materials can only be stacked so high on a conveyor belt before sorting, but too little material ultimately isn’t efficient.

Next comes the mechanical separation of materials from the conveyor belts. The easiest way to grasp the whole process is to see it, like in this video from Boulder County, Colorado. As a broad summary, though, items are first screened for fiber, cardboard, or mixed paper products. As the processing continues, all glass is broken down on a glass breaker, and magnets begin pulling out metals. Aluminum (i.e., soda cans) is sorted out using reverse Eddy currents. Towards the end of the process, optical sorters separate plastics based on their color and density, and back on the fiber side, paper is sorted and baled based on color.

After the materials have been sorted, they can be sent to various manufacturers and industries that will make use of the various commodities. Here in Pittsburgh, this includes steel mills, paper mills, and other downstream sorters who might need to process commodities further. Glass, for example, goes on to another facility that further sorts the glass by color.

How Can We as Citizens Make the Job Easier for the City?

One of the things I learned during my conversation with Winkler is that Pittsburgh, like many other cities, can’t actually recycle the blue plastic bags that many of us sort our trash into.

“The city can’t go to containerized recycling right now, but it’s helpful for items to go into the trucks loose to expedite sorting,” Winkler says. It avoids the issue of having to clear plastic bags from machinery, reduces the risk of commodity contamination, and it saves all of that plastic going to waste. What does that mean for us? Buy a large blue bin rather than using bags. With items loose in the bin, collection crews can quickly pick up our recyclables, and processing crews can quickly sort materials where they need to be. Many grocery stores can recycle (well, technically down-cycle) our plastics bags, so look into those for when you forget your reusable bags (hate when I do that!)

We also can be more efficient recyclers by checking in with city’s website to see what can and cannot be recycled. Odd items (e.g. clothing or electronics) that make it into recycling bins slow down processing because they cannot be managed at this kind of facility. Winkler also added to avoid any food-related paper products. “Not paper plates, not napkins, not paper towels, paper cups—any of that.” And who wants our nasty pizza grease anyway?

The last of the super simple things we can do: breaking down and bundling our cardboard, following the city’s directions for packing materials for the curb, and separating recyclable from non. Really, anything to help the collection crews quickly spot and collect our recyclable materials helps the city get the job done quickly and efficiently.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

But what’s the one thing Winkler doesn’t want us to forget? “There are two other R’s ahead of recycling, and all the work and magic that goes into it. Reduction is so much more important. If we can avoid our consumption and disposal process, we can avoid using all the energy for the trucks, and machinery, and people in processing recyclables.”

He also reminds us that there is a reuse option. “When you have those single use containers, can you use them again? Milk jugs, plastic containers. Can you help avoid the production of new stuff by reusing what you have? Can you bring a reusable cup to Starbucks instead of trying figure out a way to recycle their cups?”

Gettin’ It Done!

In spite some of the challenges that tend to plague most cities’ recycling programs (budgeting issues, momentum, etc), Winkler knows his department is on the right track “[I have a] great crew to work with, and we’re helping to improve the system in a good direction environmentally. We have goals that include reducing costs for everyone and becoming a green city like we are aspire to be. And we are achieving those goals.”

Conservation and Honeymoons, Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for! The second half of our honeymoon adventures, and this time with a guest author–My Adventure Buddy 🙂

I asked him to write whatever he wanted about the last part of our trip, and he did not disappoint. One of his favorite parts of our trip was a visit to a coastal scrub dunes natural area. It was a habitat type we were both completely unfamiliar with. Barely the distance of a few football fields away was the ocean, yet the low, scrubby plants of the dunes made the area feel almost like an Arizona dessert. The smell of saltwater was replaced with something…greener? Heavier? Maybe it was just that the open surroundings made the heat so much more oppressive that you thought you could feel the density of sunlight, even so that it tricked your nose. Whatever it was it was, the scrub dunes left quite an impression on both of us.



Rob: So, what do I remember of the scrub dunes?

It was hot. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to tackle a desert expedition without gallons and gallons of water (Lawrence was a crazy, crazy man). The sun seems hotter down there than PA. And more focused, like we’re underneath a young kid trying to burn ants with his dad’s magnifying glass.


But I don’t mean to give the impression I didn’t like it. I truly did. There’s just this different theme to the air and the light in a hot, dry place. It’s a graver, more serious feeling. You’re still very excited to explore each movement in the brush (after all, there are fewer shadows, all the secrets are in the open for you to find), but perhaps there’s an ancient instinct telling your muscles not to hurry like you do when entering a cool, northern forest where you vault over fallen logs and scamper up hills. Instead, here, surrounded by sand and bristled, thorned scrub plants, ancient genetic material cautions you to move slower, conserve your energy and moisture. It’s a beauty you experience slower.


If the interrogating sun exposes the secrets on the ground, the sand is the stenographer – meticulously recording all movement gracing its surface. At first, we missed these records, we tromped over them (leaving our own for the next visitor) as we inspected flowers or looked up silhouettes of birds. Soon enough, we glanced down (perhaps from a pointed rock in a flip-flop) and found raccoon prints in the mud, sinewy grooves we mistook for snakes until we spotted tiny feet from a lizard on either side. We found what we think are rabbit prints. These always cross the trail at the shortest intersection.


It was a great trip. I mean that too. I truly enjoyed it, not just in the “we-went-to-the-beach-and-had-fun” kind of way. It was so much fund, never a boring day at Palm Beach. And my new traveling partner…my new wife…and I found that we are both such nerds. Our visit to the zoo lasted nearly six hours as we moved at the speed of sloth from exhibit to exhibit, taking in all that we could. In fact, we got to meet a sloth! (Maria: thanks so much to Erin at the Palm Beach Zoo!)


Many highlights to this trip. In fact, so many fun or special moments, if everything was a highlight, are there any highlights?


Find the Frogs!

Over the weekend, the hubby and I had a few minutes to take a walk around my parents’ neighborhood in central Ohio. Though firmly rooted in the suburbs, we came across the tiny remainders of a wetland (presumably drained) at the edge of the neighborhood. Cattails grew on both sides of what had turned into something a drainage ditch, and duckweed and some sort of potamogeton floated here and there in the shallow water. What we enjoyed best though–frogs! It may have been a small space, but this little patch of habitat was crowded with green frogs. I only had my phone on me, but I snapped a few pictures that I thought would be fun to share. Can you find the frogs in the pictures below?

one frog_easy

One frog here…not too hard to find.

one frog_harder

A little tougher…

two frogs

Oh that camouflage…

Found the frogs? Excellent! Now, while I have the floor, I do want to highlight a few things about frogs that are super important.

  • Frogs, along with other amphibians, are invaluable as indicator species. If there is a problem with a habitat, frogs and salamanders are among the first kind of living things to struggle because of their thin semi-permeable or permeable skin. And this is very important: if there is a problem with a wetland or a waterway, it’s not just a problem for “nature.” It’s a problem for us as well.
  • Amphibian populations around the world are declining. There are a number of speculated causes, but high on the list are habitat loss and the spread of the chytrid fungus.
  • Why are frogs helpful for you? For one thing, their diet includes a number of pesty insects including (wait for it)…mosquitoes. So, if you’re not a fan of getting bitten by creepy crawlies, you like frogs.
  • Why else are frogs helpful for you? A looming medical disaster is the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Countless numbers of human lives have been saved over the past several decades through the use of antibiotics, but a shadow is falling over that triumph as bacteria have begun developing resistance to what used to be effective treatments. However, antimicrobial peptides from frogs’ skin secretions may be one of the hopes for the future of bacterial infection treatment. If we keep our frogs safe, we might also be safeguarding medicines for the next generation. (P.S. This is for another post, but I can’t help it: you can help slow the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. If you are prescribed an antibiotic, be sure you use the medication only as directed by your doctor. Please do not Google “Do I have to finish my antibiotics.” Your doctor examined you; a blogger with an opinion did not. That includes me! Also, be aware that antibiotics are useless against viral infections, so don’t pressure your doctor if they say you’ll just have to wait it out. Most importantly: never share medication. Now back to frogs!)
  • If you still don’t believe me about how crazy cool frogs are, trust the experts at the Smithsonian! If anyone has fun facts, they do 🙂