John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, AKA Tinicum, is an outstanding urban oasis in southern Philadelphia, less than one mile from Philadelphia’s airport.  Being a New Yorker, I had never birded the refuge before.  After all, why would I drive over two hours to bird in habitat that is very similar to much closer locations?  But when the Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding conference was held there last weekend it seemed like a welcome excuse to finally check out this natural gem in one of the finest cities on the east coast.

But how did such a refuge come to be? The fine folks at the Fish and Wildlife Service are happy to tell the tale:

The history of Tinicum Marsh, the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland Pennsylvania goes back to the first settlements in the region in 1634.  Swedes, Dutch and English diked and drained parts of the marsh for grazing.  At that time, the tidal marshes measured over 5,700 acres. The rapid urbanization since World War I, reduced tidal marshes to approximately 200 acres. The remnant of this once vast tidal marsh is protected by the refuge.

A diked, non-tidal area of 145 acres, adjacent to the eastern end of Tinicum Marsh, was donated by the Gulf Oil Corporation to the City of Philadelphia in 1955. This area, administered for the benefit of wildlife and people, was known as Tinicum Wildlife Preserve.  The areas of open water along with the adjacent heavily vegetated tidal wetlands, formed an ideal habitat for thousands of migratory waterfowl.

In 1969, the remaining area was threatened by plans to route Interstate 95 through it and by a sanitary landfill on the tidal wetlands.  These activities started a long series of injunctions, public hearings and extraordinary efforts by private and public groups to secure rerouting of the highway and termination of the landfill operation. Under legislation passed by Congress in 1972, authorization was given to the Secretary of the Interior to acquire 1200 acres to establish the Tinicum National Environmental Center.

In November 1991, in a bill sponsored by Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), the name of the refuge was changed to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to honor the late Senator who helped preserve Tinicum Marsh.

I had the great pleasure of spending several hours there on the Friday afternoon before the conference, joined for some of it by ABA President Jeff Gordon.  I also returned Saturday morning prior to the start of the conference for some early morning birding.  And I saw much more than just a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Rather than go through the I walked here and saw this and I walked there and saw that I thought I would just share some of the images I captured and let them speak for themselves.  If these don’t convince you that a visit to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is in order should you find yourself in the Philadelphia area then nothing will!

dawn at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

juvenile White-crowned Sparrow

Gray Catbird

White-tailed Deer

Carolina Chickadee

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Song Sparrow

Bald Eagle

Get on over to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.  Tell them I sent you.  And enjoy!

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.