Birding Along the Wissahickon

Nature // July 25, 2017

By Steve Lawrence

One in an occasional series in which FOW publishes articles that appeared in our publications in the past, and still resonate with us today. This piece was written by Steve Lawrence (1921-2012) for FOW’s Fall 1994 Newsletter. He was an FOW Board Member, Chair of the Wildlife Committee, and an avid bird-watcher with a life list of 600 U.S. species gathered from his visits to 49 states. He also was a member of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, the Wyncote Chapter of the Audubon Society, and the American Birding Association. If you read this article to the end, you will see that FOW was struggling with issues of littering and park-user conflict, much as we do today.

Remarkably, the Wissahickon Valley is still a viable area for wildlife, despite the pressures being brought upon it. On a very hot and humid day in late June, I spent two relatively brief periods along and above the creek, and was pleased, really astounded, at the number of birds I saw and heard. Altogether, I saw 36 species of birds as well as one baby cottontail, a number of gray squirrels, and 24 chipmunks (more abundant than ever this year).

Wood thrush by Ruth Pfeffer

In the morning, around 8 a.m., I spent a half hour making several stops down Livezey Lane, finally parking by the Canoe Club and walking for a short distance along the pond that is formed by the dam. I heard many house wrens and saw many robins and catbirds, heard a song sparrow, several red-eyed vireos, and some wood thrushes.

Along the water, I had some major surprises. First, I saw two Louisiana waterthrushes, an adult and a downy immature, just out of the nest, which confirms that the waterthrush still breeds in the Wissahickon. Then a green heron flew up. Does this mean that green herons are breeding along the creek? It is the time when they are on territory, not travelling.

Next, I was aware of activity at the surface of the water. In the humid heat, some sort of insect had been flying close to the water in large numbers. Also in large numbers, to feast on the available prey, were at least two dozen swallows, three-quarters of them rough-winged swallows and the rest barn. More rough-winged swallows by far than I have ever seen in the Wissahickon Valley.

During the next several minutes, along the pond and above the parking area, I saw mallards and grackles and heard wood peewee, scarlet tanager, flicker, Carolina chicadee, veery, and goldfinch. Then a female Baltimore oriole flew into a tree, where I think she has a nest. In a span of just 30 minutes, I had seen and/or heard 25 species of birds.

Young female Baltimore oriole perched on a branch

My next chance was at 2 p.m., when it really was hot! There still was activity. I had more time, so I walked from Livezey Lane along the path toward Cresheim Valley, spending an hour and a half in the woods. I heard a yellowthroat, saw a family of titmice and several white-breasted nuthatches, heard cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers and house finches, saw starlings and mourning doves, heard another tanager, saw three very young veeries and one juvenile robin just out of the next, saw a towhee and then, just as I was getting back in the car to drive home, heard a pileated woodpecker.

The morning walk, albeit too brief and hectic, was more pleasant than the afternoon walk, and not just because it was cooler. In the afternoon, a demon mountain biker rider tore around a corner and just skidded to a stop to avoid hitting me.

Making up for that near catastrophe, I met and talked for a while with an ambitious walker who was doing a seven-mile loop. Just when all was quiet again, someone turned on a “boom box,” which for a few minutes was all I could hear, even though it probably was a quarter mile away.

Also spoiling the scene in too many places, but especially along the creek near the Canoe Club, was the tremendous amount of trash that picnickers, some fishermen, and most of the “young lovers” bring in but somehow are incapable of taking out or putting in the available trash cans at the parking area.

What has happened in our society that people find it so difficult to take out what they have brought in? Yet, with all the mess, the over-use and ill-advised use, the woods and the stream still survive, sheltering an amazing variety and abundance of life.

It is so important to preserve oases like the Wissahickon. One hopes that the birds will fly and display and sing and breed and bring forth young there for many more years, yea, for all time.

PHOTO: Steve Lawrence leading a bird walk in 2007