Heinz wildlife refuge, a special place for birds and birders

With jets taking off and landing next door at Philadelphia Airport, it’s hard to believe the abundance of wildlife at John Heinz National Wildlife. On countless treks to PHL in recent years, I’ve seen the signs for the refuge but was never able to explore it until this past weekend.

I arrived mid-morning Saturday at the refuge in Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, adjacent to Philadelphia. The airport lies between the Delaware River and the refuge, on the eastern flyway.

A great blue heron stalks the Emergent Wetland, with the Big Boardwalk behind. Note at center top the double-decker viewing platform, which I couldn’t access because of trail work.

I spent most of my 90-minute visit on the Wetland Loop Trail and the Big Boardwalk Loop Trail, with some time in the Warbler Woods. One of the trails was blocked as a work crew was repairing what I assume was recent storm damage. I diverted onto the boardwalk across the Emergent Wetland, a big, lake-like area where I saw several great blue herons, a great egret and one delightfully noisy belted kingfisher.

The wide boardwalk that crosses the marsh is also great. It’s not merely a footpath. The boardwalk has cutout platforms that jut into the water, giving visitors room to look more closely at the turtles and birds without having to worry about impeding others walking by. Nicely illustrated signs show and tell visitors about the creatures they might see.

View over the Emergent Wetland, from one of the cutout platforms on the boardwalk.

I encountered two friendly, helpful birders who know the refuge well. One gave me some tips on navigating the paths, and the other turned out to be a special treat.

Early in my walk, I had spotted a small group of people in a clearing between two sections of woods. A tour, I thought. Later, after spotting a black-and-white warbler on the wetland trail, I veered off and headed back toward the park entrance through that same clearing. One young man was still there, peering intently into the woods on one side.

I asked him what he was looking for, and he told me that this particular area was a warbler hot spot in fall and spring.

Was it ever.

He rattled off a list of several birds he had spotted for the group he’d been guiding earlier. This was a jackpot for me, as he pointed out a beautiful veery perched on a tree and an American redstart, both additions to my life list. The guide also spotted a northern parula for me, only my second sighting.

The Heinz refuge is roughly 35 miles from my home, and I will be going back.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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