Finding joy in the outdoors

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sarah Watrud, Director of Early Childhood Education

Welcome to New Staff Members

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

Zaina Asaad
Manager of Public Programs
zaina@schuylkillcenter.org

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

Margaret Clarkson
Manager of School Programs
margaret@schuylkillcenter.org

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

Kristina Murray
Director of Environmental Art
kristina@schuylkillcenter.org

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

Nick Tonetti
Environmental Educator
nicholas@schuylkillcenter.org

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

What is Overwintering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sydney Glisan, Rehabilitation Assistant

Preserving the Schuylkill Center’s Boy Scout Tract

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

And we’re elated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the community held its breath. So did we. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mike Weilbacher
Executive Director 


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

 

 

Wild turkey with wings outstretched flying through the air

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving.

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

Those Autumn Leaves – Leaf Them Alone!

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

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

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

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

But those leaves do something else for us.  

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

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

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

To keep insects around us, keep those leaves.

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

That tiger swallowtail will thank you. So will I. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director