Wissahickon Valley Park
Wissahickon Valley Park Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania © Bob Bruhin/Flickr

Stories in Pennsylvania

A Place I Love

The binoculars come out during a search for birds in Houston Meadow.

by Erin Mooney, Communications Director with The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania

On a cool springtime Sunday morning, my husband and I packed our binoculars, our bird book, filled our coffee mugs and headed about 15 minutes from our house to Houston Meadow, a section of the Wissahickon Valley Park in upper Roxborough.

We were scheduled to meet Ruth Pfeffer, a Philadelphia-area bird expert who has been birding in the Philadelphia area for decades. One of my husband’s Christmas gifts was a birding trip with Ruth and we timed it in late April to coincide with spring migration.

Pfeffer is proud to be a “Philly girl,” having grown up in the Logan section of Philadelphia. As a Girl Scout, she said became curious about the natural world and would often bike to the Wissahickon to go birding. She later became a birding instructor through the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center and now teaches at the Morris Arboretum. When we met Pffefer, she was in the midst of her busy guiding season—she had been taking clients birding for 16 days straight.

A group of people look out into a park.
Bird Walk Ruth Pfeffer leads a bird walk at Wissahickon Park in Philadelphia. © Courtesy/Ruth Pfeffer

Pfeffer knows the Wissahickon and the birds who visit there better than most everyone in the area. When expert birder David Sibley came to the Wissahickon several years ago, she was there to show him the park’s birds.

Just after stepping out of the car and meeting each other, Ruth grabbed her binoculars to capture several goldfinches flitting about the area near a horse barn. The birds were nibbling the seeds of a plant growing alongside the fence.

To the right, red winged blackbirds sat among the cattails in a wetland area. Ruth excitedly scanned the wetland area for more species, but there were none.

Pfeffer’s enthusiasm about birds is contagious. She tunes into birdsongs we could barely hear and she would jump with excitement at the faintest sound of a nearby chirp or song. “Hear me, see me,” she would chant to the sky, pointing her binoculars toward the song, coaxing the bird to show itself.

A black and orange bird rests on a branch.
Orchard Oriole An orchard oriole rests on a branch in a forest. © Dan Pancamo

Houston Meadow is uniquely distinct from the rest of the Wissahickon Valley Park. An open space consisting of almost 40 acres, the sloping meadow is filled with grasses and wildflowers that provide habitat for animals and birds—of which over 100 species can be found in the Wissahickon. Goldenrod, asters and butterfly weed can be found throughout the meadow and deerberry and bayberry shrubs provide groundcover throughout the meadow. Houston Meadow is also home to two species of butterflies that cannot be found anyplace else in Philadelphia—the Dusted Skipper and the Cobweb Skipper. 

Over the years, Houston Meadow has lost a great deal of habitat as plants and trees have displaced meadow habitat. It’s something that Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) is working on in its restoration of the meadow. Pfeffer credits FOW with keeping invasive species out and native plants in the meadow and bringing the bird populations back to the park. FOW has put a multi-year restoration plan into place to help stabilize populations of birds that were once declining. Field sparrows, Eastern towhees and common yellowthroats are now seen more than in previous years. And, new meadow species that had never been recorded breeding there have been seen in recent years, including the Cooper’s hawk, orchard oriole, and the Eastern bluebird.

A Dusted Skipper on an Oak Dune
Dusted Skipper A Dusted Skipper rests on an oak dune. © Creative Commons/AECole2010

Two hours into our walk, we had barely made it across the meadow. For novice birders, we were thrilled at the range of species we saw and heard—39 species in an urban park. Carolina wrens, a yellow-rumped warbler, a red-eyed vireo, a prairie warbler, all were new to us.

Many of the birds were migrating through, and Pfeffer knew many details of the birds’ origins and destinations. We were amazed at the diversity of birds just 15 minutes from home, and Pfeffer helped newbies like us tune into the song and to capture the bird in our binoculars with patience and ease.

Christmas in the springtime—a morning well spent.