Guides

Nine Great Spots For Bird-Watching in Philly and the ’Burbs

This is prime migration season for our feathered friends. Here, the best local places for watching them wing it.


A barn swallow lands on a Philadelphia railing. Photo by Getty Images

Sure, you can just glance out your back window and see birds; that’s part of their charm. But why not up your odds of glimpsing an egret or a swan, or even a snowy owl, when so many great birding spots are nearby? Just be warned: Sometimes, watching birds turns into a lifelong obsession.

It did for Linda Widdop, president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, or DVOC (founded at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1890, thank you very much). Widdop says her family used to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, 30 miles north of Reading, to watch migrating raptors when she was a kid: “I’m so old that I could never imagine being in a position to see a bald eagle or an osprey or a peregrine. Now, new members yawn and say, ‘Oh, just another bald eagle.’” The resurgence can be traced to greater general environmental awareness, hard work by ecologists and ornithologists, and concrete steps like the banning of the pesticide DDT.

Widdop is a bit of a rare bird herself; she’s only the second female president in the club’s 120-plus-year history. Up until the mid-1980s, women weren’t even permitted to join. “In my opinion—and this isn’t based on academic research—birding requires some leisure time,” she points out. “And it’s been white men who have leisure time. For much of its history, the club was for white male ornithologists.” Today, she says, most members are no longer scientists, but “just birders like me.” The pandemic sent membership applications soaring, and thanks to social media, “There are more ways for birders to stay connected and share sightings. It’s really taken off.” Now through May 15th is prime migration time, so pull those old binoculars out of the closet and get ready to impress on Instagram.

Before you head out, visit websites or call ahead to check for COVID limitations and/or seasonal changes in hours.

Awbury Arboretum

One Awbury Road, Germantown

Awbury is an eBird “hotspot” location; 126 species have been sighted in the past 15 years (birders really keep track of this stuff), including all the usual suspects (woodpeckers, robins, sparrows, starlings), lots of geese, and the occasional owl.

The buildings (including restrooms) are closed for now, but the grounds are open daily year-round—and free!

 


The Discovery Center

3401 Reservoir Drive, Fairmount Park

The reservoir attracts ducks and other waterfowl, especially during spring and fall migration; in the summer, you can spot everything from swifts to red-winged blackbirds to blue jays.

The website for this Audubon Pennsylvania outpost, which offers ornithologist-led bird walks every Saturday morning, has a list of public trans routes and Indego stations nearby. No registration is required, and you can borrow binoculars at no charge.

Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary

233 South Melville Street, West Philly

This designated wildlife area tucked behind a bunch of rowhomes is, believe it or not, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Birds are most active in the afternoon.  The 16 species most often seen here include juncos, starlings, mourning doves, catbirds, goldfinches and purple finches. Try not to raise a ruckus; you’re literally in people’s backyards.

 


Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

800 Great Creek Road, Oceanville

Just 10 miles north of Atlantic City, this 47,000-acre refuge is mostly salt marsh, perfect for waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds like terns and gulls. More than 300 species have been sighted along the eight-mile-long wildlife drive (from cars!), including egrets, herons, ibises and even a spoonbill. It’s open year-round, but peaks are in spring and fall migration seasons.

 


Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

1700 Hawk Mountain Road, Kempton

As the name suggests, it’s a great spot for hawks. Also, bald eagles, peregrines, kestrels, vultures, osprey, harriers … it’s a raptor lover’s bird-a-palooza!

Trails are open daily year-round at this Pocono refuge; for now, you’ll need to buy online tickets, bring along a mask, and maintain social distance. The Spring Migration Hawk Count is April 1st through May 15th; Autumn Count runs from August 15th through December 15th.

 


John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge

8601 Lindbergh Boulevard, Southwest Philly

A prime spot to spot ducks, gulls, herons, bald eagles … Check the cool online birdlist for the most recent sightings. Trails at this national refuge in Southwest Philly are open daily, sunrise to sunset, at no charge.

 

Marsh Creek State Park

675 Park Road, Downingtown

During migration in spring and fall, you can see herons, osprey, swallows, nighthawks and shorebirds; permanent residents include woodpeckers, chickadees and cardinals. In summer, look for scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, warblers, thrushes, and the elusive bluebird; there are houses for them all over the park.

 


The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

8480 Hagy’s Mill Road, Roxborough

 The website lists birds you’re likely to see along specific trails, including goldfinches, indigo buntings, catbirds and gnatcatchers. You can note what you see in the Sightings Book at the front desk.

Trails are free and open daily, dawn to dusk. There’s a birding club that holds special events.

Tacony Creek Park

Northeast Philly

A guide prepared by Keith Russell, the program manager for urban conservation at Audubon Pennsylvania, is available online and provides a checklist of more than a hundred perching birds, waterfowl, raptors and woodpeckers that can be seen in the park, including more than two dozen species of warblers—Russell’s faves.

The former hunting grounds of the Lenni-Lenape are now open dawn to dusk (and free) year-round. There are bilingual bird walks on Saturdays in spring and fall.