John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge: An Asylum for Wildlife at Tinicum

“If you take a look at this map, we’ll be following the orange trail today,” Mariana Bergerson, our guide at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, announces. We have begun our hike around the refuge at Tinicum Marsh, a small natural haven on the outer edges of bustling Philadelphia. Founded in 1972 with a mission to conserve, protect, and enhance the natural landscape and wildlife, the refuge is one of over 560 national wildlife refuges in the country. Run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, John Heinz NWR is deliberately placed along major flyways for migrating birds, providing key resting points and habitats for birds during their seasonal flights.

A panoramic view of the impoundment at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Sept. 2014).
A panoramic view of the impoundment at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Sept. 2014).

The area is not only preserved for the sake of the wildlife, though they are the priority. It is open to the public seeking out wildlife-dependent recreation activities, such as fishing, hunting, and wildlife observation. The refuge’s website states that the area serves as a “living classroom” for visitors, allowing them to observe and experience nature and the area’s history.

Long ago, the Lenape tribe of Native Americans inhabited the marshland. The area was called Tennakin Minquas. It’s name, “Tinicum”, has since been condensed and roughly translates to “islands of the marsh”. This, however, was only the first of many name changes for the region. Following an influx of colonists, its name was changed to New Sweden, and not twenty years later changed again to New Netherland. Changes in size and habitat quality occurred as well. In the rushed industrialist race leading up to a few decades prior to our visit, the tidal marsh shrunk from 6,000 acres to a mere 1,550. Observing the rapid destruction of what is considered a “vital stepping stone” for migratory birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and purchased 1,200 acres of the land.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, was not the only group to intervene for the sake of the area. The construction of I-95 threatened the remaining acres of marshland, inspiring local citizens to get involved. They passionately fought for the preservation of the natural sanctuary, bringing the protest as far as Washington, D.C. until they were finally successful. A popular advocate for Tinicum Marsh, Senator John Heinz soon became namesake of the refuge.

Today, stretching nearly one thousand acres, Tinicum Marsh is home to diverse and plentiful wildlife. It consists of five distinct habitats, each varying in their species, activities, and size. Darby Creek, the first of the five, is an urban tidal creek. Visitors may canoe in the creek should they wish, and might observe carp, catfish, painted or redbellied turtles, snappers. Flowing down Delaware Creek, you then come to Tinicum Marsh, from which the preserve draws its name. Following the orange trail, it leads to the impoundment, 145 acres of man-made pond. While we stood there, a fish jumped out of the water while a great egret stood calmly a few dozen yards away. Walking back toward the visitor center, we got a peek of some of the forests Tinicum has to offer its human and wild visitors. Additionally, elsewhere on the grounds there exist open fields, which support a multitude of songbirds, rabbits, fox, and deer, among other species.

All in all, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge was a delight to visit. Its extensive history and beautiful array of wildlife offers a pleasant respite from the noise of the city. It is hailed as an “urban miracle” among locals and visitors, many of whom volunteer with programs, trail maintenance, and staffing the visitor’s center. It is a spot well worth a visit, an island of natural wonders in a large urban sea.

By Dana Goin