A Philadelphian’s Guide to Birding

Did you hear? Birding is cool now. Spot hundreds of avian friends with this low-pressure pastime.

Birding gained popularity during the pandemic. Here’s how to get started. / Photograph by Steve Boyle

It used to be called “bird-watching,” but that must have sounded too sedentary, because now it’s “birding.” The fact is, though, that you can stand just about anywhere in this wide world of ours and watch birds. You can hike tall mountains to see them, if that’s your thing, or hang out at the seashore. Or in a forest. Or in your backyard. Birding may be the world’s most democratic hobby. No wonder interest in it spiked during COVID; it was something you could do for just about free in the wilderness, far apart from others. But birding is also a social outlet, and our area is flush with orgs devoted to the pastime. 

How to Get Started

A green heron at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum / Photograph by Steve Boyle

Want to learn from the experts? Local on-the-wing groups include the In Color Birding Club (to encourage nature-lovers of color), the Bucks County Birders, the Valley Forge Audubon Society, Philly Queer Birders, and the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, one of the oldest such clubs in the nation. These and many, many more hold regular meetings, events and field trips and are terrific sources of info, inspo and fun. Or head out on your own, armed with your phone and a set of good binoculars. You’ll see birds; we guarantee it. The Pennsylvania Game Commission says there are 414 species of wild birds in the state — 285 it describes as “regular denizens” and another 129 who drop by occasionally. There are tons of online bird identification sites, including the Audubon Bird Guide app and the Cornell Lab’s BirdNET, which lets you ID by sound.

Where to Go

Photograph by Steve Boyle

In the city proper, great birding sites include Awbury Arboretum in Germantown (it’s wrapping up its Year of the Birds celebration); Fairmount Park’s Discovery Center (a major migratory stopover on the Atlantic Flyway); the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough (check out the classes for kids as young as two and three); West Philly’s Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary (a charming, very urban backyard oasis); the Great Northeast’s Tacony Creek Park (featuring bilingual Spanish/English bird walks!); and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, in the marshes alongside the airport (the nation’s first Urban Refuge, with tidal marshes and wetlands that attract waterfowl). All feature regular outings; check their websites for hours and events. In the ’burbs and beyond, peep feathered friends at Chester County’s Marsh Creek State Park (the lake is good for birding year-round); the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just north of Atlantic City (some trails require a fee; also a stop on the Atlantic Flyway); and the granddaddy of them all, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary outside Reading, in the foothills of the Appalachians (dedicated to raptor conservation—think eagles, hawks, vultures and falcons; purchase trail passes online ahead of time). Whether you’re watching eagles soar or gawking at a gossamer hummingbird, you’ll marvel anew at the wonders of our amazing planet. 

When to Go

bird watching

A great blue heron at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum / Photograph by Steve Boyle

During spring and fall migrations, when exotic guests like the vermillion flycatcher and the brown booby pass through. The fall season runs from mid-August through early November, and spring goes from the start of April through May.

Gear Guide: The Best Binoculars

Photograph courtesy of Athlon Optics

I’ve never been any good at peering through the damn things, but a professional ornithologist consulted by the New York Times conducted field tests and recommended the Athlon Optics Midas ($240 at Amazon). They’re “exceptionally durable,” so if you, like Sinbad the Sailor, should be carried off by a giant bird, they’ll come through unscathed.

Start-Up Cost 

West Philly resident Katrina Clark, who teaches ninth-grade students at Harriton High School in Lower Merion Township, is a board member of In Color Birding Club and a participant in other groups, including Birdability. At the beginning of the pandemic, when she was working remotely, she went birding every day; these days, she typically goes on weekends. Her favorite spots for birding are John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, and FDR Park, where Clark recalls seeing “an absolutely stunning” redheaded woodpecker./ Photograph by Steve Boyle

Zippo, nada, assuming you own shoes. Add a pair of binoculars (see below) and a guidebook or app, if you like, though BirdNET and the Audubon app are free.

Published as “Call of the Wild: Birding” in the November 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.