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Eagle-Watching in John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia and Delaware counties


A John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge Snapshot

Driving Directions: From Interstate 95 South, take Exit 14, Bartram Avenue. Turn right at the fifth traffic light onto 84th Street. At the second light, turn left onto Lindbergh Boulevard. The refuge entrance is one block on the right. From Interstate 95 North, take Exit 10. Turn left at first light onto Bartram Avenue. Turn left at the fifth traffic light onto 84th Street. At the second light, turn left onto Lindbergh Boulevard. The refuge entrance is one block on the right.

Viewing Directions: The best chance to view eagles on or near the nest is to walk the impound-ment loop trail counterclockwise, with the impoundment on your left. The nest is easily viewed looking across the impoundment from the dike road halfway between the observation platform and the cross-dike road.

Property Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Best Eagle Viewing Season: Spring, summer into fall and winter when there is no ice.

Activities at the site: Fishing, birding, hiking, canoeing and bicycling (on service roads only).

Other Wildlife: Waterfowl, songbirds, shorebirds, rails and other marsh birds, hawks, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and state-endangered species.

Where to go, what to look for

Near the heart of Philadelphia, with the contrasting city skyline as a backdrop, wildlife flourishes in and around the 1,200-acre John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. This haven protects a 200-acre tidal marsh, the largest freshwater tidal marsh remaining in the Commonwealth. It is a remnant of the 6,000-acre marsh that existed when the Lenape people named the area Tinicum, meaning Islands of the Marsh, more than five centuries ago.

This National Wildlife Refuge is on Audubon's Important Bird Area list for Pennsylvania. Its varied wetland habitats serve as a vital feeding and resting stopover for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. For migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and birds of prey, the refuge provides an oasis of food and shelter in the midst of a vast urban area. More than 300 different species of birds have been recorded on the refuge throughout the seasons. It is a natural stopover for birds migrating along the Delaware or Schuylkill rivers.

The bald eagle is one of 85 species recorded nesting on the refuge. Cradled above the forked branches of a deciduous tree, the eagle nest sits at the lower end of the 145-acre man-made water impoundment. The massive stick nest is visible from a trail encircling the impoundment about 1.5 miles from the education center. During nesting season, temporary signs mark the informal nest-viewing spot along the trail. Shrub and tree branches have been clipped back at the trail site for better viewing.

As early as mid-January, the eagle pair begins adding sticks to the nest, part of a courtship ritual, and may be seen regularly over the open water or perched on selected branches along the shore. Bald eagles frequent a perch on a regular basis, usually a branch or snag with a good vantage point or overlooking a prolific fishing spot. Eagle activity around the nest continues through spring and early summer and there is a chance of seeing a growing eaglet on the nest or a fledgling as it learns to fly and hunt on its own. A spotting scope or binoculars provide the best opportunity for watching eagles, especially when the trees fully leaf out in May. Visitors must stay on the trail to view the eagle nest./p>

In addition to the refuge's breeding pair of eagles, a pair of bald eagles nesting in nearby New Jersey hunt at the water impoundment and along Darby Creek. Late summer and fall bring several migrating bald eagles to the refuge as well. Fewer eagles pass through in spring.

A pair of ospreys nest outside of the refuge, but show up often to fish during summer. Peregrine falcons, red-shouldered hawks and Cooper's hawks hunt here as well, taking advantage of the abundant prey found throughout the wetland complex. The same open water useful to the eagles also attracts gulls and terns to the refuge.

Two boardwalks cross marshy portions of the impoundment trail and wildlife observation areas are at key places along the trail. These include observation blinds and a large viewing platform, which enhances wildlife-watching at the impoundment. It is common to see great blue herons, great egrets, black-crowned night-herons, American black ducks, northern pintails, northern shovelers and green-winged teal around the edges of the impoundment. During migration, thousands of northern pintails, mallards, and green-winged teal stop at the refuge to feed and rest. Other flocks of waterfowl such as buffleheads, hooded and common mergansers, ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks, pied-billed grebes and American coots stopover as well. Wood duck boxes throughout the refuge enhance nesting for this commonly seen duck.

The tidal marshes between Darby Creek and the impoundment and mud flats interspersed throughout the wetlands are vital feeding grounds to many migrating shore-birds. As many as 10,000 semipalmated and least sandpipers and several hundred greater and lesser yellowlegs have been documented during fall migration. Pectoral and stilt sandpipers, dunlins and dowitchers also frequent the refuge during migration.

Marsh wrens nest in the thick, shrubby marshes as do swamp sparrows and the state endangered least bittern. These secretive birds may be heard more than seen.

The old fields and moist woodlands on the east side of the impoundment, hold great opportunities to see warblers and songbirds. As an oasis of green and blue in the urban landscape, the refuge attracts many migrating birds passing through the Mid-Atlantic region. Yellow-rumped, black-throated blue, magnolia, Canada and yellow warblers, as well as ovenbirds and American redstarts, can be seen during spring migration. In all, 35 warbler species have been recorded on the refuge. Other songbirds include Baltimore and orchard orioles, gray catbirds, cedar waxwings, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, and Swainson's and wood thrushes. Flycatchers are attracted to this wetland and woods with willow flycatchers and eastern kingbirds being the most prominent. Of course, you can expect red-winged blackbirds to be a dominant presence in marshy areas, but birders also should be on the lookout for rusty blackbirds in the various islands of wetland and riverine habitat in south Philadelphia. These blackbirds are a declining wetland songbird that stops over in Pennsylvania on its way back and forth to its northern breeding home in the boreal forests. Be sure to look for the "lurkers" in the marshy and brushy vegetation. Carolina and house wrens are found here, as well as many species of sparrows, including white-throated sparrows.

Visitors to the wildlife refuge should take advantage of the many learning opportunities along the trails and at the Visitor's Center. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is surely a gem nestled in an urban environment. In addition to the many birds, there is a special emphasis at this refuge to teach the public about reptiles and amphibians of the woods and wetlands. They all connect to the habitat that bald eagles need. There are many opportunities for urbanites to connect to nature and learn more about wildlife here.

For additional information, contact:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, 8601 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19153. Telephone: 215-365-3118.

By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross