Visitors to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum Marsh are greeted by significantly more green than one can expect to see almost anywhere else within city limits. Eschewing concrete and skyscrapers, the refuge boasts great swaths of tall grass, trees of every height and color and the continuous chirping of over 300 different avian species. If visitors stand still for just a few seconds, chances are they will glimpse the fiery red feathers of a cardinal flitting from bush to branch. The great bird diversity has led to the refuge being designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.
Established in 1972 for the purpose of protecting Tinicum Marsh and educating visitors, the refuge is sandwiched between the Delaware River and Darby Creek at 8601 Lindbergh Blvd. The refuge serves as both temporary and permanent home to hundreds of species, contains the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania and is comprised of five different habitats: marsh, pond, creek, field and upland woodland.
Funded federally by the Department of the Interior and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, the refuge is one of more than 500 much like it located all across the nation.
Made up of more than 1,000 acres, it acts not only as a sanctuary for wildlife in an urban environment, but also reaches out as an educational benefactor to the community as a “living classroom.” With 10 miles of trails, water and lookout docks teeming with river otters, birds and deer, the refuge regularly hosts groups of schoolchildren from the surrounding area throughout the year for hands-on environmental education.
“One of our goals here is to work with the community actively,” Acting Wildlife Refuge Manager Mariana Bergerson said. “This is public land and anybody can come here free of charge.”
The short paved path beginning in the parking lot leads visitors to the front door of an expansive and welcoming visitor center where Bergerson and other volunteers can be found. Whether they are newcomers or returning visitors, anybody can walk in to the center to use the facilities, pick up some informative brochures and guides or explore the interactive educational displays that describe different species of animal or plant to encounter on the trails.
“We advocate for what we call the ‘Big Six’ here at the refuge: fishing, hunting, photography, environmental education, interpretation and wildlife observation,” Bergerson said. “While hunting is not permitted on our land because of its proximity to the city and a large population, it’s still something we try to educate and inform the community about.”
Many visitors make the trip to take advantage of the myriad opportunities for nature and wildlife photography.
“I’ve gotten into photography recently and figured this would be a great place to keep practicing,” Steve Perzen said. “I’ve come here a few times before and like to bring a friend sometimes so we can just enjoy the nature and environment.”
Walking guided tours are scheduled regularly on the weekends for amateur photographers, students or anybody looking to become more familiar with the landscape.
In addition to educating Philadelphians, the refuge uses its proximity to the city to employ. Through their partnership with the Student Conservation Association, The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge has 60 urban youth employed in its service. Their jobs include anything and everything from maintaining trails to helping battle invasive species that threaten native plants and animals.
“As a wildlife refuge, we are very focused on protecting and preserving the natural environment around us, but reaching out to the community and involving others is equally important,” Bergerson said.
While some in the area choose to become involved with the actual work and upkeep of the refuge, others are happy just to enjoy its beauty as a respite from a hectic city environment.
“This is my first time here with a friend and it’s certainly nice to get away from the noise and smell of the city,” said Upper Darby resident, John Bowe. “It’s nice to just enjoy nature.”
Trails are open every day from sunrise to sunset. The refuge’s visitor center is open daily from 8:30 am to 4 pm.
– Text, photos and video by Madeline Bates and Hayley Condon