Journal archives for December 2021

December 14, 2021

John Heinz Wildlife Refuge (Visit 12/12/21)

Yesterday I visited the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge for the third time. I figured I'd write about what I saw and how the experience went for my future reference, and because I also can't think of anything to do.

Yesterday was the first time I've visited the refuge with an actual camera. The first two visits I had a slip-on iPhone telephoto lens. Admittedly, it did not take the best photographs. My current camera isn't the best either, but it takes decent quality pictures for what I need at the moment.

My family and I started driving up the sort of long road to the parking lot. On the way there, we stopped because we spotted a Buteo of some sort flying right in front of us and perch in a tree on the left. I quickly rolled down the window and snapped a couple of pictures as it just sat there, looking around inquisitively. I would quickly ID this as a Red-tailed Hawk in the moment but later on would be corrected and learn the key differences in telling Red-shouldered and Red-tailed hawks apart. The hawk, as it turns out, was a Red-shouldered (B. lineatus). There were a couple of cars behind us, so I quickly finished photographing my beautiful avian subject and we continued down the road to the parking lot.

Once we got to the parking lot, we hopped out, gathered our two dogs (leashed, of course) and I quickly got my equipment together. To be fair, my 'equipment' really just consisted of my small camera, my trusty pair of binoculars, and my iPhone, so it didn't take too much effort to collect everything. We closed the car doors and walked over to the little section by the lot with the insect hotels. Unfortunately, as I had assumed, there weren't any living insects of which to speak of there. Most likely since it's the middle of December.

I looked around as we strolled down this wide path covered in gravel. Lots of people with binoculars and huge telephoto lenses clutched in their hands were coming back from the end of the path. A tip I've learned from visiting lots of nature parks is to always pay attention when there are people with big DSLRs or telephoto lenses stopped staring at a tree or clearing or something because there's probably an interesting animal there. In this case, a pair of women staring was stopped on the side of the trail staring intensely at something. I quickly had a look and saw a Great Blue Heron attempting to swallow a fish.

Now, this fish was actually on the smaller side, and I was surprised it was having this much trouble gulping it down. I honestly don't know too much about herons and their behavior when it comes to eating, so I'm not sure if it was part of their eating habits, but it kept dropping it on the ground and in the water and picking it back up. The two women who had originally spotted the bird were most definitely finding the situation to be funny, and so was my sister. After watching it struggle with this fish for a minute or so more, we moved on and stepped onto the bridge over the entire lake.

From this bridge, you had a really good view of almost all the water surrounding you, and also lots of empty skyspace for overhead fliers. I spotted a Canada Goose and Red-eared Slider, both sitting together on a log. Eventually, the goose slowly got off of the log and swam away, leaving the Slider alone to bask in the warm afternoon sun. As we progressed down the lake walkway I spotted a bunch more Canada Geese, some Ring-billed Gulls, and some more yet-to-be-identified gull species soaring above. Not to mention some yet-to-be-identified duck species. Although I do have a small hunch that they might be Northern Pintails solely based on the fact that lots of people have been sighting them at this location currently.

We had reached the end of the bridge, so we went down the Wetland Trail (I believe it was). There, all I spotted (or at least all I could get a picture of) was a small group of Mallards. Unfortunately for me, my camera decided it wanted to focus on the vegetation in front of the ducks instead of the ducks themselves. However, I think it's still pretty clear what species it is just from color alone. After all, I'd argue that Mallards are some of the most easily identifiable duck species.

I caught some quick glimpses of a species I'd never actually seen before in Philadelphia. I'd photographed them (not well) in Evansville, Indiana before but not here. This bird species was... drumroll, please... the tiny and elusive White-throated Sparrow. Pretty neat little critter. I don't know much about them, but they seem interesting enough.

We went down this Frog Pond trail next. For a while, there was nothing but tall grasses surrounding you on either side as you trudged through the moist soil. The frog pond was not very pond-like. It was more like a rather large puddle that had lost most of its actual water contents and was composed mostly of mud. Walking along the banks, I nearly got my shoes stuck in the mud on multiple occasions. Thankfully I didn't. I also didn't find any wildlife around here, but what I did find was some evidence of wildlife presence. A few Common Raccoon prints and an abundance of White-tailed Deer prints were all over this one bank. There were also some government-owned Fish and Wildlife camouflage tents nearby, which I thought was rather interesting.

Walking throughout the park for some more time, I found a lot of different kinds of nests. They varied a lot in size and materials used. I'm pretty sure that at least one of them belonged to an Eastern Gray Squirrel, but the rest for sure belonged to some sort of bird. I can't comment much on these since I have no idea how to ID nests and their respective owner's species.

Much later, I spotted a group of American Robins frolicking in a large bushy area, flying in quick bursts from the left side of the path to the right. I've found that robins are pretty social when they're in the woods, but they tend to be solitary in more urban settings (when I've seen them, at least. This is probably just pure coincidence). I did not know it at the time but I had unknowingly included a new lifer species in the group robin photo. Reviewing the photos when I got home later, I realized there was an odd-colored robin in one of the corners of the picture. Then I realized it was not a robin at all, and based on color, most likely a Cedar Waxwing. Another accidental lifer for the list! Another lifer I got was a Hermit Thrush, which I saw hopping along the trodden path. It looks like it got poorly designed with an unproportional head and body ratio, but that's what makes it so cute to the human gaze, I suppose.

That was pretty much all I saw inside of the park. As we drove out of the wildlife refuge on the same road we entered, we saw ANOTHER Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a tree branch. This time it was on the opposite side of the road, though. Variety! My mom pointed it out, but it was on my sister's side of the car, so I didn't see it. We had a long line of cars behind us though, so we had to leave. We turned around on the road outside of the refuge, narrowly avoiding getting hit, and re-entered the park in order to see the hawk. We hastily parked by the side of the entrance and jumped out. I walked down the path where we had seen it and backed away from the trees to find it. I located it pretty quickly, as its bright feathers didn't exactly help it blend in.

This was a more interesting experience than with the first hawk hours earlier. For one, I was on the ground, staring at it, instead of in a car. If I'm being honest I had never had an experience like this with a hawk before, or any bird of prey for that matter. Before when I'd seen them they'd be really high up in a tall tree, or incredibly high in the sky, so high I could barely make it out. A few people walked by and said something like, "Yo, look o'er there! I think it's an owl, right?" It was clearly not an owl.

It kept moving its head around, observing its surroundings, as if judging us. It barely moved. It was the perfect photography model, to be honest. Thanks, hawkie!

All-in-all John Heinz is a pretty solid place to go birding or herping or really just exploring if you're near the Philly area. It might even be worth it to just come from a few hours away because there are some pretty cool spots and species to check out. I would recommend coming, and bringing along a camera and perhaps even a nature journal!

Posted on December 14, 2021 03:33 AM by mbwildlife mbwildlife | 12 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment