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Fern Hollow comes alive in dead of winter

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Sewickley Herald
National Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania volunteer naturalist Bob VanNewkirk talks about owl talons during a 'Pennsylvani's Amazing Owls' program at Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley Heights Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Participants in the Fern Hollow Nature Center’s Owl Prowl program are treated to an up-close look at the regal bird.
Sewickley Herald
Beth McMaster, owner of WildBird Recovery of Valencia, holds and talks about a barred owl named Kele during a 'Pennsylvania's Amazing Owls' program at Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley Heights Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald

Winter weather doesn't stop the activity at Fern Hollow Nature Center.

In addition to the Great Backyard Bird Count, the Sewickley Heights center is starting out the new year with its “Owl Prowl” program and a preschool play.

‘Owl Prowl'

For the second year, three Owl Prowl programs were been scheduled, but the first was canceled because of frigid temperatures Jan. 3.

Stacey Widenhofer, center educator, said those scheduled for the first program were rescheduled for the Jan. 10 and 11 programs, and there still are spots available for the popular program to be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. each day.

Widenhofer, who will lead the group Jan. 10, said those who want to participate should call the center at 412-741-7536, leave their name and telephone number and which date they are interested in, and someone will call back to tell them in which local park owl prowlers will meet. She said the park choice is determined by conditions of trails and the number of participants.

Those attending are encouraged to dress warm in layers and wear boots. Flashlights are discouraged because, Widenhofer said, participants need to allow their eyes to adjust to the dark.

Widenhofer will call the owls via an app on a smart device attached to a speaker during Friday. April Claus, center director of environmental education, will use her own owl calls when she leads the Saturday group.

There are spots for only 15 participants in each group to provide a greater chance to see and hear the screech, barred and great horned owls, Widenhofer said. “Last year, we had a screech owl fly right in the middle of our group,” she said.

The program began about four years ago after the center began offering its “Pennsylvania's Amazing Owl” program with Bob VanNewkirk, a volunteer with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. The educational program, held mostly inside the center, includes live owls brought to the center from the Wildbird Recovery center in Valencia. The program was held Saturday.

‘A Home for Tandy'

For the third year, Claus will turn into an elf and try to find a winter home, as animals such as a raccoon and ant, played by Stacey Widenhofer, center educator, and another ant, beaver and owl, played by Susie Moffett, program coordinator and center educator, try to help her.

The play, “A Home for Tandy,” is based on one of Claus' favorite childhood books by Audrey and Harvey Hirsch, and, Widenhofer said, the first year, it was presented only to Sewickley Academy first-graders at the center. Now the Fern Hollow staff members put on the play at the center for Sewickley Presbyterian Church's FriendShip Preschool and the Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church Preschool, as well as the general public.

The public showing will be from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at Fern Hollow. About 35 spots are available.

Widenhofer said the play is about Tandy the elf, who needs to find a new home for the winter. She meets and befriends various animals along the way who help her, and she learns all about their winter habitats.

“We have props and costumes. It's cute,” Widenhofer said.

After the play, children can ask questions and explore hands-on items, such as a beaver pelt, and other learning tools related to the play. The cost is $5 per child. Reservations are required by calling 412-741-7536.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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