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 

Natural Selections: A fern for this season

Christmas fern, one of the few plants still green in a January forest.

The New Year is a great time to go for a walk in a natural area near you– the Wissahickon, Andorra Meadow, the Schuylkill Center, anywhere. The walk likely helps you meet one of your resolutions– yes, get those 10,000 steps!– while being outside allows you to sidestep that accursed virus that’s been, sorry, plaguing us unmercifully for two years now. And being outdoors allows you to lower your stress levels, as time in nature is restorative and calming. In 2022, make sure to get plenty of outdoor time.

And when you do, Christmas fern will likely be along for the walk.

One of the most common plants in Wild Philadelphia, Christmas fern is also one of the easiest ferns to spot– and know by name. Its fronds are evergreen, so on a Christmas morning walk through a forest, you’ll see its green fronds along the forest floor. Few other plants besides evergreens, rhododendrons, and hollies are still green at this time of year. And if you check out a leaflet– go ahead, look closely– it has a cute little bulge on the bottom, looking, without stretching the imagination too far, something like a Christmas stocking hanging from a fireplace.

Hello, Christmas fern, your introduction to the world of ferns. While there are hundreds of fern species locally, including many that are devilishly hard to key out to species, Christmas fern offers, appropriately, a present of sorts: it is easily knowable as one of the few green things growing along the forest floor right now. I’ve led scores of walks where people want to know the name of this or that fern, and I have to confess that it is likely a member of the giant wood fern clan, a notoriously hard knot to unravel. And lowly ferns just don’t get the love they deserve, as they are lower plants, ones without any flowers whatsoever.

But ferns are important, and are a wonderful story. The first ferns appeared on our planet some 360 million years ago, 100 million years BEFORE the earliest dinosaurs. Ferns are so ancient they predate flowers: Stegosaurus might have munched on ferns, but it never ate a flower. And in Pennsylvania’s geologic history, ferns dominated the dense primeval swamps that were buried underground, the peat slowly cooking to form coal, our state’s iconic fossil fuel.

Our state’s economy is built on the lowly fern.

The Christmas fern’s genus, Polystichum, is very successful, as it is found worldwide, its cousins growing across the entire planet. One reason Christmas fern is so common in local forests is that deer do not seek them out, a great advantage in forests typically overbrowsed by deer. (But fern fiddleheads are all edible, so perhaps consider sauteing some in the spring.)

Ferns create spores, not seeds, and most do so on fertile fronds, specialized fronds carrying structures holding the spores, often on the underside of the frond. In the Christmas fern, sterile fronds typically encircle taller fertile ones, which are also held more erect. Spores tend to be created  between June and October when the conditions are right. The fertile leaflets are at the tops of their fronds– check out frond undersides during summer and fall, looking for brown spots, the sacs that create spores. In the winter, those fertile fronds die away, leaving their sterile evergreen sisters.

While Christmas fern can form colonies, it more typically grows singly or in twos or threes, the foot-long fronds appearing rather tough and leathery. In the winter, it is not unusual to find flattened fronds on the forest floor, squashed from a snowfall, but doggedly remaining green.

So do get your outdoor steps in this New Year as part of your self-care plan, and do introduce yourself to Christmas fern, unwrapping its gifts as you walk.

Climate Watch. New for 2022, this column will end every week with a special update on the unfolding climate crisis, a situation I have long labeled the New Abnormal. Last week, wildfires swept through the Denver suburbs. Fueled by high winds (110 miles per hour) and an extremely dry climate, as of Friday of last week almost 2,000 acres and 500 homes burned while tens of thousands of Coloradans were evacuated– on New Year’s Eve. Those numbers will likely have climbed by the time you read this.

When wildfires flare in the ski-resort capital of the country in the winter, you are unquestionably seeing the impact of climate change.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Nature of the Holiday Season

Winterberry holly, a native holly whose bright red berries feed many birds throughout the winter, and one of the many symbols of the season.

Winter formally arrives at 10:58 a.m. on Tuesday, December 21, that moment we call the winter solstice, both the shortest day and longest night of the year. Our staff– like thousands of generations of humans before us– will gather around a fire to mark that exact moment.

Still, for a naturalist like me, one of the pleasures of the holiday season is that we decorate homes and offices with innumerable nods to nature: evergreen boughs and trees, reindeer, snow, mistletoe, holly. Few holidays (save Easter, maybe) borrow so many symbols from nature. Ever wonder why?

Go back thousands of years to a time when there was little, if any, science, and everyone saw nature seeming to die around them—trees losing leaves, bushes bare, flowers gone. Animals were vanishing too, as winter is free of frogs, turtles, snakes, woodchucks, bats, butterflies, mosquitoes (yay!), and so much more. And while we now know that some creatures migrate south while others hibernate underground, the ancients didn’t know that. Animals seemed to just disappear. In winter, it was as if nature was being snuffed out. 

The world was also getting darker this time of year, with the sun setting earlier, daylight dwindling, and each day colder and darker than the one before.  

To explain the winter, cultures invented great stories to explain what was happening. So brave heroes were slaying dragons that were holding nature captive, or fearless animals were grabbing pieces of the sun and flying back to the north with light and heat. One common theme in these stories, and the celebrations that arose around the stories, was the loss of sunlight during winter, and burning large fires to urge the light to return. Persians burned big wooden effigies of Tiamat the dragon that slayed nature; Scandinavians burned massive bonfires so big the gods could see them.

And we moderns put lights up everywhere, literally lighting the darkness, responding to our inner ancient who worries the sun may not be coming back. Even Hanukkah, the season my family celebrates, resonates with the wish to light fires in an increasingly darkening world. Hanukkah (early this year and long over) formally begins on the new moon of December– the darkest night of the darkest month. 

Another persistent theme in these holidays is evergreens. To the ancients, at a time where everything was apparently dying, evergreens seemed to possess a special magic that allowed them to beat winter.  Whatever was happening to green plants was not happening to evergreens. So people began bringing these special plants into their homes, praying whatever magic the plants possess would infuse their homes as well.

Hollies are even better. They not only retain their deep-green deciduous leaves in winter—unlike most other leafy plants—but they also sport bright red berries to boot.  Leaves AND fruit in winter—this plant is doubly powerful! Hollies ultimately became the symbol of the solstice, and when Christmas began being celebrated, that symbol transferred to the new holiday, lending Christmas its official red-and-green color scheme. 

Which also explains mistletoe. In Europe, mistletoe is a rootless parasitic flowering plant growing high up in trees, clustered on branches, the plant using those branches to get sunlight. It’s evergreen in the winter, and better, has bright white (poisonous) berries in winter as well. To the ancients, especially those Druids of Stonehenge fame, mistletoe had magic on par with holly. It’s got leaves and fruits in the winter—and doesn’t even need soil. THAT’s magic. 

Norse mythology holds that a spear made of mistletoe was used by that crazy god Loki to kill Odin’s son Baldur, whom he loathed. Frigg, Baldur’s devastated mother and the goddess who lent her name to Friday, cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries. The Norse then decreed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and Frigg herself would kiss anyone who passed beneath it. That story morphed into today’s tradition.  

So while you decorate your home and office with nature’s symbols of the seasons, remember that so many of the symbols are based on terrified people unsure that nature would ever return in the spring. 

Kind of like us this winter– terrified what omicron might do this winter, sick of two full years of pandemic holidays.

Those evergreens and candles, mistletoes and menorahs, were once talismans that hoped to revive nature in the spring. 

Whichever holiday you celebrate, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or even the Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame, joyous holidays to you and your family. 

If you want to learn more about the traditions and symbols of the season, register for our special “Secrets of the Solstice” free online lecture on Tuesday, December 21 at 7:00 p.m.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Winters of Our Discontent

Wissahickon Valley Park under a recent winter’s thin coating of snow. What will this winter bring?

Last winter, Philadelphia received over 22 inches of snow at the airport, just a hair above the long-term 20.5 inch average. But that’s 73 times the amount that dropped during the snowless winter before; if anything, our weather has become erratic and prone to extreme mood swings like this.

So I was intrigued by the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction that this winter would be a “Season of Shivers.” The new season, they wrote, “will be punctuated by positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.” As of early December, they have been right: it has been chilly. 

But wait, you might say, what about climate change? Doesn’t a warming climate mean warmer winters with less snow? Well, yes and no. 

First, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have increased 4.8℉ in the 50 years from 1970 through 2020, from an average temperature of 33℉ to almost 38℉. The coldest day of the winter between 1950 and 1980 was always below 5 degrees, usually around 3 or 4 degrees; but for the last 30 years, it has never been below 5 degrees. 

The first frost, not too long ago, came around Halloween; in the last 50 years, the first frost has arrived, on average, 17 days– more than two weeks– later, deep into November. “When the frost is on the pumpkin,” goes the very old poem I learned in high school. Not any longer.

But the city’s temperatures for a whole year have increased by 3.5℉, less than the rise in average winter temps. That’s the strange thing about climate change: across most of the United States including all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, winters are the fastest warming season. (In fact, in far northern climes– think Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont– the average winter temperature is already fully 5 degrees warmer.

A warmer world means there is more evaporation over the ocean, which means our city’s annual precipitation is climbing too– our city is not just getting warmer, it’s getting wetter. On top of this, extreme precipitation events are on the rise, especially here in Philadelphia, where large-scale downpours have increased by a whopping 360% in recent years, the third largest climb of any American city. While we famously didn’t beat the Giants two Sundays ago (dang it!), we finally beat New York here, who came in number 4 at 350%– not something we want to beat NYC in, frankly.

As any kid learns, what goes up must come down, and more evaporation means more water coming down– and in winter, that just may come down as snow. “It may seem counterintuitive, but more snowfall during winter storms is an expected outcome of climate change,” reminds the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Which is why in 2009-10, we had the snowiest winter on record, with almost 79 inches of snow, a winter that included two storms– one in December, another in February– each with more than 20 inches, each storm packing more than a whole winter’s average snowfall.

Another consequence of climate change is that the jet stream– the phenomenon high in the atmosphere that is mentioned in almost every Action News weather report– is changing, with significant consequences.

“A growing body of research,” explains the Climate Reality Project’s website, “indicates that as average global temperatures rise and the Arctic continues to warm, the jet stream is both slowing down and growing increasingly wavy. In the winter months,” they continue, “this is allowing bone-chilling cold Arctic air– typically held in fairly stable places by the once-stronger jet stream– to both spill much farther south than usual and linger over areas unaccustomed to it for longer. So even as winters on average have been getting shorter and warmer, many places should still expect to see bouts of very cold weather from time to time. At least for now…”

So if the Old Farmer’s Almanac is correct, this could be a colder, snowier winter. But this is NOT proof there is no climate change. But here’s something I can say with 100% accuracy: the legions of climate deniers who have an outrageously outsized impact on public policy will scream with every coming snowstorm that that latest snow “proves” that climate change is a “hoax.” 

No. They are wrong. It does not. Surprisingly, it fits snugly into our growing understanding of the science of climate change. What goes up must come down, and in winter, it just might come down as snow. 

Will it be a White Christmas? Who knows: anything goes in the New Abnormal.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Another Fall in Philadelphia

 The changing leaves on our trails.

I drive into work one Monday morning in October, enjoying the intense green of the trees here at the Schuylkill Center, and am greeted by a shock of yellow leaves covering the sweet birches looming over the driveway. Further down, I notice that the poison ivy winding up the cherries, too, has turned to gold since the previous Friday. A week later, the maples and sumacs turn to impossibly intense shades of scarlet and amber. Firewood reappears at the grocery store, pumpkins materialize in every shop, and I suddenly develop intense cravings for hot chocolate. Fall has finally, finally arrived.

The change of color every autumn in the deciduous forests of eastern North America is, truly, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. Entire tourism industries are founded on the dependability of leaf peepers driving north to enjoy this finely-tuned seasonal shift. The colors of the leaves here are so bright and ephemeral that early botanists in England thought the paintings of American artists portraying the autumnal landscape in places like Pennsylvania and New England were fanciful exaggerations. American botanists had to send physical autumn leaf samples to prove to their colleagues in Europe that yes, it is all true: the forests here are quite literally unbelievably beautiful this time of year.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there is not yet a scientific consensus on exactly why plants change color in the autumn. Theories abound: it is believed that trees turn more vibrant colors when they are growing in poor soil. Some think of the colors as a signal warning insect predators to stay away, or that anthocyanins (the chemicals creating red and purple in leaves) are useful as a kind of sunblock allowing the trees to break down and reabsorb leaf nutrients without getting burned by frosty winter sun. More nefarious hypotheses exist, too, about how trees change color to undermine the camouflage of herbivores whose coloration is meant to hide them from predators in the summer. Could those scarlet hillsides be a way for trees to help birds and foxes catch plant-eating prey a little more easily?

Whatever the reason for fall color, the Schuylkill Center enjoys a true showstopper every year. Our cool microclimate and unusual diversity of species provide even more beautiful shades of yellow, red, orange, and purple than other forests in the area. Lately, however, we have noticed strange things afoot. Interspersed with the glowing hues are trees still fully green in November, almost like summer never ended. Others drop everything in a rainstorm before they change and give nothing away of their autumn beauty. Some trees turn lazily from their summer to fall colors, giving less a show and more of a plodding progression toward winter dullness. This is not the sudden fireworks show of color that New England is famous for, but then again friends in Vermont and Maine have reported a less vibrant showing than usual in their neck of the woods as well. The glory of fall is undoubtedly here, but it makes its way in with a sluggish spottiness that has become increasingly normal of late. What gives?

The truth is that this process has been changing for some time now. Cold temperatures help trigger the onset of autumn foliage, and the Northeast has experienced fall temperatures above the historic average every year since 1998. Fall color has come later, and arrived with less definition, as a result.

Whereas the Philadelphia area frequently had more stunning leaf displays in the past, recent history has made our autumns a more muddled affair.

Beautiful to be sure, but when we continue having summer temperatures even into November, the trees get befuddled and turn in a slower and more varied way. Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere can also delay autumnal colors, even without changes in temperature. This leads to forests staying green for longer, making them burn the midnight oil for weeks after they would have normally gone to bed for the winter. Strange times, indeed.

It is common to think of climate change as a series of catastrophes: apocalyptic visions of possible futures-to-come in places like Australia and California that seem to never leave the news cycle, but only appear here with the occasional hurricane. The truth, however, is far more complex. Beyond the headline-grabbing disasters, climate change also affects the natural world in a variety of more subtle ways. The lessening beauty of fall foliage in the Northeast may seem like a minor outcome, but it is an ominous portent of things to come. The reality is that we simply don’t know what will happen to our forests or wildlife when their seasonal cycles shift dramatically. Every species in our region has finely-tuned requirements to thrive, and these changes that seem so small could have enormous consequences for a variety of plants and animals that we share this special landscape with. 

While we have been lucky to avoid the wildfires that plague the West Coast for now, a multitude of more elusive changes are already underway here that could one day grow to be just as disastrous. The only way to stop this terrifying future from becoming a reality is to make the changes that are necessary now to ensure that our communities can live with this land in a spirit of true respect and reciprocity. Change of this scale is, of course, scary in its own way. But I curiously always have a greater sense of hope looking out at these trees here, watching as they celebrate the inevitable shift in season with a riot of beauty. 

May we learn to embrace change as they do.

By Max Paschall, Land Stewardship Coordinator

The Amazing Monarch Migration: A Status Report

How are this year’s monarch’s doing? Join us and National Monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor for our free, virtual event to find out.

The monarch butterfly, that large insect perfectly decked out for Halloween– or a Flyers game– in its orange and black cloak, undergoes one of the most extraordinary migrations in the animal kingdom. Butterflies across America and even Canada.

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). As you read this, monarchs across the eastern US and even Canada are flying south, many along the eastern seaboard; most are near or even in Mexico already.  

Once in Mexico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with millions of their bodies, a remarkable sight visited by thousands of eco-tourists annually. The butterflies wait out the long winter, living five months—Methuselah territory for an insect.

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. So the butterflies hatching in my garden will start flying more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Nature’s planning?

If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May point soon and watch clusters of them funneling down New Jersey hop across the Delaware Bay to get to the mainland and continue their journey south. 

While it’s remarkable that an insect can make this migration, I’m saddened to report that this phenomenon is endangered as monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, compromised by climate, pesticides, Midwestern “milkweed deserts,” and over-logging in Mexico. 

So how are this year’s monarch’s doing? How is the insect holding up? Should it be declared an endangered species?

We hope to answer this question on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. with our Thursday Night L!VE presentation, “The Monarch’s Amazing Migration: a Status Report.” National monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, the organization that has helped place 35,000 monarch waystations across the country, joins us from his Kansas base to share the creature’s story and its status. Monarch Watch started in 1992 as an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs, and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation. 

“In real estate,” Dr. Taylor says, “it’s location, location, location. And for monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat. We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace. Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. Further, the overuse of herbicides along roadsides and elsewhere is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species. The adoption of genetically modified soybeans and corn have further reduced monarch habitat. If these trends continue, monarchs are certain to decline, threatening the very existence of their magnificent migration.” 

Female monarchs are exceptional botanists, laying their eggs only on one family of plants, the milkweeds. She tastes plants with her feet, laying eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars hatch from eggs, and immediately begin munching on milkweed—the only food they are adapted to eat. The creatures have evolved to take the noxious chemicals found in milkweed sap and use it to make themselves—both caterpillar and adult—bad-tasting for any bird that may try to eat it.

A very clever “Got Milkweed?” campaign was started years ago, and more and more home gardeners like me began planting milkweed– and the Schuylkill Center has been selling milkweeds for years.

To address these changes and restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife, Monarch Watch is initiating a nationwide landscape restoration program called “Bring Back the Monarchs.” The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

This program is an outgrowth of the Monarch Waystation Program started by Monarch Watch in 2005. “While these sites, mostly habitats created in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscapes, contribute to monarch conservation, it is clear that to save the monarch migration we need to do more,” Taylor said. “ We need to think on a bigger scale and we need to think ahead, to anticipate how things are going to change as a result of population growth, development, changes in agriculture, and most of all, changes in the climate.”

According to Taylor, we need a comprehensive plan on how to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.” 

Dr. Chip Taylor has been pioneering in butterfly conservation for decades. Meet him by joining me in a Thursday Night L!VE virtual lecture this week. Register for the free event.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

New Mystery Illness Killing our Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Strub, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Reflecting on 10 years at the Schuylkill Center

Mike planting trillium, 10 species, one for each year of his tenure

When Mike Weilbacher first came to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education 40 years ago, he never imagined he would one day become its executive director. In 1982, he arrived in Philadelphia, new to the city and fresh out of grad school, to work as an educator under legendary founding director Dick James. 

As he marks the 10th anniversary of his return to the Center, Mike reflects on the transformations of the last decade—and looks ahead to the next challenges. 

Back in 2011, Mike knew his return came at a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. The charter school that had been renting space for a decade was departing, leaving a mostly empty building, the lack of space leading to little programming. Where one might see challenges, Mike saw opportunities. 

Mike offers that we were, back in our heyday, “one of the most important environmental education organizations in the city, and even the state.” His goal was to restore our relevance within environmental education circles— and bring people in the front door. 

To accomplish this, he led a staff and board effort to reimagine the building, and staff began turning the 1968 cinder-block building back into a lively space for programming. We reopened our large 200-seat auditorium, carved an art gallery from a failed bookstore, united staff on one floor of the building, and turned the classroom wing into the new home of Nature Preschool.

Naturepalooza 2019

On the programming side, to fill that large auditorium, he inaugurated the annual Richard L. James Lecture, which he says “hopes to bring a large group of adults together to wrestle with cutting-edge information and issues.” He charged staff with creating a family-focused Earth Day festival, which blossomed into Naturepalooza, our most popular one-day event. 

He guided staff and board through master and strategic planning exercises that led to the new gateway entrance on the Schuylkill River Trail, the radical makeover of the Visitor Center’s front entrance, and the coming transformations of Nature Playscape and our River House site (stay tuned!). 

Coming soon, he envisions the Discovery Center, our indoor museum, moving into the 21st century with interactive exhibits on diverse topics like climate change in Philadelphia, and looks to continue improvements across additional spaces in the Visitor Center. 

Mike also expects our programming to meet this unique moment. “We have a narrow window of opportunity to address big issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. How does our programming rise to this challenge?” He continues, “In a very different context, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked of the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ I believe our programming needs that same fierce urgency.” So he continues to raise public awareness on tough issues in our programs and in his weekly columns for the Review, Roxborough’s paper. Mike sees progress in the past 10 years, like our 2016 Year of Climate Change programming, but there’s more to come. 

To mark this milestone, the staff and board recently gathered with Mike at a morning celebration, placing a bench in his honor on the Ravine Loop. Staff spent the morning with Mike planting an oak tree and more than 250 trillium bulbs—his favorite wildflower—of 10 species, one for each year. Nature Preschool students also offered him art featuring their hands touchingly wood-burnt into beautiful cedar slabs. 

Mike receives a hand made gift from the kindergartners

Mike’s tenure has clearly elevated our stature as a regional leader in environmental education. Board of trustees president Christopher P. McGill says, “Mike has created many successful programs—all mission-oriented and positively impacting our community at large. We are so grateful to have him driving the Center’s success now and into the future.” 

Former board president Binney Meigs puts it best, “In a time of noisy disinformation, we have an astute quiet voice who isn’t merely disseminating knowledge but is guiding students toward thinking for themselves and eventually, teaching others in numerous, flexible, and creative ways. This requires patience, infinite confidence and gentle strength without a personal agenda. Ultimately, this is the sign of profound and rare leadership which we deeply appreciate in Mike Weilbacher’s tenure at the Schuylkill Center.”

For Mike, his career arc at the Schuylkill Center is pure “poetic symmetry.” Coming here fresh out of grad school, he still pinches himself that he has been able to return.  

Fate of the World Hinges on a Pickup Truck

Two news stories appearing on the same day last week were remarkably well timed. 

In one, Ford unveiled the all-electric Lightning, the latest in its bestselling F-150 truck series, the world’s most popular vehicle for the last, unbelievably, 43 years, selling more than 900,000 of these monsters. And that truck alone rakes in $42 billion in revenues, twice the revenue of McDonalds, three times that of Starbucks. 

And it’s well named. Its twin electric motors take the heavy duty vehicle from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. “This sucker’s fast,” noted President Biden in a test spin the day before, of course decked out in his trademark aviators.

But on the exact same day as the launch party, researchers determined that a significant portion of Hurricane Sandy’s $62.7 billion in damages, as much as 13%, were caused by climate change, allowing a higher sea level to inundate far more homes. Our contribution to climate change from the burning of fossil fuels has raised the ocean by four inches in the New York area in the last century, offering Sandy more targets to slam.

Here’s the beauty of this. While climate change has irreparably fallen in the chasm between the two political parties, paralyzing the possibility of our government playing an important role in solutions, the private sector is stepping forward in a huge way. Ford, the iconic automaker named after the founding father of the modern auto industry, sees the writing on the wall—thank God!—and wants to beat the competition to the punch. A little competition never hurts, right? 

Because frankly, the future is electric. Ford understands that, and they don’t want to be eating Tesla’s dust.

One of the most anticipated introductions of a new car in a very long time, many auto experts compared Lightning to the Model T, the game-changing vehicle that brought cars to the masses. “Ford has a lot at stake in the new vehicle’s success,” wrote the New York Times, but truthfully, the entire world has a lot riding in the back of this pickup. If Ford can sell electric trucks to Philadelphia carpenters, Pennsylvania dairy farmers, Texas oilmen, and, heck, suburban homeowners would love trucks, it will greatly accelerate the move toward electric vehicles, central to any solution to climate change.

Carbon dioxide emitted from the tailpipes of our cars and trucks represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. You and I can turn off all the light switches we want to conserve power, but that just won’t move the needle on carbon emissions. We need to transition as quickly as we can away from fossil fuels across transportation, building, agriculture, and industry, and the Lightning will help immensely. 

Through April, automakers sold about 108,000 fully electric vehicles in America, twice the number from the same period last year. While that’s only 2% of vehicle sales, it’s a start; there are 18 electric vehicles offered for sale in this country now; by year’s end, the number will almost double to 30. 

Not only is the Lightning fast, but its battery is finally transcending the weakest link in the electric car story: its battery. This truck can happily travel 300 miles on one charge: you can finally drive from Philly to visit your cousin in Pittsburgh without stopping to recharge. Plus it is powerful, as exhibited by Ford’s wonderful commercial of the truck towing a long train weighing like a million pounds, the train loaded with other F-150s. The truck will be loaded with options, including a generator that allows you to plug in your power saw to the truck itself, and the price starts at $40,000. It will also be made in America, preserving union jobs. 

Oh, Ford won’t stop building gas-powered cars and trucks for years. But if the Lightning does well, it will hasten the long-awaited, much-needed, and very overdue transition to electric vehicles.

“It’s a watershed moment to me,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said at the Lightning’s unveiling. “It’s a very important transition for our industry.”

It’s a watershed moment for the world, too, hopefully an inflection point in the race to slide through the narrow window of time we have in front of us to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Speaking of timing, the mercury hit the 90s this week not only here but across a broad swath of the Southeast, and it’s still only May. And the hurricane season’s first named tropical storm—Ana—formed Friday in the Atlantic near Bermuda. While the hurricane season doesn’t start until June 1, this marks the seventh year in a row that a named storm formed before the start of the season. The subtext: the ocean is warming earlier, giving us named storm systems sooner than historically expected.

Welcome to the New Abnormal. Since we need a lightning-fast transition to a post-fossil fuel world, let’s hope the Lightning delivers on its promise. Because there’s a lot riding in the back of this pickup truck.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

Reviving the Prairies of Philadelphia

Shop online for native plants: tinyurl.com/SCEEnativeplants

There are few better ways to learn plants than by working in a nursery. Assisting with the Schuylkill Center’s annual Native Plant Sale—now in its 17th year—is a truly unique experience for employees and volunteers alike. With over 200 species of native plants being offered to the public annually, even the most experienced botanists and gardeners encounter fascinating plants that they have never seen before. In my work with the sale this year, two plants in particular have caught my eye.

Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are both wildflowers with wonderful names that are native to southern parts of the now rare eastern prairie ecosystem, landscapes that once existed from the Mississippi River to Pennsylvania, and Florida to New Hampshire. The eastern prairies are relegated to tiny out-of-the-way patches today, but at one time they contained an astonishing diversity of species: asters, orchids, and false indigos. Switchgrass and bluestems. Blazing stars, goldenrods, milkweeds, and mountain mints. Miles of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees dotting a savannah humming with life. 

Of course, when we hear the word “prairie,” the first place that comes to mind is the Great Plains of the Midwest. With trees eagerly popping up every place they can in our area, we like to imagine that the native ecosystems of the past here were all woodland and forest. Early accounts of this region, however, reveal a far more nuanced picture. Descriptions abound from the 15th to 18th centuries of broad meadows, savannahs, and grasslands tended with fire by indigenous communities across the Atlantic seaboard. 

Were any prairies present here in Philadelphia? Local Lenape place names, which often encode ancient environmental information, give us a clue: while Wissahickon means “catfish creek” and Wissinoming is “a place where grapes grow,” Southwest Philadelphia’s Kingsessing is the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

The pre-urban environment of Philadelphia was a diverse, managed mosaic of old growth forests, vast fruit-laden woodlands, and networks of tall prairies—a far cry from the concrete barrens that we see around us today. This is, sadly, all too common across the continent. Eastern prairies have disappeared throughout their range in the face of farming and development. The removal of native people and their millennia-old relationships with the land—particularly, the seasonal controlled burns that held back trees and regenerated the grasslands—have further ensured the decline of these unique meadow ecologies. But despite this familiar story, all is not lost.

What if Philadelphia’s concrete-encased small yards could be transformed into the same diverse landscapes that once existed here—every container garden a pocket prairie, every yard a micro-forest? What if all it took to return biodiversity to a neighborhood is a gardener with a trowel, the right plants, and a little gusto? Just as was the case in the past, it is human care and stewardship that can create and preserve these endangered ecosystems. The dazzling beauty and biodiversity of the eastern prairie can be recreated in any backyard—even if it’s as small as a postage stamp of grass or a few pots on a balcony. With their diminutive size but exuberance of color, scent, and form, prairie and meadow plants can pack a punch in a small garden in a way few others can.

Rattlesnake Master. Photo by Frank Mayfield

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is one of the most charismatic of these plants. With light powdery blue, tropical-looking foliage and a spray of flower orbs emerging like a constellation, this is a plant that looks far more at home in the Caribbean than in the prairies of the Mid-Atlantic where it has grown for millennia. Its flowers are irresistible to many native pollinators, particularly the same wasps that can help control pests in the rest of your garden. It also grows just as easily in containers as it does in the broad expanse of its original prairie habitat. With its ethereal charm and distinctive name, rattlesnake master is a wildflower that would be at home in any Philadelphia garden, big or small.

And what better to complement it than a patch of one of its prettiest prairie companions, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)? This wildflower is a treasure to people and pollinators alike. Along with a handful of other Echinacea species, coneflower is foundational to herbal medicine, being widely available for its purported immune-boosting properties. Its color and elegant form in the garden have led to its popularity in native landscaping, and it is available in a wide range of cultivars with unique colors, from eggshell white to green and purple. Its true power, however, is in the life that it brings to the garden. From fritillaries and swallowtails to bumble bees and beetles, watching a blooming coneflower in July is truly a sight to behold. As a late bloomer, it provides rich nectar and pollen at a crucial time for pollinators, when little else is in flower. 

A patch of coneflower and rattlesnake master is a lifeline to your neighborhood’s bees and butterflies every summer. Paired with other now-rare plants that once existed in the long-gone ecosystems of our region, plantings like this can become a foothold for the return of beauty and biodiversity to any neighborhood in this city. 

Working with the amount of acreage we have at the Schuylkill Center is a blessing, but the true future of our city lies in the spirit of stewardship that we all can cultivate in whatever space we have to work with. Bringing biodiversity back to your small patch of this world is a deeply empowering act that pays dividends far beyond what one imagines at the outset. 

I invite you to see what kinds of plants can become a part of the ecosystem that you steward in your space: the Schuylkill Center’s Native Plant Sale offers a wide range of plants for any garden or taste. Rattlesnake master and purple coneflower are easy and lovely to grow, and may just yet inspire you to imagine the lost landscapes that we could enjoy yet again.

 

Max Paschall, Native Plants Assistant