webelos into the woods

Ten Good Things about Trees

by Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

I’ve been thinking about trees a lot these last few weeks, in part because the leaves are turning color and falling to the ground, something I look forward to every year. But also because the Schuylkill Center just found evidence of emerald ash borers on our massive property, something that is deeply troubling, as we are now faced with hundreds of dead and dying trees.

And because not far from the Schuylkill Center, a sister nonprofit cleared about an acre of trees to make room for a playground. Playgrounds, of course, are wonderful things, but losing a whole acre of trees is, for me, the director of an environmental center, hard to stomach.

Because we just lost an acre of ecosystem services, something tough to come by in this environmentally challenged world.

And because, at day’s end, there are 10 great things trees do for us.

First, trees are natural air conditioners. Walking into the Schuylkill Center forest on a hot summer’s day, the temperature immediately drops. The ground is shaded by trees, and that umbrella of leaves protects the soil from the sun’s scorching rays. Trees are literally cool.

Trees also filter air pollution, pulling bad stuff out of the leaves—urban smog, say—and putting fresh air back into the world.

Those same leaves are air fresheners; when they pull pollution out of the air, they replace it with oxygen, one of the requirements for life. So leaves are oxygen factories, renewing our air. Two mature trees, it is frequently said, provide the oxygen needs of a family of four. That acre of trees that just came down? That’s the oxygen needed for about 18 people to breathe. They’ll have to get it elsewhere.

But while making oxygen, those leaves are also pulling in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, the stuff that flows out of our tailpipes in car exhaust and is supercharging our atmosphere. Trees mitigate climate change: the more trees we have, the better our chances of surviving and beating climate change. Philadelphia hopes to plant a million trees in the next few years, and the Schuylkill Center has been doing its part in planting new trees on our property. This will not only improve the city’s smog but help us address the scourge of climate change.

Everyone in Roxborough has been talking about stormwater in recent years, how the climate’s larger storms flood our streets with too much rainwater. Manayunk has a lot to say about climate change’s impact on flooding, as Manayunk too frequently receives Roxborough’s stormwater. A tree, amazingly, addresses stormwater—a mature tree’s large umbrella of thousands if not millions of leaves slow down rainfall, allowing water to trickle to the ground slowly long after the storm has moved on. And tree roots act like sponges to mop up water, the tree’s dead leaves on the ground underneath the tree also sopping up stormwater. Cool beans: the more trees in our landscape, the better we can address the increasingly intractable problem of stormwater.

Trees provide food for all kinds of creatures. A dogwood tree’s bright-red berries are eaten by some 90 species of creatures, including many birds who crave it in the nutrient-starved winter months when the berry is smartly ready. Black cherry fruits are craved by many kinds of birds; acorns are eaten by thousands of species of animals, not just squirrels.

A tree is also habitat, home to millions of living things. A woodpecker digs out a home in a trunk; that hole is later co-opted by a screech owl or raccoon. Squirrels are nesting high in the branches, chipmunks in the roots underneath, bats are behind the peeling bark (and those bats are eating the mosquitoes in your yard; trust me—you love bats.)

Winter’s coming, and trees can also help you address the cold north winds. Planting evergreen trees on your northern exposure can reduce that wind—trees lower your heating bill. (Yes, trees cool your house in the summer and warm it in the winter!)

Trees, of course, are aesthetically pleasing, lovely to look at—and healing. Evidence indicates that we are hardwired to relax when looking at greenery, so sitting in your yard surrounded by trees can actually lower your blood pressure and calm and soothe you. Trees are healing.

And the 10th good thing about trees: money actually grows on trees. According to the USDA, a large tree in front of a house increases that home’s sales price by about $7,130, and if that tree is part of a beautiful, well-kept landscape, your home’s value increases by about 10 percent. Plant trees and your home gets a higher resale value.

So, Roxborough, plant away!

An Invitation to the Nesting Bird Census

By Mike Weilbacher

Join us on June 16th for coffee, donuts, and peak birding! The annual Nesting Bird Census is one of the many opportunities to engage in citizen science at the Schuylkill Center. 

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker, by Chris Petrak

In early May, a small group of us spent a morning walking the Grey Fox loop, the long trail that ventures through diverse habitats meadows—Pine Grove, farms, a stream, and Wind Dance Pondsearching for birds that were then migrating through the Schuylkill Center’s extensive forest. There is a narrow window of opportunity to see themand our group jumped through that window in style.

In a highly organized effort, birdwatchers fanned out across Pennsylvania to count migrating birds. For the first time in a few years, this effort included Philadelphia. While Roxborough was well represented in the count (other teams counted along River Road and the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve), our group looked for which birds were using the Schuylkill Center as a migration stop.

Four hours and almost 300 birds and 52 species later, we submitted our census.

We counted plenty of year-round residents that you’d see if in December, or if you had bird feeders in your yard: the robin, cardinal, crow, and blue jay.

In addition, we saw two predatory birds. A red-tailed hawk rested in a large tree only a stone’s throw from Hagy’s Mill Road, oblivious to the traffic right below. Its rust-colored tail is a easy giveaway, but it also is the most common hawk in Pennsylvania. We also glimpsed a black vulture flying overhead. This soaring, thick-winged bird is a specialist in eating already-dead animals; call them nature’s garbage collectors.

What we were all secretly after were warblers, small jewel-like birds, most of whom migrate through Pennsylvania on their way to northern nesting grounds. Obsessive birdwatchers are out a lot this time of year, bending backwards staring high into trees, fighting off “warbler neck” to get a good view. For me, the Holy Grail is the Blackburnian warbler, its head a complicated and stunning helmet of orange-and-black striping. I have only seen a handful in a lifetime of birding, and none showed Saturday. Still, we did great in the warbler department.

Then there was the catch of the day: a large pileated woodpecker, the crow-sized songbird upon which Woody Woodpecker was modeled, a blackish bird with startling red crest, armed with a chisel-like beak that breaks off huge chunks of dead wood. Not seen easily or often, this one was focused like a laser beam on the ground around a dead tree trunkpossibly a colony of ants was warranting its attention. Two of the group were skilled photographers, and we made sure they got good shots.

There is a higher conservation purpose to all this. Between climate change and habitat loss, outdoor house cats prowling and too many shiny windows to fly into, bird populations are reeling. While Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring worried that pesticides like the now-banned DDT would remove birdsong from our experience of spring, other issues have arisen to take its place. As noted here last week, migrating birds like those warblers heading between nest sites in Canada and overwintering grounds in South America need protected habitats both in the north and in the south, not to mention in migration corridors along the way. 

The Schuylkill Center was proud to participate in a conservation effort to document which migrating birds were passing through the region when. Over time, and with years of data, conservation scientists will be able to monitor trends.

While we were doing important science, we had the pleasure and honor to be in the presence of some pretty amazing creatures.

On June 16th, at the ungodly but very bird-appropriate hour of 6:30 a.m., fueled by coffee and donuts, we’ll fan out across the Schuylkill Center again, this time looking for nesting birds, as the migrants have moved on. We’ve been counting nesting birds for almost 50 years. Come help us continue this crucial citizen science effort and we’ll introduce you to some pretty cool creatures.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

Naturalist’s Notebook: Native Plants, Harbingers of Spring

Skunk Cabbage2
The end is near! The world? No, just the winter season. And what bears such glad tidings you wonder? Our native plant friends. In February, the Schuylkill Center staff took its monthly nature walk down Ravine Loop hunting for the first tell of spring, skunk cabbage (above). I’m happy to report that we found it on February 9th in a particularly wet area just above Smith Run where the little stone bridge crosses a semi-perennial tributary. Just barely visible was its little purplish hood, the forbearer of the true flower. The first source of pollen in late winter, skunk cabbage attracts bees and other hungry pollinators looking for their first taste of spring.
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Ridge Ave Tree Pruning_Giving Tuesday 2017_RDC (3)

Field Guide: Post-Storm Tree Assessment

By Steve Goin, Director of Land and Facilities

See other Field Guide posts here.

As Director of Land and Facilities at the Schuylkill Center, the care of our trees rests on my shoulders. With 340 mostly forested acres, our tree population is large and diverse in both species and maturity. The recent nor’easters brought heavy, wet snow and a barrage of winds, impacting our trees and in some cases causing damage. The damage is as varied as the trees themselves. Some trees barely lost a twig, others had major limbs break, and some even blew completely over, known as windthrow. As a tree lover, I know the value of the services these trees providesequestering carbon, providing habitat for wildlife, and managing our property’s stormwateris well worth the effort required to maintain them. Continue reading

Roxborough’s Toad Rage

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator & Administrative Assistant

closeup toadIt’s early spring, just around sunset, and the conditions are just right—55 degrees and humid. A high-pitched trilling rings out in the distance. The shallow water of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve stirs with excitement. The toads of Roxborough are ready to run—and ready to attract a mate.

On some evenings, as many as two hundred toads can be seen heading from the Schuylkill Center’s forest to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve in a period of just two hours. The steady stream of traffic at the intersection of Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue (that separates the forest from the preserve) presents a huge obstacle to the toads as they cross the road in preparation for their springtime mating ritual. Continue reading

Susan Beard Photography

Roxborough’s Kay Sykora is the 2017 Meigs Leadership Awardee

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, November 16 at 7 pm, the Schuylkill Center presents our highest honor, the Henry Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership, to an old friend and Roxborough neighbor, Kay Sykora.

Susan Beard PhotographyFounder of the incredibly successful Manayunk Development Corporation in the early 1980s, Kay has over the last 30 years pioneered and tirelessly championed the Schuylkill River Trail through Manayunk and Roxborough, leading the effort to transform the canal towpath into the River Trail, now one of Manayunk’s most-loved amenities. She played a key role in the planning efforts that led to the Manayunk Bridge’s reinvention as a multi-modal trail beloved by thousands of bikers, runners, and walkers.

She also founded Destination Schuylkill River to re-connect Manayunk to its river, has been involved in restoring the canal, and is equally passionate about making the towpath a more vibrant and enticing community amenity. She has been a leader in the Central Roxborough Civic Association and co-founded Roxborough Green, a community tree planting and gardening project.

Susan Beard Photography“I am deeply honored by the recognition for the work we all have done,” Kay said.  “I say this because I feel that I am more a facilitator for the people who care about trails, nature, and greening.  If people didn’t care the work never would have succeeded.” Continue reading

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

Schuylkill Center’s Statement on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016's Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

SCEE visitors added their climate stories at 2016’s Naturepalooza Earth Day Festival.

A big environmental shoe dropped yesterday when President Trump announced, not unexpectedly, his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.   

The Schuylkill Center, along with not only the global environmental community but also, surprisingly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, oil giant ExxonMobil, the World Coal Association, Pope Francis, Goldman Sachs, Apple, GE, Weather.com, and the majority of American people,  expresses our disappointment in this decision.

We also note our commitment not only to fact-based climate change education, but to high-quality science education so children mature into adults who understand, and can apply, the scientific process.

As a science education facility, we understand and teach about the avalanche of measurable data like carbon dioxide concentrations already approaching 410 parts per million—from the pre-Industrial Revolution level of only 280, a 46% increase in 200 years.  Also observable: each year is incrementally warmer than the one before, glaciers are measurably receding worldwide, polar ice is measurably thinning, sea levels are measurably rising, coral reefs are measurably bleaching and dying, spring is measurably arriving earlier each year, and species are observably disappearing from pristine habitats as weather changes.

We firmly believe in continuing the transition to a renewable, sustainable future, and will strive to share that vision with the thousands of people, especially young students, who participate in our programming.

As pioneering science fiction writer H. G. Wells noted presciently more than a century ago in his science writing, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

We believe in leveraging the power of education to avoid the climate catastrophe that the Paris Climate Accord was hoping to sidestep.

As a member, friend, and supporter, we trust you will continue to look to us for the good science and detailed knowledge you need to make decisions about the signature environmental issue of our time.

 

Judy Wicks

Dear 2040: From Judy Wicks

By Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Cafe

Dear citizens of the world in 2040,

If you are able to read this letter, I am relieved.  I have been worrying about you  – you the children of our children’s children – because today’s humans, your ancestors, are endangering your future by destroying the natural systems your lives will depend upon.  When I watch how other species care for their young – from gorillas to penguins to whales – I see how willing they are to give their very lives to secure a safe future for the next generation. Yet we humans, at least affluent Americans, seem more concerned with having a lot of stuff in our big houses than making sure that you will have the basics for a healthy life – clean air and water, healthy forests, rich soil to grow food, abundant river and sea life, a hospitable climate. Continue reading

Dear 2040: Melissa Nase on a greener Philadelphia

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

October 10, 2015

Melissa NaseDear Future Land Stewardship Manager,

I hope that you are reading this full of positivity and empowerment.  There is a certain developing momentum now – urban gardening, native plants, the value of getting outdoors – and my hope is that these past 25 years have been full of a growing environmental awareness throughout the Philadelphia region and the world, with movements rising up from small community groups as well as developing from our political leaders.

My hope is that Philadelphia will take the lead in emphasizing environmental policies, creating a new standard for sustainability and the integration of nature into urban environments.  That they will begin emphasizing native plants, adding oaks and redbuds as street trees to replace the non-native gingko and Bradford pears.  What if, by 2040, Philadelphia is known for its tree-lined streets and becomes a model for crime reduction methods:  through planting trees and introducing natural areas into locations that were formerly vacant lots and concrete.  The city can create systemic changes that influence air quality, crime rates, and happiness and it all starts by adding trees to our city blocks.  I hope the city is safer, cooler, and more inviting.  I hope it is ready to manage climate change.  Continue reading