In 1970, the City of Philadelphia closed off the East Park Reservoir at the edge of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. A gate blocked the ramp up from Fairmount Park. “I grew up in Strawberry Mansion, and the reservoir was used by the community as a recreational space,” explains Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation. “There was a road around the perimeter, a simple dirt road that was open to the public. People would run around or walk around. There was an incline around the reservoir and kids would walk around there and explore.” Due to drownings and other safety concerns, the city closed off the reservoir, and “several generations of Strawberry Mansion residents grew up with just that fence,” says Graham. Now, 48 years later, the gate has been opened again and the community welcomed back in. Thank the birds.
Birds can fly over fences, of course. From the perspective of waterfowl flying south in the winter, the reservoir stands out, according to Keith Russell, program manager for Urban Conservation for Audubon PA. “Even though a lot of different types of waterfowl have been recorded there, the most common species you find are birds that dive, because it’s so deep,” (currently eight feet, though up to 25 in the past). The list is long, but it includes ducks such as merganser, scaup, and canvasback, not to mention other non-ducks like grebes. Russell pointed out another benefit for waterfowl: the reservoir doesn’t receive polluted stormwater runoff, unlike our rivers, so the water quality remains high even after a major rain.
In the mid-1980s, Russell, then at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and volunteers followed up on waterfowl observations from before the reservoir had been closed off. “There were a lot of birds, and we were like, ‘Whoa that is amazing!’ ” In 2005, Audubon included the reservoir in the Fairmount Park and Benjamin Rush Park State Park Important Bird Area designation.Read More