While we usually focus on trails in Massachusetts and nearby New England States, when we venture out of the area, it is a joy to discover not only new places, but an outdoor refuge close to where we were staying in the Philadelphia area. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a truly urban refuge, but the number of birds we saw in this place don’t seem bothered by the noise of Rt. 95, which borders the refuge, nor the sight of multiple planes taking off within sight of the refuge as well.
We visited twice during our stay, the first around mid-morning, when we saw birds that were new to us, Gadwalls and Northern Shovelers–great fun to watch how they feed, skimming the surface with their broad beaks.
We also spotted many familiar birds as well, great blue herons, great white egrets, Canada geese, swallows, and osprey.
A turtle seemed to have a favorite spot to hang out. He was in the same spot for both of our visits.
The refuge offers handicapped accessible trails out to the boardwalk that crosses the wetland area near the visitor center.
A wide dike provides additional space to walk, or bike, although we had no bike with us, so we didn’t get to check out the length of the trail. It appears the bike trail is around 10 miles, and leads past additional wetlands areas.
Trees, ground cover, and bushes were just putting out hints that spring is actually on its way. On our second visit, near sunset, we saw fewer birds, but an osprey offered a stunning show of hunting prowess.
We have often spotted osprey hovering, waiting for just the right moment to dive for a fish. But this osprey was at the far end of the waterway when he suddenly made a beeline straight for the water’s surface, dove,
and came up with a fish. Five minutes later, he repeated the maneuver and once again got his fish. The second time, he took longer to emerge from the water, and his fish was quite large. Pretty exciting for us to watch, although admittedly, not as exciting for the fish that became his dinner.
While we walked, we heard different languages spoken, all enjoying the outdoors along the trail, and felt grateful that this special place was saved from development. At the visitor center, another great resource, we learned that the property had been slated for Rt. 95 to go right through it. Instead, the highway was rerouted, the river flows freely, and the waterway shelters lots of wildlife. The refuge and visitor center offer great opportunities for numerous school children (and adults) to get outdoors and learn about nature, right near where they live.
What a sweet surprise. No, we never made it into the city. We spent too much time simply enjoying the nearby wonders of nature, right around the corner from where we stayed for a professional conference. If we get back to this area, it will be at the top of my list for great places to visit in the Philadelphia area.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are.
She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.