Schuylkill Wildlife Rehab

For love of birds

By Michele Wellard, Manager of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Somehow, I’ve become one of only two licensed wildlife rehabilators in four counties, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester. How did I get here?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, living in London, England, I worked in social services. Although I loved my social services work, something was missing, and also, I was obsessed by birds. More than once I was caught by a boss with an injured pigeon on my desk, waiting for me to drop it off at a rehabber on my way home. On weekends, I’d go to Blackheath, a huge field, and feed the crows the scraps my mother-in-law had saved up for me.  One time at work, I left a group session of unemployed adults I was teaching, to run outside and pick up a crow who had been hit by a car while I watched from the window.

When my British husband and I moved to the USA in 2007, we settled in Manayunk, in Northwest Philadelphia. Soon after, many people I met in the neighborhood said the same thing to me – “You love birds? You love animals? You should check out the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center! You should go volunteer!”

My husband and I became members of the Schuylkill Center, and soon started attending events. We attended the “Owl Prowl”, an event that shows off our clinic’s owls. At the Owl Prowl, I saw the Director, Rick Schubert, and some of his volunteers and, more importantly, I met Loki, an Eastern Screech Owl. Loki was an education ambassador– which is what we call the animals who live permanently at our clinic and who come out for educational programs. I fell in love.  I was transfixed by his wide eyes, beautiful feathers, and gentle countenance.   At the end of the program, I rushed to the volunteers and begged: “How can I volunteer? How can I get involved?” They gave me info on the next clinic volunteer orientation; I attended, and became a volunteer. To volunteer at the clinic, no experience is necessary; only a desire to work hard, learn, and get dirty, and abide by the clinic rules. I was certainly ready for that.

When I started feeding baby birds, and helping the rehab director with injured animals, I knew I had found my home. And I was in the right place at the right time: soon after I became a volunteer, the clinic was looking for an assistant rehabilitator, a position I was delighted to get. During apprenticeship model of training, I worked under the director’s tutelage and also his permits, while he taught me everything I need to know: medicines, biology, nutrition, anatomy, housing and husbandry, and helping people who bring animals to the clinic.

To help Rick run the clinic most effectively, and once I had enough experience, we decided it was appropriate for me to pursue the knowledge and credentials of the Wildlife Rehabilitation licensing system, so that I could work at the clinic with my own license. To become a licensed rehabilitator in Pennsylvania, one must have at least two years’ experience, have a person who already holds the license as a sponsor, and have a veterinarian sponsor.  We have several volunteer veterinarians at the clinic with whom we work closely, and one of them gladly wrote my letters of recommendation.

In 2010, I drove to Reading, Pennsylvania to take my first wildlife rehabilitator licensing exam  – Passerine, which covers passerines (songbirds) and waterfowl. To pass this exam, I needed to know biology, anatomy, diseases, drug dosages, medical math, fluid therapy, nutrition and calorie calculation, and all the technical aspects of raising baby birds. When I passed my written exam, I sat for an oral interview with the members of the Game Commission’s council for wildlife rehabilitation. They grilled me on all aspects of rehabilitation, and our facilities and procedures, and granted me my first license.  Two years later, I took the exam to get my qualification to rehabilitate raptors.

Loki, the screech owl who was my inspiration, is still at the clinic, but he is growing old, and we describe him now as “Educator Emeritus”. He’s retired from education programs and will have a home at the clinic for the rest of his life.  But I will still always credit that owl with giving me the spark and motivation to pursue this career, and finally, in my 40s, to find the life’s work I was always meant to be doing. I have now been working in rehabilitation for almost 10 years, and I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. It’s my life blood.

Michele and Loki then and now



Field Guide: Know Your Evergreens

By Jenny Ryder, Environmental Art & PR Intern

Enjoy our mobile field guide as you walk, hike and play in the fall forests. Wintertime has got me cherishing the bits of green left around the forest here at the Schuylkill Center. On our monthly staff walk the other day (after perhaps the last snowfall of the season), the white backdrop over our dips and hills made it easy to spot evergreens throughout the trails. Of course, our beloved and fragrant Pine Grove is thriving, and we shared knowledge about the kinds of conifers and other evergreens that live with us around here.

See other Field Guide posts here.

Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)


Despite its common name, eastern redcedar is actually a juniper tree, sometimes called a Virginia juniper. This one sits right outside the Visitor Center next to our solar panels at Fire Pond. Eastern redcedar is a native plant to the region, often one of the early colonizers of meadowlands.

Juniperus virginiana

Juniperus virginiana

In the colder months, this evergreen is actually quite red, while in the warmer seasons, the foliage turns a more vivid green. They smell so good but be careful, because this evergreen has little prickly bits at the base of their leaf clusters! Sometimes, this tree’s turned into incense and burned for ritual purification.

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Ilex opaca

Ilex opaca

Ilex opaca

American Holly is pretty easy to identify, one of the most common evergreen varieties that isn’t a part of the pine family. Notice their spiny teeth, shiny, leathery surface, and smooth and sometimes spotted greenish bark. This American Holly is a male tree, but its female counterpart will bear the iconic red holly berry fruit, often seen in seasonal displays around the holidays.

White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Pinus strobus


Elissa explaining  her helpful trick to identify a White Pine—pick off a little leaf cluster and count the needles… 1-2-3-4-5 correlates to W-H-I-T-E!

One needle for each of the five letters in its namesake, pinus strobus is the only five-needled eastern pine.

Pinus strobus

White pine is one of the two pine species in our Pine Grove at the Center. Because of the invasion of the white pines with white pine weevils, who invade the terminal branch of these trees, they’ve become multi-branch pines. The Pine Grove was originally planted as a lumber initiative, but because of these pests, luckily these trees are no longer desirable for logging!

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

Pinus virginiana

ed with a female va pine

Ed with female Virginia pine cones

The other pine in our grove is the Virginia Pine, which can thrive even in the most inhospitable of soil, hence their colloquial name, Scrub Pine. On our walk, Eduardo gave me a little lesson on how to identify male and female pine cones. Female pine cones tend to be round and stout, while male pine cones grow more elongated and cylindrical on lower branches. Female cones grow in the upper branches of most conifers, where they may be fertilized by pollen blown on the wind.

Pinus virginiana

You can tell if you’ve found a Virginia Pine if the needles are clustered in bunches of two, as opposed to the five-needle clusters of their White Pine neighbors. Pinus virginiana is also sometimes referred to as Jersey Pine, representing the northern end of their typical growing region.

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens)

Picea pungens

Picea pungens

Picea pungens against winter skyPicea pungens

As you might have guessed from its name, the Colorado Blue Spruce is non-native to our region, and is often planted as an ornamental specimen, as is the case for this one in Founder’s Grove. The outer edges of this conifer are where you’ll find the bluer bits of its foliage, which blend oh so beautifully into the background of a pale mid-winter sky.

Investigate & Create: My Experience at the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education’s Annual Conference


By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

I recently had the opportunity to attend a great conference, the annual gathering of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE), which this year focused on the theme of integrating the arts into environmental education.

Miss Martha Shaum’s handmade knit jellyfish at the auction

The conference occurred on February 4th, but the beginning of this story actually goes back to January 2015.  At the time, the idea of an arts-flavored conference for environmental educators was just a glimmer in the eye of John Sandkuhler, a MAEOE board member who had long been involved in organizing the MAEOE conference.  John reached out to me early in their process of proposing this idea, to talk about how we at the Schuylkill Center had integrated environmental art into our programming and to pick my brain about potential artists and organizations that could be involved in the effort. Continue reading

Kids walking on the beach

Put that phone away!

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

June 29th, 2007 changed the world forever: This is not the date of a presidential election, or the start or end of a military conflict. It’s not the day humans first traveled into space, or discovered some profound scientific theory. Think smaller, about 4 inches to be exact. It’s the date the first iPhone was released. And here we are, one decade into the smartphone generation.

The aspect of my position at the Schuylkill Center that takes up the most time every year is the Adventure Treks summer camp program, and specifically the 10-12 year old camp group. This means this upcoming summer, for the first time, I’m going to have kids coming to my most popular program that have never existed in a world without a smartphone. Older generations are in a constant struggle with these kids and their blasted phones. “Put those away!” “Am I going to have to confiscate that?” “No phones will be allowed on this trip.”

I’ll admit that I am guilty of saying a few of these phrases in my career as an educator. But is it the right way? It’s a question I struggle with constantly. If a 10 year-old comes to camp this year with a phone, how can I tell him or her that they can’t have it? Their whole life has been integrated with this device. It’s used in schools. Complicated schedules are logged and tracked. They have pictures of their friends, contact information for their parents or guardians. It’s a 21st century security blanket. Think about it like this: What if you went to a camp and the person in charge said there was going to be no running water or indoor bathrooms at this camp. And it’s simply that way because whoever was in charge didn’t have running water at camp when they were younger, and neither should you. In other words, it’s the “right” way to experience summer camp. Things have changed, and as educators, we have to adapt. Continue reading

Wildlife clinic peregrine falcon

Wildlife clinic at 30: 80,000 wild animals later

Baby redtail hawk with parent puppet

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Manager of Communications & Digital Strategy

In an unassuming building on Port Royal Avenue, our Wildlife Clinic treats over 3,000 animals each year, from hundreds of baby squirrels to injured raptors like peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks. In this building life-saving treatments save opossums, mend broken wings on Canada geese, suture the shells of turtles hit while crossing the road, and nourish tiny mammals brought in when they are too young to feed for themselves. This year, our clinic celebrates its 30th anniversary. Continue reading

Crochet mushroom

Foraging for Art

By Liz Jelsomine, Environmental Art & Public Relations Intern

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar. Calendars are still available, now 50% off – only $10 each!

What started out as an amateur attempt to forage for mushrooms led to 20 years of exploration, mycology enthusiasm, and art for Philadelphia artist Melissa Maddonni Haims and her husband, Josh Haims.

Josh’s curiosity was initially peaked after noticing mushroom foragers during his early morning bike rides along the Wissahickon when visiting Melissa’s parents in Norristown, while Melissa’s curiosity was sparked after inquiring about a morel mushroom dish at a Manhattan restaurant. Their curiosity grew, and Josh presented the idea of foraging to Melissa. Soon, the two were in Fairmount Park stumbling over rocks and deep into the woods in search of fungi.

Josh began stopping on his bike rides to photograph the mushrooms, and developed quite a collection of fungi photos over time. Blending her creative crocheting with an interest in biomimicry, Melissa was inspired to crochet made-to-scale mushrooms mimicking Josh’s photographs, which were then attached to found wood.

Melissa Maddonni Haims Cold Comfort 1Melissa had previously exhibited at the Schuylkill Center in 2012. Her work, Cold Comfort, involved crocheted yarn-bombed trees along the Widener Trail and main driveway, enlivening the brown and grey winter landscape.  At a visit to the Schuylkill Center in 2015 to discuss a possible biomimicry show, discussions with Director of Environmental Art, Christina Catanese wandered to the morel mushroom and her husband’s collection of mushroom photography, and the concept for The Foragers was born.

Melissa and Josh brought fungi life into the Schuylkill Center in the form of crocheted mushrooms and photographs in their joint exhibition in early 2016. Melissa’s crocheted tableaus were given a setting by Josh’s photographs, creating an overall feel of being immersed in a forest.

The artists chose to focus on local fungi for the show. “These are mushrooms that you could go outside here [at the Schuylkill Center] and anywhere in this area. Something that is amazing about mushrooms is just the sheer diversity of them,” Catanese said in a conversation. “I think what’s great about Melissa’s work is that it’s like these little windows into the forest floor that celebrate this diversity.”

SCEE4813In addition to their work being displayed in the gallery, Melissa tapped back into yarn bombing and expanded her work onto trees along trails at the Schuylkill Center. Visitors could discover 9 crocheted mushrooms on their travels, staged as they might be found along the trail and on trees. In addition to the show, Melissa held a mushroom crocheting workshop, inviting participants to explore the creative and earthly processes.

A show shedding light and celebrating the forest ecosystem, Melissa explained that, like mushrooms, The Foragers exhibit represented just the fruit of something with roots stretching back 20 years.

Ben Franklin Bridge Walkway

On The Circuit: 6th annual Richard L. James lecture

By Elisabeth Zafiris, Acting Director of Education

On February 23rd the Schuylkill Center will welcome Robert Thomas, a founder and principal of Campbell Thomas & Co. Architects and Planners, as our 6th Annual Richard L. James Lecturer. This year we’ll be talking about The Circuit – a remarkable network spanning the region and connecting urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Thomas dedicated over 40 years advocating for parks, trails, and greenways, planning and building the green infrastructure that Philadelphians and visitors are fortunate enough to call their own. Thomas served on the original committee that created the Schuylkill River Trail, and was involved in drawing the first maps of The Circuit, an ever-growing network of regional trails. A lifelong cyclist, Thomas himself knows how important these trails are; for decades, Thomas has biked everywhere he goes, never owning a car. The Circuit Coalition, in turn, brings together 72 organizations to promote these 750 miles of trails. Continuing this work, Thomas advocated for bikes to be allowed on SEPTA trains, working alongside the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia. It’s safe to say that he’s a strong champion for the rich trail system we enjoy today.

Thomas brings his rich experience and perspective on trail systems to the annual lecture. He’ll discuss how The Circuit was created and regional vision to “Connect The Circuit” by linking all 750 miles of trails. Turning our attention to the future, Thomas will explore the coalition that has gathered around The Circuit and discuss the trail system’s future.

The Circuit trails are of special interest to the Schuylkill Center – our property borders the immensely popular Schuylkill River Trail. At the James Lecture Executive Director Mike Weilbacher will share details how the Center’s master plan invigorates our connection to the Schuylkill River Trail.

In the meantime, visit us – and come via the River Trail! Thomas recommends taking the Septa Manayunk/Norristown line to the Miquon station, walking the River Trail to the Schuylkill Center’s back entrance, and then walking up the back of the property – it’s route he recently took himself, and one that demonstrates what he thinks is the future for transportation – a linkage of cycling, public transit, trails, and roads that serve all people and places.

Past James lecturers include Kenneth Finch who spoke about the importance of keeping nature play in children’s lives in 2013 – coinciding with the announcement of our Nature Preschool, which opened later that year. In 2014, Dr. Michael Suk discussed the health benefits of nature; and, in 2015, Sarah Wu, of the city’s Office of Sustainability, walked a crowded auditorium through how climate change will affect Philadelphia’s future. The Richard L. James Lecture is an opportunity to think deeply about important environmental and regional issues, and this year’s lecture will be no exception.

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2017 Quill, our members’ newsletter.

Nature preschoolers treat penguin doll at play clinic

Children Need Nature: An Emergent Curriculum Study

Children Need NatureBy Kristina Eaddy, Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our Nature Preschool program. Read more posts here.

Why do leaves change colors? What is under the frozen ice? And where do birds go during the winter? These are questions we hear every day, as Nature Preschool teachers. Young children’s minds are full of wonders and questions, trying to learn about, connect with, and understand the world they are surrounded by.

At Nature Preschool, we nurture this natural curiosity in young children by following the emergent curriculum approach. The goal of an emergent curriculum is to create meaningful learning experiences that capture children’s passion, foster inquiry-based experiences, and instill a love for learning. In contrast to a traditional, thematic-teaching approach, topics are not pre-planned in advance nor are they conducted in one- or two-week increments. Instead, a subject of study arises from the interests and developmental needs of the children in a group at any given time. A study can last anywhere from a couple of days to weeks, or even months, depending on how long the interest in the topic persists.

Continue reading

Tree on Belmont Plateau

Winter 2017 Photography Contest

Tree on Belmont Plateau

By Jenny Ryder, Environmental Art & PR Intern

Winter is in full swing in Southeast PA (though it doesn’t always feel like it), and we’re trying our best to get outside every day despite the icy chill in the air. We encourage you to do the same—get out of your home/office/classroom, etc. and take a photograph for our Winter 2017 Photo Contest!

This year, one of my resolutions is to find room in my heart for the wintertime by finding new ways to appreciate nature throughout the cold, dead months. The colors of winter are one of the most striking aesthetic features of the season, with its muted lavender and grey skies, the stark silhouettes of white birch trees in a tangled sea of naked branches and buds. With the warm snow days we’ve been getting (as a consequence of global climate change), I’ve begun to appreciate the big snowflakes these days offer us. If you look real quick before it melts on your chest, you’ll be able to see each flake’s fascinating little pattern fade away.

How do you relish in winter’s gentle light and fierce beauty? Where do you connect with nature when the grass is matted down with snow? Are you desperate to see some more snow on the ground? Bring your camera with you to capture a sliver of the season’s magnificence and submit a photo anytime between now and February 28th! Three winners will be selected by a staff committee.


The rules are simple:

      • The photo must have been taken this January or February
      • The photo must be taken in the Philadelphia area
      • The photo must be outdoors or feature the outdoors
      • The photo must be your own creation and its publication may not violate the rights of any third party
      • Photos must be submitted by 5pm on February 28.

Please note:

  • No explicit or offensive photos.  The Schuylkill Center reserves the right to determine whether a photo is explicit or offensive.
  • By submitting a photo, you grant the Schuylkill Center non-exclusive rights to reproduce your image.  You maintain copyright and you will be credited.
  • Only 3 submissions per person will be accepted.
  • Winners will be chosen by a panel of Schuylkill Center staff.

How to Submit a Photo:

  • Email your photo to Environmental Art & PR Intern, Jenny, at with the subject line “2017 Photo Contest”

We look forward to finding out how you see the cold season, in the city and beyond – submit a photo now!

Featured photo: Stephanie (@Cattandco). 2015.

Plants on classroom windowsill

Bringing Nature into the Classroom

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

Here at the Schuylkill Center, we set yearly themes. It doesn’t necessarily dictate all of our goals and events throughout the year. Rather it is an ongoing conversation that the staff members have that consequently is reflected in our programming. In 2015 we marked our 50th anniversary, working these celebrations into many aspects of our work. In 2016 our theme was climate change. For 2017 the conversation around the Center is “What does environmental education look like in the 21st century?” It’s a simple enough question, but the answer is not so simple. We’re so early into this span, and who knows what kind of advancements in technology will shape the later part of the century?

My biggest goal, and first step, in answering this question is reminding people that nature is not “over there.” It’s easy to think that we live in civilization, and nature is some destination. There has been this separation in the 20th century of nature and people. That has to change if we want to move forward with environmental education. The great outdoors is not a place you drive to, pay an admission price to get into, and then take a few pictures of. It’s all around us, all the time. It’s in the trees planted along Ben Franklin Parkway. It’s in the grass behind your house. It’s in the fields we mow to play baseball.

My first introduction to nature was in my classroom. Our principal, and lead teacher, brought the outdoors into our world. She had animal stations that we were in charge of. She had more plant species than I can remember (all native to the Mid-Atlantic region) and it was our responsibility to care for them. When I was younger, I thought it was busy work. Put a ten-year-old in charge of the plants for this week and he can almost babysit himself. It’ll focus his energy and keep him from disrupting class with his friends, as ten-year-olds tend to do. Looking back now I see the true purpose. It was to foster an appreciation of plants and animals I never would have come in contact with. I began to care for these species even though I was never taught a single fact about them. I’d go home and water the wilting plants my mother had on the windowsills. I’d find box turtles in my back yard and return them to the forest. I caught and showed my mother salamanders, much to her dismay, before returning them to the stream that ran through my neighborhood.

The easiest way to foster an appreciation of the outdoors is to simply introduce a student to the natural world. With limited resources, and ever growing testing schedules, a trip to a place like the Schuylkill Center might be out of reach. So I urge all teachers to bring the outdoors inside. Bring some plants in to decorate your room and assign students to take care of them. Bring in a pet like a hamster or snake and keep it in the room where students can not only see it, but get used to it. Make it a part of their everyday lives and slowly, but surely, nature will not be “over there.”