Wild turkey with wings outstretched flying through the air

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

On Thursday, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food.  And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors. Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff. That’s not how turkeys appear in November. Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males. During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner. To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together. They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females. The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love. And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving; one Pilgrim diarist mentions a whole litany of foods (venison, geese, shellfish, and more, but no turkey). But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places. You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like here at the Schuylkill Center, where turkeys are sporadically spotted.

Oh, one more turkey story. While wild turkeys are surprisingly common across Pennsylvania these days, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, because of the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana. While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and the passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future. Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys. Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters. Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relict populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.  

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat. Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, then fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat. As their habitat returned, so did they. Today, state websites indicate that turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center in Roxborough sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back.  

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.  

Happy Thanksgiving.

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

Those Autumn Leaves – Leaf Them Alone!

Red and orange autumn leaves layered on the groundAutumn is many people’s favorite time of year, with leaves changing color and the weather becoming crisp, but not yet overly cold.  

Autumn also ushers in one of our least favorite chores: Raking leaves.  But before you start bagging all those leaves up for curbside pickup, two thoughts to consider.

First, those leaves are loaded with the exact perfect combination of nutrients your lawn needs to grow beautifully thick and green.  One of the ironies of the season is those of us with lawns feverishly remove every speck of leaf from the lawn—and then spend too much money on fertilizer, putting back on the lawn the exact stuff we just removed. Silly, huh?

Imagine using a mulching mower instead, and crunching all those leaves into small bits that simply vanish into the lawn, restoring the nutrients the plants need to thrive.  And removing those leaf bags from the trash—and out of the incinerator.

But those leaves do something else for us.  

As autumn slides into winter, insects—the small creatures that hold up the ecosystems that support us—begin dying off.  Each insect species survives the winter in one and only one stage of its life cycle. So tiger swallowtails survive in the chrysalis, ladybugs as larvae, praying mantises and mosquitoes as eggs (and the adult mosquitoes all die—yay!), and the mourning cloak butterfly, unusual for butterflies, surviving as the adult butterfly.  All other phases of the insect dies, so praying mantises and tiger swallowtails disappear, these other phases hibernating.

Right now, insects of all kinds are gearing up for winter, crawling into the nooks and crannies of their habitats for warmer places to sleep for the winter.  Ladybug larvae are in a state of suspended animation: alive, yes, but immobile and almost frozen.  Leaf litter, the decaying remnant of autumn leaves on the bottom of the forest floor, is a hiding place for thousands of hibernating insects.

In our yards, without natural habitat, the fallen leaves in the corners and edges of our properties are the perfect resting places for winter insects.  So removing every scrap of every leaf from every inch of the lawn not only removes the nutrients our trees and grass need to live, but removes the hibernating bodies of the many insects that form the bottoms of food chains. If we want birds with us next spring, we need insects to feed their babies. We need bugs. 

To keep insects around us, keep those leaves.

So as autumn winds and heavy rains knock the quickly-turning-color leaves off our trees, consider a small gift to your lawn and to the natural world. Mulch the leaves onto your lawn, and leave as many leaves as you can tolerate in the nooks and crevices of your property.  Do it for the bugs.  

That tiger swallowtail will thank you. So will I. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

 

Deadly Fungi

According to the Poison Control Center at CHOP, there have been 11 wild mushroom poisoning cases in the last month. While this may seem alarming, severe mushroom poisonings are rare. In our area, there are only a handful of species that will cause life threatening illness or death. These species include: Funeral Bells, Destroying Angels, and Gyromitra korfii. A few others are known to cause severe discomfort and GI distress including Jack-o-Lanterns and the Vomiter. 

Here are some FAQs about mushroom safety that everyone should know:

  • All mushrooms are safe to touch and must be ingested to cause illness of any kind (barring rare allergies.)
  • There are no hard and fast rules or tricks for safely consuming wild mushrooms. The only way to know if a mushroom is toxic is to be positive which species it is. This may mean becoming extremely familiar with edible species AND toxic species before consuming any. It may also mean consulting local experts.
  • Toxic mushrooms may take a week or more to show symptoms. 
  • Always photograph mushrooms (top and bottom) before consuming. Identification will aid in prompt and effective treatment if necessary. 
  • Like every lifeform on this planet, mushroom species are incredibly diverse throughout the world. An edible mushroom from one continent may look similar to a deadly mushroom in another part of the world. Unfortunately, most instances of mushroom poisonings occur in immigrant families that previously foraged for mushrooms in other countries.
  • Lastly, foraging is not permitted on public land within the city of Philadelphia. There are many reasons for this, but an important one to consider is the absorption of heavy metals from our soil, which may also cause illness. 

It is best to always use caution when eating any wild foods, but mushrooms are not something to be afraid of or demonize. They are crucial parts of our ecosystems and should be celebrated as such — at a safe distance. 

If you care to learn more about safe, ethical, legal, and sustainable mushroom foraging practices,  join the Philadelphia Mycology Club by signing up for their mailing list and join their facebook group or post to their iNaturalist project to see what types of fungal life are near you.

Photos by George Pushkal (@mycojawn) and Bethany Teigen (@jawnattenborough) of the Philadelphia Mycology Club (@phillymycoclub)

 

**All species pictured are considered toxic

Wildlife Clinic is temporarily closed

Unfortunately, our Wildlife Clinic is temporarily closed and not accepting new patients. 

If you have an animal that is contained, contact your local PA wildlife rehabilitation center. The Pennsylvania Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators also maintains a list of wildlife rehabilitators across the state.

Wilderz Wildlife in Willow Grove, the Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Bucks County, or Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Delaware. 

We apologize for the inconvenience.

What to do if

FAQs

The Now-Endangered Monarch Butterfly

Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant outside our front door

When one worries about nature, the world is so much like a Springsteen song, one step up and two steps back.

One step up: the Schuylkill Center’s staff have seen multiple monarch butterflies and their caterpillars in and around the center recently, many of them right outside the Visitor Center’s front door. This beats several recent years when there were few– if any– sightings of the Halloween-colored insect. For butterfly lovers like me, it’s been a great week for monarchs. In fact, only hours before I wrote this, I spotted a bedraggled adult monarch butterfly (her wings were really faded and beaten up) nectaring on Joe-pye-weed in our front garden while scoping out places to lay her eggs. 

And two steps back: just last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature formally added the famously migrating butterfly to its “red list” of threatened species and officially categorized it “endangered,” only two steps away from extinction. The group estimates that North American monarch populations have declined between 22% and 72% over 10 years, depending on the measurement method. 

“What we’re worried about is the rate of decline,” said Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University. “It’s very easy to imagine how very quickly this butterfly could become even more imperiled.” He estimates that monarch populations in the eastern US have declined between 85% and 95% since the 90s.

Scientists typically speak in more measured language about their concerns. Not anymore. “It’s just a devastating decline,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University. “This is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world.”

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, say, here in 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). It’s the longest insect migration known to humanity.

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 to lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. Then this fall, monarchs will fly more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been, joining millions of their friends who have the same GPS coordinates. “It’s a true spectacle and incites such awe,” said Anna Walker, a conservation biologist at New Mexico BioPark Society, who was involved in determining the new listing.

Photo credit: Beatrice Kelly

But here’s the scary thing. Last year, North America’s monarchs were overwintering on only 7 acres of Mexican fir trees. Seven. One ice storm, and our monarchs are… gone. Crazily, that number is UP from the previous year of even fewer acreage. 

Monarchs have been crashing for a number of reasons, one huge one being that herbicided corn and soy fields across the Midwest have become milkweed deserts, as modern agriculture has removed the host plant required for caterpillars. No milkweed, no caterpillars. To restore monarchs and other pollinators, the nonprofit Monarch Watch has initiated a nationwide landscape restoration program, “Bring Back the Monarchs,” that hopes to restore 20 milkweed species 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 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,” Chip Taylor, Monarch Watch’s founder and director, 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.”

Taylor wants 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.” 

For now, I’m appreciating the new attention given to this amazing butterfly by its listing, and reveling in the many monarchs we are seeing here at the Schuylkill Center these days. Come see them yourself.

Watch some of our recent conversations about monarchs

Mike Weilbacher, the Center’s executive director, has been writing and teaching about monarchs while planting milkweed for 30 years now.

Two Great Summer Flowers: Monarda and Milkweed

If you come to the front door of the Visitor Center this week, two extraordinary– and extraordinarily important– flowers are waiting to greet you, two flowers you should not only know, but plant in your own yards.

The bright blossoms of Monarda, commonly known as bee balm, greet you first, their scarlet red flowers simply impossible to miss. Can a flower ever get more red than this?! That color is a clear signal as to who pollinates it, as hummingbirds are highly attracted to red flowers. Also,  check out the long floral tubes, specifically evolved to allow a hummingbird to sip its nectar.

And growing in and alongside the Monarda is my own favorite summer flower, common milkweed, the tall, gangly member of the milkweed clan whose flowers are big pink globes highly reminiscent of a summer fireworks explosion. Last week as I wrote this, the flowers were thinking of opening; this week as you read it, they might be ready and popping. When you visit one, make sure to breathe deeply– this is one of the sweetest nectar-rich plants I’ve ever had the pleasure to poke my nose into.

Monarda, italicized here as this is its scientific name, goes by multiple common names, including wild bergamot, as its crushed leaves smell something akin to the bergamot citrus that flavors Earl Grey tea. But bee balm is another name commonly given to this plant, and my favorite, as the flower’s ecological importance is wrapped up in this name. Not only do hummingbirds crave this flower, but bees do too, especially bumblebees, those native insects and hugely important pollinators that are struggling in the modern world.

Bee balm also has a long history of use as medicinal plants by many Native Americans. The Blackfoot used its leaves in poultices for skin infections and minor wounds, and many First Americans and later colonial settlers used it to alleviate stomach and bronchial ailments. It was also useful in treating mouth and throat infections caused by gingivitis, as bee balm is a natural source of the antiseptic compound found even today in modern commercial mouthwashes. 

Oh, and your inner preschooler will LOVE to know that Native Americans also used the plant to prevent excessive flatulence. 

So if you plant bee balm in your yard, you’ll be visited by bumblebees and hummingbirds, two wonderful and wonderfully different natural neighborhoods– and you can alleviate your farting problem. Doesn’t get better than this!

Milkweed, as has been written about here many times before over the years, is the exclusive  host plant of the monarch caterpillar, mother monarchs laying their eggs only on the very few species of milkweeds that inhabit North America. In fact, just around June 1 I saw an adult monarch laying her eggs on milkweed planted in my own front yard. They’re back!

Monarchs are, of course, the large, orange-and-black butterflies that migrate to Mexico and back, an amazing story that is endangered by multiple issues, including habitat loss, climate change, and, most importantly, herbicides and genetically-resistant GMO crops. Corn and soy are sprayed across huge landscapes, and the crops are able to withstand the chemical assault. But plants like milkweed succumb, and much of the Midwestern corn belt has become a milkweed desert, leading to a 90% crash in monarch overwintering populations in Mexico.

Starting in the 90s, there was a resurgent interest in planting native plants in our yard, and a brilliant “Got Milkweed?” marketing campaign started. But more of us need to plant more of these flowers to buttress those plummeting populations and help save the species. 

And the nectar is impossibly attractive for a range of other insects, including all other butterfly species and native bees and pollinators. Plant milkweed and you’ll have a whole ecosystem of pollinating insects buzzing around your yard. 

One of the best flowers for your own yard is a cousin of the common milkweed. Nicknamed butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), it grows only a couple of feet tall, but has bright orange flowers that are butterfly magnets. I seriously love this flower– and you will too. And you might also discover that after a female monarch lays her eggs on it, the caterpillar(s) that result may chew all your flower’s leaves; for me, that’s a small price to pay for supporting monarch populations.

So come to the Schuylkill Center soon to go for an early summer nature walk, and introduce yourself to the two flowers growing side-by-side at our front door: Monarda and milkweed, two of the best flowers for increasing the ecological importance of our yards.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

An update on the Center’s Boy Scout Tract (8/30/22)

An aerial photo of the Boy Scout Tract, showing the Higher Ground church on Eva Street on the right and a 19th-century home on the left. Green Tree Run flows across the bottom of the photo.

August 30, 2022

We announced two months ago that we were exploring the potential sale of 24 acres of land to fund a number of transformational, once-in-a-generation initiatives among them: investing in our staff who bring the Center and the land to life, education programs, and aging infrastructure including our wildlife clinic, the only rehabilitation facility in the City. Unfortunately, this announcement has upset many of our neighbors and civic partners. I’m hoping that a more thorough explanation may address their concerns. 

Most importantly, we have made no decision to sell; our Board of Trustees is simply exploring all of its options, and has released a Request for Proposals (RFP) packed with conservation requirements. The deadline to receive a proposal is late September, and any decision, even to sell the land at all, is many months away, and if the board does not receive a satisfactory proposal, we will not sell. 

As part of this process, we are simultaneously exploring the interest of potential donors, grantors, and community leaders to preserve the entire tract. Though the work is still unfolding and the outcome is uncertain, we hope to have an update in the near future to share with our members and the community. This possibility is our organization’s priority at the moment, without question, and if this succeeds, we sidestep the proposal process completely. 

Lost in the discussion is the fact that the Schuylkill Center has already permanently protected 420 acres of open space in Roxborough, more than any other entity. Our 340-acre campus in Upper Roxborough, comprising forests, fields, streams, and ponds, is under a permanent protective covenant, the largest privately protected open space in the City of Philadelphia. Back in the 1980s, we sold an additional 80+ acres to the city to be merged into Fairmount Park, also permanently protected. And if we sell the Boy Scout Tract, at least 12 of its 24 acres (and maybe more) will be protected too, resulting in 432 acres of protected land. 

Turning to the RFP, we built numerous conservation safeguards into the document, like a conservation easement permanently protecting the steep slopes and floodplain. The easement is a legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values; this will likely be a unique easement in that it requires a wooded corridor for the safe passage of  migrating toads. We also ask that the floodplain, stormwater, and steep slopes measures exceed the city’s requirements, and that any development fit into the character of the neighborhood.

All of our trustees share a commitment for our twin mission of environmental stewardship and education. If we sell, we are seeking to leverage this possibility into an investment in our organization and its staff, in alignment with our strategic and master planning. 

We continue to welcome your thoughts and engage in open dialogue. Please send your comments to us at boyscouttract@schuylkillcenter.org. The Center’s staff is collecting all input and sharing this information with the Center’s leadership and Board.

 

June 13, 2022

At a joint meeting last week of two civic associations, the Upper Roxborough Civic Association and the Residents of the Shawmont Valley, the group discussed the Boy Scout Tract, a 24-acre parcel of land at the corner of Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street. The Tract has been owned by the Center for more than 40 years, and while the tract was on the meeting’s agenda, the Center was not present, but instead will present to a second joint meeting of the two civics later in the month.

As the director of the Schuylkill Center, allow me to explain the unfolding situation.

Founded in 1965, the Center, with headquarters nearby off Hagy’s Mill Road, runs educational programming on a 340-acre forested campus across Port Royal Avenue from the Boy Scout Tract. We also operate the Wildlife Clinic, the City’s only wildlife rehabilitation center, located down Port Royal Avenue from the Tract. Our main campus is protected by a perpetual 2010 conservation easement held by Natural Lands, the largest such easement held by the organization within city limits.

While the 340 acres was donated to us by two families committed to environmental education, the Boy Scout Tract was given to us by one of those families to use as we needed, and was deliberately omitted from the conservation easement. Given its distance from the Visitor Center, we have been unable to find any programmatic use for the site in all these decades, and have almost no capacity to manage or maintain the site.

However, wanting of course to find a conservation outcome, we worked with Natural Lands in 2014 and again in ’15 to apply for state funding to permanently protect this site too– but were declined both times. The state told Natural Lands then that because our 340 acres of open space exists nearby, it was not a cost-effective use of their funds to preserve this parcel too. Sadly, we were forced to move on from this possibility. 

Then, more than a year ago, we were approached by an individual to purchase the property for building 1-2 private homes. Knowing the sensitivity of any proposal for this parcel at this moment in Roxborough history, when the community is deeply worried about open space protection, we formed a task force of our nonprofit’s trustees, who have been carefully and cautiously moving forward.

Realizing the organization could not accept the first and only proposal for this important property, we began crafting a Request for Proposals, again engaging Natural Lands, the region’s most important natural areas organization, to help us assess the parcel. As many Shawmont Valley residents know, the Boy Scout Tract includes the headwaters of the Green Tree Run, one of the city’s few unimpeded streams, which arises on the tract, flows downhill past the backyards of Shawmont Avenue residents, and pours into the Schuylkill River below. The forested site is also steep, Green Tree Run carving out a surprisingly deep valley for such a small stream. 

The RFP has not yet been released, an action the Center plans to take after these public meetings. 

Please know the Center is seeking proposals for limited development that can be done without variances or special exceptions. We also seek to protect the site’s steep slopes and Green Tree Run through a perpetual conservation easement– future owners cannot apply for a variance to develop that portion of the site. Furthermore, any proposal must address the neighborhood’s long-standing request for precluding sewer and water from coming down Port Royal Avenue. The proposal will also address neighborhood stormwater concerns, as there are currently no stormwater controls on streets in the area. And the toads that famously march across Eva Street to the Reservoir every spring will be protected by a permanent forested corridor between the site and the reservoir, written into the easement. Finally, the proposal will address how it protects the character of the neighborhood, located as it is in a National Register historic district.

“This is an exploratory process,” notes Christopher McGill, president of the nonprofit’s board, a businessman who was raised in Roxborough and has deep roots in the community. “No decisions have been made, and the RFP has not been released. Given our mission of protecting and interpreting the natural environment, the Center is committed to a conservation-minded outcome for any proposal we accept.” And any decision the Center makes must be approved by a supermajority of the center’s 23 trustees, most of whom either live in or near Roxborough or work in the environmental arena, and all of whom are committed to the Center’s mission. 

If you have any questions or concerns, email us at boyscouttract@schuylkillcenter.org. And we’ll return to this important topic as the story develops. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Toadlet Time!

San Juan Capistrano might have its famous return of migrating swallows and turkey vultures might return to roost every Ides of March in Hinckley, Ohio, but neither town has anything over Roxborough.

For Roxborough has the annual return of American toads. And the toad’s life cycle hit a big milestone last week.

Each spring, thousands of hibernating toads awaken from their hibernating places deep under the Center’s forest leaf litter. When they do, they want to move to water, as their instinctual pull is to mate right away, and toads, residents of the forest during summer and fall, lay eggs only in water. Toads awakening in our upper forests must smell the water in the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, and start moving in that direction. And because they need to keep their dry skins moist to better breathe, they tend to move on the first warm rainy nights of the new spring.

And they trek across Port Royal Avenue to the reservoir– oftentimes just when the evening commute starts. As toads did not evolve with an understanding of cars, when toad meets car, the toad tends to lose. Sadly, the road at this time of year is littered with squashed toads. 

That’s where our Toad Detour comes in. For almost 15 years now, Toad Detour volunteers have gathered at the corner of Port Royal and Hagy’s Mill in the evening to usher toads across the road, and on nights when the toads are running, our volunteers have permits to close Port Royal between Hagy’s Mill and Eva, and Eva between Port Royal and Summit. You might have seen our volunteers out there on those nights, wearing luminescent vests and carrying flashlights and plastic cups. 

That migration into the reservoir is done and over, the adults singing, mating, laying eggs, and quietly hopping back to the our forest. But the toad story isn’t over.

It takes anywhere from six to eight weeks for newly hatched toad tadpoles– they look like wriggling commas in the water– to develop into “toadlets,” fully formed toads smaller than the size of a dime. Not yet sexually mature, these leave the reservoir and to go BACK to our forest. So a second migration occurs with these toadlets crossing back over Port Royal to get to the forest, where they take up residence eating small insects and worms.  

One time when returning to the Center after a lunch break, it looked like a swarm of crickets was crossing the road, small black objects bouncing across the hot street in daylight; turned out it was thousands of toadlets hopping back across Port Royal during the height of day. Sometimes they don’t even wait for cover of darkness.

But just last week, I had the pleasure of hiking the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve’s wonderful loop trail with Rich Giordano, one of the leaders of the reservoir’s Friends group (and a Toad Detour volunteer)– and John Carpenter, Roxborough resident and Center trustee. And for a good portion of the walk, we were hopscotching over and around these small jumping toadlets, praying we didn’t accidentally squash one, stopping to marvel at these pint-sized toad mini-me’s. 

It’s toadlet time.

In fact, Rich posted on the Toad Detour Facebook page that the toadlets were running, and it would not surprise me if volunteers were back at the barricades last week trying to protect these toadlets from the wheels of passing cars. When you read this, do feel free to enjoy a reservoir walk and see if you can spot these remarkable little creatures yourself.

We thank the many volunteers who have helped toads cross the road over the years, the patience of our neighbors inconvenienced by the road closings, and we welcome your participation in a unique Roxborough phenomenon.

The bulls run in Pamplona, Spring. Here in Roxborough, come see the running of the toads. Or this week, the toadlets. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Spring Processional: Adventures in the Outdoors

Naturalist and author Craig Newberger with a hitchhiking praying mantis.

It’s the first day of June, with the spring season in full flower– pun totally intended. Want to know what you might do to more fully experience nature now? Simple. Grab a copy of “Spring Processional,” a hot-off-the-press book by local naturalist Craig Newberger, where you’d learn now is the time to see horseshoe crabs mating on the Delaware Bay and the first meadow wildflowers blooming.

He’s recently retired as the Lower School science coordinator for the Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, a position he held for more than 30 years. A Cheltenham native and longtime Lansdale resident, Craig has just added book author to his lengthy resume, as “Spring Processional: Encounters with a Waking World” is the first of four books on the nature of the seasons published by Grackle Publishing in Ambler. 

Comprised of 20 personal essays, each focusing on a small slice of the season, the book fittingly begins with the emergence of skunk cabbage– the first wildflower of spring — and continues through spring’s elegant march: frogs singing for mates, the woodcock’s extraordinary mating flight, those delightfully ephemeral forest wildflowers, and so much more. And many of the essays are surprises; dandelions, snapping turtles, opossums, even skunks are not obvious subjects for a springtime essay. But there’s a method to Craig’s madness.

“All of the chapters come from a personal experience,” he told me via phone last week, “from over 40 years of exploring nature outside and a desire to share my stories. Many people have said, ‘you know so much, you should share it all!’” So he did. 

And many of the stories involve his students, as they were fortunate enough to have a science teacher who took them outdoors, into nature, to see things like Jack-in-the-pulpit themselves. About that flower, he writes, “Everyone stops, squats, and jostles to get a closer look. Immediately the questions fly as we engage in a wide-ranging conversation about one of the most captivating wildflowers of spring.” Nowadays, this is almost a radical idea, of teaching science outside? Sadly, too few science teachers do. Craig’s GA kids were lucky. 

The book’s last essay on the spadefoot toad is “a great example of how surprising and unpredictable nature can be,” he told me. Early in his career when he was living on Cape Cod, he ventured outside around midnight in a torrential downpour to discover a “congress,” the official word, of eastern spadefoot toads, a threatened species that spends much of its life underground, amazingly. In his words, “It is the siren call of a dark and stormy night that brings them to the surface to breed. They appear for a matter of hours and then disappear for days, weeks, or perhaps years.” Two days later, the area was teeming with toad tadpoles that would become tiny toadlets in only two weeks, only to leave the water and disappear underground again.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, Emergence, pictures a world reawakening from its winter slumber with the very first signs of the new spring season. The second, Renewal, follows a series of events guaranteed to happen every year: the emergence of spring wildflowers, for example, coinciding with the return of migrating warblers.

The last of three sections, Resilience, includes essays on creatures that have survived eons, like the opossum, horseshoe crab, and “resolute” snapping turtle, all of whom survived the meteorite that smashed into planet 66 million years ago and caused the extinction of two-thirds of the earth’s living things. But it also includes the tenacious dandelion, able to grow where seemingly few other plants can. “Throughout the ages,” he writes, “dandelions have appeared in folklore. They are considered omens of good luck, and even symbols of fertility.” 

Each of the essays include wonderful snippets of information even old-school naturalists like me find new and refreshing. “I think it’s remarkable,” he told me, “that the temperature inside the skunk cabbage’s hood can be 50 degrees warmer than the air outside.” Each chapter contains a similar surprise: newborn opossum babies are the size of bumblebees; a water strider’s speed is comparable to me swimming 400 miles per hour (!); a horseshoe crab, “like no other creature, has mouthparts attached to its legs, so that it can only eat by walking.”

Craig’s lively text is enhanced by Sherrie York’s color illustrations and Steve Morello’s photography, and Haddonfield science teacher Ron Smith added an appendix on citizen science, which Craig felt was an important addition. “After you read these essays, you might want to help preserve these creatures. Citizen science is one way to do this.”

One small personal note: back in the 1980s, when I worked at the Schuylkill Center for only a year, Trudy Phillips was my colleague in the education department here, and a joy to teach alongside. She was dating Craig during our time together, and they later married. So I’ve known Trudy and Craig for almost 40 years now, and it is a pleasure and delight to read Craig’s book and report on it to you. 

“I hope to encourage people to go outside and have their own encounters,” he told me. Get your copy now while we’re still in the midst of spring’s processional and begin your adventures. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wood Thrush: The Pavarotti of our Forests

When I got out of my car at the Center last Thursday morning, I was immediately greeted by one of the happiest sounds of the forest: the melodic church-organ voice of the wood thrush. A very close cousin of the uber-common robin, the wood thrush is one of the most important birds you should introduce yourself to as quickly as possible.

And a simple walk on our trails or along the Wissahickon should help you accomplish that.

A migrant, the wood thrush has only recently returned from its winter haunts in Central and South America. So its call is one of the keystones in my springtime arch– as is the first skunk cabbage, the first butterfly, the first warbler, the first turtle along our pond’s ledge. While last week’s call was not the first of the year– that came in April– it was a happy reminder that some parts of the world still work.  

The call is throaty and lush, a “haunting ee-oh-lay,” says on one website, with a bit of vibrato. It’s widely considered the preeminent songster of a Pennsylvania forest, our Adele, our Pavarotti. No less an observer than transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau agreed. “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest,” he wrote. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. It is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

Doesn’t that alone make you want to go hear one? “Ethereal” is one descriptor you’ll encounter when reading about thrush song, as it uncannily can whistle two notes simultaneously, harmonizing with itself to produce the ringing that is so entrancing. It sings at both sunrise and sunset, making it one of the very first– and very last– birds you will hear that day.

It’s male that sings, often on an exposed perch in a tree, and the song carries surprisingly far in a dense forest. Like most birdsong, this accomplishes two tasks simultaneously. For one, it signals to other males to stay away, the male wielding his song to establish a territory of a few acres– so the male singing above me likely has his eyes set on a nest site not far from our Visitor Center.

But it also tells female thrushes he is in vibrant health and has a great nest site picked out. Within days of his territorial announcement, a female initiates their pairing, enticing him to chase her in silent circular flights only a few feet above the ground. 

The bird itself is strikingly handsome. About the same size as its robin cousin, it sports a reddish-brown coat on its back, but wears a bright-white vest speckled with large black dots– the contrasts are beautiful. Many websites describe it as being “potbellied,” which is cute, and this feature helps distinguish it from its close relatives veery and hermit thrush, none of whom have dots (or songs) quite as striking as the wood thrush.

Wood thrushes are omnivores, feeding mostly on leaf-litter invertebrates and fruits from shrubs. Their summer diet includes adult beetles and flies, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, ants, and more, and snails and salamanders are occasional prey as well. These are also the foods parent thrushes stuff into the gaping maws of their nestlings.

By the late summer and early fall, however, the thrush shifts its diet to fruits– something robin do too. They especially crave fatty fruits that help them bulk up (and get even more potbellied) for their exhausting southern migration. So in this season, they are seeking out the fruits of woodland shrubs, vines, and wildflowers like spicebush, fox grape, blueberry, holly, elderberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, Virginia creeper, pokeweed, dogwood, black cherry, and black gum. Poison ivy, bless its heart, produces splendid fall fruits that are avian magnets.

Happily, our forest is loaded with these fruits, so wood thrushes are common here. 

A creature of the interior forest and an important indicator of forest health, the thrush has become a symbol of the vanishing American songbird; one study estimated that its population has declined 62% since 1966 in eastern North America. Forest fragmentation is often cited as a chief reason for its decline, as it requires more than small suburban woodlots, and fragmented forests offer fewer places to escape predators. The brown-headed cowbird, a social parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, will stay out of deep forest interiors, but can easily find thrushes in smaller forests– and lay its eggs in the nest, its larger nestling outcompeting smaller baby thrushes for parental attention.

It’s also a victim of being migratory. While North American forests are fragmenting, Central and South American forests– its winter home– are disappearing, so, like many birds, the wood thrush is being hit at both ends of its migration.

But the first time I hear one at the Center in the spring, I stop and savor the sound: the gates of heaven have just opened. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director