She keeps up with what's new in nature

Eileen McDonnell chronicles her sightings of wildlife through the seasons at the Foulkeways at Gwynedd retirement community. "I figured I could go out there and take pictures and show everybody, and they can experience it that way." Foulkeways, with four miles of paths, beds, and a meadow, plans to apply for arboretum certification.
Eileen McDonnell chronicles her sightings of wildlife through the seasons at the Foulkeways at Gwynedd retirement community. "I figured I could go out there and take pictures and show everybody, and they can experience it that way." Foulkeways, with four miles of paths, beds, and a meadow, plans to apply for arboretum certification. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff)

Eileen McDonnell's blog shares what's happening with residents of the Foulkeways community.

Posted: September 06, 2014

Friends unfailingly describe Eileen McDonnell, a retired public school speech and hearing therapist, as "quiet" and "reserved."

Except when the conversation turns to nature. Watch her eyes widen and her speech grow animated!

"She effervesces," says Andrea V. McCabe, development director at Foulkeways at Gwynedd, the Quaker-affiliated continuing-care retirement community in Montgomery County.

McDonnell, 83, formerly of Harleysville, has lived at Foulkeways for a decade, and from Day 1 she's been "effervescing" about the place, trying to boost awareness of the 110-acre campus' flora and fauna.

McDonnell does this with a folksy blog called Foulkeways and Beyond ( www.foulkephotos.blogspot.com) that chronicles plant and animal life through the seasons and human activity, be it the new chief executive officer, renovated apartments, or a new bridge on the grounds.

"I figured I could go out there and take pictures and show everybody, and they can experience it that way," says McDonnell, a Teaneck, N.J., native whose hobbies have progressed over the decades from photography, birds, butterflies, flowers and, lately, dragonflies.

Mary Harris, 84, formerly of Huntingdon Valley and a Foulkeways resident for six years, is a fan. Eileen "is a very good photographer," she says, "and seems to know all there is to know about bees, bugs, butterflies, and the green growing things."

The blog is a must-read at Foulkeways.

This is especially true of those who can no longer navigate the verdant campus, which includes four miles of walking paths, Japanese gardens, annual and perennial beds, and a meadow.

Marcie Ridenour, 68, a resident for 31/2 years, sticks to level walkways these days, relying on McDonnell as her surrogate on Shady Ramble, Big Oak Trail, and other paths.

"I really like having an expert point things out, and I like the way she presents and explains everything," says Ridenour, who may have mobility issues on land, but her sea legs live on. She still sails a Hobie.

McDonnell wears hearing aids but most everything else seems to be working. A tai chi instructor at Foulkeways, which has about 400 residents, she also leads meadow walks and wears a Fitbit, a small wrist monitor that counts steps.

McDonnell consistently hits 10,000 a day in summer, when she takes several walks a day. "Retirement's great," she says, confiding that after 20 years of it, she can't even remember working.

Every day begins with a little show on the patio behind her apartment. Though small, it overflows with movement, life, and color.

Purple butterfly bushes, yellow zinnias, gray-headed coneflowers, and a hardy holly tree ring the space, which contains a birdbath and feeders filled with peanuts, sunflower seeds, thistle, and suet. In just 30 minutes one recent morning, male and female cardinals, a large blue jay, an iridescent-black grackle, and a red-bellied woodpecker made constant forays to the feeders.

In the first two weeks of August alone, McDonnell - a veteran of more than 40 Elderhostel wildlife trips in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico - has hosted 17 bird species on her patio. One could watch all day, but McDonnell suggests it's meadow time.

Sensibly dressed in khaki pants, shirt, sneakers, and baseball cap, she grabs binoculars and her Nikon P600 camera, and out we go - through the yard, across a bridge, down Perimeter Road, to the meadow.

"Perhaps we'll see a monarch," she says, and before you know it, we do.

The meadow is in its element, and so is McDonnell. "Look at the grasses," she says, singling out big bluestem, the native grass. "It's 6 foot high with marvelous plumes. Really beautiful stuff."

Wild senna is, too, with its yellow flowers and laudable character. Senna replenishes nitrogen in the soil, attracts pollinators, provides nectar and seeds, and hosts the larvae of the cloudless sulfur butterfly.

Goldenrod is everywhere. So are New York ironweed and wild echinacea and bee balm, everything swimming in a sea of white boltonia.

McDonnell spots a saddlebags dragonfly, a tiger bee fly, and an orange sulfur butterfly. The day before, she photographed a potter wasp, which deserves a medal for eating beetle larvae.

All this is recorded on the blog. As in: "This one is a tiger bee fly. How did it get that name? Tiger is for the patterned wings. Fly because it is a fly. Bee because it preys on bees. It is out hunting for carpenter bees."

Foulkeways, which opened in 1967 on land originally granted to William Penn by Charles II of England in 1681, plans to apply for arboretum certification from the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, which sets the standards. According to Morton's Sue Paist, only two retirement communities in the country have that designation now - Kendal-Crosslands in Kennett Square and Medford Leas in New Jersey.

"This is not the norm at all," she says, "but in the Philadelphia area, you have a lot of very old, established trees."

Foulkeways seeks certification status "to be a good neighbor," says McCabe, the development director. "We want to show we value our grounds and want to preserve and enhance what we have."

Few value those grounds more than a certain self-taught naturalist, who, in her own quiet way, gives the loudest testimony of all.


vsmith@phillynews.com

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