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

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

Bicycling with Butterflies

Author, educator, and “butterbiker” Sara Dykman observes a monarch sipping nectar on goldenrod during her epic 10,201-mile bike trip as she followed the butterfly’s migration.

Sara Dykman did something that no other human on this planet has ever done, or even thought to do. In 2017, she followed the entire migration route of monarch butterflies from their overwintering spot in Mexican mountains, north to Canada as far as monarchs go, and back to Mexico. Over a full year, she followed the butterflies.

On a bicycle. By herself. Logging 10,201 miles, to be exact. (That’s only like 40 miles each day.) Just amazing. And on a 1989 refurbished bicycle carrying 70 pounds of equipment. 

“Butterbiking,” she dubbed it, and rest assured no other person ever thought to accomplish such a remarkable feat. Happily, she turned her adventures into a book, “Bicycling with Butterflies” to share her story with us. On Thursday, April 14, at 7:00 p.m., Sara virtually visits the Center as part of its spring Thursday Night Live series. “Bicycling with Butterflies” is a free lecture; register for the event to receive the Zoom link. 

In an email conversation last week, I asked her why she did this unique feat– and how she keeps her answer to the “why” question fresh, as I am only the latest in a long line of thousands of people who have asked her this.

“I started biking with butterflies,” she told me, “to have an adventure and learn about the monarchs, but the more I learned, the more I realized that the monarchs needed me to be their voice. My tour became a publicity stunt to catch people’s attention and help them learn that the monarch’s migration could disappear if we don’t all plant habitat, especially milkweed, which is the only food source of the monarch caterpillar. And yes,” she continued, “it can get old answering the same questions, but that’s kinda the point. I just remember that every question can lead to another person noticing monarchs and possibly creating habitat to help save them.”

In her book, she recounts another question she was asked repeatedly, starting off in Mexico, “Estas solas?” people would ask. “Are you alone?” She told me that “I’ve turned this question into a joke. I always answer it by saying I wasn’t alone. I was with the butterflies.”  

At the moment, there are no monarchs in Philadelphia– yet. As Sara will recount, monarchs overwintering in Mexico fly into Texas, exhausted, and lay eggs on milkweed plants emerging there. Those next-generation monarchs push further north, so it may be several generations before we see them in late spring, early summer. But monarch populations have been plummeting in recent decades, threatening this unique migration phenomenon. 

“Monarchs have seen a downward decline,” she said, “mostly because of habitat loss and climate change.” Midwestern farm fields are routinely sprayed by herbicides that remove “weeds” like milkweed, and as milkweed populations drop, monarchs have been declining too. The butterfly is hit at the other end of its migration, too, as logging in Mexico’s mountains compromises the fir forest where they spend the winter. Of course, climate change upends their life cycle across all of North America. 

Climate change worries her “with every ounce of my being. The earth has found this incredible balance. The monarchs arrive (in Texas) just as milkweeds are emerging, that alone feels impossibly perfect. Then you think about the wind, rain, weather, every system really. They are all connected to give monarchs and their neighbors what they need. As the climate changes, this balance will be destroyed.”

As she met people on her butterbike five years ago, she was also routinely asked whether or not monarchs needed to be saved. I wondered if people were still asking that or has the needle moved on their story? “Sure, I think the needle is moving,” she responded. “People are starting to share their yards with their more-than-human neighbors, and more people than ever know about monarchs and their plight. But we need examples of new ways of living on every street in every town, because until we learn to share the earth the monarchs won’t be safe. On my tour, it was when I stayed with people that were planting gardens and sharing that I found the most hope. I think the monarchs are amazing because they give us a first step to helping the planet. All you have to do is grow a native garden.”

As we ended our exchange, she offered, “Monarchs are so generous. They will visit even a small garden (even a potted plant) if you give them the opportunity. They will help you be part of an adventure. They can be your teachers too, because they ask you to slow down and notice the world around you. And that world is really, extraordinarily wonderful.”

Join Sara on this adventure Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. and meet the world’s one and only butterbiker.

This week in climate. “Why are we talking about anything but climate change?” wonders Mary McNamara, culture columnist and critic with the Los Angeles Times, in a scathing op-ed piece. “Our ability to lower atmospheric temperature has thus far been flung to the four (now regularly hurricane-level) winds, because a few of us are making too much money from fossil fuels and the rest of us are busy weighing in on things like ‘cancel culture’ or what the film academy should do with Will Smith to notice that we are boiling ourselves to death.” She opined, “The first thing we need to do is stop using the term ‘climate change.’” It’s a climate crisis, she says, and of course she is dead-on.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Snakes, Turtles, and Toads, Oh My!

Why did the box turtle cross the road? Likely to lay her eggs, Bernard “Billy” Brown says.

While Philadelphia is a big, old, well-developed urban area, one of its many surprises is the abundant wildlife found not just in natural places like the Wissahickon, the Schuylkill Center, the John Heinz refuge, and more, but tucked into the many nooks and crannies across the city. Especially surprising might be the large number of reptiles and amphibians living alongside us as our natural neighbors.

One of our city’s most engaging naturalists, Bernard “Billy” Brown, will introduce you to many of our city’s creepy crawlies. On Thursday, April 7 at 7:00 p.m., Billy presents “Snakes, Turtles, and Toads, Oh My! Philadelphia’s Reptiles and Amphibians,” a free illustrated lecture that is part of our Thursday Night Live series. 

“Once I had home to classically wild spaces to look for these animals,” he told me, “and now I look wherever I happen to be.” He recounts finding red-backed salamanders under stones near the Art Museum and surprisingly common brown snakes in vacant lots across the city. 

Author of the monthly “Urban Naturalist” column in Grid magazine and co-host of the “Urban Wildlife” podcast, Billy has been “herping,” as friends of reptiles and amphibians call it, since he was a child growing up in the Columbus, Ohio area. “I’m hoping to give people some comfort and familiarity with creepy crawlies,” he said, “and hope that fosters a deeper connection that leads to conservation.” 

Familiarity with creatures like the black rat snake, “one of my favorites,” he said. “It’s one of the longest snakes in North America, is nice looking, and has a great vibe– it can be quite mellow while handling it. It’s a semi-arboreal snake; unlike other snakes it doesn’t panic when it’s picked up off the ground.

“If it weren’t for cars,” he continued, “we’d have black rat snakes everywhere. Since they eat warm-blooded prey like house sparrows and mice, there’s plenty of prey for them in the city. But they can’t cross roads well, so a five-foot black rat snake crossing Ridge Avenue is not going to do well.” And if a car doesn’t get it, some non-snake-loving person might, as people assume every snake is poisonous or harmful, and sadly kill them.

Speaking of snakes, he’ll introduce you to a common snake here at the Center, the northern water snake, one that is the happy beneficiary of a snake-tuary, a first-of-its-kind sanctuary for snakes near the dam in the Wissahickon just below Valley Green. Water snakes bask on the site’s warm stone walls on sunny days, and are passed by many people, some of them on their way to Devil’s Pool, the illegal and problematic swimming hole.

“It’s a tricky spot,” he said, because of the high traffic. Craig Johnson, the owner of Glen Fern, the historic house alongside the dam, noticed people– “often young men,” Billy noted– “not being nice to the snakes,” harming, even killing the non-venomous creatures as they basked. Craig– who has been written about both in this column and in Billy’s Grid column– worked with Friends of the Wissahickon “to put up a fence and signage about the snakes. He took a problem and turned it into a great educational opportunity,” perhaps America’s first sanctuary for a reptile.

He’ll also talk about Roxborough’s famous American toads, and he wrote about Toad Detour for Grid magazine a few years back. Toads awaken from their winter’s hibernation in our large forest, then cross Port Royal Avenue on rainy nights to climb into the old reservoir to mate. Our volunteers close the road on rainy nights to allow toads to cross without getting squashed. 

“Mid-April is solid toad time,” he said, “right now”– in late March when we talked– “it’s mostly males crossing. For explosive breeding amphibians like toads, males tend to show up first, get set up, and the females tend to come later to listen for the best singers.” April evenings are a great time to walk the reservoir park’s circular trail to listen to toad song– such a treat, as the male’s loud trilling is enchanting. 

And if you find a box turtle crossing a road? “It’s likely a female looking for a place to lay eggs.” He extorts everyone to not move a box turtle from its locale– or try to adopt it as a pet. “They grew up in a place,” he explained, “and that’s the place they know– where to hide, where to find food, where to hibernate.” Many people, coming across a turtle, can’t believe that it can survive in a woodlot or even a small suburban forest, and “pick it up and put it in a patch of woods like five miles away. So now it doesn’t know where to hide, find food, or hibernate, and it will start looking to go back home.” And will tirelessly, usually unsuccessfully, try to get back to what it knows.

“So if you find a box turtle trying to cross a road, simply help it across– that’s it.”

His coming Grid column in May focuses on the plight of the red knot, a migratory shorebird featured in last week’s Thursday Night Live. This week, allow Billy to immerse you in the wonderful herping world of snakes, turtles, and toads, oh my! To get the Zoom link, simply visit our website to register for the free event.

This week in climate.  Among its many impacts, the Russian invasion into Ukraine has halted important climate research. Arctic permafrost holds TWICE as much carbon as that stored in the atmosphere, and the Arctic has been warming four times faster than the rest of the world. As Russia owns fully one-quarter of the Arctic’s shoreline, many multinational research projects into permafrost have been canceled, just when we need this critical information.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Unraveling of the Red Knot

 

The red knot is one of the region’s most extraordinary birds, facing one of conservation’s biggest threats, but sadly flies under the radar of too many people. Too few of us have heard of the knot and fewer still know its story. But on Thursday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m, we’ll offer you a unique opportunity to dive into this incredible story.

A nine-inch-long sandpiper with a terra cotta belly, the red knot makes one of migration’s longest runs, flying 9,300 miles each spring from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom tip of South America to nest above the Arctic Circle in the spring. 

And somewhere around Mother’s Day, the exhausted birds– their gas tanks nearing empty– land on beaches along the Delaware Bay, looking for a critical food source to fuel them on the rest of their journey north. The famished birds need food rich in fats and that’s where the horseshoe crabs come in.

In one of nature’s best-timed events, horseshoe crabs, those prehistoric living fossils that have lumbered across ocean bottoms for 450 million years, haul themselves onto beaches. Large females usually have an entourage of smaller male hangers-on to mate and lay eggs in the surf. Each female lays 80,000 eggs, each a small green BB. They especially emerge in the full and new moons of high tides at night, a spectacle worth seeing in itself, as Delaware Bay is the single largest concentration of mating horseshoe crabs on the planet. (Bet you didn’t know that.)

So just when red knots and other migrating shorebirds need fat-rich food, Delaware Bay beaches are loaded with fatty crab eggs roiling in the surf. So the shorebirds enjoy a raucous debauchery of nonstop feeding, filling up on the eggs that give them the energy they need to finish the trip.

Many other shorebirds join them in this feast, including other sandpiper species like dunlins and sanderlings, plovers, ruddy turnstones, willets, and more, not to mention laughing, herring, and black-backed gulls, plus terns. 

It is a sight to behold. Arrive at low tide, and the beaches are crammed with shorebirds, gulls, and terns cheek-to-jowl in a frenzy of feeding, the cacophony of gulls impossibly loud; arrive at nighttime high tide, and the beach is chock-a-block with horseshoe crabs. It is a naturalist’s nirvana. On one visit last year, I easily spotted a huge turkey vulture inexplicably sitting amidst the gulls, quietly munching on dead horseshoe crabs while the gulls noisily fought over eggs. I’ve even seen bald eagles sitting on the beach at low tide at this time of year too, their size standing out among the Lilliputian shorebirds. 

Call it sex and gluttony on the Delaware Bay: the horseshoe crabs engaged in lusty orgy while the shorebirds engorge themselves on the fruits of the crabs’ labors. 

But this extraordinary confluence of natural history events is depressingly endangered. While horseshoe crabs have been used for fertilizer since the Lenape days, in recent decades the over-harvesting of the beasts for fertilizer, bait, and even medicine (the crab’s blue copper-based blood is useful to researchers) has greatly depleted their numbers. With fewer crabs emerging in the surf, knot numbers have plummeted, and bird experts are terrified we will lose the race of knots that engages in this long-distance feat. Over the last 20 years or more, there have been fierce battles raging over the allowable number of crabs to sustainably harvest, arguments leaving no one happy, neither biologists nor fishermen. And because three states border on the bay, the knot’s situation becomes even more entangled.

For the last 25 years or more, Dr. Lawrence Niles has been leading national efforts to call attention to the plight of both red knots and horseshoe crabs, and has been featured in many TV and radio news shows over the years. He is our very special guest on Thursday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m., as part of the center’s popular Thursday Night Live series of free virtual lectures. Simply visit our website to register for the event

Niles has had a front row seat on the red knot story, spending two decades as chief of New Jersey’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, where he works on other species like piping plovers, and in 2006 started his own company to pursue independent research and habitat restoration in the Delaware Bay and elsewhere. He is also a founding member of the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition and on the board of the National Shorebird Council and Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.  

“Over the last year,” he said, “we have built the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition to fight the wasteful killing of horseshoe crabs for bait and at the hand of multinational corporations for their blood despite an effective synthetic alternative.” On Thursday night. He will “describe new work on the ecological significance of horseshoe crabs, showing that their importance is far greater than eggs for shorebirds. At their natural levels, he concluded, ”they are a foundational resource for coastal ecosystems.” 

It’s a critical conservation story for the region, and I invite you to join me for Thursday Night Live. See you then.

This Week in Climate. After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the world’s youth are returning to the streets for climate strikes from school. Last week, more than 700 protests worldwide were held on Friday, according to Friday’s for Future, the climate strike organization that sprung from Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s solitary school strike and vigil at the Swedish parliament in 2018. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director