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

 

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 

Blueberries, A Local Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missy Horrow, Director of Early Childhood Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Schuylkill Center Intern Redesigns the Entrance Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamel, unmasked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

 

Schuylkill Center Mandates Vaccines for Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science is astonishingly clear. Vaxx up, Roxborough.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Creativity inspires curiosity

Tina Plokarz and Deenah Loeb

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Deenah!

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications

New Mystery Illness Killing our Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Something wicked this way comes

Severe Storms Bring Damaging Winds, Hail and Power Outages to Region

Last Wednesday, I was standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve in Blue Bell, wondering what to do– should I stay and gut it out, or get the heck out of the way? 

I was looking up and west, and the sky above me was dark and getting darker, the angry sky of a powerful storm quickly moving in. I thought of a witch’s line from Hamlet that became a Ray Bradbury novel that morphed into a Jason Robards movie: something wicked this way comes.

Given I was on the edge of a forest, I decided to move the car to a nearby location where a tree was less likely to fall on me, which I did. 

And then the storm slammed, winds fiercely whipping trees, branches falling everywhere, leaves blowing by, hail pounding the car. It was too much like the scene from “Wizard of Oz,” with me as Dorothy staring out the window– I would not have been surprised to see Miss Gulch fly by, knitting in her rocking chair. Except this wasn’t funny.

On top of the wind and trees, water was pouring down the shoulders of streets like rivers, flooding into blocked storm drains and across roads. It was nightmarish.  

And right at the beginning of rush hour, just about the worst time this could happen.

When it passed only 10-15 minutes later, if even that, my GPS routed me home, but the storm had outwitted the device: every road home was blocked by a large branch– or an entire tree–  that had mostly or completely fallen across the street. I turned onto side roads to find alternate routes (one bus driver waving me away from one route), or I turned completely around, at least five or six times. It was scary. Lucky for me, I got behind a landscaping truck with four big guys in it, who dutifully and doggedly cleared the way, stopping every few hundred yards to pull another branch aside. I might still be in Blue Bell if it wasn’t for them.

Thirty minutes of only driving maybe two miles, I reached Germantown Pike– where there was almost no sign of a storm. No leaves or branches down on the street, no stormwater streaming down the shoulder of the road. The sun was shining, birds were singing, traffic was fine. Huh?

Back in Blue Bell, I happened to be directly underneath a microburst, yet another new word that climate change is forcing us to learn. The National Weather Service says straight-line winds of at least 50 mph but only 2.5 miles wide plowed into the area that day. A Blue Bell dentist told one newspaper it was “the worst storm damage I’ve seen in my 24 years living here.” I believe it.

Here’s the scarier part of the story. The night before, my wife had pointed out the blood-red moon, which she thought was cool (it was) but I knew was wrong– turns out that particles in the sky from the massive wildfires out West changed the moon’s color– but also cooled the atmosphere here in Philly. Last week’s storm WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE without that smoke.

The Bootleg Fire in Oregon, the largest of the 80 large fires in 13 states being wrestled with last week, has already burned an area larger than Los Angeles, is still on the move, and is so large and burning so hot it’s creating its own weather underneath it. There is so much soot in the air that it forms dense clouds that begin to rain, but the air is so dry the rain never hits the ground. Fueled by historic droughts out West, wildfire season is annually longer and worse than it had been historically, the fires burning hotter.

Dozens dead and missing as storms swamp western Germany

Last week’s intense storm also forced me think of Germany, where two months of rain fell in only 24 hours; in some places 5-7 inches fell in 12 hours. As of the end of last week, there were 160 confirmed dead and 37,000 buildings impacted. It will easily be Germany’s costliest storm ever, as the flooding tore down ancient bridges while upending roads and train tracks; some of these ruined towns were only 1,000 years old, which says something about current weather conditions.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the Henan province of China received its own burst of flooding, with at least 25 dead there, including a dozen people trapped in a subway car in the regional capital of Zhengzhou.

Across the planet, climate-fueled weather is killing people in unprecedented numbers. And it is costing us a fortune. Even that microburst in Blue Bell was costly, knocking out power for 125,000 people while delaying every Regional Rail line, damaging homes and cars as trees fell on them. 

Which brings us to a few questions: why are we still debating climate change? And why are we still debating solutions? When the earth speaks this loudly, we better answer, and as to which solutions work, we are now at a place where we simply try everything– throw everything at the wall and pray some of it sticks.

Will this be costly? Of course. But the alternative? Every minute we delay meaningful action now means we pay a steeper price later, as each delay only compounds the issues. The Bootleg Fire and Germany’s flooding– even that Blue Bell burst– tell us this. 

“Something wicked this way comes” is actually not correct. As the world has learned this summer, something wicked is already here. We ignore it at our peril. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director