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

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

The Real March Madness: Outside in Nature

Toadshade trillium in bud, one of the many spring wildflowers soon to bloom on our trails.

It’s hugely exciting times for college hoops fans, awash in basketball games where they breathlessly wait to see if, oh, the Providence Friars can hold off the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. (OK, Villanova vs. Delaware is pretty cool.) Some $3.1 billion will be bet– DOUBLE what was spent only last year– and almost 40 million Americans will fill out those brackets. 

Over 19-year-old kids playing hoops. Welcome to March Madness. 

Meanwhile, receiving no fanfare at all, nature in March is simply exploding. Flowers have already begun opening, an elegant parade blooming in an orchestrated sequence begun back in February when skunk cabbages poked through the mud in wet areas, purple mottled hoods protecting a Sputnik-shaped flower. Just this week, the buds of red maples have popped to reveal tiny wind-pollinated flowers, little red spiders dangling from tree branches.  

And along our Ravine Loop, as the photo above shows, the very first trillium of the season has poked out of the ground, and is thisclose to opening its flowers. Trillium is a native member of the lily clan, and this one goes by the evocative name toadshade– small toads can hide from the sun under its umbrella of leaves. 

While snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils have already sprung up on our lawns, our forests will soon be bursting with ephemeral wildflowers with names as evocative as the flowers are stunning:  trout lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, shooting star, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal… With all apologies to our good friends at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, here’s the real flower show.

Meanwhile, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, flying through in  progression, red-winged blackbirds and phoebes now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably exquisite creatures wearing extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers right now, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. And they are passing through in their breeding plumage, essentially wearing  their Sunday best for us. Just Google Blackburnian warbler: is there a prettier animal anywhere?

And while some of these birds are staying for the summer, many are heading to nesting grounds far north of here– think Adirondacks and Canada– only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink and they’re gone. 

Those birds that nest here– cardinals and chickadees, titmice and robins– will be calling their love songs. One of my favorite sounds of spring is the first moment I hear a wood thrush. A cousin of the robin, the thrush’s song is like organ pipes or flute music: it is simply stunning, and stops me in my tracks every spring. 

Butterflies soon begin awakening, mourning cloaks first, painted ladies soon, swallowtails in late April, and monarchs, just now leaving Mexico, much later. 

Hibernators are crawling out of dens ready to start the new year. American toads will soon be crossing Port Royal Avenue on a dark and stormy night to get to their mating grounds up in the old reservoir across the road. And any day now I expect to see the first groundhog of the season, likely nibbling on roadside grass blades on that high bench of lawn along Hagy’s Mill Road, on the old Water Department land.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, on the very first days of spring, having survived another wild and wooly winter, having been stuck in lockdown and freeze-down and ice-down, and we’re not betting on the first day a phoebe arrives from the tropics or the first day a mourning cloak butterfly flitters into view. We’re not inviting friends over for a beer to watch our crocuses unfold. We’re not sitting in lawn chairs to admire the red blush of flowers blooming across the maples on our street.

The struggle for me as an environmental educator is that, as a nation, as a culture, we have collectively decided, quietly but definitively, that college basketball matters. Just look at the air time, the ink space, the coaches’ salaries– in many states, athletic coaches are the highest paid state employee.

But nature? Not so much.

There’s another part of this madness: nature’s elegant springtime succession of flowers blossoming, trees leafing out, and birds migrating is in disarray because the symphony has a new conductor. While climate change is rearranging ancient patterns to an as-yet-unknown effect, the biggest experiment in the history of a planet…

… we’re glued to TV sets arguing over who’s better, Gonzaga or Baylor.  

So the real flower show has already started outdoors, in your backyard, in a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets. And that’s just madness.

This Thursday, March 24 at 7 p.m, we will presents a virtual “Celebration of Spring,” with our naturalists sharing favorite spring birds, trees, reptiles, fungi, and wildflowers over Zoom. The event is free; register and receive the link here

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Ukraine: “This is a Fossil Fuel War”

A gas-powered power plant and thermal power plant in snow-covered Anadyr, Siberia, Russia.

We’ve all been watching the increasingly grim war in Ukraine with a mixture of horror, outrage, and sadness at the needless loss of life and the tragic outpouring of refugees. Given Vladimir Putin’s relentless resolve in pushing forward at all costs, I’m guessing the situation only worsens between my writing this on Friday and your reading it next week. 

Svitlana Krakovska has a unique lens to view the war. A Kyiv resident, she’s Ukraine’s leading climate scientist and the head of the country’s delegation that helped draft the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-led effort that has been carefully cataloging the climate catastrophe for decades now. The newest massive report, summarizing 34,000 independent studies, was released on February 28, just as Russian bombs began falling. As climate writer Bill McKibben reported last week in The Guardian, Krakovska was finishing the report while sheltering with her four children in her basement, bombs exploding very close to her home.

“Both the invasion and IPCC report,” wrote McKibben, “crystallized for Krakovska the human, economic and geopolitical catastrophe of fossil fuels. About half of the world’s population is now acutely vulnerable to disasters stemming from the burning of fossil fuels, the IPCC report found, while Russia’s military might is underpinned by wealth garnered from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves.”

She told McKibben, “I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels. Burning oil, gas and coal,” she continued, “is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization.”

With oil and gas literally fueling something like 60% of the Russian economy– there isn’t much else– much of the West has embargoed Russian fossil fuels. That’s great, but few countries in the West are decarbonizing as quickly as we need to for the world to avoid the worst of climate change. And the US is especially intractable, as climate change long ago fell into the deep but growing chasm between Republicans and Democrats, meaning we cannot take meaningful action on this critical issue.

UN secretary general António Guterres bleakly describes the IPCC report as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” Extreme heat is already killing more people worldwide, some 12 million people are already being displaced by floods and droughts annually,  and healthy available farmland is shrinking. “Without action,”  concludes the report, “worse is coming, and faster than scientists had thought.”

“But it is the conflict in Ukraine,” McKibben continues, “that has caused western governments to hastily attempt to untangle themselves from a reliance on Russian oil and gas. The European Union, which gets about 40% of its gas supply from Russia, is working on a plan to rapidly upscale renewable energy, bolster energy efficiency measures and build liquified natural gas terminals to receive gas from other countries.” That’s all fine, but the US is not holding up our own end of the climate change bargain, even though every day a new brand of electric car puts its glitzy ad on TV. That’s a great start, but we need more. Much more. 

With a barrel of oil going now for over $100– it briefly topped $130 last week– oil and gas production will ramp up as companies smell inflated prices and profits– ironically just as we need to leave carbon behind. And this truth is especially painful in Pennsylvania, a state where first oil, then coal, and now fracked natural gas have been king. No less than Tesla founder Elon Musk offered that “we need to increase oil and gas output immediately. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”

Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, has a decidedly different take. “The fossil fuel industry’s so-called solution to this crisis,” he told McKibben, “is nothing more than a recipe to enable fossil-fueled fascists like Putin for years to come. As long as our economy is dependent on fossil fuels,” he concluded, “we will be at the mercy of petro-dictators who wield their influence on global energy prices like a weapon. American-made clean energy is affordable, reliable and free from the volatility of oil and gas markets. The best way to weaken Putin’s grip on the global energy market is to get America off of fossil fuels.”

Amen. Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Krakovska told McKibben she will stay in her home city as the Russian army advances, declining offers at other research institutions. “I know that’s what Putin wants, for us to flee Ukraine so they can have our beautiful country,” she said. 

And McKibben concluded his moving essay with this important notion: “Caring about the people of Ukraine means caring about an end to oil and gas.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Great American Tree

A chestnut tree showing its open bur and those famously alluring fruits, craved by both people and a diverse assemblage of animals, from deer to passenger pigeons. Photo courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation.

Walk through a local forest, and you’ll see a diverse assemblage of trees– tuliptrees reaching straight up into the sky, sassafras wiggling their trunks through the canopy, black cherries sporting their chipped bark, beeches seemingly standing like huge immovable elephants, massive smooth gray trunks imitating pachyderms. 

But you won’t see any American chestnut trees, once one of the most common trees in a Pennsylvania forest. They were wiped out in rapid-fire assault at the start of the century. 

Sara Fern Fitzsimons, American Chestnut Foundation director of restoration, is a leader in an army of scientists and foresters working to bring them back. And therein lies a story.

On Thursday, March 10 at 7:00 pm, we have a unique opportunity to hear Sara tell you this tree’s extraordinary story in a free Zoom lecture. It’s also our 11th annual Richard L. James Lecture, named for our founding executive director. Registration can easily be done here.

In the late 1800s, four billion chestnuts grew in the eastern US, fully one in four trees in a Pennsylvania forest. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees, with straight-grained, rot-resistant wood used for furniture, fencing, and building. Its famous nuts fed billions of wildlife, people, and their livestock– including the passenger pigeon, whose massive flocks combed the forest floor in search of chestnuts, not to mention acorns, hickories, and beechnuts. 

Long before this, the Lenape burned our forests on a regular schedule to keep forests in earlier stages of succession and keep nut trees like chestnuts, acorns, and hickories. The nuts not only fed the First Nations people, but supported a larger population of deer and turkey, two animals central to their diet. Penn’s Woods was hardly a pristine wilderness; instead, it was actively managed by the Lenape, skilled forest ecologists– and chestnuts were central in their long-term plans.

“It was almost a perfect tree,” concludes the American Chestnut Foundation on its website. 

Tragically, dead chestnut trees were first discovered in the Bronx Botanical Garden in 1904. A fungal blight had been accidentally imported from Asia, where that continent’s species of chestnuts had evolved alongside the fungus and were resilient to its impact. The American species, however, encountering this novel threat for the first time ever, simply had no immunity, and quickly succumbed. The fungus spread like wildfire, reaching Philadelphia in 1908 and rippling across the northeast. The American Chestnut Foundation calls it, without exaggeration, the “greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history.”

The foundation’s elegy, concludes, “The American chestnut tree survived all adversaries for 40 million years, and then disappeared within 40.”

Despite its demise, the tree is not extinct. The blight doesn’t kill the underground root system, as the blight is unable to compete with soil microorganisms. Stump sprouts grow vigorously in cutover or disturbed sites where there is plenty of sunlight, but inevitably succumb to the blight. This cycle of death and rebirth has kept the species alive, though considered functionally extinct. The foundation carries out an active breeding program to breed blight-resistant hybrid chestnuts, and also uses high-tech biotechnology and biocontrol as well. The foundation hopes to restore the American chestnut to its storied place in the American landscape.

Will they succeed? Come see. “I hope people coming to the lecture,” notes Sara, “take away the incredibly fascinating scientific work behind restoring the American chestnut and the equally fascinating people behind the work, including volunteers and citizen scientists, and an understanding that our forests are under great pressure from non-native pests and disease. The success of the American chestnut restoration can lead the way toward rescuing those other threatened native forest trees.”

 Her foundation has planted 500,000 disease-resistant chestnuts already. What would she like people to do after the lecture? “Plant trees!” she answered. 

The Richard L. James Lecture is named in honor of our founding executive director, who led the center for 31 years from our 1965 founding through his 1996 retirement. He also wrote a column in The Roxborough Review for many of those years and offered weekly weather commentary on WFLN-FM, the long-gone radio station on Ridge Avenue alongside the Roxborough Church. In fact, his on-air weather commentaries, heard by Roxborough’s own David Montgomery, then a young and rising executive within the Phillies in the early 80s, led to Dick serving as the baseball team’s meteorologist. Dick would spend many a summer evening staring at his weather radar while on the phone with David, providing updates on when that thunderstorm would pass over South Philly so the game could resume. Dick had a huge presence in both Roxborough and the Delaware Valley.

The lecture also kicks off the Center’s Year of Restoration, with special programs and events occurring throughout the year– watch for them. In the meantime, join us Thursday, March 10 at 7 p.m. via Zoom for Sara’s lecture on this “almost perfect tree.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The First Wildflower of Spring is Here!

Skunk cabbage, one of the first wildflowers to bloom during spring, sprouting on our Ravine Loop.

In this weird winter of seesaw weather– 60 degrees one day, 20 the next with an inch of snow to boot– last week I walked the Ravine Loop in search of one of my Holy Grails, one of my key markers in the natural year’s calendar. I was searching for the very first flower of spring, one that appears as early as mid-February, the first flower in a long march that concludes in the late summer with goldenrod and aster, the tramp clowns at the end of the floral circus parade.

Walking down the loop from the Visitor Center, the trail makes a hard left at Smith Run, a beautiful stream on our property. And at that turn, there is a small wetland seep that is perfect habitat for skunk cabbage, a plant that needs its feet wet. I peeked and poked and hoped and looked– and, yippee!, there it was.

Skunk cabbage. A petite purple hood poking up through the wetland. 

The mottled purple hood resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, able to generate heat to melt the snow and ice around it. Temperatures around the hood are as much as 60° higher than the air around it. Crazy, no?

But that purple hood isn’t the flower. No, tucked inside the hood is a Sputnik-like knobby orb, rather Klingon-ish. Those knobs, unsexy as they are, are its flowers. And the flowers reek too, but a different smell, one akin to rotting flesh. This serves a huge purpose: attracting its pollinators, the flies and bees that scavenge on dead and rotting flesh. They crawl into the hood looking for dead meat, crawl over and across the yellow knobs, and accidentally pollinate the flower, a highly effective strategy. 

And one of skunk cabbage’s pollinators is a blowfly with the wonderful species name of vomitoria. Need we say more?

The purple mottling of its hood is surprisingly common in the plant world, as lots of plants have learned how to imitate dead flesh as a means of seduction. Skunk cabbage belongs to the arum family, and its cousin, Jack-in-the-pulpit, employs the exact same trick to attract a different pollinator.

The heat it generates accomplishes multiple functions; it not only melts the ice around it, critical at this time of year, but also helps disseminate the smell. And pollinators are likely to come into the hood seeking that warmth. As I scanned the area for more hoods– I found at least four more coming up– I saw three different flies flitting around the area, one landing on a downed tree trunk to bask in the sunlight, as last Saturday saw temperatures pushing 60°. Was this its pollinator? Maybe. But it was one of the first flying insects I’ve seen this winter, the others out the day before, another warm day. 

After blooming, its bright green leaves come up as well, some almost two feet long, their cabbage-like appearance lending the plant its name. 

As if all this were not cool enough, the plant’s stems remain buried below the surface, contracting as they grow, effectively pulling the stem deeper into the mud. In effect, it is an upside-down plant, the stem growing downward. As the plant grows, the stem burrows deeper, making older plants practically impossible to dig up. 

Want to see skunk cabbage yourself? (Of course you do!) Come to the Visitor Center and ask our receptionist for a trail map. Then hike through the butterfly meadow, turning right and heading downhill on Ravine Loop. When the loop makes that big left turn at its bottom where it hits Smith Run, stay alert. Turn left to parallel the stream, then look immediately on your left for the wet, soggy, muddy spots– and the hoods will be interspersed there. 

At that same corner and all along this stretch of the Ravine Loop, skunk cabbage will soon be joined by a raft of stunning flowers, the more traditional spring wildflowers with bold colors and big smells that look to entice the first butterflies and bees of spring. They’ve got sweet names too: spring beauty, Virginia bluebell, trout lily, trillium, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal. Colorful names. And great sights for winter-weary eyes.

They’re coming, I promise! But for now, come see the first flowers of the coming season. And, with Valentine’s Day behind us and the days growing longer, happy almost-spring.

This week in climate. The Beijing Winter Olympic Games began earlier this month, and while I’ve been enjoying it (especially, I confess, curling), skiing has been visually jarring, its slope in the first week an island of bright white floating in an ocean of dull snowless brown. Sports Illustrated reports that this year is the first time an Olympic host city has had to rely entirely on artificial snow. And according to researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo, February temperatures in the 19 previous Winter Olympics host cities since 1950 have risen considerably, those cities seeing an average of a 4.8° rise in temperature; over that same period, Beijing has warmed a whopping 8.9°. If high carbon emissions continue, the study concludes, of all the prior Olympic venues, only four will be climate-reliable locations by mid-century, and only one late in the century. Artificial snow will likely become the norm. 

As a response to this threat, winter athletes– skiers, lugers, bobsledders– have in turn started their own environmental advocacy group, Protect Our Winters, a wonderfully welcome yet unlikely member of the growing coalition of concerned voices on climate. 

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director