Gardening with Native Plants: Great for You AND the Planet

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. 

Virginia bluebells, pink buds opening into bright blue flowers. Shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Trillium, a gorgeous but an oh-so-ephemeral plant, the species over here blooming in white, but the one over there in red. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside his lectern. And that’s just a start.

Solomon’s seal

And the good news? You can plant these in your yard. In fact, planting these in your yard is one of the most powerful acts you can do to improve the health of our planet. (And many of them require shade, even better for many of us without good sun in our yards.) 

The better news?  They are perennial; planting them now often means they come up better next year, spreading a bit. And unlike impatiens, they require little watering.

But why is this a powerful act? The tulips, daffodils and crocuses that grace most of our gardens are without question beautiful flowers. But since they are not native to Pennsylvania or even America, few other living things live on them. Sure, deer might eat them (as deer seem to like everything), but caterpillars don’t touch most of them, and neither do many or any other insects. While that makes us and landscapers happy—the plants are not getting consumed by hungry insects—it makes a mother robin looking for caterpillars to feed her fast-growing, hungry babies very sad.  

That’s the problem: a yard filled with tulips, daffodils, and crocuses sadly has no wildlife value for birds looking to feed bugs to their babies. And surprisingly, almost all birds feed bugs to their babies—even the babies of seed-eating birds grow up being fed bugs first. So that means a world filled with daffodils is by necessity one devoid of robins, wrens, thrushes, and more.

That’s the beauty of places like the Schuylkill Center and the Wissahickon—we’re islands of native plants in an ocean of inedible lawns and plantings. Truthfully, a lawn is an ecological desert.

Spring violets

One native Pennsylvania oak, as we noted last week, supports literally thousands of species of insects, including hundreds of caterpillars of different moths and butterflies. Same with the wild black cherry tree, with leaves that caterpillars devour, flowers that offer nectar for butterflies, and fruit that birds crave. One tree holds up an entire world.

Gardening with native plants, a modest movement that we wholeheartedly support, is thus a powerful act of environmental improvement, as it supports the many species of small creatures that inhabit this part of the planet, protecting our biological diversity.

The Schuylkill Center also makes this action easy for you: right now, online, we are offering our annual Native Plant Sale, your one-stop shopping for many of  the flowers I noted above (and so many more!). We’re also selling shrubs. ferns, grasses, vines and trees as well, plus soil and other gardening supplies. If you become a Schuylkill Center member, we’ll even give you a discount on the flowers you buy, all by itself reason enough to join.

In the shrub department alone, for example, several of the shrubs offer berries that are completely irresistible to songbirds. Serviceberry (also called shadbush because it blooms about when shad run up rivers), chokeberry, elderberry, and blueberry are just a few of the shrubs in our sale that sport wonderful berries that feed a diversity of native wildlife; blueberries especially attract a  large number of insects pollinators to them. 

In the tree section, redbuds and magnolias offer beautiful springtime flowers—redbuds are the medium sized trees blushing lilac right now. Oaks, birches, pawpaws, cedars, and horse chestnuts are a sampling of some of the other high-value native trees.

Redbud tree

We’ve even got sedges and grasses that offer visual interest in your garden. 

To hold your hand in this, on this week’s Thursday Night Live, our weekly deep dive into all things natural, we’re offering the Native Plants Hotline, a chance for anyone to call in with their garden questions about gardening with natives. Register for that on our website as well; the free event starts Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. and features both gardening and tree experts. Do call.

Spring is busting out all over—and you can bring that action into your yard. To be sure, you don’t have to replant your entire yard. Not at all. Just buy a few plants at the sale, add them to your yard, and every year tuck a few more here and there. It’s so easy. Come see. And the plants are easily as beautiful as daffodils—some, even more so. (Check out Virginia bluebells and white trillium.)

And the best part, our birds and butterflies will thank you.  

—Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Hopping and Hoping: Toads on the road

Why did hundreds of toads cross the road on a rainy Wednesday night? 

As ever, to get to the other side; migration season is in full swing. 

Every year in late March and early April, the amphibians wake from hibernation to mate and lay eggs, and they begin the treacherous journey from Schuylkill Center forests to the Roxborough reservoirs and back. The most treacherous part? Crossing Port Royal Avenue, often during evening rush hour. The toads mostly move in dusk and darkness to avoid animal predators—but that method doesn’t work so well for cars.  

by Kevin Kissling

Sixteen years ago, a group of volunteers set out to give these toads safe passage across the road, by erecting barricades and redirecting traffic around Port Royal Avenue. The Schuylkill Center took over this program three years in and has been running it ever since, under the affectionate name “Toad Detour.” It’s the largest volunteer operation we have, and folks come back year after year to participate.

It’s a great opportunity to have fun, learn more about amphibians and save the future, so to speak,” says Paulina Le, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Schuylkill Center.Toad Detour makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” They come for nights full of the camaraderie of shared purpose, and for quiet, excited observation of the toads’ epic undertaking. As volunteer Sandy Brubaker describes it, she “Really enjoy[s] hearing them first, usually leaves rustling on the side of the road, and then seeing that first one!” Longtime volunteer leader Ed Wickham agrees, saying “I never tire seeing and hearing the toads, frogs and toadlets every year. They are my first sign of spring like the cherry blossoms or snow geese.”

How do they know when toads may make an appearance? First the weather has to be warm enough—the ground temperature needs to be consistently around 55°F—and ideally a bit wet or rainy. But the most telling sign: the male toads will begin their mating call, a high pitched trill that sounds through the night. This is a cue for volunteers to take to the streets. 

A male and female toad in “amplexus,” or their mating position, as they cross the road. Photo by Kevin Kissling

On the evening of Wednesday, March 31, no fewer than 543 live toads crossed the road, assiduously counted by our volunteers. (A few pickerel frogs also showed up to the party.) Counting the toads helps us track the size and health of local toad populations—which in turn indicates the health of the entire habitat. The numbers also make an online tool created by a long-time volunteer, the “Toad Predictor,” more accurate. While we don’t yet submit the numbers formally to a database as you might for migrating birds or butterflies, documenting the toads supports the necessity for road barriers.

And this is only part one of the journey: The eggs laid in the reservoirs will hatch three to 12 days later, and once the tadpoles mature into toadlets (tiny toads the size of your fingernail), they cross the road once more to get back to their terrestrial home territory. “They have tough lives,” Wickham says. “Only a very small percent of toads born become adults. To have a big female toad survive against all odds then be killed by a car is tragic.” So he has one final plea for you: “Please volunteer. Please volunteer often. Volunteers that show up many times a year every year are so valuable. They rescue more toads than anyone else.”

Sometimes volunteers use buckets to more effectively and safely transport toads across the street, and sometimes they use them to protect toads hopping their way over outside of the barrier zone. Photo by Colleen DiCola

As more and more nature centers throughout the country take up similar toad and amphibian detour operations, some also engineer special wildlife bridges and tunnels. As Paulina says, “Many folks are adapting the principle of living with the environment, not against it.” The toads, after all, “have been here longer than humans have”—and they’re certainly not going to let a road get in their way. 

 

—Emily Sorensen

 

 

Further resources:

Sign up to be a Toad Detour volunteer

Check out our Facebook Group 

What does the toad say? By Clare Morgan 

Watch Doug Wechsler’s Thursday Night L!VE talk on the life of a toad

Read a review of Wechsler’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (available in our Nature Gift Shop)

Purchase the Toad Detour DVD

The Lands We Cultivate

“The beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability.” Rob Carter

The process of urbanization and our evolving understanding of plants are the main topics that shape the new exhibition Rob Carter: Cultured Lands at the Schuylkill Center. The exhibition features work by environmental artist Rob Carter, who uses historical, scientific, and experiential research to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. 

The exhibition features a selection of Carter’s creative experiments that challenge us to envision a future for our lands in which humanity and nature can sustainably coexist. Developed in partnership with the West Collection at SEI, a major contemporary art collection in our region, Carter’s solo exhibition will open this Thursday, April 15 with a virtual opening reception and artist talk. During the reception, Carter will share his fascination for botany, urban development, and how they shape our shared environment. He will discuss his current research into the history and future of landscapes with Tina Plokarz, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Lee Stoetzel, manager of the West Collection.

“The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating,” says Carter in a recent interview. “I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history.” Plants have recently become his “favorite characters,” he admits, explaining, “the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace.”

Rob Carter: Soy Drawing 4 (GMO), 2020 pencil, watercolour and soy plant ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

Cultured Lands features Carter’s work Plant Writing (2020), an artistic experiment with highly processed soy beans, the most valuable US agricultural export. With ink drawings and a time-lapse video, the artist documents the growth and movement of organic and genetically modified soybean plants over the course of several days. He captures both the action of the artist/scientist and the motion of the plants. A process that is quite methodical, but also “as free and instinctual as possible,” as Carter describes his art-making. 

Presented side-by-side with traces of Philadelphia’s colonization history in the gallery, the exhibition is a reminder of the transformation of soil into profitable farmland. The aim of growing ever more productive crops to meet the needs and wants of humanity continues to shape agriculture today. But if humanity is dependent on crops, the artist speculates, how can humans nurture an insightful and empathetic relationship to the natural environment?

Rob Carter: Metropolis (2008), courtesy of the artist and the West Collection

Cultured Lands is also an invitation for dialogue about the transformation of undeveloped land into concreted, industrial metropolises. It features the paper-based stop-motion animation Metropolis (2008), an abridged narrative history of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spanning the time period from 1755 to the present, and from a Native American trading path through farming and the discovery of gold to today’s modern city. Part American history lesson, part utopian avant-garde à la Fritz Lang, Metropolis builds a bridge from the urban development dreams of the past to today’s recognition of irreversible human-made influences in the era of the Anthropocene. 

Equally characters and props in our social drama plants and architecture are the lenses through which Carter unravels humanity’s responsibility as a global, Earth-changing force. Carter points to the uncertainties in our knowledge of the natural world and considers how our understanding and relationship to nature might evolve into the future.

The Schuylkill Center looks forward to seeing you in the art gallery. The exhibition is open from April 15 to June 5, 2021 with a virtual reception on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 7pm. Please register for the opening here.

The Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center is open, as is the art gallery, but please remember that masks and 6-feet social distancing are required. We also welcome your comments and thoughts in our digital guestbook at www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

A Reflection on Making Space for Us

In my role as the Environmental Art Intern, I had the great opportunity to go through each and every one of the photos that were submitted to the amazing kaleidoscope of nature in the exhibition “Citizen’s Eye.” In the process of sorting through them, I had time to reflect on these snapshots, and on my own experiences in the outdoors throughout the pandemic. While there are many beautiful and eye-catching images, the ones that stood out to me most were those that documented time spent with other people. When I reflect on the time I spent outside over the last year, I am reminded of the close friends and family that I share these memories with. In a time of being hyper-aware of the spaces around us, nature provided a refuge and became the setting for all kinds of gathering. A place where we could still spend time with each other while also maintaining the distance we needed apart from each other to be safe and respectful.

Nature Preschool at the Schuylkill Center by Rose Hammerman

What I see when I look through these images is a process of placemaking. Each photograph documents a way in which we are embedding emotional significance and new meaning into our natural environments. When we give these spaces new life, making them significant locations for living, gathering and communicating, we have transformed them into a place. While indoor spaces closed their doors to gathering, we turned to the outdoors to create new places to create memories. Celebration, exploration, connection, learning, mourning and many more rituals all took place in natural environments. Restaurants looked at parking lots and sidewalks and imagined new places for dining. This process was important in 2020. Natural placemaking reflected our needs to adjust to the circumstances, and it also reconnected us to a natural world that we are often at odds with. Whether or not you spent much time in the outdoors before the pandemic, your view of natural space definitely changed during the pandemic.

My hope is that post-pandemic, however that future looks, we will continue this process and continue to embed meaning into our natural spaces, whether it be the patch of grass on the sidewalk or the forest you went hiking through. Many were already doing this long before Covid-19 took ahold of our attention, but for others, time in quarantine allowed us to be more reflective and more presently focused on processes like this. We found a need to create new places, not by building or defining a space, but by being intentionally aware of what a space means to us and the memories that are connected to it.

Photo by CJ Walsh

 I am glad to look through this collection of images and view the many ways in which we think about nature, both big and small, as important to our lives during a time of crisis and turmoil. As we imagine what futures await us, it is important to uphold these processes presently, and to imagine how natural space and its significance to us fits into these imagined futures.

 

By CJ Walsh, Environmental Designer and former Art Intern at the Schuylkill Center.

 

Naughty by Nature: A Valentine’s Day Special Event

Birds do it, bees do it, and sentimental fleas? Don’t even ask. 

In celebration of the coming Valentine’s Day holiday, the Schuylkill Center cordially invites you to a special edition of our new Thursday Night Live series. “Naughty by Nature” features the amazing stories of sex and courtship in the animal kingdom, as these stories are extraordinary and just not shared often enough. I’ll be offering this PG-13 lecture on Thursday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m. The event is free, but you’ll need to register and get the Zoom link. 

Animals possess a wide range of adaptations to court their mates. So lion manes, buck antlers, firefly flashes, cricket chirps, cardinal songs, and peacock feathers—among many others—are all adaptations to seduce females. Let’s start with those buck antlers.

The antlers give a female strong visual cues as to the health and vitality of the male—the size of the rack matters, and as bucks mature the antlers tend to get larger and larger. But the story doesn’t stop there. Many times on autumn walks around the Schuylkill Center’s trails, I’ve come across a buck’s rut, a scrape in the ground made by the male. He not only scratches the ground clear of grass, but urinates down his hind legs, the urine mixing with hormones secreted by glands in his knee joints, and a witch’s brew of liquids puddles in the mud. The does find the smell, well, irresistible. He has staked out his turf, laid down his calling card—and likely will find does there the next evening. This system works exceptionally well, as just about every doe is pregnant by the time winter settles in. 

Let’s swim over to the clownfish, the brightly colored star of “Finding Nemo.” Well, surprise, the movie got it all wrong. In much of the animal kingdom, gender is relatively straightforward; an organism is oftentimes born or hatched as male or female. Bucks are bucks; does remain does. Not so among clownfish.

Clownsfih have this marvelous adaptation of being immune to the stings of the sea anemones that live alongside them in coral reefs. The clownfish uses the anemone as  protection, making it harder for those hungry moray eels to get them. A small cluster of clownfish live in and around one anemone, a little community of clowns cloaked by anemone tentacles.

But two of the clownfish are larger, one male and one female, and these are the two that mate; the others are not only celibate, they are all male. Let’s say that moray eel gets lucky, or old age catches up to the female, and she either perishes or is someone’s dinner. What then?

Easy. Turns out clownfish, like a surprising number of fish, are sequential hermaphrodites, possessing the sexual organs of both sexes but suppressing one until needed. In the sudden absence of a female, the large male shifts his sex over and becomes the new female; the remaining smaller males then jockey for position, with usually the next-larger male winning the right to be the new dominant male, bulking up rapidly in size to take his position atop the sexual food chain. Situation solved. 

Or let’s see how bees do it, as the song notes. Most of the honeybees you have seen in your life are female workers. There are male bees, the drones, but these bees do not work: they gather no nectar, make no honey, clean no queen, raise no brood. They have only one, albeit important, reason for being, a singular task to accomplish: they are living sperm containers waiting for a virgin queen to fly. They are flying insurance policies.

And somehow the drones of neighboring hives all know where to congregate—they all get an unwritten memo and map in a secret code that scientists have yet to crack. And there they wait… 

So when a new queen emerges from her special queen cell in the hive, her first task is to scour the hive looking for other queen cells, as hives with an aging queen likely raise multiple new queens to make sure one works out. The first queen that hatches then kills the others immediately; sororicide, the killing of sisters, is her very first act.

Her next act is to tank up on sperm. To do that, she flies to those same drone congregation areas; she’s got the map as well. And the fastest, maybe the luckiest, male who catches her first mates in mid-flight. Unfortunately for him, copulation results in death; he immediately falls to the ground as the climax to her nuptial flight, and she has the sperm she needs for a lifetime of egg laying.

Those drones are also incapable of feeding themselves; they beg for food in the hive by tapping on the antennae of female workers who obligingly regurgitate food for them. Until the fall. As the hive slides towards winter’s lean season, no nuptial flights will be occurring and the hive needs its honey to survive the winter. Now, drones are expendable. So when the males tap females for food, the workers deny the request, and the drones starve. They die in the hive, and are carried out by female undertaker workers to be unceremoniously dumped outside the entrance. Ah, love.

So calling all bucks and does, or even stags: join me for a lively evening discussing the delightful and surprising sexual antics of the animal kingdom, just in time for Valentine’s Day. 

 

–By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

MLK Day of Service — Projects from Home

Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality. In his honor, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is observed on the third Monday in January. On what is termed “a day on, not off,” we are encouraged to engage in volunteer service to our community. While we can’t meet in person this year, we know that you don’t have to go far to make a difference. You’re invited to join us at 10 am on Monday, January 18 over Zoom to connect with community and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. before setting off on your own. More info and register here

At that meeting, we’ll answer any questions you might have and  encourage you to complete one of the following service projects to help your neighbors, your community, wildlife, and the environment.

Suggested Projects include:

Help the environment

  • Pick Up Litter: Grab a bag and a pair of gloves and set out to beautify your neighborhood or a nearby park, one piece of litter at a time. Try to fill at least one bag of trash.
    • While you’re doing this, reflect on the trash you create and how you might be able to minimize it. Find some suggestions here and here.
  • Write to a Representative: Let your representatives in the House and Senate know how important the health of the environment is to you by writing them a letter urging them to support climate change legislation, or—for younger children—drawing a picture of your favorite nature spot.

Help your community

  • Donate food to a community fridge: Community fridges have popped up across the city since the start of the pandemic. They provide fresh food for those in need.
    • Find a fridge in your area to donate food or donate money. Consider swinging by first to see what’s needed, and then come back with what you can supply.
    • Read more about community fridges here and find Philadelphia locations here.  

Help wildlife

  • Make Window Decals to Prevent Bird Strikes: Window collisions are a leading cause of death in bird populations. Birds fly into windows because the glass reflects the environment around it and therefore, birds do not see it as a barrier. Window decals can help to prevent this. Create some of your own window decals using the recipe below. Make sure to cover the entire window (no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally) when putting them up.
    • Ingredients: 2 tablespoons white glue, 2 drops of dish soap, paintbrush, plastic page protectors or wax paper, food coloring (optional), cookie cutters (optional)
    • Directions:
      • Mix glue, dish soap, and food coloring together in a bowl.
      • Use a paintbrush to paint designs on a plastic page protector or wax paper. If you have one, you can also lay down a cookie cutter and paint inside of that. The number of designs needed will depend on how many windows you have and the size of them.
      • The painted layer should be thick enough that there are no gaps or holes but not too thick or else it won’t dry.
      • Let sit overnight.
      • Peel the decals off and stick to windows in your house, making sure to cover the entire window so that there are no openings more than 4” vertically and 2” horizontally.
    • For more details and pictures, visit: https://teachingmama.org/diy-window-clings/
  • For more ideas, check out our article 20 Wonderful Ways to Help Nature.

 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to tag us @schuylkillcenter in a picture of the MLK project you completed using the #MLKDay!

The Science Behind Shooting Stars & S’mores

by Charlotte Roach, Communications Intern

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most spectacular annual events for amateur stargazers and serious astronomy enthusiasts alike. During its peak, tens of shooting stars blaze across the sky each hour, wowing skywatchers as they gaze up into the heavens. We are actually watching bits of comet debris burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, but if you indulge your imagination, it looks like stars are falling to Earth. This astronomical event is truly awe-inspiring, and you would be remiss not to step outside and look up in the wee hours of August 9th, 10th, and/or 11th.

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By definition, meteors are pieces of rock or dust that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and become incandescent as a result of friction. The Perseids are caused by Comet Swift-Tuttle, the largest object known to pass close to Earth repeatedly. In 1992, this comet passed close to Earth, leaving behind a trail of debris. As the Earth passes through this debris every year, bits of dust collide with our atmosphere and burn up in a brilliant flare of light. 

Image Credit: American Meteorological Society

Image Credit: American Meteorological Society

Unfortunately, August’s moon cycle is not ideally calibrated for meteor viewing. The peak of the shower is August 12th, but the light of the nearly-full moon will render most meteors invisible to human eyes. So, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke, via space.com, recommends having a viewing party on August 9th or 10th. There will still be plenty of meteors and relatively less moonlight to wash them out. He also recommends to drive to the darkest place you can find, away from any source of light pollution, and give your eyes 30 minutes to fully adjust. 

Image Credit: Sky & Telescope Magazine

Image Credit: Sky & Telescope Magazine

Interested in watching the meteor shower but don’t have the time to drive halfway to Harrisburg? The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education will be hosting Shooting Stars and S’mores on August 9th and 10th, and we would love for you to join us. The Schuylkill Center’s 340-acre property is free of sources of light pollution, making it the most ideal meteor shower viewing spot within Philadelphia city limits. Shooting Stars and S’mores will also feature an educational lecture from Renee Stein and Dave Walker of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society and of course, delicious campfire treats. We look forward to seeing you!

Source for meteor facts: Lewin, Sarah. “Perseid Meteor Shower 2019: When, Where & How to See It.” Space.com. Future US, Inc. 8 January 2019. https://www.space.com/32868-perseid-meteor-shower-guide.html

 

Celebrate Winterfest at the Schuylkill Center

By Mike Weilbacher

This Saturday– Groundhog Day, appropriately enough– the Schuylkill Center celebrates the reopening of our Wildlife Clinic with a family festival marking the day, Winterfest for Wildlife. Held at the Visitor Center on Hagy’s Mill Road and happening from noon to 4 p.m., the event includes nature walks, wildlife talks, face painting, wildlife-themed arts and crafts, storytimes courtesy of the Free Library, a bake sale, and more.

But the event kicks off at noon with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Since the Wildlife Clinic itself is typically closed to the general public as it is a hospital for ill and injured patients that need quiet and rest, the event occurs at the Schuylkill Center’s main building, where we’ll string a ribbon across our auditorium to be cut by clinic friends, marking the reopening of the clinic.

The Master of Ceremonies for the ribbon-cutting will be Kathy O’Connell, the award-winning host of WXPN-FM Philadelphia’s “Kid’s Corner,” one of the very few children’s radio shows in the country. Kathy, a long-time friend of the Schuylkill Center, will stay after the ribbon-cutting to meet and greet friends and engage them in wildlife-related activities.

Rebecca Michelin, our Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation, will present a slideshow on urban wildlife, and Ent Natale, an educator on the center’s staff, will lead walks looking for signs of local wildlife. In addition, the Pennsylvania Game Commission will be on hand to mark the day, as they are a key partner in the Wildlife Clinic. In fact, just this week clinic staff released a Cooper’s hawk brought to the facility by the Game Officer. (Since it was brought to us from the Naval Yard, our staff released it back at the Naval Yard.)

Since there are few patients on hand at the moment, small groups of visitors will be given limited-time tours of the Wildlife Clinic; vans will be shutting people back and forth from the Visitor Center to the clinic on Saturday. At Winterfest, visitors will be able to sign up for a slot on a tour at the event. Chris Strub, the clinic’s Assistant Director, will offer these tours while Rebecca presents wildlife talks at the Visitor Center. This will be the only time of the year when we will conduct this kind of tour at the clinic.

Cooper's Hawk

The Cooper’s hawk brought to the Schuylkill Center for rehabilitation by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. After successfully being rehabbed by the clinic’s skilled staff, the bird– a skilled predator of other flying birds– was rebased this week where it was discovered, at the Naval Yard.

It makes perfect sense for Winterfest for Wildlife to occur on Groundhog Day, the only holiday named for a wild animal. While folk legend holds that groundhogs– also called woodchucks– peek out of their burrows and look around that day; if they see their shadows, they scare back into their holes and we have six more weeks of winter. If the weather is overcast and there is no shadow, guess what: early spring. While scientific studies– yes, someone actually studied this– show no correlation between Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous groundhog, and weather patterns, there is a kernel of science embedded here, as male woodchucks have been spotted coming out of hibernation dens in early February to scout for the dens of females, likely getting an early start on the spring mating season.

With temperatures dropping back down into the single digits this week, let’s all guess that Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Saturday– and winter stays. But who knows?

Speaking of spring and baby animals, this is also why the Wildlife Clinic is holding its public coming-out party in February. Gray squirrels will soon be having babies, and one of the annual rites of spring at wildlife clinics across the country is marking that time when people start bringing in baby animals (or calling us about baby animals)– and baby squirrels typically lead the parade, usually starting around Valentine’s Day (though baby squirrel season seems arrive earlier and earlier in the calendar).

So come to the Schuylkill Center at noon on Saturday, help us cut the ribbon and celebrate the re-booting of this critical area facility, the only wildlife rehabilitation center in Philadelphia and one of a very small handful in the entire region. Stay for some baked goodies, enjoy Rebecca talk, take a winter wildlife walk, bring your children or grandchildren for story times and crafts, and enjoy the day.

Then, consider volunteering for the Wildlife Clinic, joining the ever-growing group of great people who will help Rebecca and Chris take care of the thousands of injured, orphaned and baby animals that will soon come pouring into its front door.

Or go to our website, www.schuylkillcenter.org, to find the list of items the clinic is seeking to be donated to help it meet the needs of its wild patients: dog and cat foods, blankets, T-shirts, and more. There’s also an Amazon wish list of supplies you can have sent to us directly. It’s all in the wildlife clinic section of the website.

Spring is coming, in spite of this week’s freezing weather, and the Wildlife Clinic will be heating up along with the weather. We’d love your help in making this happen, by volunteering, by donating, or simply by coming to Winterfest to see what all the excitement is about.

Hope to see you here.

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

Halloween Hikes and Hayrides

At nighttime, we go to bed. (That’s what I tell the kids, at least). We are diurnal mammals, awake only during the day. The Schuylkill Center’s annual Halloween Hikes & Hayrides on October 26 & 27 gives us a chance to be nocturnal, if only for a moment, and to give children the thrill of exploring their senses in what my son calls, “the deep, dark forest”. While we’re there, we learn animal facts from friendly creatures (our own environmental educators dressed up in handmade costumes) and take a hayride to admire the moon. All of the “treats” given are the non-edible variety (like stickers and erasers), but at the end of the evening, there’s always a chance to roast a marshmallow, relax by the fire, and bite into an oozy s’more.

Celebrate the season with us!

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