Now that the warmer weather is here to stay for a few months, it is a perfect time to go outside with the whole family.
Now that the warmer weather is here to stay for a few months, it is a perfect time to go outside with the whole family to find salamanders in the Wissahickon, fireflies in Andorra Meadow, wildflowers in Houston Meadow, old trees in Carpenter's Woods and songbird migration at Awbury Arboretum.
But you don’t have to stick to our city’s parks to find all the nature you could want. A new book by local naturalist Bernard S. Brown, “Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons” tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the flora and fauna in the concrete jungle that is Philadelphia. Published by Temple University Press, the book includes delightful illustrations by Samantha Wittchen.
Out of 52 activities that the book suggests - such as birding, basement bug hunting, joining a frog call survey and visiting a mussel hatchery - eight are located in the Northwest Philadelphia region.
At certain times of the year in Manayunk, for instance, you can actually watch peregrine falcons perch on the steeple of the St. John the Baptist Church as they look for pigeons and other tasty birds. In fact, some people dine outdoors at the neighborhood’s Couch Tomato Cafe and Bistro on Rector Street because it offers a perfect view of the falcons, who nest in spring and hang out with their fledglings into the middle of summer.
Brown, an urban herper who recreationally seeks out reptiles and amphibians, encourages children and their parents to connect with the natural world close to home. Each activity entry contains information on where and when to participate, what you will need (even if it is only patience) and tips on clubs and organizations to contact for access.
“Many people think that if you want to connect with nature, you have to go to a national park or to the Poconos,” Brown said in a Zoom interview last week, ”but the fact is that nature is all around us. You can engage with nature without leaving the city. That is the reason for the book. Plants and animals are everywhere. You just have to know where to look. We are denying ourselves opportunities to connect with nature if we do not pay attention to it.”
You learn from Brown's book, for example, that at the edge of Wissahickon Creek, right by Valley Green Inn, water snakes gather in the spring and early summer, “sometimes freaking out the park visitors” who are there to feed the ducks, jog or walk their dog. The snakes hibernate in holes in the ground during the winter but emerge to feed and seek a mate when the air and the ground get warm.
One great location for birding, according to Brown, is Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. In addition to looking to the skies with a pair of binoculars, you should, of course, listen closely to the birds' music. “Male (mostly) birds often sing as they forage for bugs,” he writes. “Birders are often quite social, so feel free to politely ask what someone is watching and then see whether you can spot it yourself. This is a great way to hone your identification skills ... The city and its environs also contain many species from the lichen that grows on gravestones or trees to nocturnal animals like opossums, bats and raccoons.”
Brown grew up in Columbus, Ohio, earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a master's degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University. He later moved to Philadelphia, where he had relatives, and worked here for 20 years in anti-poverty and environmental programs. He is a longtime writer for Grid Magazine, a local environmental publication, co-hosts the “Urban Wildlife Podcast” and co-founded the website, PhillyNature.org.
According to Leigh Altadonna, Ed.D, president of the Wyncote Audubon Society, “'Exploring Philly Nature' is a wonderful guide to explore nature, from the cracks in the sidewalks to widely known places like the Wissahickon to lesser known gems in area neighborhoods … It is a must for parents, guardians, teachers and others to share the sense of wonder of nature with kids.”
“Exploring Philly Nature” is available from tupress.temple.edu. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org