The Amazing Monarch Migration: A Status Report

How are this year’s monarch’s doing? Join us and National Monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor for our free, virtual event to find out.

The monarch butterfly, that large insect perfectly decked out for Halloween– or a Flyers game– in its orange and black cloak, undergoes one of the most extraordinary migrations in the animal kingdom. Butterflies across America and even Canada.

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). As you read this, monarchs across the eastern US and even Canada are flying south, many along the eastern seaboard; most are near or even in Mexico already.  

Once in Mexico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with millions of their bodies, a remarkable sight visited by thousands of eco-tourists annually. The butterflies wait out the long winter, living five months—Methuselah territory for an insect.

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. So the butterflies hatching in my garden will start flying more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Nature’s planning?

If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May point soon and watch clusters of them funneling down New Jersey hop across the Delaware Bay to get to the mainland and continue their journey south. 

While it’s remarkable that an insect can make this migration, I’m saddened to report that this phenomenon is endangered as monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, compromised by climate, pesticides, Midwestern “milkweed deserts,” and over-logging in Mexico. 

So how are this year’s monarch’s doing? How is the insect holding up? Should it be declared an endangered species?

We hope to answer this question on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. with our Thursday Night L!VE presentation, “The Monarch’s Amazing Migration: a Status Report.” National monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, the organization that has helped place 35,000 monarch waystations across the country, joins us from his Kansas base to share the creature’s story and its status. Monarch Watch started in 1992 as an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs, and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation. 

“In real estate,” Dr. Taylor says, “it’s location, location, location. And for monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat. We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace. Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. Further, the overuse of herbicides along roadsides and elsewhere is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species. The adoption of genetically modified soybeans and corn have further reduced monarch habitat. If these trends continue, monarchs are certain to decline, threatening the very existence of their magnificent migration.” 

Female monarchs are exceptional botanists, laying their eggs only on one family of plants, the milkweeds. She tastes plants with her feet, laying eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars hatch from eggs, and immediately begin munching on milkweed—the only food they are adapted to eat. The creatures have evolved to take the noxious chemicals found in milkweed sap and use it to make themselves—both caterpillar and adult—bad-tasting for any bird that may try to eat it.

A very clever “Got Milkweed?” campaign was started years ago, and more and more home gardeners like me began planting milkweed– and the Schuylkill Center has been selling milkweeds for years.

To address these changes and restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife, Monarch Watch is initiating a nationwide landscape restoration program called “Bring Back the Monarchs.” The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

This program is an outgrowth of the Monarch Waystation Program started by Monarch Watch in 2005. “While these sites, mostly habitats created in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscapes, contribute to monarch conservation, it is clear that to save the monarch migration we need to do more,” Taylor said. “ We need to think on a bigger scale and we need to think ahead, to anticipate how things are going to change as a result of population growth, development, changes in agriculture, and most of all, changes in the climate.”

According to Taylor, we need a comprehensive plan on how to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.” 

Dr. Chip Taylor has been pioneering in butterfly conservation for decades. Meet him by joining me in a Thursday Night L!VE virtual lecture this week. Register for the free event.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Goldenrods and the Last Chance Cafe

Goldenrods, an autumn bloom, are one of the last sources of nectar and pollen before winter.

As summer slides into fall, a wonderful transformation begins happening in meadows across the area—summer flowers give way to classic autumn blossoms like goldenrod and asters. These are hugely important plants, as they represent the very last shot that thousands of species of insects have for pollen and nectar before winter settles in.  

For bees and butterflies, a goldenrod field is essentially their Last Chance Cafe. 

There’s a great example of this here at the Schuylkill Center. At the corner of Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, a field of goldenrod is at its peak flowering right now, and its cousins aster and snakeroot are nearby– and the flowers there are literally abuzz in bees, flies, wasps and more. 

In the co-evolution of insects and flowers, something remarkable happened. As the weather cools, it gets harder and harder for bees, wasps, and butterflies to fly from flower to flower searching for nectar—as the mercury drops, it is difficult for cold-blooded insects to move. So nature responded by evolving composite flowers, plants that have bundled their flowers in massive clusters, allowing a bee, say, to efficiently walk across hundreds of flowers without needing to fly.

Take dandelion, for example. Pull one “petal” out of the flower, and you’ll find the toothy-edged petal has some fuzz clinging to it.  That fuzz, oddly enough, represents a complete but greatly reduced flower, and that one petal is actually the product of the ancestral flower’s petals fusing into one. So one dandelion is actually—literally—hundreds of flowers. That’s the concept, the bundling of huge floral clusters to create a target-rich environment, and the family that performed this trick is the composites, a huge and sprawling clan of wildflowers.

Goldenrods and aster are composites, offering clusters of nectar-packed flowers standing cheek-to-jowl, allowing for hyper-efficient nectar collecting. And in the yearlong parade of blossoming flowers, goldenrods and asters are the tramp clowns that bring up the rear of the parade, the absolutely last chance for honeybees to collect pollen and nectar.  They’ll keep blossoming into the first frost. 

In addition, in early fall monarch butterflies are in the middle of their migration to Mexican mountain valleys, an extraordinary phenomenon. Nectar-rich goldenrod’s bright yellow beacon pulls monarchs down to refuel for their extensive journey. If you are a monarch flying south, goldenrod is a critical rest stop on the highway.

But despite their ecological significance, goldenrods are reviled in our culture because just as they bloom, so does ragweed, a flower with microscopic pollen that wafts into the wind—and into our noses. So when showy goldenrod blooms—achoo!—so does ragwort, and goldenrod gets all the blame for the ragweed’s problems. It’s also at this time of year you’re treated to TV commercials of people standing in goldenrod fields waving a white flag with an exhortation to buy their hay fever medication. Memo to allergy sufferers: goldenrod’s pollen is just too heavy to get launched on the wind; instead, it sticks to the legs and bodies of insects like bees and wasps. It’s wind-pollinated flowers like ragweed that make us sniffle.

Of course, because goldenrod fields attract so many bugs, you’ll find many predators there too, like praying mantises and crab spiders hiding among the petals waiting for an unsuspecting wasp. Swallows and dragonflies cruise above the flowers—and hawks above them, waiting to grab a bird. Peacock flies lay their eggs in goldenrod stems, the eggs rubbing the flower the wrong way to produce a tumorous swelling that surrounds and cradles the egg. Look for goldenrod ball galls dotting the stems of plants in a field, fly larvae sleeping the winter in their safe little home. But downy woodpeckers know about galls, and land on the stems to peck open the galls to grab the tasty larva tucked inside.

For honey bees, butterflies, and more, goldenrod fields are the Last Chance Cafe, the last flowers of the fall season, the last chance for nectar and pollen. As such, they are critically important plants– and ecological gold mines filled with important pollinating insects.

Here at the Schuylkill Center, we’ve got goldenrod in several locations besides our Port Royal corner, like the Grey Fox Loop and down under the PECO power lines close to the river. Our butterfly meadow doesn’t have goldenrods, but may other composites are there to lure happy bugs, as daisies, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, and Joe-Pye-weed are all composites– it’s a big and wildly successful family of flowers. Morris Arboretum also has a great goldenrod field at its entrance; goldenrod even loves waste areas so you’ll find them growing in vacant “weedy” lots.

“The Secrets of a Goldenrod Field” kicks off our new season of Thursday Night Live on Thursday, October 7 at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Go to our website to register, and we’ll see you on Zoom– and next time you visit the Schuylkill Center, stop in at the Last Chance Cafe.   

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Our Native Wildflower Seed Packet Design contest Winner is: Monica Smith!

Monica Smith’s winning seed packet design

We are thrilled to welcome new members to the Schuylkill Center every day! Starting October 1, all new members will receive in their welcome kit our native wildflower seed packet designed by one of our very own Schuylkill Center members, Monica Smith. The contest ran from July 28, 2021, to August 20, 2021, and was open to creatives of all ages and skill levels. We were overwhelmed with the great response and received several beautifully designed submissions that made the decision very difficult. We want to send a special thank you to everyone that participated in the contest!

Monica’s design was inspired by the wildflower patches her husband planted on their farm this past year. She shared with us that the wildflowers provided them with “cheer and beauty” during the pandemic. As they continue to plant their gardens with native flowers, scrubs and trees, Monica hopes that the native wildflower seed packets will “inspire everyone to give them a try!”

Monica also shared that the reason she started receiving the Schuylkill Center’s Quill newsletter was that her dear friend, an artist who passed away last October, requested that memorial donations be made to the Schuylkill Center. Monica found our website and loved what she saw, so she sent a memorial donation. Monica has been a part of the Schuylkill Center community ever since!

Blueberries, A Local Classic

Highbush blueberries are one of the best parts of summer, and one of the only truly native foods to our region.

If you have never had the joy of walking or kayaking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, this fall should be your first time. A short drive but a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, this quietly rugged wilderness is defined by fragrant conifers towering overhead and lush stands of fruiting shrubs at waist height. The crunch of sand under your feet, the soft lapping of water at creek’s edge, a fresh breeze filtering through the verdant solitude of white cedar stands – it is an experience that many find deeply rejuvenating, for some even spiritual.

This rare, fragile ecosystem is also home to something that has become a global culinary phenomenon: blueberries.

These luscious, flavorful berries – a summer favorite for many of us – are one of the few truly native foods of our region. Apples and peaches, wheat and potatoes, most foods we eat come from Eurasia, Africa, or South America, but the blueberry began right here.

Blueberries come in an incredible diversity of species, from diminutive mats of vegetation clinging to mountaintops in Maine all the way to small trees in the swamps of Florida. The kind that we eat, however, usually fall into two categories: lowbush and highbush. Lowbush blueberries form low spreading shrubs just a few inches tall, that creep and crawl across rock and sand in places that most other plants would wither. In these extreme conditions, lowbush blueberries produce small berries with an incredible concentrated flavor that make them a delicacy throughout New England where they can be bought as “wild blueberries”. The kind we usually find on store shelves is the highbush variety, producing far sweeter and larger berries that are easier to plant and manage in fields and orchards.

Both lowbush and highbush blueberries are plants that have a number of additional advantages as well. Red stems and a craggy architecture make them spectacular plants for winter interest in the garden. White bell-shaped flowers draw innumerable bumblebees and other native pollinators in the spring. Lush green foliage and ripening berries follow in the summer. The fall, however, is the best time to see a blueberry bush. Whether you are in Pennsylvania or Vermont, one of the most glorious plants for autumnal color is the blueberry bush. Here at the Schuylkill Center we look forward to mid-October every year when the wild blueberries along some of our trails begin to glow a fiery red. In the Pine Barrens, where blueberries grow abundantly, the scene is even more spectacular.

the shock of autumnal red from a colony of blueberries. Photo courtesy of Stanley Zimny.

It is a little surprise, then, that Elizabeth Coleman White noticed these lovely and productive shrubs growing around her family’s cranberry farm in southern New Jersey a little over a century ago. A Friends Central School and Drexel University graduate, White came from a local Quaker family and was a true polymath in her time. At the turn of the 20th century, blueberries were not cultivated for food; only in places where they grew wild were they harvested for local consumption. She presciently saw the potential in this colorful native fruit and invited Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, to help her breed and domesticate highbush blueberries. White paid local woodsmen to bring her their favorite large-fruiting blueberry bushes that they found on their treks across the Pine Barrens. In this way she was able to source the very best genetic material with which to breed new domesticated varieties. By 1916, after years of diligent work, Elizabeth White and Coville harvested and sold their first blueberry crop, founding an entire agricultural industry that has subsequently grown to global proportions. Descendants of the very blueberries that White and Coville bred and cultivated on her New Jersey farm are now grown as far afield as Australia and Peru.

Here at the Schuylkill Center we are in the middle of our annual Fall Plant Sale, and are excited to offer two highbush blueberry varieties bred from the collections of Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Coville. ‘Jersey’ blueberry is one of the very first varieties that they released, and is still a standard on many blueberry farms. ‘Bluecrop’ was released a few decades later from crossing and selecting the superior wild blueberries that they had sourced. Both of these, planted together, will give you locally native blueberry shrubs that give abundant, delicious fruit in the summer, a haven for native biodiversity, and year-round beauty in your garden. Unlike most plants, blueberries require acidic soil. A large helping of peat moss, fertilizers suited for azaleas and other acid-loving plants, and – if old timers are to be believed – a handful of rusty nails (to give the plant iron) placed at the bottom of the hole when planting should suffice.

This fall, the blueberries will once again radiate their autumnal beauty to the world. Thanks to two enterprising botanists in southern New Jersey a century ago, we can all enjoy this display in our own yards too – as well as the summer fruits. We invite you to take a look at blueberries and the many other native plants we have at our Fall Plant Sale, available now for ordering and pickup: shop.schuylkillcenter.org/native-plants

Max Paschall is our Land Stewardship Coordinator at the Schuylkill Center.

Liz Ellmann: A Warrior for Wildlife

Liz Ellmann helping a turtle

The Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, the city’s only wildlife rehabilitation clinic, is located on Port Royal Avenue in Upper Roxborough and staffed by an extraordinary group of dedicated workers, both employees and volunteers, who handle thousands of injured, sick, and orphaned animals annually. It’s a labor of love.

Separately, the Schuylkill Center this summer unveiled our mudhif, a traditional Iraqi guesthouse built of reeds– the first one ever built outside of Iraq. In memory of this year’s 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Center last weekend offered “Reconciliation: A Healing Encounter,” where veterans, Iraqi immigrants, and the public gathered to heal from the injuries of war and the socio-political unrest in Iraq and adjacent countries.

Our clinic and mudhif came together at Reconciliation, as Liz Ellmann, the clinic’s assistant director and an Army veteran, led nature walks for the event.

Liz, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, has been with us for almost three years now, one year as a volunteer and intern and the last two as an employee. A resident of Roxborough-Manayunk, “Liz has been a vital part of keeping the clinic going through our tough COVID months,” noted Chris Strub, the clinic’s director. “Their care and compassion for our patients, along with their incredible organizational skills, help keep everyone on track with keeping our patients cared for and our clinic running smoothly.”

For Liz, it has been quite the journey from the Army to a wildlife clinic in Roxborough. “I was in the active Army for eight years,” they told me as we drank coffee outside the mudhif. While stationed mainly in Fort Hood Texas, Liz was deployed to Kuwait, South Korea, and Germany. They were assigned Patriot missiles: “we would place them, fix them, reload them; I was this little person next to a huge canister of missiles.” They were also “armor for my unit, in charge of all the weapons and ammo. I loved it, was good at it, and in South Korea I was asked to lead workshops on this.”

They accompanied a medivac full of injured servicemen from Kuwait to Germany, and was also assigned funeral detail, accompanying coffins on their sad journeys home. “My first one was a 19-year-old kid just married with a newborn kid and only there for two weeks,” Liz shared. “These are your brothers and sisters, you know why they did what they did. They made the ultimate sacrifice, and you can’t take that away from their families.”

But they blew out their knee in Kuwait on their last deployment, “where I had no ligament left and tore my meniscus in half. There were complications from my surgery, giving me bad migraines. I had wanted to stay in and do my 20 years; I had dreams, things I wanted to do, but they could not figure out what was wrong. So I got medically retired out as a sergeant.”

From Ashland, Virginia, Liz grew up in a small town 45 minutes north of Richmond that had “tons of farmland; we had a cornfield in front of the high school.” After the Army, wanting to get back to the East Coast closer to their roots and work on a college degree, they enrolled in Drexel (“what they do with veterans is absolutely amazing”) which brought Liz to Philly. Now armed with a Bachelor’s in psychology and a Master’s in spatial cognition, they were looking for an entry into the psychology field, which isn’t easy. But their wife showed Liz an announcement for an internship at the Wildlife Clinic. “You’ve always loved animals,” she told Liz. They agreed. The internship “really clarified things for me.” Rebecca Michelin, the previous clinic director who first hired Liz, “was huge in helping me figure it out, being an amazing mentor in helping me decide. And this was the right decision.”

“I absolutely want to be doing this, and feel a passion and purpose. I see such a lack of good information and knowledge that our industry”– wildlife rehab– “even exists.” Liz also sees so many well-intentioned people finding an injured animal, or one they assume is orphaned, and doing the wrong thing. “They Google solutions– and Google is like the death of everything. It’s not malicious, people are trying to help, but they end up not helping so much.” Like by taking a baby that one assumes was abandoned away from its parents, when they might have left it alone.

When Liz heard first about the mudhif coming to the Schuylkill Center, “I was so excited. There is such a stigma and stereotype with people from the Middle East; people assume everyone there is an extremist or a terrorist. So the mudhif is a healing point, and everyone has a lot of healing to do, especially veterans, as we have our own issues. To have a place like this, it’s sacred. There needs to be a bridging point not only within the community but with the world. The September 11 event is so important,” they continued. “There needs to be an opening of arms.”

The loss of soldiers last week in Afghanistan is “devastating, just devastating. Once again they’re all kids who made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save innocents. It’s gut wrenching.” To memorialize the loss, Liz has “tied yellow ribbons on my front porch for each of the fallen, and added one for the innocent Afghan people. They feel like we abandoned them– and actually we did.

“At day’s end,” Liz finished, “we all bleed the same blood, and need to protect each other.”

That fierce protectiveness is exactly what the Wildlife Clinic needs in a rehabilitator, someone who will move heaven and earth to save even the tiniest mouse or sparrow. For me, the Schuylkill Center is so proud of Liz’s service to the country, and so honored to have them on our team. Thank you, Liz.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough.

Missy Horrow: “I Feel Like I Have Come Home”

Missy Horrow, Director of Early Childhood Education

Last Wednesday, the teaching staff of Nature Preschool at the Schuylkill Center gathered to begin preparing for the post-Labor Day opening of the school. Starting its ninth year, our staff will again immerse three-, four- and five-year-olds in the natural world in all seasons. And once again, for the third school year, our staff will try to steer their students through pandemic whitewater– but that’s a story for another day.

That evening, Missy Horrow, the school’s new director, wrote in her Facebook feed, “today was the first day of prep week– I feel like I have come home.”

A veteran early childhood educator with more than 20 years experience leading preschools, she has long championed nature-based learning, pioneering the use of the outdoors with her students elsewhere, building, for example, the first outdoor nature playground while she directed a prestigious Main Line preschool. 

As such, she took training courses at the Schuylkill Center, and when she came here, loved the use of wood and natural materials in our classrooms. 

Dreams really do come true: she is now the preschool’s director, looking forward to, as she told me, “building community with the students and parents, supporting our teachers so they can do their best work, helping everyone spend as much time outside as possible, and keeping everyone safe.” 

I asked her what was it about nature that compelled her to bring it into traditional classroom settings? She went back to her childhood, where she went every summer to a camp with a strong outdoor component. 

“Aunt Blanche and Uncle Mel were this couple from Florida,” she reminisced, “and all the teachers were ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle.’ But these two drove up every summer to work in the outdoor program, setting up a campsite where we’d walk to for our overnight camping experiences. Aunt Blanche led nature walks, and something about those experiences stuck with me this entire time. My love of nature comes from them.” (Summer camp is huge in her family, by the way. Not only did she meet her husband at camp, but her parents did too– and so did her daughter. That’s crazy!)

She also remembered back to the first preschool she directed, where the school had 100 mostly unused acres. She took the kids sledding, and “seeing how they behaved outside, seeing how engaged they were, changed me.” Turns out that sledding is now a treasured and embedded part of that school’s curriculum.

In a way, I feel like I’ve been working towards this my whole life.

“This school is on the cutting edge of early childhood education, where it lets children explore the outdoors, engages them in an emergent curriculum where they choose what to study, where they get to roam and play. This is just the ultimate.”

She’s also working to connect the school to other programs at the Schuylkill Center, something we cut back on last year to keep the COVID bubbles tight around each class. This year, for example, the Wildlife Clinic’s staff visited the teachers last week to share with them how to raise mealworms, grubby beetle larvae that become the food of so many of the clinic’s rehabilitating animals. Three of the school’s classes immediately signed on to raising mealworms in class as an activity that teaches students about animal life cycles while providing our patients with food. 

Raised in Lafayette Hill, Missy still lives there today; both she and her two children are proud graduates of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School– go Colonials! The close commute gives her a smaller carbon footprint, another net benefit.

“Every step you take gets you closer,” Aunt Blanche would remind her campers on their long walks. The same might be said of careers– every step gets you closer to where you need to be, and in Missy’s case, that was the Schuylkill Center all along.

And a p.s.: The Schuylkill Center received grants from the state to rebuild our DIY down-homey play area, our nature playscape. With its mud kitchen, sandbox, climbing logs, log seesaw, the Maple Monster (come see it), and more, it’s a play area comprised of natural materials like wood and rock. And it’s getting kicked up a notch or two this year. This week, landscape architects will unveil their proposal for the site, to be used not only by Nature Preschool, but by the Roxborough community when you visit on weekends and afternoons. I look forward to sharing this new feature with you in the near future.

Until then, please join me in welcoming Missy Horrow home to the Schuylkill Center.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Schuylkill Center Intern Redesigns the Entrance Garden

A masked Schuylkill Center intern Jamel Shockley weeding the front entrance garden with volunteers.

“It’s the first thing people see when they walk in the front door. It’s like the first word of a play or the first note of a song– if it catches your attention and draws you in, you’re already off to a good start.”

Hearing the Schuylkill Center’s intern, Jamel Shockley, talk about redesigning the gardens in front of our main entrance, it is easy to share his enthusiasm. A lifelong Philadelphian and recent Drexel graduate with a degree in environmental science, Jamel has brought his passion and creative verve to tackle this highly visible space. With help from Center’s staff and native plant volunteers, he is taking a fresh look at what can be done with the space.

The garden in front of the Visitor Center was once a wild and unkempt tangle of lanky goldenrod, sumac, and more behind a mouldering fence. A few years ago, our staff came together and remade this crucial front space– removing the elements that no longer worked, but doing so with a light touch to allow for more sensitive native plants to return. The result was a mixed meadow dotted with older shrubs. While ecologically valuable, it was clear that a more distinctive design could even better reflect the Center’s mission. Enter Jamel.

“There were definitely valuable things there– wonderful plants and inviting spaces in the garden– but without structure or order it restricted what you could see. If you can open it up, then you can allow for a lot more diversity and let people experience every part of it.”

Jamel has been working at the Schuylkill Center through a fellowship with the Alliance for Watershed Education. The Alliance, a consortium of 23 environmental centers including the Schuylkill Center, works throughout the Delaware River watershed. The fellowship program brings young environmentalists from a variety of backgrounds to work in centers, each completing a capstone project as part of their work. For Jamel, redesigning and planting the new front walkway garden is the culmination of his time here.

Jamel, unmasked

This isn’t his first experience with the Center. As part of Drexel’s Co-op program, Jamel spent the summer of 2018 in our Land & Facilities department learning many of the skills and perspectives that he is using now to create an inviting space.

Growing up in a family of artists whose creativity was matched by their commitment to community service, Jamel arrived with the ability to see his environmental stewardship work in a unique light. With this garden, he wants to blur the lines between beauty, ecological functionality, and physical accessibility for visitors. While normally known for his quiet and contemplative reserve, his passion quickly shines through when he discusses this project:

“I want this to be something that people can interact with. Simply having the plants in a place where you can examine them up close–  even if you don’t know what it is, or anything about them– can be so helpful in understanding them. When you can be right there next to the plants, you see their form and color and how they interrelate with the rest of the environment.”

One of the benefits of this project for Jamel has been the learning process. Although he has done gardening in the past and taken botany courses at Drexel, this has been a great opportunity for him to work directly in the field and design with new plants in a new way. Luckily, he’s received assistance from the Center’s team of garden volunteers who are among some of the most knowledgeable native plant experts in the region. Jamel has been learning from the very best, and it’s paid dividends outside of work as well.

“I’ve started to really understand plants in a new way. When I go home and see things in my neighborhood I think, ‘oh, I recognize this! That’s Virginia creeper, that’s coneflower.’ Being able to work alongside these gardeners has truly been a precious gift.”

Jamel was handed a formidable task, but with characteristic diligence, thoughtfulness, and a creative twist, he is giving the Center a “first note” for which to be proud. There is a lot of excitement among those who pass through our doors about finally having a space along the front walk that embodies the beauty, vision, and purpose of the Schuylkill Center. 

We look forward to welcoming you to see Jamel’s work, in full bloom next spring.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

 

Schuylkill Center Mandates Vaccines for Staff

On July 3, Philadelphia reported all of 177 cases of COVID-19 across the city, the lowest number since the pandemic’s beginning in March 2020. It seemed– felt, hoped– we were FINALLY crawling out of the pandemic’s pit. 

Then the highly transmissible delta variant struck, the fourth wave ramped up, and for the week ending August 7, the city reported 1,238 cases, a 700% increase in only one month. $%$#@!

So last week, to almost no one’s surprise, Mayor Jim Kenney reestablished a masking mandate in the city.

The Schuylkill Center decided we needed to respond to this disappointing wrong-way bend in the curve. Because we operate multiple programs where we invite unvaccinated children to our site, including Nature Preschool, which almost 100 preschoolers attend on a daily basis, and also because we have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for not only program participants and visitors but our own staff and their families, our Board of Trustees adopted a crucial policy last week.

In an unanimous vote, our organization’s 23 trustees agreed to require all of our employees to be vaccinated. We are now joining the growing ranks of companies and universities doing the same, including Google, Walmart, Amtrak, the US military, and many more– with more coming daily.

But we are also taking this important action because we are a science-based organization that teaches and believes in science. And the science is clear. We have sadly and strangely been conducting a year-long science experiment on the American population, bifurcating into states and communities that believe in science and those that believe in– what, exactly– fake news, for lack of a better term (like getting vaccinated will turn your body into a magnet!). 

The fourth wave has already been labeled “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and the data back this up. Today, there is a direct and irrefutable correlation between COVID and vaccination rates– those communities with the highest vaccination rates show the lowest caseload. Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, noted that on August 9, residents of the five most-vaccinated states, home to 14 million people, had only 580 people in the hospital with 12 COVID-related deaths that day. But in the five least-vaccinated states, with 16 million people, 6,600 hospitalized and 104 people had died. The least-vaccinated states have 10 times the number of hospitalizations and seven times the deaths. “So yeah,” he tweeted, “vaccines are working.”

Piling on, in the 10 worst states, those where only 38% of its residents are fully vaccinated, more than 14,000 people are currently hospitalized. But in the 10 best states, where more than 60% are vaccinated, only 1,400 people are in the hospital. Again, a tenfold difference.

Yes, there are breakthrough infections, and yes, that is troublesome– but is the rate of breakthrough infection large enough to derail the entire vaccination program? Of course not. “If you are vaccinated, you may get a breakthrough infection,” Dr Jha has admitted. “But you are very unlikely to get hospitalized. You are very, very, very unlikely to die. The horror of the delta variant will largely be felt by the unvaccinated.”

The Schuylkill Center will, of course, follow the standards similar to all of those entities named earlier, whereby medical and religious exemptions may be accommodated, and of course we will follow whatever other applicable laws are approved.

But we have an obligation to the thousands of people who visit our site, not only preschool children attending our school but summer campers coming here for a week in the great outdoors, school groups visiting for field trips, visitors participating in our many programs, walkers hiking in our forest, art lovers coming to our art gallery to see our latest art installation, and more.

You’d think a tenfold diminution in COVID cases would catch people’s attention… But no. We like to say we live in the Age of Information, but that’s not the case at all. We instead live in the Age of Opinion, and everyone not only has one, but has multiple platforms for promulgating that opinion.

As a science educator, good public policy should flow from good science– science informs policy. But like with climate change, we have become practiced at denying the science to alter the policy. To our detriment. Simply put, more people have already died, and more will die, because of the politics and deliberate disinformation surrounding COVID, not because of the science.

The science is astonishingly clear. Vaxx up, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Creativity inspires curiosity

Tina Plokarz and Deenah Loeb

The Center’s Board of Trustees bid a fond farewell to Deenah Loeb, who completed three consecutive three-year terms. For most of her tenure, Deenah chaired the environmental art committee working very closely with that department’s director. She has been a tireless advocate for our environmental art program and guiding the use of our land as a living laboratory for how an art program enhances an area’s natural habitat.

Fellow board member, Leah Douglas, appreciated Deenah’s legacy and said, “her dedication, thoughtfulness, and commitment to the art committee has been inspirational. She has consistently proven to think outside the box, and always has the arts be top of mind at the Schuylkill Center.”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz was especially grateful to Deenah who has been a mentor to her prior to joining the staff. Tina spoke on behalf of previous art directors who “have been and continue to be grateful for her breadth of knowledge and her generous availability to always be of assistance.”

In closing, Deenah reminded the board that “we need to inspire the creative voice in whatever we do. Having that creative voice will only further the Schuylkill Center’s uniqueness in Philadelphia and beyond.”

Thank you, Deenah!

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications

New Mystery Illness Killing our Birds

A robin that has passed away from the new mystery bird illness sweeping across the country. Photo courtesy of Tamarack Wildlife Center.

Listen to Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife rehabilitation on WHYY’s Radio Times discussing this disease (starts at 32:00)

For bird enthusiasts, this spring had an ominous touch of COVID deja vu. Young birds were falling ill with alarming symptoms and dying– and no one knew the cause. Most commonly impacting starlings, blue jays, and grackles, the illness typically shows up with weeping, crusted-shut eyes and neurological symptoms. And like COVID, some birds are asymptomatic, or show a completely different suite of symptoms. It has also affected robins, cardinals, and others. It seems to strike mostly young birds, often fledglings who have recently left the nest, and the disease progression is rapid, leading to death in just days.

Starting out around DC, the illness spread quickly across the Mid-Atlantic, north into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, south into Florida, and as far west as Ohio. Wildlife rehabilitation clinics sounded the alarm, hoping to get out in front of the disease and mitigate its effects, even without fully understanding why or how it was happening.

One thing we do know, even without a year and a half of COVID-19 keeping us on our toes, was that social distancing was key. However the disease was spread, keeping birds from congregating in close quarters would surely slow it down. But how do you tell a blue jay to stay clear of its neighbors? You don’t need to speak blue jay– you just need to acknowledge the role humans play in encouraging wildlife to congregate in large numbers. In nature, most animals don’t like to be too close to their neighbors, especially during the breeding season when territorial feelings are high.  

Wildlife clinics have dealt with outbreaks like this before, usually of known diseases like finch conjunctivitis, and the answer is always the same: take down those bird feeders!

While it may seem unkind to withhold food at a time of crisis, spring and summer are actually the best time to remove your feeders. Birds have plenty of natural, native food sources, and those with nestlings (even seed-eating birds) rely more heavily on wild insects than anything that can be placed in a feeder. In terms of disease prevention, bird feeders are contagion hotspots, as their hard non-porous surfaces allow pathogens to live longer and infect more birds. Competition around feeders also brings birds into much closer contact than they would naturally tolerate, creating yet another disease vector.  

Whatever was causing the illness, if it was contagious at all, it would spread much more rapidly around bird feeders, and so they had to go. Environmental centers like the Schuylkill Center led the charge in removing feeders, and encouraged members of the community to follow suit. We also suspended our birdseed sales just to be safe.  Even scatter-feeding birds can promote disease spread, as it still encourages close contact.  

Luckily, by stewarding native plants and diverse natural ecosystems, environmental centers like ours provide lots of foraging opportunities, ensuring the birds won’t go hungry.  

Where does that leave us as wildlife rehabilitators as we look towards the beginning of fall migration? Even though the disease seems to be waning in some areas, we still don’t know what caused it, nor what impact it might have in the fall. No definitive diagnosis has emerged, but researchers across the region are working on it, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures Program.  

Our Wildlife Clinic is prepared to handle whatever happens as the summer wears on. We hope that the mysterious illness will leave as suddenly as it appeared, but we may also see new outbreaks as birds begin to naturally congregate for fall migration. Migration is also very taxing on a bird’s body, leaving them more open to pathogens. On the plus side, as birds mature, so do their immune systems, giving them a better chance of fighting off illness.

In the meantime, it’s best to keep those feeders down, and keep an eye on our feathered neighbors. As with mask-wearing and social distancing, encouraging birds to keep their distance from one another can only help. Suspected cases can be reported to the UPenn Wildlife Futures Program, and birds who are sick but still living can be brought to your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center for care.

If you encounter a sick wild animal, whether or not it appears to have symptoms of a specific illness, it’s important to contact your local wildlife rehabilitator right away. We can provide guidance and information, and do everything we can to help animals brought in to us for care.  We also play an important role in disease outbreaks like this, keeping tabs on disease spread on a local level and collaborating with researchers working on diagnoses.

By Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation