On a very cold Saturday in early January, I had the opportunity to join Cindy and Scott Ahern as they participated in the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census (PMWBC) in Tacony Creek Park.
The PMWBC is a volunteer inventory of birds found within Philadelphia. It’s similar in nature to the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, except its focus is specifically within the city of Philadelphia. The first census took place in January of 1987. Since then, a total of 142 species have been identified within our city.
I met up with the Aherns on Janury 10 at the Friends Hospital parking lot. It was only 16 degrees out and I wondered whether the birds would even show up. Cindy and Scott, however, appeared unfazed by the cold weather. They’d already been out for several hours, counting birds at Burholme Park, further upstream.
Cindy stopped their truck, quietly listening with her head out the window. She hopped out and scouted out a stand of Hemlocks, hoping to spot a few birds hunkered down out of the wind in the evergreen boughs. Aside from a lone ring-billed gull above the Home Depot parking lot, the front lot was quiet.
The Aherns have birded this location along the creek for several years now as part of the PMWBC. Cindy is the Chairperson of the Youth Birding Committee of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. Scott is the photographer, scanning the tree tops with his camera to document their discoveries. In the past few years the Aherns have taken some fantastic shots during the census, including a Great Horned Owl at Friends Hospital and a Snowy Owl at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport (Cindy tells me Scott has a knack for spotting the owls.)
The Aherns know all of the usual bird haunts and hangouts. They know where the birds should typically be, but Cindy immediately notices something is up. There have been some changes. At the Friends campus, some recent construction to enhance on-site stormwater management has been taking place. A new series of planted swales were created, requiring the removal of some patches of shrub habitat. Cindy says the shrubs were typically full of sparrows — now that they’re gone this hillside is quiet.
The good news is that these swales have been planted with loads of young, native plants. These depressions, designed to slow and hold excess rain water (instead of letting it flow swiftly to the creek,) will fill in over the next few seasons. The plants will provide native habitat and cover for the birds, while the contour of the land will hold and soak up excess water, taking a load off of Tacony Creek downhill. It’s a trade off, the immediate disturbance in exchange for long term habitat improvement. In the meantime, there is lots of habitat in nearby Tacony Creek Park.
We moved to the rear parking lot and quickly spotted movement in the trees. A medium sized bird was making its way along the high limbs of an oak. As it flew across the lot to the next tree, a bright flash of yellow could be seen in its wings. It was a Northern Flicker, a member of the woodpecker family, starting his day inspecting the sunny, bare canopies of the oaks and tulip poplars.
As we moved further down the trail towards the historic Fisher’s Lane Bridge, we start to notice a lot more activity. The sparrows, juncos, chickadees and titmice have found shelter in the adjacent Tacony Creek Park. From the bridge we can see the mixed flock of birds flitting around in the grasses and scrub along the bank.
Suddenly the birds all disappear into the grass at once, as a Sharp-shinned Hawk drops from the sky like a dart. He comes up empty and lands on a perch above the icy creek. The grassy cover of the banks has passed the test. The hawk takes off after a few minutes and the songbirds eventually return to their business.
There were some surprising no-shows that day. Mourning Doves, common throughout the area, were conspicuously absent. Canada Geese, usually spotted in droves, were nowhere to be found. I had seen a flock of at least 100 the day before at the Juniata Golf Club. The birds have to show up on the day of the census in order to be counted. Additional guidelines (intended to maintain count accuracy) are that birds of the same species seen on the return trip — if you travel back along the same route — are assumed to be the same birds. We also spotted a beautiful Red Fox, but again according to the rules, we can’t count him…
We made it back to the parking lot and I thanked the Aherns for allowing me to join them on this adventure. I headed off to my warm home, as the dedicated couple head off to the arctic winds of the Northeast Philly Airport, hoping for another Snowy Owl sighting.
Be on the lookout for this year’s finished Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census report. Here are PMWBC reports from previous years.
Join us for the Great Backyard Bird Count, a national event where birders of all ages and skill-sets observe birds for 15 minutes in their own back yards. The count takes place from February 13 – 16. Register your count here. But don’t stop there! If you live in the TTF Watershed we want you to share your photos and counts with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the tag: #TTFbirds.