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

 

The Center’s Boy Scout Tract

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.

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

Lankenau Students Wins Meigs Youth Award

We established the Henry Meigs Youth Leadership Award in 2005 as a memorial tribute to one of our center’s founders. The award honors students who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, interest, curiosity, or accomplishment in the environmental arena. While nominations were solicited in prior years, the Center held an essay contest to determine this year’s recipient, a contest open to students at Roxborough’s three public high schools– Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School, Walter B. Saul High School, and Roxborough High School– with the winner receiving a $1,000 scholarship gift.

Candidates submitted essay responses to the prompt “What is the biggest environmental threat to our city and why? What can you do as an individual to make a difference? What can our community do collectively to solve this issue?”

The winning essay was written by Adrianna Lewis, a Roxborough resident and senior at Lankenau High School. Adrianna will graduate this year and is preparing to study environmental science at Delaware Valley University in the fall. She hopes to one day research solutions to help Philadelphia to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as reduce our contribution to it. We were excited to announce Adrianna as the recipient of the award at Naturepalooza, our annual Earth Day festival, last Saturday. Congratulations to Adrianna; her essay follows:

The biggest environmental threat to our city is air pollution. This factors into the health of the city as well. Philadelphia, like other major cities, generates tons of air pollution. The primary driver of this is vehicle emissions. The Covid-19 pandemic halted most social interactions, especially within the city. Center City Philadelphia, also known as downtown among locals, is home to many businesses. Looking at the skyline, there are plenty of skyscrapers, housing thousands of offices. Many employees of these businesses drive into the city for work. Daily commuters are the driving factor of air pollution in the city, pun intended. The city can not stop this commute as it generates most of Philadelphia’s revenue, other than tourism and college. 

Why is the air pollution in Philadelphia such a big deal? Air pollution in Philadelphia includes carbon and nitrogen emissions, specifically from motor vehicles. The use of fossil fuels causes the production of carbon dioxide and other carbon-containing pollutants, as well as nitrogen and nitrates. When exposed to sunlight, some nitrogen oxides can convert into volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene that can later meet with nitrous oxide and create ozone in the atmosphere. There are also carbon, chlorine, and fluorine-containing molecules (CFCs) typically used in aerosol containers and air conditioners. Although CFCs are banned worldwide, freon used in air conditioning systems can release CFCs into the atmosphere. 

What do these things do as air pollutants? What are the effects on Philadelphia as a city? Carbon and nitrogen emissions are harmful to the environment and humans. Carbon emissions are mostly found in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is known for its climate-changing effect. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which is known to form a cozy blanket around the earth and trap heat in the atmosphere. Methane, another greenhouse gas, is less prevalent in the atmosphere but is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Another producer of these air pollutants in Philadelphia are landfills/garbage processing plants. These like the other air pollutants are an issue in Philadelphia as they cause climate change and amplify the heat island effect. The heat island effect causes the temperature in the city to be greater than in the surrounding area.

What can change air pollution in the city of Philadelphia? As individuals, people should use public transportation whenever possible. Philadelphia has SEPTA and Amtrak if you are traveling outside of the city. Individuals could also help plant trees to combat the increase of CO2. As an individual, you can join an environmental group within Philadelphia or support local small businesses and farms to reduce your carbon footprint. Supporting these local businesses and farms would reduce the number of people traveling for resources. There are over 25 farmers’ markets in Philadelphia, a number of them accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Access to these farmer’s markets may be harder for those in underserved areas such as North Philadelphia.

As a community, the people of Philadelphia can make a difference by petitioning the city to be more walkable. Better access for pedestrians on Philadelphia streets would reduce the number of cars used. We could improve accessibility for disabled people within the Philadelphia area, so they wouldn’t have to commute into the city. The downtown area could also become more affordable so people would not have to commute into the city every day. To reduce air pollution from landfills, we could begin to compost all of our non-meat and dairy items, then send this compost to the farming community in and around Philadelphia. Our glass, once cleaned, can be sent to a facility where it’s made into sand and poured onto beaches. This is a must as people have begun “sand gangs” where sand is stolen and sold on the market for concrete and other such uses. The alternative to using this glass for beach sand, the glass sand could be used for construction sand. Further ways Philadelphia as a community could aid in the reduction of air pollution is making farmers’ markets accessible to all or selling produce from local farms at corner stores.

Philadelphia has an air pollution issue and we the people can reduce it.

By Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education 

Nature’s Companions

Visitors interacting with artwork by Maria Dumlao, Installation view Companions, Schuylkill Center, 2022. Photographer: Ricky Yanas

Cultures and communities define themselves through food. ‘You are what you eat’ is both an adage about nutrition and a reflection on food as an integral part of our social identity. But what these foods are, in turn, is defined by species that live and grow in our landscapes and by foreign relatives—plants, animals, people—that migrate and travel around the globe. 

The Schuylkill Center’s newest art exhibition explores how we, as individuals and as a community, define ourselves at home—through food and companionship. Blending art, ecology and food culture, Companions – mas masarap magkasama (a Filipino phrase that roughly translates to ‘more delicious together’), includes newly commissioned work by Filipino-American artist Maria Dumlao along with Nicky Uy and Omar Buenaventura of the collaborative Bahay215

Maria Dumlao, Naturalized, archival inkjet on canvas, 2022. © Maria Dumlao.

Inside the gallery, natural and metaphorical ingredients from botany to commerce are assembled into colorful prints that tell the hidden stories of indigenousness, colonization and food culture between the Philippines and North America. One of them, hanging prominently from a bamboo stick in the gallery, is an enormous print of a pineapple with decorative waxy leaves and its characteristic pattern around the stem. Printed on canvas in Pantone’s tropical color palette, the image seems at first glance overexposed. But activating the image by looking through transparent filters in red, green, and blue – RGB, the colors that make up the visual images we encounter daily on monitors, mobile devices, and digital photography – the filters reveal different stories in shades of white, black and many grays in between. Through the red lens the pineapple appears like a hand-drawn botanical illustration, yet through green the fruit exposes a body filled with cans of SPAM. The pineapple, arguably a symbol of the tropics (from the perspective of American industry, it must be noted), is a major food item in the Pacific Islands. But so is the processed pork meat that during the American annexation of the Philippines the invading colonizers brought to Filipinos’ tables. 

Other prints in the exhibition reveal invasive yet edible knotweed spreading over homes, migrating honey bees naturalizing into new landscapes, extinct passenger pigeons swirling over industrialized countrysides (exterminated due to humans hunting them as food), tropical species creeping into our floral home design, and ships carrying goods (look out for the mermaid) around the globe. The prints set the stage for a dialogue about our understanding of landscape diversity as we cultivate plants and creatures for the global economy and food market. Who is welcomed and who is excluded? When does a migrant become native to their new home? 

Making yourself at home is an intimate desire of all species, as illustrated by the exhibition’s outdoor installations. Two of Dumlao’s large-scale prints, mounted on the outside of the Visitor Center, are accompanied by bamboo structures that are loosely inspired by the concept of a bahayan kubo, a stilt house original to the farmed fields of the Philippines. The Tahanan (Filipino for intimate bahay) and pugad (Filipino for hive) open up colorful views into our changing landscape.

Maria Dumlao, Local Extinction (woodland bison), Installation view at the Schuylkill Center, 2022.

Companions afifrms a point made by celebrated ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who notes that growing together as species in an environment is a reciprocal matter of beauty as well as of ecology. For example, when purple Hyssop is brightly flowering next to yellow Yarrow (check out native plants displayed in the gallery), these edible herbs do more than simply attract pollinators for their own survival. Their complementary colors are the art of brilliant companionship.

“My work serves as a connective tissue,” explains Maria Dumlao, “embracing the histories lived, both documented and undocumented.” Companions aims to spark conversations about the migratory paths of plants and people and open our eyes to the delicious fascination of nature. Unfolding the hidden and untold stories of the displaced, the exhibition is a contribution to combating ongoing sentiments against Asian American communities as we enter Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month in May. Let nature’s beauty be the entrance point for us to reconsider our perception of today’s land, people and interrelationships.

Companions is open until August 6, 2022 at the Schuylkill Center. Look for summer programming for the whole family around foraging, food stories and art making. Learn more about the exhibition online and about edible native plants through the Center’s native plant sale.

Visitors interacting with installation by Maria Dumlao and Bahay2015, Installation view Companions, Schuylkill Center, 2022. Photographer: Ricky Yanas

By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Restoring our Forests: A Town Meeting

White-tailed deer are just one of many issues compromising the future of our forests.

Walk into the Center’s forest– or any forest in the region– and you’ll notice a habitat filled with invasive plants. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine, while beautiful, carpet the forest floor right now. Devil’s walking stick, every inch of it converted by thorns, are shooting up in massive clusters. Garlic mustard is in full flower, its leaves being munched on by the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies, an invasive non-native butterfly– and often the first butterfly we see in the spring.

And that’s just the beginning, our forests overflowing with a veritable United Nations of Norway maple, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, and Oriental bittersweet, not to mention tree of heaven, cork tree, Norway spruce, knotweed, purple loosestrife, and on and on. Sadly, these invasives crowd out the native plants, contributing to the reduction in the biological diversity of the plants and animals of Pennsylvania forests.

In response, numerous environmental groups across the entire region, state, and country are working so hard to restore our forests, meadows and wetlands, engaging friends and volunteers in pulling out the invasives and replacing them with natives. Last week, we celebrated Earth Day by planting a number of native trees in an area we have christened the Earth Day Forest– and every year at Earth Day our stewardship efforts are focused here, planting native trees back in our landscape on this special day.

Worse, climate change and very hungry deer, not to mention new threats like lantern flies, conspire to undo all this hard, necessary work. The very trees we plant may get damaged by deer, and in a few decades the climate may warm so much that southeastern Pennsylvania might no longer be suitable for some of them. 

So what do we do? What’s the path forward– if any? Join some of the region’s top restoration specialists in a lively conversation about the critical issue of restoring native habitats. The last in a spring series of Thursday Night Live virtual conversations, the “Restoration Roundtable: A Town Meeting” is set for Thursday, April 28 at 7:00 p.m. The free event is held over Zoom; register and receive the link. 

The event’s guests include Gary Gimbert, Senior Director of Land Stewardship and Restoration Coordinator of Natural Lands, one of the region’s largest non-profit land trusts that manages thousands of acres of preserves across the area, Steve Goin, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Land and Facilities and a certified arborist, Steve Jones, a board member with Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers, and Rebecca Kagle, managing principal with Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. Each of these people will share their restoration experiences– and most importantly, answer your questions about this important topic.

What’s the best native tree to plant in my yard? What do we do about deer over-browsing our forests? What will the impact of climate change be on our forests? How can more of us help? And the most interesting question perhaps of all: can any of us restore any forest to anything it might have ever looked like in its history? Our four guests will answer all of your questions about restoring native habitats while offering their organizations’ unique perspectives. 

For the Center, this question is central to our land stewardship work. For the last 20 years, we have been actively engaged in a wide variety of restoration projects across our 340-acre forest, like putting up a deer fence to exclude those hungry animals from a 20-acre Wildflower Loop, giving spring wildflowers there a chance to flourish. We’ve planted several thousand trees, shrubs, and wildflowers throughout our forest in this time, desperately hoping a large number of them stick. Trouble is, we never know how many have– and we have to monitor them continuously.

So we have backed away from using the word “restoration” in our projects, and instead describe our work appropriately as “stewardship.”

We are actively working– every day– to improve the land while acknowledging we’re not sure we can restore it to anything it ever looked like before.

After all, we’ll simply never rid our forest of every invasive plant that is not native to this corner of the planet.

At the same time, we’re also not willing to concede defeat, not willing to raise the white flag, not willing to pack our bags and go home. We are caretakers of a massive sweep of forest, and will doggedly strive to improve it while openly acknowledging it is an uphill slog. We’re rolling that boulder up a very large hill, fully aware it might crash down on us anytime. 

So we soldier on. And will wrestle with our work openly on Thursday evening at our Restoration Roundtable, and invite you to wrestle with us. See you there.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Bird Safe Philly: Helping Migrating Birds on their Journey North

A common yellowthroat, one of the many species of migrating birds passing over the city. This one collided with a plate glass window, but happily was only dazed, brought to the Wildlife Clinic, treated, and released– a conservation success story.

It’s migration season and millions of birds are right now pouring over the city of Philadelphia on their way to northern nesting grounds. A river of warblers, flycatchers, shorebirds, hummingbirds, thrushes, and more are heading to their ancestral mating grounds. 

And Bird Safe Philly, a new partnership, hopes to make their travels safer. Birds colliding with plate-glass windows in cities is, sadly, a longstanding issue that the group hopes to address– and mitigate. Two leaders of the Bird Safe Philly effort will be on hand at the Schuylkill Centers’s Earth Day Live event on Thursday, April 21 at 7:00 p.m., a free celebration of the Earth Day holiday.

Leigh Altadonna, president of Wyncote Audubon Society and one of the founders of Bird Safe Philly, joins Chris Strub, the director of the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center, at the event. 

The partnership partly grew out of a horrific event on October 2, 2020, when, during the birds’ migration south, poor-visibility weather colluded with confusing big-city lights to cause the death of 1,500 migratory birds in a single night in Philadelphia, resulting in a lot of media attention in Philly and nationwide. Turns out bright lights can confuse birds, who migrate at night, especially when clouds don’t allow them to navigate via stars. 

“I reached out and convened a meeting of key bird people,” Leigh told me last week, “like Audubon Mid-Atlantic, Audubon’s Wyncote and Valley Forge chapters, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, probably the oldest bird club in Philly, and the Academy of Natural Sciences. We talked about the need to get on a light’s-out movement in the city.” Leigh was “anointed,” as he said, the coordinator of Bird Safe Philly, convening meetings and working groups, and a partnership was forged.

Lights Out Philly is one of the project’s big successes. Multiple brightly lit skyscrapers– the Cira Centre, the FMC Tower, Liberty Place, many owned by Brandywine Realty Trust– join other well-known buildings like the Convention Center and the Wells Fargo Center in agreeing to turn off their lights during migration season from midnight to 6 a.m. Maybe you’ve noticed this on late-night drives through the city. 

While PECO, a corporate sponsor of the program, hasn’t turned off its iconic crown lights, it has dimmed their intensity and shifted the wavelength. “They’ve agreed to change the light colors,” Leigh told me, “as blue and green are a little better than the other colors. Another big thing PECO did was volunteer to place info about us in their billing; they did a great insert– that was helpful too.”

He continued, “But well over 50% of these birds die from collisions with low-story buildings of four stories or less.” So it’s great that smaller buildings like the American Philosophical Society and Ursinus College have signed on. As a longtime administrator for the Abington School District, he said, “I’d love to see the Philadelphia School District adopt this program, and their buildings turn off their second, third and fourth floors light. They probably comply already in most cases.”

“What is really great,” he offered, “is we have volunteer monitors that go down early in the morning starting at five. They go around and look for bird casualties– ‘bag and tag’ them so to speak. These all go to the Academy of Natural Sciences, and become part of the research effort to get data on size and scope of the issue.”

Since not all of the birds are dead, happily some of them are only dazed, or perhaps suffering from concussions. “We have a cadre of volunteers who transport injured birds to the Wildlife Clinic.” That’s where Chris Strub comes in.

“Chris and his staff have been great,” Leigh offered. “These stunned birds, sitting on the ground, are easy prey for cats, rats, and more. Without intervention, they would likely die. But with the help from the clinic staff, the success rate in healing them has been close to 80%. That’s pretty significant– we really credit the clinic for helping with this.”

About 200 birds come to our clinic annually through the transport program. Chris Strub notes, “It’s really rewarding to actually make a difference in the window-strike story. We don’t have the capacity to go out and get the birds, but we do have the resources to treat them. Now that we are actually getting the birds, we can be part of the initiative, which eliminates a real source of frustration of not being able to go out and get them.

“I have immense respect for all the volunteers and organizers,” Chris continued, “who are walking the streets of Philadelphia in early mornings to find them while also witnessing the number of dead birds. This really inspires me, and brings home that bird conservation is a huge team effort– no one person can do it. It takes partnerships like this to ensure that a lot more of the birds survive and get a chance to further their species.”

Earth Day Live features both Chris and Leigh. In addition, historian Adam Rose, author of “The Genius of Earth Day,” recounts the importance of Earth Day in galvanizing environmental action, and the Center’s land stewardship coordinator Sam Bucciarelli highlights edible native plants you can grow in your garden. The free event is set for Thursday, April 21 at 7:00 p.m. via Zoom; register here.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director