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. 

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Over Eager: Newly returned beavers deal setbacks to local tree-planting efforts

The Tacony Creek, with evidence of trees damaged by beavers.The natural is often artificial in a city. It can take a lot of planning and work to get native species growing along the battered Tacony Creek, to keep the water unpolluted and the bed from getting scoured by runoff each time it rains. Thus it can be especially frustrating when a native animal foils your plans.
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Grave Garden

Story by Bernard Brown, photos by Jen BrittonMaybe you believe toward the end of October the wall between the dead and the living weakens a bit — a fine reason to hang out in a cemetery. Maybe you love autumn. The landscape of orderly stone, soft grass and falling leaves is the perfect place to enjoy the season. And maybe, like me, you figure this is a fine time to search for your own dead and see what might be living above them.
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Creek Squad: Docent teens take a walk on the wild side

photos by Christian Hunold / CCCEEC docent Jeremy GriffinThe docent starts our walk with the history of the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center (CCCEEC). Before I relate that history, picture the docent. Maybe a gray-haired white person with a nametag and a fanny pack? Someone who loved the park so much that they decided to volunteer there when they retired? Wrong.

Jeremy Griffin is a 17-year-old African-American student from West Philly. He loves ecology and comic books, and he leads tours of Cobbs Creek twice a week. He knows his trees and birds, not to mention the history of the center. That story started before he was born, in the early 1990s, when community activists led by Carole Williams-Green raised money to convert abandoned horse stables into classrooms, labs and meeting spaces. The center finally opened in 2001, about when Griffin was in kindergarten.
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Meadow Lark: Hard work and determination restores Houston Meadows

A male rose-breasted grosbeak!” exclaimed Keith Russell, followed by an exuberant expletive uncharacteristic of Philadelphia’s  typically mellow and carefully spoken Audubon Outreach Coordinator. “First one I’ve seen here in years!” Even I could spot the pink chest on the bird zipping above us at the Houston Meadows, near Cathedral Road in Philadelphia’s Andorra neighborhood.

I remember stumbling onto the Houston Meadows six or seven years ago, as tiny patches in the thick forest of the Wissahickon Valley. Now you can see the first meadow from the street — no more stumbling.

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A River Runs Through It: Escape onto the water without leaving the city

Our rainbow flotilla set off downstream from the Walnut Street dock, each of us in a brightly-colored kayak. I’m not sure four Schuylkill Banks staff were needed to escort photographer Jen Britton and me, but when you get a chance to leave your West Philly office and get on the water for work, you take it.

Next time you see someone with a canoe or a kayak on top of their car heading out of town, keep in mind we have a great river right here. This is not to say that you should never launch out on some scenic upstate waterway, but you can also push off into the current and trail your hand in cool water with a much shorter commute.

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Spiders and Snakes: Urban farm is crawling with miniature wildlife

I went to Mill Creek Farm for the snakes, but I stayed for the bugs. As an urban herper (reptile and amphibian enthusiast), I like to walk around green places looking under objects for critters. I had a great time with the small brown snakes I found at the Farm, located at 49th and Brown in West Philly, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by all the other wildlife.
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Something Wild: Forest restoration brings back native wildflowers

story by Bernard Brown | photo by Jen Britton. Spring beauties beginning to bloom from the brush of the forest.Pink buds like miniature tulips reached for the sky from the gap in each bloodroot’s single leaf. This was the first time in my life that I’d noticed them. I spend a lot of time in the woods, at least for an urbanite, but apparently they’ve been the wrong woods.  

On this spring morning, photographer Jen Britton and I were tagging along with Joanne Donohue, Manager of Land Restoration for the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center, on a wildflower (“spring ephemeral,” if you want to sound like a botanist) tour.

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Fish Town: Shad don’t jump, but with a little help, their numbers can

story by Bernard Brown | photos by Christian Hunold. Joe Perillo, a biologist with the Philadelphia Water Department, talks about the fishway and points to the fish crowder - a metal apparatus that forces the shad closer to the window so the Water Department can take a better photoWhen we think of migrating fish swimming upstream to spawn, we picture salmon heroically leaping up waterfalls — the stuff of inspirational posters. But the American shad is different. “Shad don’t jump,” Joe Perillo, a Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) biologist, plainly states. American shad stay in the water, and for millennia they swam gracefully up the Schuylkill River as far as Pottsville.
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John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge: Oh, deer, overpopulation in the Refuge

story by Bernard Brown | photos by Christian Munold. Scenes from an early morning walk through Heinz National Wildlife RefugeIt’s impossible to know what actually happened, but it was easy to imagine an early morning dog walker startling a deer into a terrified sprint. We had paused to examine hoof prints where a deer trail crossed a human trail in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Four or five deeper strikes across a few yards seemed to indicate a burst of speed. Photographer Christian Hunold pointed out a dog paw print in the mud. The sun was just rising, overtaking a damp January mist on the morning we visited. As Gary Stolz, Refuge manager, explained when I spoke to him on the phone, “visitors who want to see deer should be there early, early in the morning or in the evening towards closing.”
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Bird Bath: Some swallows decide not to leave for the winter

story by Bernard Brown | photo by Christian HunoldI’ve been dazzled more times than I can remember by the high-speed acrobatics of hunting swallows—but never in late December.  ¶  Rough-winged swallows aren’t rare in the Delaware Valley. Like most of our insect-eating birds, the swallows thrive in the Northeast during the summer and in the winter, head south where there’s more to eat. However, when a breeding ground is provided for yummy chironomid midges (small flies) during the winter months, the swallows stick around.
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Awbury Arboretum: A perfect place to sharpen your tree recognition skills

story by Bernard Brown | photos by Jen BrittonFor at least 10 years I’ve been trying to learn more about trees. Back when I lived in Atlanta, I resolved to identify the trees growing in a large wooded park near my home. I bought a Peterson field guide and got to work. I did okay with the big differences between, for example, the oaks and the ashes, the maples and the magnolias, but I had had little patience for the finer points. Was that an iron wood or a hornbeam? If it meant I had to count the scales on their itty-bitty buds, it was too much effort for a reptile and amphibian guy (herper) like me.
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Urban Naturalist: Green City, Yellow Salamanders

Story by Bernard BrownWEST PHILADELPHIA will never be the Everglades. It will never be the Pine Barrens, or even the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. As much as the naturalist in me would like to see more greenery and less asphalt, more snakes and fewer cars, I accept that I live in a densely populated city neighborhood.

Nonetheless, I support making wherever we live as hospitable to wildlife as possible. I won’t ever see mountain lions stalk elk on Spruce Street, but maybe I can spot songbirds that have avoided fatal window collisions, and find more than just pollution-tolerant worms and exotic carp in our streams and rivers.

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Pointing to the Past: The honey locust remains prepared to fend off long- extinct creatures

story by Bernard Brown l photo by flickr user over_the_rainbow

What amazed me most about the honey locust trees at Awbury Arboretum were the thorns. I had imagined something like rose thorns—sharp, but proportional—not four-inch-long spikes jutting out from branches and erupting from trunks in grotesque, savage clusters. Surely this was overkill. The trees could fend off deer with much less.

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Hidden Gems: The vivid milk snake still lives in Philadelphia, but where?

story by Bernard BrownThe birds and the butterflies get the majority of attention, and rightly so. You can’t ignore a scarlet cardinal or a swallowtail butterfly flashing its way across your garden. Our more brilliantly colored birds and insects have evolved to be seen. Almost as a rule, our native reptiles and amphibians have evolved to avoid notice. No one is dazzled by garter snakes or brown snakes, and the redback salamanders, however cute, will never take your breath away. Anything that we find beautiful about these creatures is subtle: elegant patterns in greens and earth tones, but nothing poster-worthy.
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Urban Naturalist: Fancy Feast

story by Bernard BrownYou won’t hear urban coyotes howling. They’re nocturnal and as quiet as, well, cats. But coyotes are filling the vacancy we created at the top of the food chain when we wiped out grey wolves and cougars in eastern North America. By now, hundreds of the wily canids thrive in Chicago and breed in Washington, D.C.; in 2006, a coyote was trapped in Manhattan’s Central Park. You might picture canyons and road runners when you think of coyotes, but according to the Pennsylvania State Game Commission, they have been spreading across the commonwealth. Gary Stolz, manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, has even spotted them next door at the airport.
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Seize the Carp: Local aquatic ecosystems threatened by wall-to-wall carp eating

story by Bernard BrownOne nice thing about snorkeling in Philadelphia rivers is that you generally don’t have to think about sharks (the occasional, adventurous bull shark notwithstanding). But carp scare me, or at least startle me. More than once I have been nearly shocked out of my flippers by carp (which average the size of my leg) emerging from deep murky holes and lumbering past in the water. From land, I have studied the surface of more than one fetid Philadelphia pond for evidence of turtles and found my eyes drawn to something huge, rooting around in the shallows. Not a turtle…what the hell? A carp? 
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Urban Naturalist: A tall cool one

I often feel hemlock trees around me before I look up and identify them. I’ll be hacking my way through the woods, sweating in summer heat. Then the underbrush opens, the light dims and a slow, refreshing breeze washes over me. I’m under the tight canopy of a hemlock standing alongside a stream. I love that dark, cool atmosphere on a hot day, and so do the wildlife—in particular, stream denizens such as trout that rely on cold water.
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