HomeSuscribe TodayBack IssuesMembershipCarnegie Museums of PittsburghMedia Kit

It’s a research oasis, a natural science classroom, and the source of the best long-term bird-banding data in the country. And this September, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, it breaks ground on its future.





“Our Oakland collection is a history of life on earth, ideal for learning about evolution. But Powdermill is alive. It’s a much more effective, exciting way to teach about ecology and conservation.”
- Bill DeWalt, Carnegie Museum of Natural History Director































“Powdermill’s big power is that it has the best past and present data...of anybody in North America.”
- C.J. Ralph, research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service











For the Birds

Some institutions depend on the kindness of strangers. Powdermill depends on its friends.

Long before the launch of its capital campaign, Powdermill funded improvements through a unique local benefit. Dubbed “Garden Themes and Birdhouse Dreams,” the annual event brings out hundreds of community fans.

Proceeds from the auction of birdhouses and crafts, handmade by neighborhood artists and children, have funded such projects as the restoration of Powdermill’s ponds and the renovations of its cabins. (Funds from the 2005 event renovated Raven’s Roost, newly outfitted to host larger meetings and conferences.)

“ In nine years, the birdhouse auction event has grossed over $530,000, all due to the energy and commitment of a remarkably talented and dedicated group of people,” says Director Dave Smith.
“Powdermill has always been part of the Museum of Natural History, but it’s been a well-kept secret,” says Margot Woodwell, a museum board member who chaired five of the birdhouse auctions and now leads the Campaign for Powdermill. “Now, people from a broader area have gotten involved.

“ Folks recognize Powdermill as a real asset to the region, a good steward of its own area, and a catalyst to encourage others to sustain the environment,” she adds. “We feel it has the potential to be a year-round focal point. With commitment from the museum’s leaders, and with Dave Smith’s leadership, this is the time for Powdermill.”

Margot Reed, co-chair of the 2006 Birdhouse Auction, and Margot Woodwell, chair of the Campaign for Powdermill.



Powdermill Takes Wing

Bob Mulvihill opens a plain paper bag held closed with a blue plastic clothespin, reaches inside, and produces a small handful of brown and white feathers. Lifting the bundle under my nose, he says “now go ahead and blow.” So I do. One breath exposes a bright pink bulge of skin on the breast of a female waterthrush resting in the ornithologist’s hand.

The bird was bagged early this July morning at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Westmoreland County field station. Her swollen, blood-rich brood patch signifies that this mom has a nest of eggs to tend to, so Bird-Bander-in-Charge Adrienne Leppold quickly notes her weight, wing length, and age (determined by close examination of her wing plumage), gently slips a numbered band on her leg, and releases her through a small window.

Laurel Valley High School biology students collect invertebrate samples in the crystal-clear waters of Powdermill Run.

The warbler has just joined an international club: She’s one of 15,000 birds of 110 resident and migratory species that the Powdermill Avian Research Center (PARC) will track this year. Started in 1961 by bird-bander-extraordinaire Bob Leberman, who continues to work at Powdermill as an emeritus researcher, PARC has banded or recaptured a half million birds of almost 200 species—sometimes as many as 500 in a single day.

The thrill of an up-close encounter with all kinds of wildlife—birds, amphibians, and the occasional bear—draws nature lovers of all ages to Powdermill year round for structured learning events or inspired field trips. The 2,200-acre nature preserve located 60 miles from Pittsburgh is a living, breathing science exhibit, and a resource for students of all ages.

“ At the museum, we study evolution and ecology,” says Carnegie Museum of Natural History Director Bill DeWalt. “Our Oakland collection is a history of life on earth, ideal for learning about evolution. But Powdermill is alive. It’s a much more effective, exciting way to teach about ecology and conservation.

Powdermill’s Bob Mulvihill, Field Ornithology projects coordinator, holds the catch of the day—a Cooper’s Hawk, which he bands and releases moments later.

With its scattered wooden cabins for visiting researchers, towering trees, and magnificent silence, the Laurel Highlands research station seems more like a Brigadoon than a science lab. It is, happily, both.

This year, the Reserve’s profile is about to soar, as it seizes on the
public’s growing environmental awareness and its own tremendous resources. A $7.5 million capital campaign, the first in its 50-year history, will fund an endowment to expand facilities, exhibits, and outreach. And a revolutionary expansion design—including materials, energy sources, water, and exhibits—will transform its nature center into as much of a learning opportunity as the educational programs it houses.

Field and Stream Science

Turtle trapping at the 2005 Bioforay

David Hillenbrand, who joined Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh as its president in July 2005, says he was surprised by all that Powdermill offers and excited by its great potential. “Like so many people in the region, I wasn’t aware of the fascinating living research being conducted at Powdermill every day,” Hillenbrand says. “The scientific study performed at Powdermill by resident and visiting scientists is an extremely important complement to the work being done by our scientists at the Museum of Natural History. And what an amazing classroom for kids from throughout the region—many of whom otherwise would never have the chance to catch a close-up look at nature.”

Powdermill welcomes about 12,000 guests of the non-feathered kind annually; 3,000 of them are students and summer campers who explore the Reserve through hands-on activities in the stream and attend classes at the Florence Lockhart Nimick Nature Center. International students learn about Powdermill, too, through a project connecting schools in western Pennsylvania with children in Germany and St. Croix. Developed by Powdermill staff and funded by Kennametal, the curriculum allows children to study local aquatic habitats, culminating in presentations during a live videoconference (last year’s ended in a spontaneous “SpongeBob Squarepants” singalong). The collaboration gained Powdermill’s education program top
honors in this year’s Western Pennsylvania Environmental Awards.

Bird Bander Emeritus Bob Leberman carefully extract a bird from a net for banding; local high school students test water samples for a biology project

“ Everybody talks about distance learning, but very few places are adept at providing content,” says DeWalt. “We have lots and lots of content, and we’re able to deliver that around the country and the world.”

The Reserve has also stepped up efforts to engage adults. “We have to focus on educating the decision-makers of today,” says Powdermill Director Dave Smith. He notes that improving the nature center’s “rather static” exhibits as well as offering a sample
of the rich collections of the Museum of Natural History will make Powdermill’s headquarters facility more of a destination for families.

“ We need space to move forward,” says the genial director, perched in a tiny cabin office by a thicket full of hummingbirds and warblers. “The expansion will enable us to do more with our education program. And it will give us lots more room for lots more research.”

An architectural sketch of Powdermill’s expanded nature center.

“It All Started With Restrooms”
When the doors to Powdermill’s expanded nature center open next summer, visitors will find the barn-like structure totally transformed and environmentally friendly. A new welcome center, temporary and permanent exhibits, expanded classrooms, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab, and office space will all be heated through a geothermal system and insulated with straw bales, while recycling wastewater to Powdermill-quality purity.

volunteer Randi Gerrish, bird bander Adrienne Leppold, and ornithologist Valerie Ojeda (from Pategonia) compare the wing molts on an adult and an immature Blue Jay

In introducing the project to visitors, Smith shares a current slide of a visiting school group posed in a long line on the lawn by the two restrooms. “This is, actually, the waiting line,” he quips.
“ It all started with the restrooms,” says architect Rob Pfaffmann, laughing, as he refers to the expansion’s “green” objectives. Since Pfaffmann has incorporated environmentally responsible and energy-saving features in all his projects, the restrooms were his natural starting point. “We always have to consider and mitigate man’s impact on the site,” he explains.

The center’s ingenious solution to expand those much-needed facilities is a marsh machine wastewater treatment system. The greenhouse of plants will absorb the wastewater from the center’s new restrooms, scrub it clean, and pump it into a terrarium/aquarium exhibit filled with Powdermill fauna for visitors to explore. The installation will be the only one of its kind in the state. Surplus non-potable clean water will be reused in the washrooms or slowly leached into a drip field by the Reserve’s new Sugar Camp Trail.

Mike Lanzone, assistant coordinator at PARC, prepares to release a warbler and record its flight call.

As Education Coordinator Theresa Gay Rohall leads a visitor along the trail, she pauses to shove aside a huge log blocking the way. “Bears,” she proclaims calmly. She continues uphill, pointing out deer and bear tracks while praising Pfaffmann’s design. “Few of the good nature centers in the country now teach about the connection between building and the environment,” she says. “So we’ll have a tremendous teaching opportunity, along with the chance to host many more students. Right now, we’re maxed out.” (Carnegie Mellon University’s plan to build a demonstration solar house for a national U.S. Department of Energy competition and then locate it at Powdermill will further the Reserve’s reputation as a demonstration site for sustainable technologies.)

Other recycled materials, like homosote roof decking made from newspaper, will complement the interior with plenty of natural light. “When you look up, it will be like looking through the forest,” says Pfaffmann. Digital controls will minimize energy use. And, in keeping with the Powdermill ethic that “bird safety comes first,” angled glass walls and other protection will shield birds from collisions. Microphones and live Web cams may allow human visitors to eavesdrop on the world outside.


Information is Power
Powdermill’s expansion got a big jumpstart in 2005 with a $3 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to be used to build the nature center addition, which will break ground September 10. Earlier this year, a Heinz Endowments grant of $2 million—in honor of its late board member William H. Rea and his deceased wife, Ingrid, both devout environmentalists and longtime Powdermill supporters—created two new research posts: a conservation biologist at Powdermill and a herpetology curator at the museum.

Smith, who joined the Reserve in 2003, heads Powdermill’s small but passionate group of young staffers. Joe Stavish is one of them.

On this magnificent summer day in July, Stavish is literally knee-deep in the rushing Powdermill Run. “Trout love these fish, and they’re a great water quality indicator,” the assistant education coordinator says admiringly, as he scoops up an inch-long mottled sculpin in a mesh strainer. While Powdermill’s original 1,160 acres, donated by the Mellon and Scaife families in 1956, have doubled over the past few decades, the staff who lovingly use the land as their research lab and education center still number only nine full-time employees. They’re supported by numerous part-time staff, research associates, and volunteers. “Powdermill’s volunteers are making a tremendous impact on the life of the Reserve,” notes Cokie Lindsay, operations coordinator at Powdermill. “We regularly receive calls from enthusiastic people who want to offer their time and expertise to help. The work of these dedicated and talented volunteers ensures that Powdermill will continue to thrive and grow.”

Mulvihill, a walking encyclopedia of avian knowledge, is the most senior of Powdermill’s research staff. He began volunteering at Powdermill’s Avian Research Center as a Pitt undergrad in 1978 and joined full-time in 1983. He currently serves as the coordinator of Field Ornithology Projects. Studying the effects of environmental pollution on bird breeding is one of PARC’s power alleys, and Mulvihill is the head information power broker. A decade ago, he launched what is now a long-term study to assess the effects of acid pollution in Laurel Run on the Louisiana Waterthrush.

“ The Louisiana Waterthrush is a beautiful case of a bioindicator,” offers Mulvihill. His team of researchers has painstakingly tracked the number of waterthrush nests in the banks along Laurel Run, which has high levels of acid mine runoff, and then compared that data with the same information collected at nearby Powdermill Run, a near-perfect freshwater creek. “When waterthrush density and productivity increase to levels like we observe in Powdermill Run, then we’ll know that remediation efforts have suceeded in restoring normal ecological functioning of Laurel Run,” Mulvihill explains—for not only the waterthursh but all of the wildlife that call the stream home.

According to C.J. Ralph, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, who earlier this year solicited Powdermill’s help in an avian flu monitoring project for the U.S. government, “Powdermill’s big power is that it has the best past and present data…at a single station of anybody in North America.”

Powdermill Goes High-Tech
Throughout the summer of 2006, interns Lauren McFarland and Michael Baker could be seen stalking the Reserve from dawn to dusk, toting clinometers, densiometers, digital cameras, and global positioning systems receivers. Their exacting explorations are a first step in the challenging process of creating a detailed, layered, digital map of Powdermill. Following a precise 20-meter grid established by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist Trish Miller, which is overlaid on the entire acreage of the Reserve, the interns have captured data on vegetation types, canopy density, species, streams, and wetlands boundaries, coordinated that data with exact points of latitude and longitude, and transferred it all into a digital Powdermill map.

Says Miller, “Now we can create a gigantic database of everything at Powdermill—birds, amphibians, and the crane flies that Chen Young (invertebrate zoologist at the Museum of Natural History) is studying.” The expanded GIS lab will move into the Reserve’s renovated Rea Cabin this month.

Miller shares a computer-crammed office with her husband, Powdermill Ornithologist Mike Lanzone, often times joined by their infant daughter Phoebe. Lanzone’s specialty combines the low-tech with the high-tech. Assembling inexpensive digital microphones, he records bird calls during nocturnal migrations. “We’re watching with our ears,” he explains. “Bioacoustics helps us study more birds than those we can sight or band by day.” He identifies species’ calls by comparing them to recordings, displayed on the computer as sound waves. “If we detect significant changes year-to-year in the species composition or total number of birds recorded during migration, this will serve as an early-warning system prompting biologists to search for possible enviornmental causes.”

Not far away, in another cramped office, Mulvihill leads the research for the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas, the first state breeding atlas in the country to take full advantage of digital technologies such as GPS, GIS data, web-based data entry, and real-time display of results. Already, 2,000 volunteers have logged their sightings online to help create the amazingly expansive database, which will be used by natural resource agencies, land-use planners, and local and state governments to promote bird conservation efforts.

To Smith, Mulvihill, and their team, Powdermill’s planned expansion is all about being able to more effectively translate—for the rest of us—the valuable and extensive scientific information that is Powdermill’s treasure chest. The result: The communities Powdermill now serves will grow, and their members will all gain a better understanding and appreciation for the beauty, diversity, and fragility of their everyday world.

Mulvihill likes to share a quote from John E. Guilday, a former vertebrate paleontologist at Carnegie Museum, who penned an essay about Powdermill in 1958. Entitled “Time and Powdermill,” it closes with a sentence that, for Mulvihill, sums up this scientific Brigadoon’s magic:

“ The forest at Powdermill will …be passed on to future generations of scientists who may catch a glimpse of the effects of years, of centuries, upon a land held for the study of the slow, inevitable cycles that march and countermarch across its face. This is the unparalleled offering of the Reserve—the gift of time.”

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, as Powdermill takes wing, the value of that gift could not be more clear.


Back | Top