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Bell Acres/Sewickley Heights pond project helps protect wildlife

Bobby Cherry
| Wednesday, March 16, 2016, 11:30 a.m.
April Claus, Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental education director, shows wood frog eggs collected on a branch in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
April Claus, Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental education director, shows wood frog eggs collected on a branch in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association president Sarah Shockey is reflected in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association president Sarah Shockey is reflected in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Jefferson salamander eggs collect on a tree branch in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Jefferson salamander eggs collect on a tree branch in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
A spring peeper pauses on a log in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
A spring peeper pauses on a log in one of two ponds near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. The ponds were installed in the fall as part of a wetland restoration project at the site to offer a breeding habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.

For these Jeffersons, new ponds along the Bell Acres/Sewickley Heights border might seem like a deluxe apartment in the sky.

The ponds were created in the fall to keep Jefferson salamanders and frogs from dying in sewage in nearby tanks at a plant near Grouse Lane.

After a sediment pond used as a settling pond for overflow from the Bell Acres Municipal Authority was filled in around the mid- to late-2000s, health inspectors and treatment plant workers began noticing salamanders and frogs dying in sewage in nearby tanks.

The hole that the creatures had been using was filled in without anyone noticing the life that had taken up residence there.

Construction began in October to create a pond for wildlife, in hopes salamanders would begin to breed and use the area. A $10,000 grant from the Allegheny County Conservation District helped make the pond a reality.

About a month ago, salamander eggs started popping up in the pond, along with other wildlife such as frogs, said April Claus, Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental education director.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, probably seven Jefferson salamander eggs,” Claus said last week as she lifted one of many branches covered in salamander eggs that are lying in a pond.

“When we built these (ponds) in the fall, we knew they'd have all winter to gather water. We deliberately put sticks in there … and other organic matter. It gives the animals a place to hide. Slowly it will start to grow its own vegetation.”

Temporary cattle tanks previously had been installed in an effort to keep wildlife from dying, Claus said, calling it a “Band-Aid effect for the population limping along here.”

“But now they get to arrive and come to something fabulous,” she said.

By mid-summer, the salamander eggs will have hatched and the creatures will be able to walk out of the ponds, Claus said.

A visit last week was Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association President Sarah Shockey's first time since construction of the ponds in the fall. The association helped lead the project.

“All of the people who worked on this, they'll be just thrilled to death to know that it's working as well,” Shockey said as she peered into the water looking for other types of wildlife. “When it was in the construction stage, you thought, ‘Is this really going to come together and work?' And it does.”

A team of volunteers tends to pitfall traps created to help monitor and record the salamander activity at the site.

“I could sit here all day and watch,” Claus said.

She credits the joint work of Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, watershed association, municipal authority, Allegheny County Conservation District and Robert Morris University for working together to save the salamanders.

Claus has monitored the growth of other species at the pond, too, including a spring peeper frog she discovered for the first time last week.

“I'm so happy, I want to cry,” she said. “It's so relaxing to see them happy here.”

Bobby Cherry is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-324-1408 or rcherry@tribweb.com.

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