Behind the Parks: Meet Stephanie West at Blendon Woods

Stephanie West
Senior Naturalist, Blendon Woods and Rocky Fork Metro Parks

Stephanie on the trail near Blendon Woods Nature Center.

Hometown and background

I come from University Heights, an eastside suburb of Cleveland. I graduated from Springfield’s Wittenberg University in 1990, with a degree in biology. That summer, I was lucky enough to get an internship with ODNR and worked on their peregrine falcon release program in Cincinnati. It was a fascinating project. My team worked to establish six falcons in the city, which we monitored from the city’s main building downtown, the Carew Tower. Efforts to restore peregrines to American cities had started in earnest in the 1970s.

Our six young falcons, bred in captivity, were held in cages at the top of the building and fed on frozen quail as we waited for their flight feathers to grow. We spray painted their non-flight feathers so we could easily recognize them in our reports and knew which birds were eating well and developing best. There were no elevators to the top and I remember having to walk up 32 flights of stairs when we were feeding the peregrines, and teaching them how to “hunt” for themselves. We used ancient traditional techniques of falconry, commonly referred to as “hacking the bird,” to prepare them for their lives after their flight feathers grew in. Although one bird crashed and had to be taken back into captivity, the other five were launched, we believe successfully, onto their life in the wild. During that summer internship, I was housed by the Cincinnati Zoo and was able to participate in some of their intern activities. Later that summer, I got another internship with the Cleveland Zoo, and so was able to return home. I got a permanent position with the Cleveland Zoo as a volunteer coordinator, and a few years later was promoted to manage the zoo’s Bird Shows. It was a fascinating time, training birds, writing scripts for shows, hiring seasonal staff. We had a number of Australian birds at the zoo, numerous birds of prey, parrots, toucans and cranes—but my favorite bird was actually an all-white Egyptian vulture, named Phil.

My son, Michael, was born in 1998, and though I initially considered a return to work, the job of managing a major zoo’s population of birds was not very compatible with baby care. Sometimes, birds fly off, and there’s no going home until the bird can be found and restored to its home at the zoo.

In December 1999, my husband Kris got a job in Columbus, and we moved here as a family. Kris works as a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. We had a second child, our daughter Katie, in 2001. I did some occasional part-time work at the Columbus Zoo in 2004, working on education programs, but mostly stayed home for 10 years, bringing up the kids. But I began to get eager to work in the field of nature again, and saw advertisements for a part-time Naturalist at Sharon Woods Metro Park in 2009. I was lucky enough to get the position, and worked with a great team of naturalists at Sharon Woods from October 2009 onward. Nine years later, my kids were in college and at high school and I was ready to take on the challenge when the full-time position of a Senior Naturalist opened up here at Blendon Woods. I was delighted with the opportunity to interview for the job, and was offered the position in March 2018.

What I do at Metro Parks

As a Senior Naturalist, management of the nature center adds to the regular duties of a naturalist, which means planning and scheduling of events at the center, developing new interpretive exhibits, working out the best ways of presenting our animals in exhibits, and working with my team of naturalists and volunteers. It also means I have the responsibility for making sure the nature center always looks its best for our visitors, and that the bathrooms are serviced and kept clean. Add to all that the regular duties of presenting public programs and programs for school groups, plus our daily interaction with park visitors, and I can honestly say that no two days are alike.

Stephanie poses with some of the new exhibits she helped to build when the nature center was closed during the Covid pandemic.

What I love most about my job

Every day presents a wonderful opportunity to help people make deeper connections with nature. Oftentimes, people come to the nature center for a public program or for a school visit program, and they have come with the intention of learning about nature. I like the chances that come up for what I like to call “stealth education,” which means adding an education component for people who have come to the park just to walk the trails or use the playgrounds. Letting them know what startling sights they might see on a particular trail, or even around the picnic areas where the playgrounds are located, means I’ve given them the chance to enhance their connection with nature, even when they hadn’t expected it.

I love working with our live animals just as much. In fact, there is no better way for visitors to get up and personal with nature than to interact with our nature center animals. Our permit with ODNR allows us to keep reptiles and amphibians as program animals here at Blendon Woods and at other Metro Parks. At Blendon Woods we have three box turtles, a black rat snake, American toads, a leopard frog, and a spotted salamander. But my favorite Blendon Woods animal is our garter snake. He’s the perfect exhibit animal, always active and moving around. People, kids especially, often ask me if the animals have names. I’m always happy when that happens, as it shows me the kids are keen to make a connection with that animal. Our garter snake is named Noodle, and he’s been a star here at the nature center for about three years now.

Stephanie with one of her call ducks at Blendon Woods Nature Center.

My favorite Metro Parks activity

Long before I came to work at Metro Parks, I was an avid user of the parks, especially Sharon Woods. We lived just about 10 minutes away and I would bring the kids to Sharon Woods to use the playgrounds, or just take some time for myself and enjoy a walk through the woods. Both Kris and I love hiking. We take a walk together every day, usually after work, and so I’d say a walk in the woods would be my favorite Metro Parks activity. I love the nature trails at Sharon Woods, and also the Sugarbush and Brookside Trails here at Blendon Woods. They’re special to me, as they provide an oasis of quiet in parks that are surrounded by so much development.

My favorite Metro Parks story that includes a positive visitor interaction

I feel very fortunate in that I get to experience many positive interactions with visitors, who often tell me how they appreciate the programs we offer and enjoy the natural history displays we exhibit at the nature center. One particular interaction that always makes me smile concerns a grandmother and her 5-year-old grandson, who came to the nature center when we were almost done setting up our first Winter Forest exhibit. This was in December 2021. Covid meant we had been forced to postpone the first year of the exhibit, scheduled for 2020, which was to be funded by an Interpretive Project Grant from the National Association for Interpretation. We used about 50 artificial Christmas trees, that would have been have destined for landfill, as the basis for our winter forest exhibit. I heard the boy asking his grandmother if these were Christmas trees, which she answered by saying they probably were. The boy turned to me and said, “We’re Jewish, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

I was happy to be able to say that these discarded Christmas trees stood as representations of the forest, and that if he and his grandmother would like to follow the paths we had set up through our indoor forest, they would be able to see signs and displays that showed how wildlife lived in the woods and how animals coped with winter in Ohio. I invited them to come back to the nature center to see the exhibit when it was fully finished. The exhibit itself proved to be very popular with visitors, and succeeded in its purpose to present an interpretive exhibit that is meaningful and accessible to all visitors regardless of how they celebrate the start of winter. For one young Jewish boy and his grandmother, that presentation succeeded equally well.

The Winter Forest exhibit in the nature center was a great success these last two winters. Here, a path through the 50 or so artificial trees leads to the existing pond exhibit, which we “winterized” with faux ice and snow.

If I could go anywhere in the world and time and money were not a concern…

It’s becoming a life long dream of mine to be able to just spend a solid and fully uninterrupted TWO WEEKS together with my family on vacation. Our jobs make it almost impossible for us to coordinate more than one week at a time on vacation together. Maybe some day…! We do enjoy our week-long vacations though. We love to visit our national parks. Earlier this winter, we spent a week in Arizona, visiting Saguaro National Park, which is the only place in the world where you can see the amazing saguaro cactus.

Stephanie and family on a beach vacation (left) and at Saguaro National Park in Arizona (right).

Fun facts about me and my family

1. Kris and I are close to becoming empty nesters, and we’re not looking forward to it. Michael moved out in 2019 and he’s now a 2nd-year medical student at the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Akron. Now Katie, who graduates from OSU in May with a degree in biology, has been offered a job at the university. She doesn’t have to leave home, but she’s 22 now, and she says it’s time for her to move out. Kris and I will have to spend even more time gardening and hiking to cope with our empty nest!

2. I raise chickens and ducks at home. In times past I also raised quail and turkeys, but now I have just six chickens and three ducks. I had always wanted to live on a farm, but this is about the closest I will ever get to that. We live in Genoa township, just outside Westerville city limits, and township regulations allow us to keep livestock. I love having the eggs from our chickens, even though it would be a lot cheaper just to buy eggs from a supermarket. But the quality is excellent, and my chickens turn my scraps into compost, which is great for our gardening and our environmental footprint. Our ducks are the domesticated Call duck species. I hatch the eggs and sell the ducklings, maybe about 12 ducklings a year, mostly to hobby farms. Call ducklings are very tame and make great pets for children.

Stephanie’s rooster and ducklings at the Blendon Woods Nature Center. Sometimes her animals come from home to become participants in a public program, or simply garner up the attention of visitors.

3. I have shared my life for 29 years with a parrot named Buzz. I got him when he was a baby and he’s still with me, still screeching every day! I love him, but he can be very loud and annoying! He’s a Meyer’s breed of parrot, which is a fairly small breed. He’s only about 12 inches high. He doesn’t talk, but he can mimic several sounds. He can make a sound like a dog whistle, and our two dogs come running whenever Buzz lets loose his dog whistle. Lexie is a standard poodle, and Jack is a little mutt. They seem baffled every time they answer Buzz’s call! Buzz can also mimic the sound of a microwave beeping, and the sound of a smoke alarm going off. Is it Buzz, or is it a fire! I dunno…!

Jack and Lexie at home.

My favorite food and dessert

I love to cook, and I especially enjoy making something special for different kinds of food holidays. It was Mardi Gras recently, and I made jambalaya and also a King Cake, a traditional Mardi Gras dessert. A King Cake is a yeasted suet bread, baked in a ring and iced with gold, green and purple sugar. Traditionally it represents the gifts of the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Also per tradition, the baker includes a small plastic figure of Jesus inside the cake, and whoever gets the piece with the plastic figure is supposed to bake the King Cake the following year. I include a plastic baby Jesus in my King Cake, but I always make the cake myself the following year! That’s our tradition! If I had to say what my favorite food is, I’d say it’s a good bread. I’ll be making soda bread for St Patrick’s Day, coming up soon, and I always enjoy making my own ciabatta bread. For dessert, anything with chocolate is an automatic favorite, although I also love to make my own cheesecake. One thing I dislike intensely is cooked fruit, so you’ll never find a strawberry topping desecrating one of my cheesecakes!

My favorite entertainment

Gardening is my favorite activity. It sure beats housework. I love to grow things outside. We have a small vegetable garden and we recently created a small native prairie garden. We moved to our current house about 17 years ago and over the years I’ve removed all the invasive plants we inherited and replaced them with native species. There were lots of boxwoods that we rid ourselves of, and we’ve replaced them with things like ninebark and spicebush. Kris and I enjoy going to the Broadway Series of shows in Columbus. We particularly liked Hamilton and Come From Away. Over the years we’ve done our fair share of home improvement projects, although for our last home improvement project, a kitchen remodeling, we only installed the window trims and the tile backsplash, and let professionals do the rest in creating the ideal conditions for me to enjoy my cooking.

Stephanie’s garden

If I had just 60 seconds to share why I love working at Metro Parks, I’d say…

I’m able to say to people that the entire wonderful Blendon Woods Metro Park is my office! It’s also a joy and a privilege to work with a team of people who all share a passion for and dedication to nature and conservation.

Stephanie West was talking to Communications Coordinator, Virginia Gordon

3 thoughts on “Behind the Parks: Meet Stephanie West at Blendon Woods

  1. Wonderful article, describing all the things that Stephanie adds to the joy that brings us to Blendon Woods and the other Metro Parks.

  2. What a delight article and opportunity to know the dedicated employees of our Metro Parks. I’ve always enjoyed the stops and chats with park employees through my years of visiting the Metro Parks. In fact, this is a little known and appreciate value of spending time within the parks. As Stephanie shared her love of nature, people and wonderful life experiences, I am all the more grateful to her for the commitment to making park visiting, not only feel at ease in nature, but aiding in their opportunity for nature education, joy and simple exploration of the natural world around us.

    Now that I’m retired (August 2022), I can enjoy more hours within the park system and welcome joining the park team if the opportunity presents.


  3. I really enjoy this newsletter, especially the section about the wonderful people who work at the parks. Thank you to Stephanie for all you do for Blendon Woods. We’re so fortunate to have these special places close to home.

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