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COVID-19 Can’t Stop Us From Changing the World!

This week’s blog was written by Lorelei M-B., Bucktails, Brookies, Gobblers, and Ursids alumni. Lorelei is the Founder/CEO of Heart Hugs, a global organization that provides tangible support and advocacy for congenital heart defect awareness, detection, and treatment. Her work includes several educational publications explaining the Total Artificial Heart, 3-Stage Palliative Reconstruction, and the effects of trauma on patients. She has been instrumental in funding various medical response programs, advocating for transplantation approval for children with intellectual disabilities as well as better cardiac care for Wounded Warriors, providing compression heart pillows to over 36,000 open heart patients around the world, and advocating for informed and culturally responsive health programs to help detect congenital heart defects. She was recognized as the 2016 Military Child of the Year for the Army, a National Prudential Spirit of Community Award Recipient, an Everyday Health Hero by Dr. Mehmet Oz, and is an official Marvel superhero as part of Marvel’s Hero Project, as well as numerous other distinctions. Her Cherokee heritage greatly influences her approaches to Resiliency and Healing as she faces her own complicated diagnosis of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, an incurable severe congenital heart defect. Lorelei’s ability to make extremely complicated diagnoses understandable to the public creates hope and understanding in each community she serves.

This year, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Wildlife Leadership Academy did everything virtually. It might not seem very effective to conduct environmental field schools with students all over the place from their homes. But I see it differently. I was born missing half of my heart and require a lot of medical care. I’ve been having a lot of problems with my heart stopping and my lungs filling with fluid easily. My medical team encourages me to achieve my dreams, but the WLA field schools are very rigorous and the heat of summer affects my health greatly. When the first round of applications happened, I didn’t even apply because I knew it wouldn’t be good for me. Then COVID-19 changed everything.

Having a life-threatening condition means I end up in the hospital a lot and with little warning.

Due to social distancing measures, the Wildlife Leadership Academy field schools transitioned online. Miss Michele and Miss Katie sent out emails accepting new applicants and I applied immediately. For once, I was able to be a part of something I’ve dreamed about since I was little. I was so excited that, finally, after all my wishing, hoping, and wondering… I could! It wasn’t just me, though. Other kids were able to apply who normally wouldn’t, like my friend, Ardianna, who lives in New York. Usually, applicants are only from Pennsylvania, and being able to meet her was one of the highlights of my experience with WLA.

I do things differently because I don’t have as much energy, but I get it done! This was me taking photos from a hammock.

From my perspective, COVID-19 is a reminder that our attitudes and creativity determine how we persevere in tough times. Instead of me feeling sorry for myself because my family needs to cocoon to protect me, which means we cannot go anywhere, I applied to an amazing program and learned more than I could ever imagine. I was offered a place in four field schools to take advantage of the online opportunity and, not only did I learn about awi (deer), ajadi (trout), gvna (turkey), and yona (bear), but I was able to help others understand how important these animals are to my own Cherokee community throughout history and today.

I love teaching others about my Cherokee heritage and my WLA trifold was a perfect chance to do just that!

We used Zoom as the platform for our meetings and classes. In order to do intensive work, we used its breakout room feature to meet for teamwork. Our executive director, Miss Michele Kittell, was afraid that it wouldn’t work and that people would not want to come, but she needn’t have worried. We came together and showed everyone that motivated teens can rise to any occasion and model leadership skills and a commitment to the environment.

I love researching and taking that knowledge and turning it into something that helps others.

I am so proud to be a Wildlife Leadership Academy Ambassador and serve our community through advocacy, education, and outreach!

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Crunchy Feast at the National Mall

This week’s blog was written by Joseph S., a Brookies alumni. He is mainly interested in reptiles – especially snakes, amphibians, and fish. Joseph has many reptile species and both fresh and saltwater fish at home and in the pond in his backyard. Joseph enjoys hiking and kayaking in national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges. He would like to become a herpetologist or toxicologist.

When people want to observe wildlife, they usually visit the state and national parks, or other wilderness areas. However, there is no need to travel far to meet many bird or mammal species. Rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and foxes thrive in many large cities. No one gets surprised to spot rats, sparrows, ducks, or doves in almost any metropolitan area.

Beaver swimming away with branch in the Tidal Basin, Washing DC.

Often when I take the metro to Washington DC, I see woodchucks and deer. Occasionally, even more shy predatory animals such as bobcats and coyotes approach densely populated human settlements. Unfortunately, I missed a young black bear who managed to get to the metro station in front of the National Institutes of Health busy campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Commuters found it climbing on a pine tree a couple of years ago. People in the Northwest might be more used to meet bears in cities, but on the East Coast, it is quite unusual.

Beaver eating branch at the Tidal Basin, Washington DC

This fall, I was surprised by another unexpected species happily swimming right in downtown Washington DC. I walked around the Tidal Basin, a water reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel when I heard a weird crunching sound. As I bent over a handrail and searched the water, the cracking sound was getting stronger. I could not believe my eyes when a flat tail appeared just two feet from me. I checked it twice, but the large front teeth and fuzzy fur could not belong to anything else than a huge beaver. It was enthusiastically feasting on a small bush growing above the water across the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When the beaver got tired of me frantically taking its pictures, it just grabbed a branch with a couple of leaves and swam holding it in its mouth along the bank. I understand that because of their appetite for trees including the famous cherry trees, beavers might not be popular in the capital city, but for me, it was very exciting to observe a very active beaver, just a short walk from the White House.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Elmwood Park Zoo

This week’s blog was written by Maddy C., a Ursids alumni. She loves learning about animals. Maddy thinks that the variations among species are fascinating and she likes researching animals that may not be appealing to other people. She is looking to major in animal sciences in college and become an animal behaviorist.

I have always loved going to the zoo because it allows me to see animals that I would otherwise only see on documentaries and TV shows. Because I love the zoo so much, I have become an education volunteer at my local zoo, Elmwood Park Zoo (EPZ). EPZ is located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Though it is smaller than the Philadelphia Zoo, EPZ has a particular charm because the traffic is not as heavy and the zoo itself is less crowded. EPZ has some very unique interactive activities like feeding the giraffes, bison, or birds and petting goats, sheep, and donkeys in the barn. There are also seasonal changes like “Boo at the Zoo” in October and “Wild Lights” in December. EPZ provides many opportunities for fostering animal passion in youths like summer camps and educational activities. I, myself, have run some of the educational activities, including teaching children about blubber in animals and differentiating between the patterns of various big cats. Sometimes, I even educate adults on the different animals in the zoo. Educating people about animals is one of the best parts of volunteering at the zoo.

Volunteering at the ToJ

Though there aren’t a lot of “perks” to volunteering at the zoo, one of my favorites is getting free admittance to the zoo before and after scheduled shifts. What I mean is, you can show up early for your shift and wander around a bit or leave a little later to do the same. Since people come and go at different times, my position as an education volunteer isn’t always very active. While waiting to greet the next guests, I enjoy observing the animals and trying to learn their names. Since I’m most often stationed in the Trail of the Jaguar (ToJ), I’m most familiar with the animals there. EPZ has three jaguars: a mother and father named Inka and Zean, respectively, and their daughter Luna. There are also 2 sibling cougars (or mountain lions) who share a large, open enclosure. The ocelot found in the center of the ToJ named Mateo is typically sleeping because ocelots are nocturnal. There are also non-feline animals in the ToJ including burrowing owls (Dorothy and Oz), Montezuma quail (Monty and Zumi), chuckwallas, desert tortoises, and wood rats. Penny the alligator also stayed in the ToJ for a small period of time while her enclosure was being repaired from a flood. There are also other stations that I have volunteered at.

Mateo the ocelot
Male white-faced saki monkey

Though I don’t know the names of most of the animals at the other stations, I have spent a decent amount of time there. One of my favorite stations is the barn because it acts as a petting zoo for donkeys, goats, and sheep. At the entrance of the barn, there are two donkeys: a gray female named Jenny (because female donkeys are called jennies) and a spotted male donkey named Pickles. Further in, there are many goats and sheep including Boer goats, Nigerian dwarf goats, and Jacob’s sheep. Personally, petting the donkeys, goats, and sheep is a highlight of the zoo experience. In addition to the barn, there is the Wildlife Lodge. Here, you can find various reptiles like snakes, turtles, Penny’s indoor exhibit, and the green iguana, Michael who shares an enclosure with the white-faced saki monkeys and therefore can be found inside or outside. In addition to reptiles, you can find various frogs like the Borneo eared frog, the red-eyed tree frog, and many species of poison dart frogs. Where many people find the most interest, however, is in the mammals: the American straw-colored fruit bats, golden lion tamarins, and white-faced saki monkeys. The white-face saki monkeys are a family of four, a father, son, mother, and daughter. The females can be differentiated from the males by color; females are mostly gray with white streaks on the face and males have black bodies and white or cream-colored faces. It’s fun to watch their behaviors with one another as a familial unit. It may seem like I’ve described all the animals at this zoo, but I’ve only covered half of them. If you want to see the animals in person and meet the ones I haven’t described, visit the Elmwood Park Zoo in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All in all, experiencing EPZ first-hand as a volunteer has been an extremely educational and fulfilling opportunity for an animal-lover like me.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Autumn’s Gift

This week’s blog was written by Micaela J., a Bucktails alumni. Micaela is interested in pursuing a career in engineering, although she hasn’t decided what type of engineering she would like to go into yet. Last summer Micaela attended Northampton County Junior Conservation School which sparked her interest in the environment and how we impact it. That program led her to learn about the Wildlife Leadership Academy, which she soon wanted to attend because of its focus on conservation and learning about the plants and animals in our environment.

Reds, oranges, rusts, yellows, golds, browns; both vibrant and muted colors fill the Fall landscape. As the air becomes crisp and the leaves fall like snowflakes, I become lost in the beauty around me. I make the time to slow down and breathe in nature’s gifts.

A Fall bloom
A rain-kissed rose

Some people see Fall as a time of death and decay, as the trees lose their leaves and we brace ourselves for the barren solitude of ice and snow that is to follow. That is not what I see when the leaves start to change colors, preparing to fall. I am filled with excitement as the new season approaches. I find the variety of colors in the trees to be stunning, as the colors can have such variety, yet continue to complement one another so well. The summer flowers are fading, but surprise me with a random fall blown. Mums and asters now replace their summer cousins, their flower’s hues mimic those of the fall leaves. During the Fall season, decor changes as well from the lighter, sunny colors of Summer to the darker, warmer tones of Autumn.

A surprise after the storm

For me, the fall season is full of joy and excitement. The carefree and creepy activities of Halloween: carving spooky pumpkins; bouncing along on a hayride; picking apples for sauces, ciders, and treats; wandering through corn mazes or haunted houses, and decorating our house and yard, are ones that I always looked forward to. Even the fall chores of raking leaves and gathering sticks for cool weather fires bring about a feeling of warmth and comfort inside of me. We are preparing to hunker down for the hurricanes and storms of the Fall as well as the snow and ice storms of Winter. Some dread these storms, I don’t. As my family is prepared for outages and homebound squalls, having wood cut and stacked for fires and flashlights/candles for lights. Although these are not ideal weather situations, they provide a feeling of togetherness for my family, slowing down the business of everyday life to step back and take the time to focus on family. And after the storms are over, we are sometimes left with a beautiful picture in the sky.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The pH Scale

This week’s blog was written by Sierra R., a Bass alumni. She attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy this summer because it looked like a good opportunity to further her education and to give her a deeper look into different career fields. Sierra’s hobbies include hiking, nature journaling, Girl Scouts, and theater.

pH stands for Potential Hydrogen. The measurement of pH is used to determine how acidic or alkaline a material is. It ranges on a scale of 0-14. Zero is extremely acidic, while fourteen is extremely alkaline. In the middle of the scale is seven, which means that the pH is neutral.

Our body has a variety of pH throughout its systems. The digestive system holds a strong stomach acid so it can digest our food, but our stomach is coated in alkaline bile as a way to keep the acid from burning through our stomach. Just like our digestive system, many other systems in nature require a balanced pH to function.

Both aquatic and land organisms require a balanced pH in their habitat. However, many species have a range of tolerance. For example, many fish and macroinvertebrates can live in slightly alkaline (7-9.0 pH) or slightly acidic waters(7-5.0 pH), and the optimum pH range for most plants is usually 7-5.5 (Perry, Leonard). These variations are a good thing; having a wide variety of pH tolerance allows for diversity in an ecosystem. What is not healthy, however, is when an ecosystem has a drastic shift outside of its normal pH levels.

The pH scale

What causes pH level differences?

Some natural things that would cause slightly acidic soil or water include: Decaying of plants like fall leaves and regular precipitation of rainwater, which normally has a pH of 5 to 5.5 (pH Scale).

Things can naturally become alkaline as well. Usually, alkaline soils form in dry climates when plant materials high in carbonate begin to decompose or when deposits of alkaline material such as limestone become exposed to sources of water (Landscape-Water-Conservation).

There are many ways that pH levels can un-naturally change:

  • Putting too much lime or peat in a yard
  • Not properly disposing of chemicals and cleaners
  • acidic rain caused by pollutants in the air
  • abandoned mine drainage caused by exposed metals oxidizing with water and air and then leaching into soils and streams
  • chemical leakage from a factory or pool

If you come across a chemical spill or incident of a similar nature, you should report it to your State’s designated environmental agency. Here is PA’s DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) page on reporting environment complaints:

https://www.dep.pa.gov/About/ReportanIncident/Pages/EnvironmentalComplaints.aspx

Dramatically high and low pH levels can disrupt the environment. Unnatural pH levels often prevent plants from being able to pick up all the nutrients they need to grow. Many macroinvertebrates, amphibians, and fish eggs are sensitive to pH levels. It is important to keep an eye on your area’s pH-sensitive wildlife as a decline in their health could be an indicator of environmental problems in your area.

A while back, I came across a gardening site that had instructions on how to test the general pH level of your soil, and I decided to try it out. I enjoyed it a lot, so I thought I would share my version of it. The instructions below are similar to the instructions I found, but the measurements are scaled-down, and the instructions are changed based on how I did my test. If you would like to see the original version, here is the link:

https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-test-soil-acidity-alkalinity-without-a-test-kit-1388584

Materials:

  • Something to dig with (small shovel or metal spoon)
  • 1 spoon
  • 1 plastic snack bag
  • 2 medium to small bowls
  • ¼ cup of white vinegar
  • ¼ cup of room temperature water
  • 1 Tablespoon of baking soda
  • ½ cup of dirt (divided)

Directions:

Using a shovel or metal spoon, fill a plastic snack bag with about half a cup of soil. Divide the contents equally into 2 separate bowls (about ¼ cup per bowl). Next, measure about ¼ cup of white vinegar and empty it into one bowl of dirt. Watch to see if the soil fizzes or gets foamy. If it does, that means your soil is probably slightly alkaline. If it does not, then you should continue to the next paragraph.

I used Walmart brand snack bags for my soil sample
The regular baking soda and white vinegar I used for my soil pH test

To test for acidic soil, measure ¼ of a cup of room temp water in a clean measuring cup. Then, dump 1 tablespoon of baking soda into the water. With a spoon, gently stir the water for a second and then pour the baking soda water into the other bowl of dirt. Watch it for a little while. If it fizzes or foams, then your soil is slightly acidic. If nothing happens at all during both tests, then you most likely have neutral soil.

After doing my test, I found out my soil was slightly acidic. Notice the sample on the right side tested with baking-soda-water is fizzing.

An important thing to note is that these are estimations and this in no way replaces the pH test you can buy at the store. Store-bought pH testing kits or strips are what you would want to get if you need precise and accurate pH measurements. But this do-it-yourself pH test can be a fun experiment to do with kids as an educational project.

The graphic image used in this blog was sourced from the internet! It can be found here. The rest of the photos belong to the author. The sources that the author used can be found here, here, here, and here.