Rehabilitating the American woodcock

Spring has sprung! Despite the fluctuating temperatures, wildlife have begun preparing for the warmer months ahead.

The earliest sign of spring at the Wildlife Clinic is the migration of the American woodcock. These birds are typically the first to arrive in

American Woodcock

the spring and the last to leave in the winter. Woodcocks are known for their unique looks and fascinating courtship displays.

This woodcock was admitted to the clinic after flying into a window while migrating over Philadelphia. After his examination, our rehabilitators decided to perform an X-ray to determine the extent of his injury.

Accommodating its long beak

Radiograph of anesthetized woodcock

furcula (wishbone) fracture.

Our rehabilitators had to get creative to accommodate the woodcock’s long beak and allow for proper sedation. They created a special oxygen mask that fit him perfectly, and the X-rays confirmed their suspicions of a furcula (wishbone) fracture. The woodcock has been making great strides in the healing process since then.

Our Broken Spring

Later today at 5:24 pm, a vertical shaft of sunlight grazes the equator: it’s the first moment of spring. Greetings of the season, usually worth celebrating. Not this year.

For our weirdly snowless winter has already yielded an eerily early spring. While perhaps you’ve already noticed too-early crocuses, daffodils, and even dandelions, our forests have fast-forwarded into spring.

At the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, painted turtles started sunbathing on pond edges in February. At the Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington, red-backed salamanders were spotted out of their burrows at the end of February. Skunk cabbage popped up in late December, two months ahead of schedule, at the Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, and garter snakes were seen basking in January. January!

Spring was once an elegantly choreographed parade of extraordinary events that evolved over millennia. Birds migrate north to take up their nesting sites just as trees leaf out and insects awaken from hibernation. Frogs and toads hustle to ponds and wetlands for their mating rituals, spring peepers early, bullfrogs much later. Among birds, Eastern phoebes swoop in early, their flicking tails a welcome sight; blackpoll warblers with their squeaky-wheel song pass through much, much later.

But climate change has upended this parade; the orchestration is completely out of whack. Spring may have been broken by climate change. 

The conventional wisdom among climate scientists is that, with our supercharged climate, spring has been moving up about 2.5 days every decade. The government’s National Phenology Network reports that Philly’s spring is 20 days early this year, which is troublesome by itself but reads to me frankly like a conservative estimate. Still, this is one of the earliest springs on record.  

Yes, there were always years with randomly warm Februarys and freakish April snowstorms, but nature always had the capacity to withstand these occasional anomalies. With snowless winters and too-early springs, the parade’s choreography dissolves with many still-unknown impacts on the species that share Pennsylvania forests with us.

Plants, for example, may open before their pollinators awaken or arrive, and unpollinated flowers won’t produce the seeds that they – and many seed-eating animals – require. When migrating birds arrive to begin nesting, they desperately need to find huge numbers of insects to stuff into the gaping maws of their nestlings; if they cannot find the insects, or if caterpillars have finished their larval growth and are already butterflies and moths, the parent birds will struggle to raise their young. At the Schuylkill Center, mangy foxes have been seen this year, the mange caused by mites that are typically killed by winter’s cold. Not this year, and foxes are struggling.

On the Delaware Bay, for millions of years horseshoe crabs have hauled themselves onto beaches around Mother’s Day to lay billions of green BB-sized eggs in the surf. At the exact same moment, a rusty-bellied shorebird called the red knot arrives exhausted, in the middle of one of the longest migrations of all, from the tip of South America up to the Arctic Circle. Famished, these fat-rich eggs give the birds the EXACT energy boost they need to finish their journey north – and they gobble them fiercely, as do so many other shorebirds. If this elegant partnership gets out of whack, the already-scarce knots will simply not survive the epic trip, and we will lose a remarkable species. 

Sixty years ago, acclaimed writer Rachel Carson worried about a “silent spring,” as her groundbreaking book of that title warned about the dangers of DDT. Happily, our springs aren’t silent.

But they are shaken – and breaking – from climate change. 

Writer-naturalist Mike Weilbacher has just published “Wild Philly: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Philadelphia,” and directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. 

Traveling Through: Varvàra Fern for “Walking the Edge”

Varvàra Fern is an artist on a journey. Her highly detailed bronze and resin-cast sculptures, which are featured in our current community exhibition, Walking the Edge, tell the stories of people taking their first steps along the path from unhappiness towards happiness, from imbalance towards inner peace. 

Varvàra was born and grew up in Russia, and before moving to the U.S., she studied at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. There, she learned composition and figurative sculpture, both of which she continues to utilize in her work today. It wasn’t until she visited the U.S., however, that she stumbled upon what would become her artistic inspiration for the next several years. When she was 13, Varvàra and her family drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico to New York City. On this trip, she traveled down highways, past bridges, and through deserts and wooded landscapes. She became, in her own words, “hypnotized” by these landscapes and by what marked the borders between them: signposts, lampposts, and telephone poles, for example. To Varvàra, these markers felt sculptural: she started to notice their structures, materials, and rustic color schemes.

A few years later and back in Russia, Varvàra came across the work of Mike Brodie, a photographer whose series “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” and “Tones of Dirt and Bone” include poetic images of his travels. Varvàra describes feeling that these images were often emotional, encapsulating a sense of despair. She also watched YouTube videos of travel and train hopping across the United States. 

Soon, Varvàra began translating her newfound interest in journeys and borders into complex sculptures. Her “Travel Series,” which she began at Surikov Art Institute in Moscow and continues today at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, involves a complex, multi-step process from inspiration to realization. 

First, Varvàra forms an image in her head. While listening to music (typically acoustic music, like that of artist Gustavo Santolalla), she sculpts a small clay “sketch” to determine how she can translate her mental image into a physical object. When she’s happy with a sketch, she casts her work into resin or plaster. Next, she rebuilds and refines her sketch to create a detailed clay sculpture, then eventually, she casts her final piece. While Varvàra wanted to cast most “Travel Series” sculptures in bronze, she had to adapt quickly when bronze casting became less accessible during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; she also found that bronze sculptures travel poorly. To be able to keep working, Varvàra developed a technique of painting resin to look like bronze. Today, her bronze and resin pieces are virtually indistinguishable.

In addition to her “Travel Series,” Varvàra has another body of work formed around a very different subject: bulldogs. When asked about her inspiration, Varvàra remarked, “If people ask if I’m a cat or a dog person, I say I’m a bulldog person.” Varvàra grew up with two bulldogs, and reflects that to her, bulldogs seem very “human” as a result of their emotionally expressive faces. She also likes how they scratch themselves on the floor (“as if they’re dancing”) and how, no matter where they are, they will fall immediately asleep. 

As Varvàra continues along her own journey as a sculptor during and after her time at PAFA, she plans to continue playing with size, scale, material, and form. She wants to try out welding, to make a large-scale sculpture for “Travel Series”, and to explore new themes and topics, including her recent interest in representations of fairy tales. 

Whatever her subject matter, it’s clear that Varvàra will continue creating sculptures that are thoughtful, clever, and reflective of the journeys we all take throughout our lives from place to place and experience to experience, as well as how we learn, grow, and change as we travel both in space and in spirit. 

By Micah Lockman-Fine, Exhibitions Coordinator.

Artwork by Varvàra Fern.

Are There Really Dead Birds in that Fridge?

If you’ve recently been to the Schuylkill Center, you may have noticed our gallery space is a bit more full than normal. In our current exhibition Walking the Edge, you’ll find hundreds of artworks, ranging from resin sculpture and vibrant photographs to large, earth-toned textiles. And since its debut, the most frequent question I hear is, “Are there really dead birds in that fridge?” This seems to be the response artist Matt Witmer hopes to elicit in viewers as he coyly refuses to reveal the truth. 

Taken in the Walking the Edge exhibition, shows the dead bird fridge (small rectangular black fridge) with the frame with looping images sitting on top of it and a painting behind it

Dead Bird Fridge first came to be during Witmer’s time as a graduate student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 2021. Part of a larger thesis show, the artwork consists of a small refrigerator litteredwith bird feces, secured with FrogTape and padlocks, and featuring a multimedia picture frame looping images of birds killed from window strikes at Tyler, most commonly yellowthroats, ruby-crowned kinglets, and ovenbirds. As a graduate of Tyler myself, I am all too familiar with the jarring experience of hearing birds smack into the gargantuan windows, only to fall to their death moments later. These huge glass windows have become a popular aesthetic choice in modern architecture and are often spoken of as a gateway to the exterior world. Witmer sees bird strikes as an immediate challenge to a modernist way of thinking that fails to recognize our own embeddedness in the natural world. Small, rectangular black dead bird fridge with the frame with looping images on top of itWitmer says this artwork “documents the physical death toll of the imagined border between nature and civilization.” He often begins a project finding an infrastructure problem and “blowing it up” to discover what moral stance is implanted in the issue. In this case, glass architectural elements allow the viewer to look outside and feel connected to the natural world, but at the same time they isolate us from nature, and unfortunately, migratory birds are the indirect target of the violence perpetrated by these barriers. In fact, corporations and companies cannot be held accountable for causing avian deaths, but it is illegal for an individual to possess a migratory bird corpse because one can’t prove that they didn’t kill it. Witmer’s mysterious fridge toys with this indeterminate territory. 

We can imagine the creation of Dead Bird Fridge as a show, envisioning Witmer painstakingly searching out, collecting, and archiving these dead birds over many months. In fact, his graduate work culminated in a dystopian performance piece captured in video entitled The Last Bird, in which Witmer scaled the side of Tyler School of Art in an attempt to stop a fictional last bird left on earth from hitting the discreet windows. Viewers can’t help but find humor in the piece, especially in the reactions of clueless passing police. These artworks exist in gray areas, and just as we question if there are indeed birds in the padlocked fridge, we are left to contemplate the overall fate of these birds. In his research, Witmer made a connection to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a law that essentially made it illegal to possess corpses of migratory birds at a time when many birds were at risk of extinction. As a result, bird enthusiasts end up finding research institutions to take the birds, so Witmer started a relationship with The Academy of Natural Sciences as part of their collection project. The ambiguity of this knowledge is integral to the functioning of the piece, as viewers confront the possibility of corpses in a locked container. The artist Matt Witmer attached by a harness to the side of a building covered with large glass windows

Witmer’s tone is quite cheeky in a world where environmental artistic practice tends to skew impossibly hopeful or completely doom and gloom – just check out his artist statement and you will understand. Witmer was raised by environmentalist parents and spent much of his childhood outside birding and hiking. In 2016, he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, an experience that he admits changed both him and his art. Art and trash he found along the trail became integral to his practice as he shifted back to the real world after months on the trail. Due to this experience, Witmer admits he is frustrated with our approaches to the current environmental situation and notes that while hope is important, it is equally essential to avoid the spiral that happens when contemplating our Earth’s fate, and that’s where dark humor comes into play. He admits to sometimes putting on a metaphorical jester hat to “speak truth to power in the guise of a ridiculous buffoon.” 

Moving forward, Witmer anticipates continuing his fascination and exploration of our waterways, and the Schuylkill River in general. Water, while a fundamental element of ecology, is something he sees as a force society is constantly trying to control rather than work with. Ultimately, the idea that nature exists in opposition to civilization is a construct, so the least we can do is laugh about it all – case in point – staging a perpetual video memorial, complete with a closed casket, for dead birds lost to forces that are invisible (at least to them).

By Kristina Murray, Director of Environmental Art.

Please visit the exhibition Walking the Edge, on view now through April 1, 2023. 



Installation view, “Dead Bird Fridge,” Schuylkill Center, 2023. Photographer: Ricky Yanas.

Matt Witmer, “Dead Bird Fridge,” 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Still from “The Last Bird,” Tyler School of Art, October 27, 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Meet Patient 23-12: The Rare and Beautiful Long-Tailed Duck

Meet patient 23-12, the long-tailed duck, a beautiful species of sea duck known for their unique vocalizations and coloration. The first one to ever be admitted to our Wildlife Clinic, this handsome adult male was unable to fly and bleeding from his chest, warranting immediate help from our rehabilitators.

Our intake examination revealed a wound below the neck that was scabbed over and already beginning the healing process. We also noticed a bit of cloudiness in his left eye, determined to be light trauma. After performing some x-rays, we were able to rule out any fractures or other internal injury. Based on the location of the injuries, we believe that the poor duck either collided with a telephone wire or a window while flying above the city.

Long-tailed ducks are excellent swimmers and divers and have been recorded at depths of over 150 feet in the ocean. They are typically found in the waters of the Arctic and spend the winter on the open ocean, hunting for small crustaceans and fish, though they also eat aquatic plants. They are a rare sight to see in Pennsylvania, so the question is… what is one doing in Philadelphia?

There have been a few recent sightings of a flock of long-tailed ducks in South Philly who have likely traveled inland for more feeding opportunities. It is not uncommon to see these ducks along the New Jersey coastline, so it’s possible they flew over from there. 

Because this species is so uncommon in Philly, a lot of research went into creating proper meals and an ideal enclosure to fit his needs. We relied on our colleagues at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Delaware, who have experience with this species. They guided us through everything this special duck would need and we are so grateful for their help!

We gave the long-tailed duck pain medication and a topical steroid for his eye, and we made sure he got plenty of swimming time every day so that he could exercise and bathe—long-tailed ducks spend most of their time in water, so that is where he is happiest.

He eventually recovered well and we were able to successfully release him back into the wild. Before returning to the wild, each animal must pass a pre-release assessment. We want to ensure that each patient returns home with the highest likelihood of success. In the case of the long-tailed duck, we made sure his injuries were healed and that he was able to fly, swim, and dive for food.

Long-tailed ducks migrate in a pattern opposite from what we usually see: they travel north in the winter and south in the summer. We had to release him somewhere that has been confirmed to be on their migration route. Using the National Audubon Society app, we researched recent sightings of long-tailed ducks near where he was rescued and selected the perfect location for this handsome duck to be released. Once he gains his bearings, he will begin his migration journey again and hopefully catch up with his flock.

Bald eagle soaring majestically through the winter forest

Fly, Eagles, Fly: A Dive into Real Eagles

With our Philadelpghia Iggles heading to their second Super Bowl in five years and the first under Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts, the town is bleeding Eagles green. And if they beat Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs in Arizona on Super Sunday, this town will lose its collective mind, and we’ll all be singing that fight song long into the night. 

With everyone into all things Eagles right now, as you plan your party and decide which cheesesteak purveyor to use (Dalessandro’s, c’mon!), this is a great time to do a deep dive into the bird that inspired our team, Swoop’s living model, the bald eagle. For the real bird is as magnificent as the football version. 

First, that famous bald head. The eagle’s all-white head, dramatically contrasting with an all-black body, is a striking feature that allows the bird to be easily identified—no other bird that large has a body that black with a head that white. But eagles have to earn their white feathers—it doesn’t come until sexual maturity after the fourth or fifth year.  Younger eagles are as large as their parents, but sport brown mottled heads, and are often mistaken for other kinds of hawks.

So the football Eagles got their helmets wrong: the wings should be black, not white. It’s the head that’s white, not the wings, but we can forgive the football team for that transgression.

Eagles live close to bodies of water, as their primary source of food is fish. They fly over a body of water and snag fish with their super-sharp talons, eating it on the shore or up in a tree. They can carry surprisingly heavy loads, including fish at least equal to their own weight. A bald eagle was once spotted flying with a 15-pound fawn, the record for the heaviest verified load ever carried by a bird in flight. Fly, eagle, fly.

But they’re opportunistic feeders as well, feeding on a wide variety of food including carrion, a.k.a. dead things. They’re also kleptoparasites—they steal food from other animals. They’ve been spotted stealing fish from osprey, another kind of fishing hawk, not to mention ducks from peregrine falcons and prairie dogs from hawks living out West.

So far this year, our Eagles have fed on Lions, Bears, Jaguars, and Cardinals. Here’s hoping the feasting continues one more time. 

It’s the kleptoparasite part that famously troubled Ben Franklin with our national symbol. “For my own part,” Ben wrote to his daughter in 1784, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk (my note: osprey); and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

That’s one thing we can easily say about Nick Sirianni’s Birds: “bad character” is not their issue. In fact, players like Hurts and Jason Kelce completely personify great players with great character. Not a kleptoparasite in the bunch!

Ben thought the first drawing of the US seal made the eagle look like a turkey, and instead of him lobbying for the turkey as a symbol, as is commonly misunderstood, he just thought it was a better, more noble, bird. But thank God our team is not the Philadelphia Turkeys, though headline writers would have loved that one. Especially after a loss: “Turkeys Lay an Egg,” for example.

Eagles are the world’s largest nest builders. They mate for life, and each year return to the same stick nest built at the top of a mature tree, adding more sticks each year. Their nests, called aeries, can ultimately weigh as much as a whole ton, and measure like eight feet across and four feet deep. Locally, there are many eagle nests, one notably at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, appropriately just a few miles from Lincoln Financial Field. Memo to Jeffrey Lurie: our Linc is not yet the world’s largest stadium. Just saying. 

The living bird is a conservation success story, as their population was decimated by the eggshell-thinning pesticide DDT. By the 1960s, when that pesticide was thankfully banned, only 500 pairs nested in the lower 48 and bald eagles were placed on the endangered species list. Today, there are almost 72,000 nesting pairs, a huge jump, so seeing them fly over the Schuylkill, the Delaware, at Hawk Mountain or Cape May Point is not the rarity it once was, and they were removed from the endangered species list a while back. They’ve been seen in the Wissahickon, and flying over my Schuylkill Center. Several times. 

Happily for environmentally minded people like me, the Philadelphia Eagles are a conservation success story as well, as owner Jeffrey Lurie has been remarkably committed to the greening, aptly enough, of the organization. In fact, the Eagles are considered the greenest team in the NFL, and some say in all of professional sports. The stadium is fully wind- and solar-powered; they’ve planted hundreds of trees in the last decade as carbon offsets from team travel; they recycle 99.9% of the waste generated on site; have committed to composting their food waste; and more. 

With the NFL’s best record, a coach who many say was robbed of Coach of the Year honor, with a QB who should be the MVP, with a high-flying passing game, a triple threat running game and a dominating defense, let’s hope the game ends with green and white confetti raining down on our Eagles in Glendale.

And in the meantime, let’s also toast the eagles, a remarkable animal that happily still soars over the skies of Philadelphia. 

Mike Weilbacher is the Executive Director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough and can be reached at

Finding joy in the outdoors

As we celebrated the Winter Solstice and the return of the sun, we found that it never really left us at Nature Preschool. Each day, our children show up with smiles on their faces, ready to explore and discover what the day might have in store. As the weather turns colder, we pull on our mittens and boots and head out to see how the world is changing around us with the coming of winter.

Our 3-5 year old Nature Preschoolers–and their teachers–are a hardy bunch. They find joy in each day, whether that day includes sunshine and warm weather or rain and cold. Their days are spent hiking, climbing, and exploring in forests and fields, ponds and streams. As the children spend time in nature, their connection to the Earth deepens as they learn how it sustains us and all the creatures around us.

Children are natural explorers and scientists. While outdoors, Nature Preschoolers have thoughtful discussions about everything from using their senses to observe plants to why dead animals they found may have died. Climbing trees and balancing on rock walls teaches children to assess risks, as well as their own talents and limits. 

Rachel Carson writes in her book The Sense of Wonder, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Our Nature Preschool teachers embody this idea, becoming guides for their students, holding their hands as they move through the world and helping them to learn not just facts, but how to be curious; how to retain that excitement and sense of mystery and wonder. They guide them in learning that we are all part of the same earth; humans, animals, plants, water, rocks, and dirt all need to exist together. A study of 216 children showed that those who attended nature preschools showed a higher level of nature connection than those in more traditional preschools. Our Nature Preschoolers are the future stewards of our world, and if we can teach them these important lessons and foster their connection to nature at a young age, they will carry this knowledge and responsibility throughout their lives.

A literature review performed by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows that there is growing evidence that nature-based early childhood education (ECE) improves social, emotional, and cognitive development in children. Specific areas of growth linked to nature-based ECE included self-regulation, social skills, play interaction, nature relatedness and awareness of nature. 

Children need nature. Natural environments provide unending opportunities for observation, exploration, inquiry, physical challenge, and imaginative play. At the Schuylkill Center’s Nature Preschool, we provide these opportunities every day for children. 

By Sarah Watrud, Director of Early Childhood Education

Welcome to New Staff Members

This fall we welcomed several new staff members (and two returning staff members in new roles) to the Art department and to the Education department. We are thrilled to have you and look forward to seeing the great work you will contribute to the center.

Zaina Asaad
Manager of Public Programs

Zaina is very excited to join the amazing team at Schuylkill Center. She grew up in the Middle East and moved here to find opportunities that allow her to explore more diverse ecological systems and be a part of an equally passionate community. She is specifically interested in wildlife conservation and is thoroughly enjoying spotting all the amazing critters that surround the center. Zaina hopes to continue to build up this space for diverse communities to explore a love for nature, and she would like to focus on instilling excitement and intrigue by creating new programs that allow for that.

Margaret Clarkson
Manager of School Programs

After college in New England, Margaret came back home to Pennsylvania and has been living in South Philly for a year and a half. She loves to spend time outside hiking, kayaking, and camping. In her spare time she loves to read, try new vegetarian restaurants, and spend time with family (and their dogs). In this new position Margaret is looking forward to reaching out to a wide range of schools to introduce them to our new climate change curriculum. She is excited to encourage the youth of today to live more sustainably and encourage positive change in the community.

Kristina Murray
Director of Environmental Art

Bringing several years of experience developing curatorial initiatives in museums and public parks, Kristina comes to us from Glen Foerd where she oversaw an artist residency program of environmentally-focused projects. She is thrilled to join the team at the Schuylkill Center and to continue the incredible work initiated by former curators in this space. She looks forward to collaborating with artists to create immersive and thought-provoking installations and programs that directly reflect the dynamic relationship we share with our environment.

Nick Tonetti
Environmental Educator

Nick grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, spending a lot of time outdoors as a boy scout. He studied Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, and after graduating, he returned home to Philly to pursue environmental education in the city. He started working at the Schuylkill Center in the summer of 2020 as a camp counselor, community gardens coordinator, and now an environmental educator. Nick really enjoys seeing the spark of play and curiosity when working with children in the outdoors, and he loves to teach about foraging for wild edible plants. He looks forward to reaching more children and adults in Philly that lack exposure to the outdoors, and sharing his sense of connection and passion for nature with more people.

What is Overwintering?

As the temperatures continue to drop and we begin to pull our heavy sweaters out from storage, we know one thing is for certain – winter is coming! There are many reasons to enjoy this season: unique changes to our ecosystem, hitting the ski slopes, cozying up by the fireplace, and of course, the holidays. For most of us, however, winter is also associated with grueling temperatures, snowstorms, and a lack of sunshine. These things can have a huge impact on the way we operate in our everyday lives. To get to work on time, you have to shovel out your driveway; in order to stay warm, you have to wear enough layers to keep out the brisk wind. 

We may not realize it, but our native wildlife has to make a lot of changes to prepare for the winter as well. During the fall months, some animals choose to migrate to warmer climates where there are more available resources during the winter. Those who don’t must spend the autumn season preparing shelter, food, and other resources in order to survive the winter.

At the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Clinic, we also have to make preparations for the winter. Although we are closed to new intakes, we still have animals in our care from prior to our closure. In October, we must take stock of our patients and determine whether they can be released before the winter arrives. Because the colder weather depletes so many natural resources, it is much harder for wild animals to find food and make shelter in a timely manner. We believe that it is unfair to release certain animals into these conditions, as it would ultimately set them up for failure. Instead, we opt to keep them at our facility for the duration of the colder months and release them when spring rolls around. We call this “overwintering”.Garter snake coiled up in an enclosure

There are some animals that absolutely must be overwintered, like the garter snake that was brought to us after being caught by a dog. After many surgeries to correct four broken ribs and several months of recovery, it was too late in the year for her to return to the wild. Reptiles and amphibians in PA go through a process called brumation when the temperatures decrease (think hibernation, but for our scaly and slimy friends). They will go into a state of inactivity for the entirety of winter and will only reawaken when it gets warm again. Because the garter snake is still recovering, she is better off staying with us until springtime so that her body has more time to heal. If she went into brumation, she would stop the healing process.

We also have about 24 juvenile squirrels living in our care. These squirrels are the last few babies of the summer that were brought to us to be raised. Unfortunately, because they were born so late in the year, they were not ready to be released by our winter cutoff. So, we will continue to provide them with food, water, and shelter in our outdoor enclosures until spring. This allows them some extra time to practice foraging and other natural behaviors while still being monitored by our staff and volunteers. When they are released, the squirrels will have everything they need from their natural environment in order for them to survive.

Two squirrels in their enclosure, sitting on a piece of wood and gripping on to the window

Not all animals must be overwintered. For example, adult mammals and birds of prey can be released in the colder months without any issues. For mammals, this is because as adults, they have established their winter foraging abilities and likely already have a warm place that they were living prior to admission at the clinic. We try to release them as close as possible to the site they were found to increase the likelihood of them finding their way back home. As for our bigger birds – like hawks, owls, and vultures – most of winter is actually spent scavenging rather than hunting. While there still is a depletion in food sources for them in winter, there is less energetic expense in scavenging for meat than hunting. We attempt to release them near where they were found to ensure that they return to territory with which they are already familiar.

Overwintering is an essential part of wildlife rehabilitation. If we weren’t able to provide this service to our animals, many of them would not survive for very long upon release. The cold months of winter are brutal for all walks of life, but it is important to remember to always be kind to wildlife. They may not have to shovel snow, but Pennsylvania wildlife still deserves recognition for their tireless efforts to get through the frigid months of winter.

By Sydney Glisan, Rehabilitation Assistant

Preserving the Schuylkill Center’s Boy Scout Tract

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is thrilled to announce that we have received a pledge for a generous gift from anonymous donors that allows us to fully preserve the 24-acre Boy Scout Tract in its entirety. We’ll be placing a conservation easement on the land that will protect it in perpetuity: the forest will never be subdivided, developed, or even farmed.

And we’re elated.

The $3 million donation, the largest gift in the center’s 57-year history, is conditioned on the easement, which will take perhaps nine months to complete; the Center will not receive the donation until this action is finished.

This puts a huge preservation exclamation mark on the story of the Boy Scout Tract. The land sits at the southeastern corner of Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street, across Eva Street from the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and abutting the Higher Ground Church International. A maturing forest, the site contains steep slopes and protects a portion of the Green Tree Run watershed. Used by the Scouts as a campground back in the day, the site is physically disconnected from the Schuylkill Center’s main holdings, and hasn’t ever been used in our many programs over many decades. Stretched as we are on managing the 340 acres we actively do use, we have historically been unable to perform any maintenance on the site with the exception of clearing downed and dangerous trees. 

The tract was donated to us 40 years ago by one of our founders, Eleanor Houston Smith, as an asset to be sold if the Board of Trustees decided to do so. Over the last 50 years, two bites have been taken out of the property, one to a neighbor who lives in a historic home adjoining the parcel, and a 10-acre piece to the church in the 1980s. More than a year ago, we received a proposal from a conservation-minded family to purchase the property and place two homes and a barn on the site.

But given the request to consider selling the property– one unsolicited from us– our Board of Trustees made the difficult but financially responsible decision to not accept the first and only proposal that came our way. The trustees, conservation-minded individuals one and all, decided to release a Request for Proposals to seek other possibilities. The resulting RFP contained numerous conditions that worked hard to balance preservation with limited development, including protections for steep slopes and floodplains plus preservation of the community’s historic character. This was NOT a decision to sell the land; it was only a decision to explore that possibility. 

This past June, at a meeting of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association and the Residents of the Shawmont Valley, we unveiled our plan to release the RFP, and were met by fierce opposition and widespread disappointment, as open space and subdivision are two of Roxborough’s hottest hot-button issues. 

We did send the RFP out the next day, while also placing it on our website for anyone to read. I immediately started fielding questions from a variety of parties considering what they might do with the property, and to our delight and amazement, multiple offers came in that proposed to protect and preserve the property. So in September, we announced that we were suspending the RFP process to concentrate only on these offers.

And the community held its breath. So did we. 

Happily, of the several avenues we were actively pursuing, one stuck. We began discussing the preservation process with this donor’s representatives in late summer, and it has taken all of this time to get to this very wonderful place.

So the Boy Scout Tract– soon to possibly be christened with a new name (details forthcoming!)– will be added to the portfolio of the Center’s protected open spaces. Our 340 acres of forests and fields are already preserved in perpetuity, and is the largest conservation easement in Philadelphia. On top of this, in the mid-80’s we sold 80 acres of Manatawna Farm on our western flank to the city to be merged into Fairmount Park. 

With this impending easement, the Center has now protected almost 450 acres of precious Roxborough open space. We’re very proud of this accomplishment. 

We’ll soon engage our board, staff, and other stakeholders in a long and thoughtful process on how we best leverage this gift to its maximum advantage, investing in our staff– our most important resource– not to mention our aging 1960s Visitor Center, our Wildlife Clinic, our programs, and of course our land, battered from the trifecta of invasive plants, deer overbrowsing, and climate change. It will take many months to work through these details. And many months before we receive the donation.

As Natural Lands, a highly respected preservation nonprofit, holds the easement on our 340-acre main campus, we’re also pleased to announce we’re working with them on this new easement too. We’re hoping to sign it sometime in 2023, likely late spring or early summer.

And when we do, we’ll celebrate this accomplishment with our neighbors and community. In the meantime, please know the Boy Scout Tract is moving to the happiest of resolutions. And no one is happier than our family here at the Schuylkill Center.

By Mike Weilbacher
Executive Director 

Learn more about the Boy Scout Tract at the Boy Scout Tract news page.