August 1, 2014
Eleven-year-old Richard Allan is lining everything up perfectly to take a swing at the fourth hole at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park.
He’s been golfing for a few years, and already has some tips, like which areas to avoid on this over 100-year-old course.
"There are no sand traps here—it’s basically all high cut grass. Yeah, it’s basically all natural," he explains.
Allan and his buddies are learning golf with the youth program First Tee of Pittsburgh. And that high grass is part of an initiative here to encourage more than challenging play. It’s habitat for migratory birds.
The Bob O’Connor golf course is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary golf course—one of 27 in Pennsylvania.
"It was a very, very extensive process," says Marc Field of First Tee. "We didn’t quite know what we were getting into." Field manages the course.
It took two and a half years to plan and follow through with Audubon International’s requirements to modify golf courses, from reducing chemical use to conserving water. He got the certification in 2012.
Katie Hopkins,with Audubon International, says the golf sanctuary program is one of their most successful and needed programs. These wide open spaces already exist amid other forms of development.
"Many types of development, often the built environment, it’s much more difficult to integrate back in that wildlife habitat," she says.
Hopkins says golf courses have a unique opportunity to make the changes to do just that.
Marc Field and this course have had some help. The Carpenter’s Union donated labor to build nest boxes, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy helped to get 93 trees planted on the property.
About 14,000 rounds of golf are played here each season. Field says most golfers don’t really notice a big difference while playing here. For the most part the course looks the same as any other course.
"The areas are the fairways, which is the shortest cut grass in the middle, adjacent to that is the rough, which is this higher grass to the sides of the fairways," Field says.
The O’Connor golf course is in the Panther Hollow Watershed, which has had major stormwater runoff problems. This fall, to help improve water retention, workers will add what are kind of speed bumps to slow down rainwater. Inside the bumps will be a special soil to soak up the water that grass’ short roots can’t. And taller grass will make a welcoming home for wildlife.
Field says with less to mow, there’s less labor—saving time and money. For the areas that are still mowed and green, they’ve cut chemical use by more than half.
"We do no chemical application in the rough at all," says Field. "So we’re trying to keep it greener in more ways than one."
Field steers a golf cart out onto the course to show off some of the more bird-friendly features. The National Aviary’s Bob Mulvihill, who golfed at this park as a kid with his dad, rides along. He created the habitat plans and decided where the 36 nest boxes for species like Eastern Bluebirds or American Kestrels would go.
"Interestingly, I just watched two male Red-winged Blackbirds fly by towards the clubhouse. They’re going to instantly take advantage of these small pockets of habitat," Mulvihill says.
The Bob O’Connor Golf Course is up for recertification by Audubon next year.
Photo of Bob Mulvihill and Marc Field by Kara Holsopple.