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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Butterflies Count

This Silver-Spotted Skipper was one of many butterfly species that were documented during a July count around Bryn Mawr. | Photo by Jen Britton

Volunteer efforts across the region keep track
of our fine fluttering friends

The flashy colors of butterflies are matched only by their names: red admirals, great spangled fritillaries, tiger swallowtails, painted ladies and summer azures. On July 10, 13 volunteers at the North American Butterfly Association (NABA)’s annual Fourth of July butterfly count spotted all these species in all their regalia. The volunteers, who identified 18 other species too, visited six sites in a 15-mile radius around Bryn Mawr, Pa., to document all the butterflies they could find. More than 400 teams (including one at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge) participated in NABA’s three seasonal counts to provide snapshots of butterfly populations.

Volunteers included butterfly enthusiasts and parents looking to connect their kids to nature. Butterfly volunteer Jan Clark-Levenson says that walking through fields and forests to see what flutters by is “a child-friendly sort of thing.” Claire Morgan, community garden and volunteer coordinator for the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education—one of the stops for the Bryn Mawr team—says the butterfly census is an opportunity to engage non-scientists in important research. It is also a chance to promote butterfly-friendly practices. But if Philadelphians want to help, “the biggest thing they can do is plant native plants,” Morgan says. Natives not only offer flowers to adult butterflies but serve as hosts for their caterpillars.

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Yard Works

Photo by Christian Hunold

John Janick plans to hit the 100 species mark in his backyard this year. In 2010, after consulting with Audubon Pennsylvania, he ripped up the car pad behind his West Mount Airy house. Since then Janick has planted 70 varieties of trees, shrubs and other plants—all native to Pennsylvania—in an effort to support native biodiversity: both by planting native plants as well as providing food and habitat for native critters.

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Responsible for our Rain: An eco-art installation shows how we can give rain its time and its place

Rain meets a forest or a meadow at the leaves, glancing and dripping on its way to the underbrush and cushioned floor. It is a gentle trip to the ground, where the raindrops can soak into the ground slowly if they're not sucked up by roots. Rain meets a building at its roof and is quickly channeled into gutters and downspouts, reaching the ground as a scouring stream of stormwater.

On the scale of the entire city of Philadelphia, this storm water flushes into our creeks and rivers, taking with it raw sewage, turning nearly every significant rain into a Clean Water Act violation. Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters plan endeavors to fix this problem through a range of measures. Many of these use soil, plants and other permeable surfaces to slow the rain and give it time and space to soak into the ground.

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When Art and Birds (Don't) Collide: Local colleges use student works to save birds

Temple University students walk past windows decked out with bird-saving decals designed by Molly Denisevicz. Photos by Christian HunoldA four-inch smudge marked the spot where, last fall, a zipping bird smacked into a window on Temple University’s campus. Today, birds flying toward the same window in the corridor connecting the Paley Library and the Tuttleman Learning Center will see silhouettes of feathered friends perched on a musical staff—a student-designed, research-based pattern that warns them of the solid obstacle in their path.

A four-inch smudge marked the spot where, last fall, a zipping bird smacked into a window on Temple University’s campus. Today, birds flying toward the same window in the corridor connecting the Paley Library and the Tuttleman Learning Center will see silhouettes of feathered friends perched on a musical staff—a student-designed, research-based pattern that warns them of the solid obstacle in their path.

“When I would walk home, I would see birds on power lines, and I thought about how they look a lot like notes on a staff,” says Molly Denisevicz, a senior in Temple’s Tyler School of Arts’ Fibers and Material Studies program. Denisevicz submitted her film design as part of a sophomore design class and beat out more than 90 entries in a juried competition. Now birds on Temple’s campus will see Molly’s design and pull up before it is too late.

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Made in the Shade: Buying shade-grown coffee helps the region’s migratory songbirds

How can you help local birds at breakfast? Think beyond the chickens that laid your eggs, and look at what’s in your coffee mug. Many of Philadelphia’s local birds spend their winters where I would if I had wings: in the lush forests of northern Latin America’s coffee country. Unfortunately, many of these migratory songbirds are in decline.

“One reason populations can decline is because of threats they are facing on their wintering range,” says Keith Russell, Philadelphia outreach coordinator for Audubon Pennsylvania, drawing the connection between our birds and where we get our coffee. 

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Urban Naturalist: The Runabout Rodent

It took my wife Jen about five minutes to spot two rats (I missed the first) running toward an overflowing trash can near the center of Rittenhouse Square. No one else saw them. True, it was dark, but the park was filled with couples chatting on benches, bar-hoppers strolling through, a circle of twentysomethings sitting on the grass a few yards away and a handful of homeless folks bedding down for the night.
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The White Stuff

Not everyone can get the tempeh so white and…” At Café Pendawa, a corner market on Mole and Morris in South Philly Iwan Santoso searches for the right word. He settles on “fluffy.”  Handmade by the Santoso family at their full-service restaurant Indonesia at Snyder and Bouvier streets, Café Pendawa’s grab-and-go tempeh represents the highest expression of fermented faux meats. The Santosos guard their production method so zealously, they refused to allow GRID a peek at the process, lest we reveal the white and fluffy secret to competitors.
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Urban Naturalist: Honk if you like geese

My wife, Jen, adores Canada geese. She especially loves the fluffy goslings that graze alongside their parents throughout grassy Philadelphia, but she waves to the adults, too. Jen might be the only Philadelphian I’ve met who likes the geese, and, like anyone whose spouse holds a dangerously contrarian position, I am bound to publicly agree with her.
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Urban Naturalist: Special sparrows

Everyone knows what a sparrow is, right? Those ubiquitous little birds that compete with the pigeons for crumbs in front of park benches across Philadelphia? Well, they are and they aren’t. Most of them, Eurasian house sparrows, don’t belong here. They’re completely different birds in a completely different family than our native sparrows, except that they look almost the same.
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Urban Naturalist: Shell Game - Now you see the bog turtle—tomorrow you might not.

"You’re too cute to hate,” I told the hockey puck-sized black turtle as it clawed at me to get down and craned its neck to bite my hand. Biting is cute when the critter is round, helpless and has big, black eyes. Unfortunately, cute doesn’t count for much when you’re holding up development. The bog turtle (classified under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened”), like the desert tortoise in Southern California, is one of those species that gets in the way. If you’re a retiring farmer looking to cash out by selling your land to a developer, a little turtle hiding in marshy, overgrown fields seems like a ridiculous obstacle.

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You Snake! Go a few rounds with the feisty, bite-y (and harmless) garter

I have many photographs of garter snakes attacking. Some are biting my hand. The others are going after the camera, their pink mouths open wide and ready to do battle. I am usually trying for a more peaceful composition, but garter snakes are fighters—they don’t sit there passively while a monster lifts them way off the ground and points a giant, shiny eye at them.

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Urban Naturalist: Masked Menace

The fat raccoon waddled down the sidewalk like he owned it, offering no indication that he viewed the human walking behind him as any threat at all. I followed slowly for a minute, enacting a surprising level of decorum—“After you! No, take your time!” Eventually, it slipped through the short fence around the triangular pocket park at the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and 46th Street and into the bushes.
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For the Birds

An urban environment is no deterrent to hawk watching
by Bernard Brown, phillyherping.blogspot.com

On this particular morning, the pigeons were smarter than the squirrels. Walking from my office to the ATM, I noticed breadcrumbs strewn across a stretch of sidewalk in Washington Square Park. A pair of young squirrels took turns jumping on each other and tussling in the grass nearby, but nary a pigeon was there to peck up the crumbs.
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