Green Big Year: South Philly strikeout, Center City surprise


Iceland Gull, Howard Eskin

My unemployed buddy found three birds I haven't seen yet this year. He's got lots of time on his hands and has been birding in Philly like a mad man. He's almost contemplating a Philly Big Year, but he expects to be employed imminently. (Don't feel bad for my buddy's situation, he spent half of his 14 months of joblessness racking up 1,200 species of bird in Peru, Chile and Argentina.) So, in an effort to catch up, I decided to go looking for the three birds he saw: Ring-necked Duck, Common Redpoll and Iceland Gull.

Yesterday, I rode my bike down Broad Street hoping to find a Ring-necked Duck at FDR Park across from the stadiums. Although the pond was filled with Coots, Canada Geese, Buffleheads, Northern Shovelers and other ducks, there was no Ring-necked. This is a pretty common duck in the winter in our area, but I still haven't seen one this year.

Next, I went to the Navy Yard in search of Common Redpolls. This is a good bird for Philly any year as it is a finch that inhabits the coniferous northern forests of Canada and Alaska. These birds will wander into our area if the seeds they feed on up north are in short supply. My buddy found four of these birds in a flock of the closely related, but very common American Goldfinch. There is a really interesting patch of habitat next to the old Navy Yard Lodge across from some abandoned row houses. I arrived at the spot and found the alder trees the finches were feeding in, however there were no finches of either species to be seen. Besides the many alders, this patch has a good amount of spruce trees and, like birch, both are common in the northern woods. It's east to see how the Redpolls would feel at home here. Interestingly, this patch also had some Himalayan Pines mixed in with some native pines. Obviously this area was once a manicured green-space that has gone feral.

I left the Navy Yard for the last bird on my list, Iceland Gull. My friend has seen two of these paler, smaller cousins of the Herring Gull in South Philly only days before. There is a trash transfer station on Columbus Boulevard at the Walt Whitman Bridge. Gulls love trash and a large number roost in a parking lot next to the bridge. The best view of these birds is from the Onyx Gentleman’s Club parking lot. I set up my scope and searched through the birds, but to no avail. He had also seen one roosting on the docks behind Walmart so I headed over there. This is a really cool spot. Between Walmart and Washington Avenue along the river is the Delaware River Trail. Believe it or not, there is a good amount of habitat--old fields, some woods growing on old docks and views of the river. There is also a feral cat colony complete with little cat huts and feeding stations maintained by some local cat lovers. During fall migration, this area is dripping with birds. Unfortunately, this time I struck out on the Iceland Gull.


The one new bird I did get in the last week was an American Woodcock. I spotted the bird while walking along the Schuylkill River Trail near Race Street. I noticed some movement just inside the beginning of the train tunnel there. When I put my binoculars up, I could see the bird huddled against the wall. Woodcocks are strange nocturnal sandpipers that usually inhabit brushy fields or forest edges. Sadly it is not uncommon to find dead Woodcocks in the city during migration (they migrate in early spring). Perhaps this warm weather got this bird moving and it was confused by the city lights. I didn't want to disturb it, hopefully it will move on to more fitting habitat. The Woodcock was my 111th bird for the year.


Tony Croasdale is an environmental educator, field biologist and most importantly, avid birder. This year, the Philadelphia resident is blogging for Grid about his mission to observe as many species of bird as possible—what birders call a “Big Year.” Croasdale is a member of a bicycle team for the World Series of Birding; his 2009 tram took first in the Carbon Footprint Cup category. Outside of birding, Croasdale is finishing a degree in horticulture at Temple University.