Tinicum: Stargazing in Broad Daylight

6.4.2006, 730-1115 am
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, dike trail -> observation platform, service road

The second of the Philadelphia hotspots, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a while, as the habitat set is completely different from that of the Crum. Later in the summer, and into the cooler months, the impoundments here will be completely filled with shorebirds and waterfowl, though they’re mostly absent at this point in the calendar. Nevertheless, I went to gain a familiarity with the area, and to get to know the residents.

My targets for the trip were Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Orchard Oriole. On the drive over however, I realized that I hadn’t the faintest idea of what any of those birds actually sounded like, so I’d have to rely solely on visual location and identification. Arriving at the refuge, I realized that I’d somehow have to pick out these birds from the hundreds of blackbirds and swallows swarming around the refuge. I resigned to my pessimistic impulses, and sought to find what I could.

Right at the mouth of the trail was a singing male Yellow Warbler, which I studied intensely, as it’s not a bird I’ve found in the Crum, and it’s not a bird I can find easily in NC. Little did I know that Yellow Warblers are on territory all along the dike trail, and by the end of the day I’d probably seen somewhere between 20 or 30 birds along this 3/4-mile long trail, which was absolutely dizzying. It seemed that every large tree and shrub held a pair of the bright yellow warblers, singing loudly.

Yellow Warbler, male. This bird was unbelievably abundant at Tinicum, yet I don’t think I ever got tired of seeing it. Photo by James Ownby.

About halfway down the trail, I noticed a drab bird flying into the short marshes to my left, and with my binoculars I realized that I’d found a life bird, the Willow Flycatcher I’d been seeking! The bird spent about 10 minutes hawking from various small perches in the marsh, before flying back across the trail, where it suddenly ran into yet another Willow Flycatcher. I’d gotten great looks, yet not once had I heard the bird vocalize, and to be completely honest, I have no idea how the Willow Flycatcher looks different from the Acadian. The Willow has a different habitat requirement obviously, but visually, they look practically identically. I think the Willow has a less obvious eye-ring, a taller peak behind the eye, and grayer upperparts, but honestly those could all be completely wrong, I’ll need to study the field guides. Basically, I only knew that they were Willow due to the habitat, and that they are commonly reported from the refuge.

Just a few dozen more yards down the trail, I saw a similarly drab bird fly into a willow tree, which I initially thought was another flycatcher, but looking more closely, I suddenly realized it was the Warbling Vireo I’d been looking for! Once again however, it flew off without giving any vocalizations, and so I was still left in the dark regarding how to find this bird in the future, as it is notoriously difficult to see, and is far easier to hear.

I’d been carrying my spotting scope with me for the first time, and I felt like such an expert birdwatcher for doing so, though that’s clearly not the case. Non-birders passing me on the trail, however, asked if I’d gotten any more pictures, thinking that I was carrying a camera on the tripod. One gentleman asked me why I was using a telescope to go stargazing in broad daylight in a wildlife refuge. Sadly I had few opportunities to use the scope, only to get better looks at birds that were still easily seen with binoculars. When I returned to the car from the observation platform, I stuck the scope in the trunk, knowing that I wouldn’t need it on the wooded Service Road.

While at the observation platform, I munched on my breakfast, some slices of rye toast, and looked up the song of the Warbling Vireo in my Sibley. I was surprised to discover that a mysterious singer which I had spent almost 45 minutes trying to see earlier on the trail was actually the Vireo, and so I’d found two already. The song was much more distinctive than I had expected, so I’ll be keeping an ear out for it in the Crum, as they’ve been reported before.

The service road proved to also be quite productive, in that a great deal of marshy open areas and second-growth forest supported some interesting species, including another Willow Flycatcher (still not vocalizing!) and another singing Warbling Vireo, and also a pair of Orchard Orioles, another target bird! Another trail parallels the service road before merging further down, and so when I reached the merging I took the parallel trail back, to see what I could find there.

But right at the intersection, a doe White-tailed Deer was foraging, and instantly it bolted upright and stared at me, staring at her, staring at me. We watched each other for almost two minutes, with neither one of us moving at all, until I decided to take a small spur towards the impoundment that also intersected here. As I slowly walked down the spur, I kept looking back, and noticed that the deer watched me the entire time. It was the best look I’ve ever gotten of wild deer. When I returned from the lake, the doe was still there, watching me, but this time I needed to take the trail that it was blocking. Gradually, it began to lose interest, and wandered into the forest, so I headed up the parallel trail. Looking off to the side into the forest however, I noticed the deer again, still watching me. Incredible.

I enjoyed this excursion far more than my trip to Ridley Creek, probably due to a combination of less human traffic, less automotive traffic (though this could change on the weekdays), and more unique birds. I will undoubtedly be back later in the summer, when the shorebirds begin to descend, and probably before then as well.

  • 5 Willow Flycatcher – two pairs along dike trail, one individual along service road, none calling. Life bird!
  • 3 Warbling Vireo – one observed and one singing along dike trail, one singing at bottom of service road.
  • 2 Orchard Oriole – pair along service road
  • 1 Green Heron – flying over impoundment, seen from observation platform
  • 24 Yellow Warbler – pairs absolutely all over the refuge
  • 12 Cedar Waxwing – all along dike trail and service road
  • 12 Wood Duck – several pairs, including amazing scope views of a pair under the boardwalk, and also a mother with six ducklings
  • 2 Brown Thrasher – along service road, one singing. I’ll have a tough time finding this in the Crum, and seperating the song from Catbirds or Mockingbirds.
  • 3 Common Yellowthroat – singing along service road
  • 4 Eastern Kingbird – two pairs along dike trail
  • 8 Song Sparrow – singing a very different song from the birds here on campus, which is very interesting.
  • 19 Double-crested Cormorant – a huge raft of 16 birds descended past the spur off the service road
  • Tree Swallow – innumerable, but probably in the hundreds
  • Red-winged Blackbird – ditto

Edit: After consulting the Sibley, I got 2 out of 3 on the Willow Flycatcher. It does have a less distinct eye-ring than the Acadian, and is grayer, but there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the peak behind the eye, and the other field mark would a more obvious white throat. I’m comfortable calling these Willows, and not stray Acadians.

Another update: As I emerged from a short walk in the Crum, someone asked me if my binoculars were for night-vision, and why i would need that in the early afternoon. Baffling.


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