For Linda Widdop, a belted kingfisher at Pennypack Creek was her “spark bird,” which got her into birding.
It’s a striking bird — mostly blue with a white collar, and a proud, spiky mohawk. Its call, a loud avian rattle that you can hear for hundreds of yards, is almost otherworldly. And if you’re lucky, you might see it zip into a small hole along the mudbank where it nests.
“It’s just such a cool bird,” says Widdop, who is the second female president in the 130-year history of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. And she’s helping others find their spark birds and get into the hobby, too.
Birding has become more popular during the pandemic — in part because “people realized that the only place they could go was outside,” says Jason Hall, founder of the In Color Birding Club.
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And it’s becoming more inclusive. While birding has become more diverse in recent decades, last year’s incident when Christian Cooper, a Black birder, was falsely accused of threatening a white woman, kickstarted a new push for inclusion, Hall says.
“Birding was, historically, an old white man’s activity. People are realizing that it does not need to be limited to that, and a lot of folks are breaking those barriers,” Hall says. “So, whether you’re a beginner white birder, a beginner Black birder, a beginner Asian birder, it does not matter. It is there for them — because these birds don’t care what color we are.”
If your interest is piqued, the Philadelphia area is a great place to start. Ornithology’s roots run deep here, thanks to renowned bird scientists like John James Audubon, John Bartram, and Alexander Wilson, who did much of their early work in the region, says Keith Russell, program manager of Urban Conservation at Audubon Mid-Atlantic.
“This has been an activity that’s been practiced in and around Philadelphia for a very long time,” Russell says. “We have one of the most vibrant birding communities anywhere in the United States.”
We also happen to have a great parks system and lots of green space, which, in all, attracts more than 300 bird species to the city throughout the year.
So, if you want to get into birding in Philadelphia, where can you start? Here is what you need to know:
How to get into birding
You don’t really have to go much farther than your backyard or local park. Those places, Russell says, will give you plenty of time and space to master birding basics, like identifying common species such as northern cardinals, blue jays, and mourning doves.
That allows you to learn and beef up your skills, and there’s a lot of information in birding. Some helpful things to know include when certain birds are in the area, the time of day that they are active, the habitats where they live, and, of course, what they look and sound like.
“It all just helps to do a little homework,” Widdop says.
But ultimately, it is key to get mentorship, Russell says. A good way to do that is to go out on field trips with the area’s various birding groups, such as the DVOC or the In Color Birding Club. Many groups lead field trips to locations throughout the city year-round, and they’re often free.
“The benefit of a group, whether everyone is super experienced or not, is that you have more eyes on the same bird,” Hall says. “That’s a really good part of it when you’re going with a group. And the normal stuff of just making friends, sharing in commonalities. It makes the birding more enjoyable.”
What gear do I need to go birding?
Not a lot.
The big one is a field guide. Options include:
The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, for something a little more approachable (and portable). Buy it here | Find it at the Free Library
There are great tools if you want to keep things digital:
The other helpful piece of equipment is a decent pair of binoculars, Russell says. You don’t have to break the bank — keeping it simple is fine.
Pro-tip: Borrow a birding kit from the Free Library
The DVOC’s Birding Backpacks program, including binoculars and a field guide to area birds in a handy backpack, is available at Philadelphia Free Library locations.
You don’t have to wear a khaki outfit, be totally silent when you’re in the field, or defer to other birders based on their level of expertise, Hall says. “Nah, you can throw all that noise in the trash,” he says. “Be yourself. Wear whatever you want. Express yourself. Sing, dance, bring your culture, your life, your experience, into birding. It’s going to make it better.”
To stay safe, let someone know where you’re going and when. You can drop a pin on a map, or send a text, or better yet, bring someone else along.
If you’re birding in your backyard, forgo the bird feeder, Russell says, and opt to plant native plants instead — as they provide natural food for area birds. An unknown disease has been killing many birds in the Mid-Atlantic region this year, and while it’s not clear if bird feeders are helping spread it, it’s probably safest to take yours down for now just in case they are.
Be respectful of the birds and their habitat:
Don’t approach or disturb them to get a better look because, typically, you’ll just scare them and “make it spend energy to fly away because it doesn’t feel safe,” Widdop says.
Keep off of private property. Also, don’t litter.
Don’t use any technology to play bird calls in an attempt to attract birds, Russell says.
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Where to bird-watch in Philly
Philly has tons of options for novice birders. And many of them, Widdop says, are free, reachable by public transportation, and accessible to birders with physical limitations.
Here are some great places to go birding in Philadelphia:
Heinz is “the ultimate spot to go” in the city, Widdop says, thanks to its accessibility and wide range of habitats. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted here, according to online birding database eBird, including herons, warblers, and wood ducks — and it’s home to one of the first recorded bald eagle nests in the city since DDT was banned in the 1970s.
FDR has been gaining popularity recently. Hall recommends the area known as “The Meadows,” which is a former golf course, and now attracts tons of birds, such as the gorgeous indigo bunting or redheaded woodpecker. More than 200 species have been spotted here.
At 54 acres, this historical cemetery has plenty of space to explore — and it’s also something of a birding hot spot in Southwest Philly. About 150 species of birds have been recorded here, including various types of hawks and warblers, and, appropriately, mourning doves. If you go, though, please be respectful, as the cemetery is still active.
Bartram’s Garden is sometimes known as Southwest Philadelphia’s backyard, and it’s a great place for birding. Here, you’ll be able to spot up to 200 species of birds throughout the year, including ibises, sandpipers, mockingbirds, and hummingbirds, thanks to its riverside location, open field, and wooded areas. As Widdop says, you could “bird the whole thing before work,” thanks to its relatively small size.
This Center City park might not spring to mind for good birding, but as Widdop puts it, “It’s got trees, doesn’t it?” With trees and green spaces come birds, and Rittenhouse is actually such a good birding spot that the DVOC sometimes leads birding trips there. Folks have spotted more than 100 species there, including starlings, red-tailed hawks, snow geese, and woodpeckers.
This is another great green space amid a sea of concrete that attracts tons of birds. Hall says that the manicured trees behind Independence Hall are a great spot to look for warblers in the spring, when various types of that colorful, South American bird migrate through the area.
Fairmount Park is good for just about any outdoorsy activity you’re after, but it’s especially good for birding. Some hot spots include the Sedgley Woods Area, Boxer’s Trail, the Fairmount Water Works, Lemon Hill, and the Discovery Center (which features a 37-acre lake), just to name a few — but, as Hall says, both the east and west sides of the park won’t leave birders wanting. One to look out for in the spring is the Baltimore oriole.
At 1,800 acres, the Wissahickon is massive — and includes meadows, forests, and creeks, so expect plenty of variety. Widdop recommends the Andorra Meadow and Houston Meadow, which have each recorded about 150 species of birds throughout the year from the dark-eyed junco to the American goldfinch. Carpenter’s Woods, she adds, is great too — but pretty much anywhere along the Wissahickon Creek is a safe bet.
Set just behind the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, this area of the larger Pennypack Park attracts more than 250 species throughout the year. Chief among them are bald eagles, which have nested in the area for years and attract even nonbirders, but Widdop says she loves to look for warblers here in the spring.
This 275-acre, mostly undeveloped park is the only state park located within city limits. Russell recommends its largely open meadow-type habitat, which attracts a number of bird species that can be tough to find elsewhere. In all, birders have spotted more than 160 types that run the gamut from snow geese to tree swallows, depending on the time of year.