With its fiery top, the red-headed woodpecker stood out among the new spring foliage of the northern Philadelphia park, and the sighting of such an unusual species sent a ripple of delight through the group of rookie birders that Keith Russell was leading down the path. With its vast system of parks—95% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of one—densely populated Philadelphia provides a perhaps surprising array of bird habitat, and the perfect place for Russell’s work as the program manager for urban conservation at Audubon Pennsylvania.
"I’m always so thrilled that you have such diversity; birding doesn’t just attract one section of the community or one type of person."
A few years ago, he helped kick off birding walks in Tacony Creek Park, which has a paved 3-mile trail winding along the waterway through tall old-growth woodlands. More than 100 species of birds can be found there, including great blue herons and red-tailed hawks.
“For me, the special part of those experiences has been having so many different types of people participating,” enthused Russell. “You have families come out with kids and people who are in their 70s and 80s. I’m always so thrilled that you have such diversity; birding doesn’t just attract one section of the community or one type of person.”
Russell remembers when he was once a wide-eyed boy in second or third grade scanning the trees for flashes of color or listening intently to the trills and the twitters, the chirps and the cries, the hoots and the whistles, trying to pinpoint what elusive and magnificent creature was making that sound.
“I got interested in birding really early, and my parents were great because they didn’t say, ‘that’s silly,’” he recalled fondly. “And they found this person in my neighborhood that was interested in birds; he introduced me to this birding club and started taking me there as a teenager. I never thought about going into ornithology in terms of, ‘Will I be able to make a living?’ It didn’t even occur to me that that was a consideration. I just did it because I wanted to do it, and fortunately, it worked out.”
The birding club he joined was one of the oldest ornithology organizations in the nation—the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, founded in 1890. It was a place that he, as a Black birder, always felt welcomed.
Today, Russell is enjoying sharing that passion for birding with the next generation through his work at the Discovery Center, a joint venture between Audubon Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School. Opened about two years ago, it offers a bird-watching area, exhibits about birds, and opportunities for local kids to participate in adventure skills training such as canoeing, rock climbing and backpacking. A hiking trail, about a half-mile from the popular Schuylkill River Trail, also circles the adjacent East Park Reservoir through prime bird habitat. Located in the residential neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion, the center filled an environmental-education void in a part of the city that hadn’t previously seen much investment.
“The birding world is a unique cross section of people that come together for reasons that are a little different from what brings other people together; they just love birds,” said Russell. “And I think it’s because we don’t have anything to do with them. Birds were made, but they are not our creation. We don’t control them. We just look at them and say how marvelous they are. It’s one reason I like working in this area, because I think that birds bring people together. With birds, anybody from any background can feel a sense of excitement and wonder.”
The Circuit Trails network will encompass more than 800 miles of trails throughout the Greater Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey region, providing access to numerous parks, watersheds and other natural landscapes for recreational opportunities, like birding.
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