Favorite Spot: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
Neighborhood: Eastwick & Bartram Village
Address: 8601 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19153
I am: I’m a full-time college professor and part-time wildlife photographer.
Years in Philly: 15
Current Home: Fairmount
My love note:
I was vaguely wondering what to do with myself when I eased out of competitive cycling in my early 40s. Then one day my partner, Jen, started going on walks in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, that rather unremarkable stretch of woods and water alongside I-95 in Southwest Philadelphia, across from the airport. She brought back reports of wildlife large and small inhabiting a sort of wondrous oasis sandwiched between the highway and Darby Creek.
We have photographed fox kits at their den, glimpsed something of the profoundly social lives of deer, and learned to name birds we had no idea existed, much less along the scrubby right-of-way of a buried pipeline. Mink raise their young on refuge grounds; river otters and beavers are regularly seen in Darby Creek and the refuge’s various lakes. Many Philadelphians know that the refuge is home to one of the city’s breeding pairs of bald eagles. The refuge is far from pristine, to be sure, but – thanks to the Clean Water Act and similar laws – it’s clean enough for top-of-the-food-chain predators to thrive there again.
Many older Philadelphians from the area recall Tinicum Marsh as a swamp where the bodies were buried, quite literally. An educational visitor center and ADA-compliant walkways are among the improvements effected by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the past 40 years. But the refuge always reminds you it’s a part of the city. Spring doesn’t just bring forth warblers, but also dudes taking nudie shots of “models” in the woods. Middle-aged birders from Mount Airy rub shoulders with Southwest Philly kids who ride their bikes around the refuge’s trails, raucously and without a care for middle-class ways of enjoying nature. Dog walkers pretend to leash their dogs when they see you coming down the path.
Clearly, the differences between a federal wildlife refuge and a neighborhood park often exist more on paper than on the ground. But we’re as happy here as in more remote wild places, perhaps even happier because we’ve learned how to be wildlife photographers here and because this improbable refuge has shown us that people and nonhuman nature can, under the right circumstances, coexist in an ever more urbanized world.