The Wild Wissahickon

Conservation // April 29, 2020

By Christina Moresi, M.Ed., Wissahickon Environmental Center

The Wissahickon holds within it numerous habitats that contribute to an ecosystem full of biodiversity, or diversity of life. Each habitat contains animals, plants, and fungi that are individually fascinating and also work together as a team to keep the system in balance – while at the same time contending with the major role people and recreation play in the Wissahickon’s urban forest. Understanding our role as humans in maintaining the balance of biodiversity is crucial, especially for the Wissahickon’s wildlife. 

On an average spring day, we often see squirrels, butterflies, and song birds when hiking through the trails. Then there are rare, exciting sightings such as fox, eagle, or heron – but they are only the most visible fraction of the wildlife in the Wissahickon.

In the creek, species such as caddisfly, mayfly, and snails cling to the rocks as turtles and fish flow with the water. The still water of ponds enables frogs and toads to lay eggs and  mosquito larva to develop, providing food for other animals.  

The forest shelters larger mammals such as deer and fox within its layers of low living decomposers and high living birds. The hot, sunny meadows are also home to an array of birds, insects, arachnids, reptiles, and mammals. Some stick to the woods or the water, but many species cross paths between the forest, meadow, creek, and ponds that allow them to live and eat according to their life cycles.

This balance of biodiversity can be easily disrupted by park users’ tendency to litter, leave dog waste, or misuse trails, but human interaction can also support the restoration of the Wissahickon. Taking a closer look at the diversity of life on any given day as we hike helps us to see the value of each organism, and how they work together. The more we look, the more we see, and the more we are able to recognize our place in the system. 

Beyond respecting the park as we use it, we can fix it. On our hikes, we regularly pass structures in the landscape, but rarely notice their natural potential: for instance, the ponds at the Tree House are part of a larger stormwater management system, and provide additional habitat for our pond dwellers. Another example is the bird boxes in Houston and Andorra meadows: these small structures are specifically designed for bluebirds, and intended to support their repopulation in the Wissahickon. Though in the past few noticed the loss of these birds, it’s a striking and important gain for the ecosystem as they zip around the meadows once again. 

On your next hike, try to stop and notice the life around you. With each new look at animals, plants, and fungi, you can begin to see just how much relies on one small park.