by Steve Ahern
Beginning or seasoned, a birder is in good hands with Ruth Pfeffer. For decades, the 71-year-old self-taught birder and Willow Grove resident, mother of three, grandmother of 10, birding leader, presenter and environmental advocate has been a local star (not star-ling) in the world of birding. She has led birding groups to Costa Rica, where she saw her first prothonotary warbler wintering along the Rio Saraqiqui. She travelled to Maine in search of the Atlantic puffin with her late husband Dan, a trip she says spawned her birding business, “Birding with Ruth,” nearly 25 years ago.
Through all her travels to exotic locales like the Galapagos Islands and Trinidad Tobago, the spirited bird aficionado with the physical vigor of someone in her early 20s and a childlike passion for nature says she is drawn to birds largely because a bird’s niche is nature. “It’s all connected,” Pfeffer insists. “You pay attention to birds, and you’re paying attention to nature and what’s in it.”
On a brilliant day in early May, Pfeffer led a group of birders through the trails of the 690-acre expanse of the Norristown Farm Park, where Pfeffer has led dozens of bird walks over the years. She strides vibrantly through the woods, halted frequently by the sounds and sightings of birds sailing across the cobalt blue sky or perched atop a partially leafed oak tree. She points out the common yellow-throated warbler and a robin’s nest in progress. “Bird walks are not lectures,” Pfeffer says. “I’m just always teaching, and with bird walks come some of my stories.”
Between the stories and the teaching, the group has spotted an estimated three dozen species, and there are more to come. House wrens, tree swallows, a dull-sounding woodpecker sculpting out a home in the carcass of a dead oak, a blue-belly nat catcher.
“Oh, a warbler at 3 o’clock!” exclaims Pfeffer looking up at a tree. “It’s in its breeding plumage.”
Yellow warblers nest along water and are not an easy bird to see, Pfeffer goes on to explain.
“Say thank you when you see one.” She points out a song sparrow serenading its mate, two barn swallows, a house wren, a corral of cowbirds, the broad-billed parasitic bird, up in numbers this year. She alerts the group to an American kestrel, adding that their numbers are down this year due to Cooper hawks. Add to the list a Savannah starling, an orchid oriole, a red-winged black bird, and perhaps the sighting of the day, the green heron, which touches down on the water and proceeds to forage along the edge of the wetlands.
“Wouldn’t you just love to be able to do that,” Pfeffer says, marveling at the grace of landing.
Pfeffer estimates she has introduced thousands of people to birds in more than 40 years as a bird guide and instructor. She traces her interest in birds to the introduction to nature when her family still lived in Parkland, PA, until she was 5. Her father, who enjoyed fishing and crabbing, awakened her interest in the natural world. And it was in Parkland where she recalls seeing and hearing the cheery chirp of her first robin, her favorite bird.
Pfeffer’s family left Parkland for the Kensington section of Philadelphia, but her involvement in the Girl Scouts and camping with the Lighthouse Girls Club Camp at Chester Springs, where she began to learn the names of plants, animals and insects, sustained her interest in nature. When she was 10, she constructed a butterfly net and placed it on a slope leading to the railroad tracks two blocks from her home. She brought home tadpoles from camp, housing them in her mother’s stationary tubs so she could watch them grow until her mother became frightened when they started to hop around. “My mother did not share my love of the natural world, “Pfeffer says, “but she in no way ever deterred me.”
Pfeffer took her first formal birding class decades ago at the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center in upper Roxborough, where she met one of many mentors. She began teaching classes at the Schuylkill Center herself after her mentor retired. In her free time she studied their archives and some of the 200,000 bird specimens at the Academy of Natural Sciences ornithology collection.
But Pfeffer attributes her participation in the first Breeding Bird Atlas Project for Pennsylvania in the 1980s as among her most enlightening experiences. For five years, she and about 2000 volunteer bird watchers worked from dawn to dinnertime five days a week, surveying for the number and types of breeding birds in the state. The project culminated in the publication of “Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania” by D.W. Brauning. Around the same time, she formed “Birding with Ruth.”
Pfeffer hosts classes and presentations with “Birding with Ruth” as well as with Morris Arboretum, North Penn High School, Friends High School Park, among others, and teaches continuing education classes for North Penn and Morris Arboretum. Pfeffer will give a presentation on “Birds of the Wissahickon” on Wednesday, May 15, 6 p.m., at Valley Green Inn and will offer other walks, trips and presentations throughout the summer which, along with her photography, can be found on birdingwithruth.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruth will also lead a hike that complements the May 15 presentation on Saturday, May 18, 8 a.m., starting at the intersection of Bell’s Mill Road and Forbidden Drive. More information at email@example.com or 215-247-0417, x109.
Pfeffer remains indefatigable in spite of the rigors of her year-round schedule. “My mission for many years has been to introduce as many people as possible to our feathered friends,” she insists. “When you begin to observe and learn about birds, you learn more about yourself and the world.”