Drinking It In

The marshy middle basin provides a hunting spot for herons and foxes. | Photos by Christian Hunold

The East Park Reservoir provides home for birds,
and in 2017, a nature center

The pied-billed grebe flying south along the Atlantic Flyway can see the water in the East Park Reservoir right away, but you, looking at the embankments from the ground, could be forgiven for thinking it was all just a forested hill in Fairmount Park. But then you might notice that the sides of the hill are straight lines, and that off of Reservoir Drive, a blue brick road cuts into the woods, blocked by a Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) gate.

Back when the East Park Reservoir was built in the late 1800s, its four basins held only water, and its embankments were covered in blue brick—sterile and uninviting to any but engineers. Over time, woods took over where they could. Philadelphia’s population shrank and stopped using three of the basins, which over 200 species of birds have been happy to take over. 

Swallows and swifts zipped and darted above the embankments, catching insects in midair, while Audubon PA and Outward Bound staff gave prospective funders (along with photographer Christian Hunold and me) a tour of the reservoir this July. We spotted herons and foxes hunting below in the marshy middle basin. By October, most of the summer birds will have flown south, replaced by migrants stopping on their own migrations. Ducks, grebes and other waterfowl will spend the winter on the open water of the Reservoir’s west basin. 

Canoeing is planned for the East Park Reservoir's west basin. Local birders armed with binoculars had been sneaking up the East Park Reservoir’s embankments for almost 30 years by the early 2000s, when the National Audubon Society office started searching for a site for an urban environmental education center, according to Phil Wallis, Executive Director of Audubon Pennsylvania.

In 2009 Audubon linked up with Outward Bound, an outdoors leadership development group, which was then searching for a new Philadelphia headquarters. Both organizations realized they could save a lot of money and minimize the red tape involved by sharing one space and building project.

The partners still have to raise $9 million, according to Hadley Wilmerding, Development Coordinator with Philadelphia Outward Bound, but they’ve cleared their biggest hurdle: signing a lease with the City in June for the “Discovery Center.” The underutilized (at least by humans) Reservoir might seem like a natural spot for a nature center, but any private use of public parkland in Philadelphia is complicated, and in this case the layers of control (the site is technically Parks & Recreation Department land used by the PWD), along with visitor safety and drinking water security concerns, gave them more bureaucracy to navigate “a lot of people, a very complex symphony,” according to Wallis.

The PWD is keeping the east basin to build three enclosed drinking water cisterns, but the Discovery Center will be open by 2017, according to Wallis. It will primarily be used for Audubon and Outward Bound programming, but the public will be able to use both the building and the planned trail network.

“When it’s open, they can come on in through the front door, no charge,” says Wallis. “We haven’t figured it all out since they haven’t built it yet. And we want to go beyond that and have public events—owl prowls, for example.”

The birds, of course, will be free to come and go as they please. 

Bernard Brown is an amateur field herper and bureaucrat. He writes about urban natural history and sustainable eating.