Mile # 4: Getting to know an unusual marsh

The first time I came here, I was agog at the oil tank farm you could easily see through the bald winter trees. What sort of nature reserve has Sunoco Logistics as a neighbor?

Shouldn’t the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge be somewhere else? Somewhere, um, pretty?

To get to the refuge, I drove through the sprawl of the Philadelphia Airport, the landscape decidedly urban and industrial: lots of trucks, lots of traffic.

Then you make the right turn off Lindbergh Avenue and you are in another world. Sure you can see the tank farm and the jets, but you can also see a rare fresh-water marsh.

Then I read about how this is the nation’s first urban refuge, established in 1972, and it all started coming together. All of the many people and organizations involved in creating this refuge want it to be right here.

It’s here because environmental education comes alive when you can see nature up close, and nature can seem far away in cities.

It’s here because of a land donation of 145 acres by the Gulf Corporation to the City of Philadelphia in 1955.

It’s here because that donation was adjacent to Tinicum Marsh — the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland in Pennsylvania.

Whoa! Let’s unpack that sentence!! Wetlands come in a variety of flavors: marsh, bog fen, etc. But it’s  essentially a place that’s home to plants and animals that you don’t find where it’s really wet — like rivers and lakes — or dry — like a field or forest.

Even here in Philadelphia, the Delaware River is tidal — the waters of the river rise and fall with the tides. In fact it’s tidal all the way to Trenton. And you might assume — as I did once — that if the river is tidal then it would be salty. But no. The Delaware is full of surprises. The salt line, as it’s called, is south of here, most of the time. Where that salt line is, is really important since Philadelphia gets its water from the Delaware and it couldn’t if the water was salty. And the salt line can move — but that’s another story.

When this area was settled in the 1600s, the new European residents found over 5,700 acres of marsh. The area was first drained for grazing and by the time the car was king, the area became a suburb of Philadelphia and more of the marsh was drained until the marsh measured about 200 acres. Further development was halted by local action, and the marsh came under the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Refuge now measures about 1,200 acres.

It’s named after Senator John Heinz, who made the environment one of his primary concerns in his public life, and is credited with helping to preserve the marsh.

In addition to the variety of life found living in wetlands, the small lake (they call it an impoundment) and the tidal mud flats are usually perfect stopping places for migratory birds for rest and re-fueling before they launch on the next step in their long journeys.


The website for the refuge notes that while most of the 300 birds identified at the refuge are migratory, some 80 species have nested there — including a pair of bald eagles who first nested at the refuge in 2010, and have returned to the refuge every year since.

In addition to its goal of preserving the tidal marshes, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a resource for the people of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. It offers some 10 miles of walking trails, more limited bike riding, fishing, and, my favorite, nature watching. The day I was there — a lovely warm early spring day in March — the birds were already filling the air with song.

Come listen!

The site has a calendar so you can check out what’s going on — now that spring is here, things are revving up. There are often walks and nature programs and on April 23, there’s Darby Creek Clean Up.

Check for upcoming events here:

Check out other freshwater tidal marshes: 

Bristol Marsh, Bristol, PA

Abbott Marshlands, near Trenton, N.J.

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