Feeling Like a Million Bucks

Horned GrebeIt was a beautiful day yesterday at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

HNWR Dogwood_0569 acs2Not just because the weather was warm and dry, and the birds were singing. Because it was raining – money!

MuskratIn a ceremony outside the Visitor’s Center, attended by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other dignitaries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced that the Service will invest an additional $1 million annually in the Refuge.

Green-winged Teal“That’s not a one-time grant, that’s $1 million that will be here this year, it will be here next year, and it will be here the years following that,” he said. “And that money is going to support additional work here, it’s going to support additional work in educating young children, it’s going to support additional work in connecting the surrounding communities to the refuge.”

Tinicum_7427acs2Three years ago, recognizing that 80% of Americans live in urban and suburban environments, the USFWS launched the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. Yesterday, Heinz Refuge – America’s First Urban Refuge – became its latest Million Dollar Refuge.

Garter SnakeThe money will allow the Refuge to continue and expand the environmental education program it started last year in three Philadelphia schools. Other priorities include working with surrounding communities to promote conservation and nature, connecting them with green spaces.

BAld EagleOn the Refuge, the grant will make possible new signs on the trails, new displays for the Visitor Center, and a host of other projects. The small staff – dedicated, talented and enthusiastic, but undermanned and overworked – will be getting much needed reinforcements in the form of additional personnel.

BeaverIf you’ve followed my blog for any time, you know that no matter how far I wander, I always come back to Heinz Refuge. In the past years I’ve made friends here, volunteered here, and gotten involved with the Friends of Heinz Refuge who do so much to support the Refuge. I’ve made my own investment of time, and actual blood, sweat and tears, to make my home-away-from-home a better place. Which is why I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

1 HNWR Landscape_7409 acs2All of us who love Heinz Refuge are feeling like a million bucks!

Early Green

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3075aI’m not fond of the color brown. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a color. It’s more like a background, and one I’m tired of. For most of my life I lived in a beige house, which is brown in a wishy-washy mood. With apologies to my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service friends in their brown and tan uniforms, the only good brown thing is chocolate.

As mild as this past winter was, I really have no cause to complain. But since the trees and shrubs lost their leaves in November, life outdoors has been a sea of brown bare trees and beige dried foliage. Now, I admire the structural bones of a single bare tree as much as the next person, but this is too much of a good thing. Momentary escapes to the Pine Barrens and Jersey Shore offered only momentary relief from the monotony. After five months, I am ready for change.

Nothing says “change” like green. Pale yellow-green. Bright kelly green. Deep forest green. The green of Nature. The green of Spring.  The green of New Life.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3126acsWhat a relief to see green in all its variations on a recent evening walk at John Heinz NWR, and soak in the sights and sounds of the new arrivals early Spring brought with it. Like the willows dancing in the breeze while a jet contrail slices the clear blue sky.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2573acsSpring greens are subtle. Pussy willow along the water’s edge.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2492acsSometimes the green is the canvas on which other colors are painted. Just the carpet of green leaves would be welcome sight. The golden flowers add that touch of flair.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2779acsSometimes spring greens are red! At this time of year, many of the trees are bright crimson, as the red maples burst into bud…

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2699acs…And flower.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2716acsSometimes the green is not so welcome, like new shoots of Phragmites, an invasive plant found throughout the Refuge that a friend and I are trying to eradicate from a small plot. We knew it would come back. The fight is renewed for another growing season.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3198acsThe greening of the land brings with it new arrivals freshly returned from their wintering grounds. Red-winged Blackbirds have been back for a few weeks. Their CONK-ER-REE calls are anything but musical, but nonetheless music to my winter-weary ears.

The air is filled with the songs of birds. Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals join the blackbird chorus. There’s an amphibian choir singing as well, as frogs have come out of the mud where they spent the winter to look for mates. The aptly named Spring Peepers make a surprisingly loud, high-pitched PEEP continuously. These are tiny frogs, no bigger than a fingernail. In all my searching, I have never seen one, though I have been nearly deafened by their noise. Singing tenor to the peepers’ soprano are the Wood Frogs, who sound more like ducks, with their ragged QUACK call.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3106acsSnapping turtles have also come out of the mud, and cruise along at the water’s surface.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3230acsTree Swallows came back recently. Now the sky over the impoundment is filled with the little blue jewels hawking insects. Which means, of course, that the insects are back too. The marshy environment of Heinz Refuge would be miserable with mosquitos were it not for our swallow friends. Which is why we have nest boxes for them.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3263acsFrequent squabbles break out over those nest boxes. This is prime real estate.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2560acsGreat Egrets arrived last week. This one was enjoying an hors d’oeuvre, hoping for a more filling main course.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3031acsHere’s the greenest photo of all. Yes, I know – there’s no green, just the dreaded brown. This is one of our Bald Eagle pair sitting on its nest. Inside that nest are one or more eggs. Any day now (it might already have happened) a tiny, fluffy eaglet will break its way out of the shell and start its new life.

New life. It just doesn’t get any greener than that.

Finding Refuge in the Snow

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7764This has been one weird winter. December and January were abnormally warm. Philadelphia set a new record for latest first snow.

Then the meteorologists started beating the drums for a winter storm of near-blizzard proportions, a full week in advance. When it finally came, it was a doozy, dumping 30″ of snow in some locations, and 22″ at the Philadelphia Airport. It took two days to clean up.

Finally, I escaped to John Heinz NWR to enjoy it.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Tracks_7740acsLooked like we weren’t the first to venture out.

Who goes there?

Great Blue Heron, definitely.

Red fox, perhaps. Or maybe one of the feral cats that hang out at the Refuge.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7733acsWe weren’t the first humans out either, judging by the well-beaten path.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7781aEverything looks new in the snow. Darby Creek was frozen on a gray day…

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7864acs…and the impoundment wore a mantle of white.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Ice_7853acsThe snow storm brought strong gusty winds, which created some intricate patterns on the surface of the impoundment.

On this walk we had one destination in mind, and we were going to reach it, no matter what. And what, pray tell, was the object of our desire?

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7869acsThe Refuge’s big pride and joy – our new Marsh Boardwalk. A year in the making, it extends hundreds of feet into the freshwater tidal marsh, and gives visitors and schoolchildren an up-close look at the ecosystem. This was the first time I’d seen it in snow.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7917acsThis is the marsh in winter. Because it’s tidal, the water rises and falls beneath the ice, and the ice rises and falls with it, fracturing into frozen plates. No smooth skating rink here!

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7885acs160126_PA HNWR Snow_7915acsDarby Creek flows through the marsh in braided channels. Where water ran, the ice yielded to its passage.

160202_PA HNWR Downy_9311acsOne week later, the sun was shining. Another oddity. We’ve had more than our share of blue-sky days this winter. This Downy Woodpecker was busily looking for something yummy to eat.

160202_PA HNWR Ice_9423acsThe impoundment was peppered with little balls of snow. Or so I thought. On closer inspection, I discovered they were balls of air bubbles that had puffed out of small holes in the ice.

160202_PA HNWR Ducks_9381acsThe duck icebreakers were hard at work. This Mallard hen was determined go somewhere new. She would try to climb up on the ice to walk, only to break through to the water. Rinse and repeat. After a while she had opened up quite a channel.

160202_PA HNWR GBH_9535acsA Great Blue Heron fished in the golden glow of sunset.

160202_PA HNWR Geese_9557acGeese streamed in with the dying light, ready to call it a night.

Two weeks after the Big Storm, the temperatures have rebounded. The snow is all but gone. Darby Creek is ice-free. The trails at Heinz Refuge are clear. People were seen in shirt-sleeves. One weird winter!

In Lady Autumn’s Mirror

151014_NJ Atsion Lake Kayak_9367acsThe Harvest Ball approaches, and Her Ladyship has dressed in her finest. Bedecked and bejeweled, she admires herself in the mirror.

What does she see there?

151025_PA Holtwood Fall Pinnacle_0493acsAdventure?

151104_PA HNWR Fall Evening_1852acsFellowship?

151014_NJ Atsion Lake Kayak_9461acsWhat does Lady Autumn see when she looks in her mirror?

151026_PA Beltzville Fall_0699acsElegance?

151025_PA Holtwood Fall_0229acsRadiance?

151014_NJ Atsion Lake Kayak mc_2996 acsWhat does Lady Autumn see when she looks in her mirror?

151104_PA HNWR Fall Evening _6922acsHarmony?

151026_PA Beltzville Fall_0807aExuberance?

151025_PA Holtwood Fall Pinnacle_0608acsMajesty?

What does Lady Autumn see when she looks in her mirror?

151025_PA Holtwood Fall_0221acsSerenity.

Where The Wild Things Are

150829_PA HNWR Little Blue Heron_6388acs

Little Blue Heron, Juvenile

This time, I did it right. After months of not putting myself in position to make good nature images, of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong equipment doing the wrong thing – this time I did it right.



Right time? Early morning when the light is good and the wildlife is active – check.



Right place? The boardwalk at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, where interesting birds like Soras and Virginia Rails and Glossy Ibises have been the talk of the town, and social media, for weeks – check.

A small bug casts a big shadow

A small bug casts a big shadow

Right equipment? Binoculars and Canon 7D Mark II camera with the 100-400mm lens, in my hands and not back in the car – check.

150829_PA HNWR Marsh Wren_6201acs

Marsh Wren, juvenile

Doing the right thing? Two hours of watching and waiting patiently, on my own, instead of rushed by the need to keep up with fast-moving friends – check.



The result? Actual photos of wildlife! Killdeer. Sora.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Little Blue Heron. Green Heron, at the top of a tree, no less!

Bug standoff

Bug standoff

Even a stand-off between two bugs on a leaf.

150829_PA HNWR Killdeer_6009acs


This is where the wild things are.

150829_PA HNWR Sora_6132acs

And I think we found the wildlife photographer.

Where Is The Wildlife?

Tree Swallow, John Heinz NWR

Tree Swallow, John Heinz NWR

Where is the wildlife? It’s been all Appalachians and kayak adventures on The Wild Edge this summer. Shouldn’t there be birds? Where can they be hiding?

Black Vultures, Bombay Hook NWR

Black Vultures, Bombay Hook NWR

Are the songbirds singing in the sun while I am inside in meetings and museums and antique shops?

Goldfinch, John Heinz NWR

Goldfinch, John Heinz NWR

Are the shorebirds and herons wading in wild wet places while I am at forts and canals and cliffs?

Glossy Ibis & Snowy Egret, John Heinz NWR

Glossy Ibis & Snowy Egret, John Heinz NWR

Are the soras and rails strutting their stuff in the early morning and late evening while I’m busy with the nuisances of everyday life?

Marsh Wren, John Heinz NWR

Marsh Wren, John Heinz NWR

Are the tricolored herons posing for close-ups in the middle of the day while I am too hot and too frustrated to be bothered with carrying a camera?

Wood Duck, John Heinz NWR

Wood Duck, John Heinz NWR

Are the orioles and waxwings flitting through the treetops while I am kayaking in urban and suburban rivers, armed only with a point and shoot camera inadequate for wildlife photography?

Avocets, Bombay Hook NWR

Avocets, Bombay Hook NWR

Are the avocets and black-necked stilts feeding far, far away when I do have the right gear in the right place?

Maybe the wildlife has been there all along. Maybe it’s me who’s missing.

Maybe I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong equipment doing the wrong thing.

Maybe the real question is –

Great Egret, John Heinz NWR

Great Egret, John Heinz NWR

Where is the wildlife photographer?