“Naturally Philly” is a Billy Penn column that explores the city’s wildlife and plants — both familiar and extraordinary — that thrive or struggle in our urban environment.
Updated 12:05 p.m.
Think of it as a Four Seasons Hotel for birds. And for the first time in 50 years, people can visit too.
The new Discovery Center in Fairmount Park – a collaborative project of Audubon Pennsylvania and Outward Bound – will open to the public on Sept. 28. Formerly the East Park Reservoir, the center will be a jungle-gym for adventurous kids, a community meeting place for Strawberry Mansion neighbors and a true bird-watcher’s paradise.
Passing flocks have known about the reservoir for decades. More than 170 species of birds have used the site for habitat or as a migratory stopover. Canvasback ducks, coots and mergansers plunge deep for food. Great blue herons and kingfishers hunt along the basin’s edge. Raptors scoop fish off the surface. Geese and gulls bob on the waters. Dozens of other species rest and feed during migration, or summer or winter in the woodlands around the quiet lake.
It is one of the region’s most significant bird areas, and one of its best kept secrets.
Nature adopts a manmade lake
It took 18 years to build the reservoir by hand, with work stretching from 1871 to 1889. Once completed, it provided drinking water for the homes and businesses of Center City and South Philadelphia for decades. The water was stored in four basins, including the 37-acre West Basin, the largest.
After the city’s population declined by mid-20th century, the reservoir was decommissioned, except for one basin that remains in use.
Nearby residents, especially kids, continued to visit the site, including the Strawberry Mansion High School track team, which ran laps there. But in the 1970s, the city erected a fence around the area, and neighborhood contact was cut off.
Two of the basins were drained and “left to be reclaimed by nature,” said Rhyan Grech (pronounced GRECK), program manager of community stewardship at Audubon PA. There were plans to drain the West Basin, too, but ornithologists had a better idea.
In its isolated, protected setting, the West Basin had become a naturalized lake, surrounded by trees and inhabited by aquatic plants and fish. It has been filled only by rainfall and snow, so it doesn’t contain the silt and pollution found in most local waterways and wetlands.
And the birds love it.
Combining conservation, education and community
The idea to turn the impromptu nature preserve into a formal study center was spurred by ornithologist Keith Russell.
As a researcher with the Academy of Natural Sciences, Russell had been surveying the former reservoir for years. When he joined the staff of Audubon PA, he easily convinced the organization that it could be a perfect home base and educational hub, similar to the 41 Audubon Centers of varying size and offerings around the country.
Up until now, Philly-based staffers have had to work out of their home offices. The closest Audubon center in this area is Mill Grove, near King of Prussia, where the teenage John James Audubon began banding and painting birds in the early 1800s.
In search of a partner, the city Audubon staff approached the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, which had outgrown its headquarters at the Sedgely Porter House on Lemon Hill. “Audubon showed up and said we have this project, the reservoir, which we’ve been working for 15 years on saving,” recalled Dan Hoffman, director of operations at the school, which emphasizes achievement through active learning and teamwork.
Yep, good match. Outward Bound “looked at this space and loved it,” Grech said.
Meetings also began with the Strawberry Mansion community. “We wanted to be sure throughout this process that this would be a place where the Strawberry Mansion residents would feel welcome and connected,” Grech explained.
The two international organizations and the local community formed a new entity, the East Park Leadership And Conservation Center, which managed the money during the 10-year capital campaign. The fundraising effort brought in $18.5 million, including a $5 million endowment to support ongoing operations at The Discovery Center. (The organizations are leasing the land from the City of Philadelphia.)
What’s to discover?
When The Discovery Center opens this month, visitors will find attractions designed for both learning and fun.
There will be exhibits about birds, of course, as well as displays about the larger ecosystem and Philadelphia’s role in the Delaware River Watershed. Audubon will offer programs, workshops and interpretive nature walks on the trail that goes three-quarters of a mile around the lake, which will be officially named the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir in tribute to the neighborhood and the site’s historic role. “The name resonates with people,” Grech said.
Outward Bound will continue its team-building programs, which serve 6,000 students — but also offer public access and free programs. Outward Bound amenities include an indoor rock wall and a giant aerial teams and ropes course.
Plus, an indoor multipurpose room will be available for use by organizations and for community meetings. There will also be an indoor rock climbing wall surrounded by bird-friendly glass.
Keeping it natural
The area around the lake supports a variety of wildlife, including fox, groundhogs, possums, and raccoons. Also, said Grech, “someone claims to have seen a coyote.” [Ed note: Just like in South Philly.]
But birds are the most obvious inhabitants. Fairmount Park and the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge are designated by Audubon as the city’s two “Important Bird Areas.” They serve as habitat for year-round residents, but are particularly vital for migrating birds.
“They have to have stops where they can rest and refuel. In Philadelphia, the park and the Heinz Refuge are the best places to do that,” Grech said. “This lake is the largest open body of water in the city. So especially during the spring and fall, during those migrations, you’ll see the greatest variety of birds passing through here.”
Though it has never been stocked and there are no feeder streams, there are fish in the reservoir, too. They apparently arrive as fish eggs stuck to the legs of wading birds or are dropped in from overhead by passing raptors.
Fishing and boating, however, will not be allowed in the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, with the exception of canoe safety training and other Outward Bound programs in the lower section of the lake. At the far end, a pair of uncommon pied-billed grebes have been seen nesting – an example of why traditional recreational activities will not be permitted at the site.
“One of the primary goals of this space,” Grech said, “is to be a wildlife sanctuary.”