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.

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?


Top Ten *Free* Summertime Learning Adventures in Pittsburgh

Stay tuned for Part II of the honeymoon story 😉 And while my brain may still be a bit locked in beach/honeymoon mode, overall I remain on a quest to find educational and super fun things for folks and families to do over the summer. Very important key to this, though, is budget. All the costs of summer time fun can add up quickly, but one of the many things I love about Pittsburgh is the awesome variety of things to do for free. Free! My favorite word.

So if you’re still looking for some fun ways to stimulate creativity and engagement, while not breaking the bank, below are the top ten places that offer free family learning adventures you can explore this summer. Just as a side note when you’re exploring the event pages, for a number of the facilities listed below, free programs are mixed with cost programs. Nothing outrageous, just something to keep in mind. Also, some of these activities are great not just for families but for singles, couples, groups, Uncle Louie, whomever!

  • Allegheny County Parks ~ Hometown Hoops minicamps and swimming classes (free swimming classes only held at Boyce Park, South Park, and Settlers Cabin Park)
  • Carnegie Libraries ~ Story times, Teen Times, Craft Time, Gamer Time (??), and Author events
  •  Allegheny Observatory (The stars, people! The stars!) ~ Free, but reservations required, ages 8 and up
  • Assemble Pittsburgh ~ M3 programs free over the summer—arts, materials, and building for 1st-8th grade