Celebrate Winterfest at the Schuylkill Center

By Mike Weilbacher

This Saturday– Groundhog Day, appropriately enough– the Schuylkill Center celebrates the reopening of our Wildlife Clinic with a family festival marking the day, Winterfest for Wildlife. Held at the Visitor Center on Hagy’s Mill Road and happening from noon to 4 p.m., the event includes nature walks, wildlife talks, face painting, wildlife-themed arts and crafts, storytimes courtesy of the Free Library, a bake sale, and more.

But the event kicks off at noon with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Since the Wildlife Clinic itself is typically closed to the general public as it is a hospital for ill and injured patients that need quiet and rest, the event occurs at the Schuylkill Center’s main building, where we’ll string a ribbon across our auditorium to be cut by clinic friends, marking the reopening of the clinic.

The Master of Ceremonies for the ribbon-cutting will be Kathy O’Connell, the award-winning host of WXPN-FM Philadelphia’s “Kid’s Corner,” one of the very few children’s radio shows in the country. Kathy, a long-time friend of the Schuylkill Center, will stay after the ribbon-cutting to meet and greet friends and engage them in wildlife-related activities.

Rebecca Michelin, our Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation, will present a slideshow on urban wildlife, and Ent Natale, an educator on the center’s staff, will lead walks looking for signs of local wildlife. In addition, the Pennsylvania Game Commission will be on hand to mark the day, as they are a key partner in the Wildlife Clinic. In fact, just this week clinic staff released a Cooper’s hawk brought to the facility by the Game Officer. (Since it was brought to us from the Naval Yard, our staff released it back at the Naval Yard.)

Since there are few patients on hand at the moment, small groups of visitors will be given limited-time tours of the Wildlife Clinic; vans will be shutting people back and forth from the Visitor Center to the clinic on Saturday. At Winterfest, visitors will be able to sign up for a slot on a tour at the event. Chris Strub, the clinic’s Assistant Director, will offer these tours while Rebecca presents wildlife talks at the Visitor Center. This will be the only time of the year when we will conduct this kind of tour at the clinic.

Cooper's Hawk

The Cooper’s hawk brought to the Schuylkill Center for rehabilitation by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. After successfully being rehabbed by the clinic’s skilled staff, the bird– a skilled predator of other flying birds– was rebased this week where it was discovered, at the Naval Yard.

It makes perfect sense for Winterfest for Wildlife to occur on Groundhog Day, the only holiday named for a wild animal. While folk legend holds that groundhogs– also called woodchucks– peek out of their burrows and look around that day; if they see their shadows, they scare back into their holes and we have six more weeks of winter. If the weather is overcast and there is no shadow, guess what: early spring. While scientific studies– yes, someone actually studied this– show no correlation between Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous groundhog, and weather patterns, there is a kernel of science embedded here, as male woodchucks have been spotted coming out of hibernation dens in early February to scout for the dens of females, likely getting an early start on the spring mating season.

With temperatures dropping back down into the single digits this week, let’s all guess that Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Saturday– and winter stays. But who knows?

Speaking of spring and baby animals, this is also why the Wildlife Clinic is holding its public coming-out party in February. Gray squirrels will soon be having babies, and one of the annual rites of spring at wildlife clinics across the country is marking that time when people start bringing in baby animals (or calling us about baby animals)– and baby squirrels typically lead the parade, usually starting around Valentine’s Day (though baby squirrel season seems arrive earlier and earlier in the calendar).

So come to the Schuylkill Center at noon on Saturday, help us cut the ribbon and celebrate the re-booting of this critical area facility, the only wildlife rehabilitation center in Philadelphia and one of a very small handful in the entire region. Stay for some baked goodies, enjoy Rebecca talk, take a winter wildlife walk, bring your children or grandchildren for story times and crafts, and enjoy the day.

Then, consider volunteering for the Wildlife Clinic, joining the ever-growing group of great people who will help Rebecca and Chris take care of the thousands of injured, orphaned and baby animals that will soon come pouring into its front door.

Or go to our website, www.schuylkillcenter.org, to find the list of items the clinic is seeking to be donated to help it meet the needs of its wild patients: dog and cat foods, blankets, T-shirts, and more. There’s also an Amazon wish list of supplies you can have sent to us directly. It’s all in the wildlife clinic section of the website.

Spring is coming, in spite of this week’s freezing weather, and the Wildlife Clinic will be heating up along with the weather. We’d love your help in making this happen, by volunteering, by donating, or simply by coming to Winterfest to see what all the excitement is about.

Hope to see you here.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

Mom

Red-tailed Hawks at the Franklin Institute: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway as Wildlife Habitat

By guest contributor Christian Hunold, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University

In the spring of 2012 I stumbled across a community of amateur naturalists who were drawn to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway not by the museums or the cultural events, but by a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a second-story window ledge of the Franklin Institute. Grid Magazine had requested some pictures of the hawks, and so I spent one sunny afternoon in late May photographing the half-grown chicks huddled on the nest at the corner of 21st and Winter Street.

I recall feeling a little bored: where was the fun in shooting urban hawks? How could birds habituated to humans, like the city’s ubiquitous pigeons and geese, be at all interesting? And the noise and stink of the unrelenting traffic assaulting my senses from all sides made me think that Center City was the last place on Earth anyone should be asked to photograph wildlife. The only bright spot was the beautiful early evening light I had to work with: at least my images of the chicks weren’t going to be the worst anyone had ever taken, even if the awkward half downy/half feathered look they were sporting at this age did not scream “charismatic megafauna.”

fledglingsAnother year would pass before my previously separate lives as a wildlife photographer and as a scholar of environmental politics merged around the topic of urban wildlife. May had come around again, and I decided to visit the nest one afternoon. The hawks were once more raising three chicks. This time, I caught a glimpse of one of the adults trailing the Institute’s roofline along 21st Street before it was briefly obscured by the building. Moments later it cleared the roof and, set off against the golden glow of the late afternoon sandstone façade, delivered the bloody remains of a squirrel to the nest. While the other parent fed chunks of meat to the three hungry chicks, the successful hunter flew to a nearby plane tree, where it cleaned its beak and talons.

Now this was not boring! On subsequent outings I got to know the hawks as well as some of the people who watched them. I knew the Franklin Institute’s online “nest cam” had attracted a popular following around the world. But I did not at first appreciate the extent to which the hawks’ travels through the city were being monitored on the ground. The hawk watchers – middle-aged, more women than men – were not so much bird watchers as dyed-in-the-wool hawk fans, intimately familiar with the birds’ daily habits and life histories. I learned they had named the female bird “Mom” and the male “T2,” short for “Tiercel 2” (he was the female’s second mate since the hawks had nested at the Franklin Institute.) When the chicks fledged in June I was there with my camera to document their early forays to nearby trees, buildings, and monuments. I’d gotten hooked.T2_Hunold Continue reading

Baby screech owl eating breakfast

Good Forecast for Ridley the Screech Owl

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Monday, May 16, Cecily Tynan, meteorologist at 6ABC’s Action News, was running in Tyler Arboretum when she discovered a young screech owl on the ground, “squawking,” as she called it in a video she posted to Facebook (seen by 80,000 people as of this afternooon), and, clacking its beak at her.

She called the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, listened to the phone machine’s instructions, and smartly threw her outer garment over the owl’s head to calm it down, which is exactly what to do—and brought it to us in a box.

It was promptly assigned case number 0965, the 965th animal brought to the clinic so far this year—we get about 3,300 annually.

Ridley the owlLuckily, its wings were not broken, but it had fallen out of its nest, usually a cavity in a tree, and was severely dehydrated—likely without a mother, it presumably had not eaten in a while, as its food is where it gets its water.

The owl, named Ridley by Cecily, is about a month old, thinks Rick Schubert, the clinic’s director.  It’s still a nestling, not yet having its wing feathers grown in enough to learn to fly. Continue reading

Baby squirrel brother and sister in box

Help our Wildlife Clinic Make it through the Spring

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

There are so many signs of spring.  Here at the Schuylkill Center, skunk cabbage and lesser celandine, the latter a bright yellow flower, are already in bloom.  A pair of bluebirds, the male an impossible shade of blue, examined nesting boxes last week, clearly house hunting, and a pair of Canada geese returned to Fire Pond, likely the same pair that raise their young here every spring.

The running of the toads across Port Royal Avenue is another benchmark here in Roxborough, but the toads have not awakened yet.  Fear not: they are coming soon!

But over at our Wildlife Clinic down Port Royal Avenue, there’s a whole different sign of spring.  In last week’s monsoon, that weirdly warm storm with lightning and thunder (in February!), a pair of baby squirrels, brother and sister, must have gotten knocked out of their nest in the wind, and a good Samaritan brought them to the clinic for the facility’s special TLC.

They were the first baby squirrels of 2016.

Thus, Rick Schubert, the clinic’s gifted director of rehabilitation, was able to pick a volunteer to win the year’s “No Prize,” the annual lottery for predicting when the first baby squirrel comes to the clinic.  And yes, there is “no prize” for winning—just the thrill of victory.

When I visited the clinic last week, Rick was planning on bringing the babies home with him that night after work, as these newborns, eyes not yet open, fur not yet grown in, need constant, round-the-clock feeding. Continue reading

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SCH Academy Kindergarten partners with the Schuylkill Center

By guest contributor Caitlin Sweeney, Kindergarten Teacher, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy offers a variety of unique programs and student opportunities through The Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). CEL teaches entrepreneurial skills to prepare students for the ever-changing world ahead of them. Entrepreneurial skills are developed by channeling a child’s natural desire to learn by doing. Children are asked to look both locally and globally to solve problems by applying design thinking, collaboration, and financial literacy skills, as well as new media technologies.

1949f3f1-35a2-48f1-896d-eea0ee4f0dbcKindergarten’s CEL project this year was paired with our annual Animals in Winter unit. For this unit, each girl becomes the expert on a local wild animal, researching her animal and eventually teaching the class all she knows. Looking locally, we were thrilled to partner with the Schuylkill Center, one of the first urban environmental education centers in the country.  Working with a community partner helps the girls develop empathy by solving a problem based on another person’s needs, or in this case, perhaps an animal’s needs. Kindergarten brainstormed a list of questions we wanted to ask the Schuylkill Center, questions that would help us learn more about the Center’s work and its potential needs. We asked our questions, via Skype, to Michele, a rehabber at the center. This interview session generated terrific information and served as a guide for our projects. Following the interview, kindergarten identified three areas in which we might assist the Schuylkill Center:

  1. Help calm and provide stimuli to the hurt animals.
  2. Help the staff stay clean while working at the center.
  3. Help the Center educate the community about their mission.

50cef060-c0d4-452d-ac5b-a6f0933aef74A few girls decided to design toys and made blankets and pillows for injured animals. Girls also painted wallpaper for the cages, to bring a sense of the outdoors inside. A team of girls designed a retractable sponge to help the staff clean cages. Another group made an easy to dispose of basket to assist in animal cleanup. One group of girls also thought of a new way to drop off animals at the Center at nighttime. And finally, in order to help the Schuylkill Center educate the community about their work, a group created T-shirts with instructions for taking a wild animal to the Center and set up a collection site here at school for donations of food, towels, and blankets. This group made announcements at our assemblies and hung up posters to make our SCH community aware of the good work being done by the Schuylkill Center.

Our work with the Schuylkill Center became part of our everyday lives in kindergarten. The girls acted out the roles of rehabbers in the dramatic play area and built their own version of the Schuylkill Center in the block area. When learning becomes synonymous with play in kindergarten, you know a meaningful connection has been made. When our students have opportunities to connect to the real world, solving real problems, it enriches the learning experience, creating purposeful and reflective learners. As teachers, we emphasized the process of this project over the final product, posing guiding questions of “why” and “how” and “what next?” For the girls, the opportunity to return again and again to their work over an extended period of time encouraged reflection and the idea of pushing forward in the face of failure. Upon reflection, girls said, “I liked this project because it was fun to make things for animals.” “It feels good when people help you so I liked helping the Schuylkill Center.”

The kindergarten team would like to offer a huge thank you to the Schuylkill Center for partnering with us and enhancing our curriculum.

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) is an independent school in Chestnut Hill with a unique model distinguished by single-sex education for the lower grades (Pre-K through 8) followed by a coed Upper School.  

Barn Swallows on the Wing

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This summer our wildlife clinic enjoyed treating a number of young barn swallows.  These graceful birds, iridescent blue on their backs and wings, live almost their entire lives on the wing, explains wildlife rehabilitator Michele Wellard.  Once released, the barn swallows in the clinic’s care will take to the skies, landing only in their nests.  Several groups of baby barn swallows were brought into the wildlife clinic on July 31, likely from several nests.  The babies had fallen from the nest and the people who brought them in explained that they were unable to reach the nest (high in a barn) to return them.  The swallow you see here has damage to his left wing .  While the siblings and foster siblings with whom this swallow was cared for at the clinic were released at the end of August, this one isn’t ready to fly yet.  Without his flight, this swallow won’t be able to live in the wild, so we’re keeping him until his wing feathers grow back.

 

 

Rehabilitator Michele Wellard holds two baby robins.

Bird is the word at the wildlife clinic

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

When we say the baby birds have been pouring into our clinic, we mean it.  Earlier in May we were receiving as many as 40 patients a day at the clinic.  So, we wanted to share a few of the baby birds we’ve been caring for:

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Cedar waxwing recovered, 1

Drunk Cedar Waxwing at the Wildlife Clinic

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator

The woman who brought the waxwing in said he seemed “tame.” He just sat on her finger and wouldn’t move, and that’s what prompted her to call the clinic.  She was convinced the bird had been raised by humans. When she brought him to me, perched on her finger, I thought he had a sort of ‘faraway’ look about him – like he wasn’t entirely present.  There was just sort of an odd affect about him. Additionally, he also was in absolutely PERFECT feather, and he was in great body condition – upon palpating his breast muscle I could feel that he was almost fat, suggesting he’s been  having no trouble finding winter berries, and maybe even overindulged a bit.  This was a healthy looking bird.

His odd behavior continued the rest of the day and into the next – this dreamy look, like he was a million miles away in his head.  Having read many times about this species’ proclivity for drunkenness, I looked up videos of drunk waxwings on youtube, and those depicted behaved just like this one – just being very still and being able to be handled easily.  You might be surprised to learn that this is common.  Since these birds are huge berry eaters, and some berries at this time in the year have fermented as they sit on the bush, drunk waxwings are an interesting occurrence.

Cedar waxwing recoveredThese symptoms are also connected with head trauma in wild birds, so that was also a possibility. But given his behavior, we didn’t think that was the case.  He was much, much more ‘still’ than other concussed birds I’ve treated, and there was just something odd about the way he looked. Sure enough, after two days in the ‘drunk tank’ – after some anti-inflammatories, lots of fluids,  and lots of free berries and worms from us, he started acting like a wild bird, completely scared of us and fluttering around and flying just like a normal wild bird.  Sometimes birds like this fly into windows, or get stepped on, so he could have really been injured. I’m glad the woman was concerned enough to bring him to us.

Here we are releasing him:

Update, December 11, 2014, on where the waxwing was released:

During the winter, waxwings spend all their time in large flocks, but this one was found all alone. Therefore, we could not find his original flock. Also, he was found in the city, with no nearby source of food. We didn’t know where he had come from before he fell to the ground.   So, we had to decide where to let him go where he had the best chance of finding 1) appropriate food (berries) and 2.) other Waxwings. To do this, we looked on the e-bird website, where bird watchers report up-to-the-minute bird sightings. According to e-bird, the most recent sighting of a large flock of waxwings in the Philadelphia area was the day before the release, in Houston Meadow,  which also happens to have many plants and bushes with berries still on them.  So we decided that was the waxwing’s best chance of finding food and flockmates.

Blue Jay, after week 2 (1)

Clinic Case Study: Raising a Baby Blue Jay

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Wildlife Rehabilitator

On May 13, this baby blue jay, likely having fallen from his nest, was brought into the Wildlife Clinic. The people who found him couldn’t locate the nest to return him, and so they brought him to the clinic. Over the last few weeks, this little blue jay has had many people involved in his care, from dedicated volunteers to our wildlife rehabilitators. Raising a songbird baby can be a real challenge, with a particular diet, a special nest to ensure his legs grow straight, and regular feedings until he’s old enough to feed himself. At the clinic we are careful to make sure the blue jay does not become tame or imprinted, so he can be released into the wild once he’s old enough.

BLue Jay, week 1 (1)These photos show the little blue jay, just two or three days old, upon admission to the clinic. Songbirds like him are born naked, blind, and helpless, and with a strong urge to “gape” (i.e. beg for food). How did we know he was a bluejay? There are several clues. His dark skin is different from other baby birds, who are often more pink. He has absolutely no fuzz on him, whereas other songbird hatchlings sometimes do. The color around his beak is pink – many songbird babies have yellow “lips” called the gape flange. The gape flange, together with the beak color inside the bird’s mouth indicate to the parents exactly where to deposit the food.

By the second week of his life, you can see many changes starting to the blue jay’s appearance, as he grows at a rapid rate. He is fed every half an hour from sun up to sundown by clinic staff and volunteers, just as his parents would. He is fed insects, a mush called “songbird diet” and some berries. You’ll see that he has become “fuzzy” in places (right), and his wing feathers are starting to develop. At this point they are still “blood feathers” (they have a blood supply to nourish the developing feather) and look like little sticks. Tiny spurts of the beginnings of feathers are beginning to emerge from his head. He has almost doubled in weight and has gotten much bigger.

After the second week, our little patient is starting to look more like a bird, particularly a blue jay. He has gotten some real feathers and is looking distinctively fluffy. He can hold his head upright when at rest, and those blood feathers are starting to sheath of the coating and open up at the tips. He’s also starting to get the beginning of that famous jaunty blue jay crest.

By the third week, our little bird is becoming unmistakably a blue jay.  His wing feathers are opening more, showing a variety of white and blue. The feathers on his face are also coming in, creating his distinctive facial markings. At this stage he is still a “nestling,” too young to leave the nest.  However, he is starting to have an urge to open his wings and flap a bit.  He can’t perch yet, but should be doing so soon. Then he will be moved to a small mesh cage, with a training perch to strengthen his feet and leg muscles and give him experience perching and hopping.

On May 29, the blue jay took his first flight, fluttering for a few seconds before landing on the ground.  He’s learning to perch in his small mesh indoor aviary. He will go into an outdoor aviary in early June, and be released in late June.

Blue Jay, June 12By June 12, the blue jay has moved to a larger indoor aviary.  He’s sharing space with several slightly younger blue jays now, enabling them to for social bonds and care for each other.  He’s also beginning to chase crickets and meal worms.

Baby starling

Four sounds from early May

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This week the forests and fields are alive with sounds, all manner of animals calling out and leafy trees rustling in the breeze.  This is also the time of year when our Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic is brimming with baby animals of all sorts. So, here are four samples of what May sounds like at the Schuylkill Center.

blossoms beside the pondToads, singing in afternoon sunlight.  A basin in this field fills with water most of the year, creating a nice habitat for toads and other amphibians.  Around the field and basin are vines, grasses, and flowering trees.

 

Baby starling

At the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, baby starlings call out for their meal.  This time of year, the clinic is teeming with baby animals – sparrows, catbirds, owls, squirrels.

 

Forest

In the forest around our main building, songbirds call through the trees.  There are lots of birds in this recording, can you name any of them?

 

 

Black-eyed susan seedlingsMelissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship, transplants tiny Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan seedlings in the Native Plant Nursery.  These seedlings were grown from seeds collected here at the Schuylkill Center.