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Take a walk on the wild side

Briar Bush Nature Center celebrates its centennial by hosting parties and educational events.

Anne-Marie D'Onofrio (right), Briar Bush Nature Center development coordinator and environmental educator, and Dede Long, executive director of the center, watch birds and other wildlife at the Griscom cabin.
Anne-Marie D'Onofrio (right), Briar Bush Nature Center development coordinator and environmental educator, and Dede Long, executive director of the center, watch birds and other wildlife at the Griscom cabin.Read moreRON TARVER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

It was a childhood ritual he'll never forget.

Most Saturdays in the mid- to late-1950s, Leigh Altadonna walked with his sister, Linda, from Glenside, where they lived, to the woodland home of a Quaker naturalist.

Florence Griscom would be breakfasting, but she would invite them in. Together, the three would watch birds eat from the feeders that their hostess had hung.

"She'd be sitting in her chair in her living room and looking out the window," recalled Altadonna, 59. "She taught us not to point at them and how to attract them. We learned a lot about the birds."

Griscom died in 1961, but her love of wild creatures and her willingness to share her learning lives on in the form of Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington.

This year, 100 years after Griscom and her late husband, Everett, set up housekeeping in the cottage now called the Griscom Bird Observatory, the nature center is throwing a centennial.

From now until Dec. 6, the 12-acre center on Edge Hill Road is hosting 44 parties and environmental education events to raise money for its programs.

These programs include replacing invasive species with native plants, developing a field guide to local wildlife, devising a "green" initiative, creating a natural playground for kids, and establishing an endowment.

With the help of a $5,000 grant from Wal-Mart, the center will offer a series of workshops this fall on how to live in an eco-friendly manner, said Anne-Marie D'Onofrio, 24, the Briar Bush development coordinator.

"It will be hands-on and take-home," D'Onofrio said. Instead of just theory, "it's going to be something that you really can do."

The center is big on learning through close observation. It has a ferret, chinchilla, rabbits, snakes, domestic rat, white dove, tortoises and a hairy tarantula.

Not all of them can be touched. On May 5, a visitor patted Moo-moo, a friendly domestic rat named for her cow-like black and white patches.

"The animals are able to be used in many ways," D'Onofrio said. "We're able to take out animals to talk about how they are endangered by the warming of their habitat."

Dede Long, the 57-year-old executive director, lives on the grounds. She said there are foxes raising young in a den just off the nature trail, although they rarely are seen.

"I can hear them scream at night," Long said.

The foxes were nowhere in evidence recently as kindergartners from Pine Road Elementary School in Lower Moreland hiked along a nature trail toward a pond where they looked for tadpoles.

"At Pine Road, we have a nature trail," said Jennifer Boyle, one of two teachers supervising children on the trip. "They get used to being quiet and using their senses. Now they get to come to the big nature trail. It's exciting."

Volunteers who acted as guides pointed out a white oak that was scarred by lightning and a hole in a tree that likely was made by a woodpecker.

"We keep our eyes open for things to point out to kids, so that when they go to other places, they know what it is," D'Onofrio said.

The center got its start as a wildlife refuge for injured animals, said Long, who has led the center for 30 years.

When the Griscoms died, Abington Principal T. Russell Frank organized Friends of Briar Bush, a citizens group bent on keeping the Griscom land as a nature sanctuary and learning center.

The group persuaded Abington Township to buy seven acres for $8,000 in 1962, from the heirs to the Griscoms' estate. The deal included their cottage.

The next year, the township bought 2.1 acres for $19,000 from John T. McKaraher, including the building that is the center's museum. In 1971, the township purchased another 2.1 acres with a building that is Long's residence, from Louise Bender for $24,800.

The Friends of Briar Bush bought the tract on which the education building sits from John T. McKaraher in 1994 for $120,000. It's the only land that the Friends own at the center.

The township and nonprofit group collaborate, each providing half the $550,000 annual operating budget.

"The Friends provide the teaching staff, and the exhibits and animal care," Long said. "The heat and electricity, and maintenance of the grounds is the township."

Because of the Griscoms' influence, Altadonna became a lifelong bird watcher and nature lover.

He assumed the presidency of the center's board of directors in the 1970s and helped hire the first naturalist to teach environmental education. After a hiatus, he returned to the board.

When Long took the reins, animal displays were added, and "the place grew by leaps and bounds in terms of programs," said Altadonna, who also is assistant superintendent of the Abington School District.

Now, he likes to go to Briar Bush and watch the migrating warblers fly in for a drink from the bird baths that Everett Griscom carved out of rock long ago.

"The fact that people get a connection with nature; Briar Bush is a jewel that way," Altadonna said. "There are many kids and families connected to the place, because it's small and you're not going to get lost."

For Information

To learn more about Briar Bush Nature Center, 1212 Edge Hill Rd., Abington, call 215-887-6603 or go to