Found in the Floorboards: 200 Year Old Seed Packets

Did you know that William Hamilton of The Woodlands and William Bartram of Bartram's Garden were contemporaries and friends? The two shared a love of plant collecting and botany, were neighbors, and were involved in many of the same local institutions! To highlight some of these lesser-known connections, we're bringing you Two Williams: a six month blog series hosted between The Woodlands and Bartram's Garden. Each month, we will dig into the archives and share what we find!

The attic, or garret, of The Woodlands Mansion. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The attic, or garret, of The Woodlands Mansion. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Uncommon for someone of his wealth and status, William Hamilton of The Woodlands left relatively little evidence of his life behind. Unlike William Bartram, who devotedly documented his work (in elegant prose, no less!) much of what we know about Hamilton’s plant collection and the design of his estate is through a small selection of personal letters and visitor accounts. With no direct heirs, most of Hamilton’s personal effects, art, and furniture collection were gradually dispersed with the estate. Today, the few known collections of personal letters and accounts are located in various repositories and archives around Philadelphia. Though this means that researching Hamilton can be a challenge, it also makes new discoveries more exciting because you never know where or when you might find them. Thanks to a hungry group of rodents and a meticulous historian, an unexpected discovery was made in the attic of The Woodlands that revealed quite a bit about Hamilton’s plant collection.

In the early 1990’s, as architectural historian Tim Long poked around some of the unfinished sections of the attic while examining the framing structure of The Woodlands mansion, he noticed small terra cotta fragments strewn throughout, which he as able to identify as bits of small, hand-thrown starter pots used to sprout seeds. With a more discerning eye, he reexamined the floor and began to make out the edges of dozens of rectangular pieces of paper, caked beneath a thick layer of dust, resting between the floor joists. After carefully gathering some samples, Long identified the flimsy objects as historic seed packets, based on similar ones he had seen on display years earlier at Bartram’s Garden. These once ubiquitous, hand-folded packets were generally 6-sided and distinguished by a self-locking folding technique, which produces triangular ends. Long collected the packets and they were eventually placed on loan in the botany department of The Academy of Natural Sciences for safekeeping and to allow for further study.

The seed packets were discovered between joists in the attic floor. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The seed packets were discovered between joists in the attic floor. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The folded packets were created from a variety of papers in a variety of sizes, and were carefully inscribed in cursive with Linnaean binomials. Some packets also included botanical authorities, along with dates or personalized notes related to their contents. As Bartram’s Garden Curator Joel Fry, who analyzed and catalogued all 250+ examples says, this was a “rodent-selected sample,” which probably means that hungry critters were pulling packets with edible or tasty seeds from a box or boxes left in the attic for storage. Consequently, most of the packets and their contents had been liberally gnawed, making the labels a little more challenging to decipher. In 2007, Fry transcribed and catalogued the collection, translating the historic plant names from the packets into modern scientific binomials, transcribing notes, and where possible identifying the label writers.

The majority of the packets were written by an unidentified writer, which Fry suspects may have been a professional clerk or scribe, due to the stylized nature of the handwriting and apparent skill of the calligraphy. He notes that the handwriting differs from the typical style of writing common in Philadelphia around 1800. Packets inscribed by “the X writer” (so-named by Fry because of the way the writer’s r’s resembled the letter x) may have originated somewhere in Europe, or were at least inscribed by a writer trained there.

William Hamilton labeled a third of the collection himself (87 packets), a detail that Fry believes speaks to his proficiency in botanical science—it would have been rare at that time for people to know the correct scientific names for such a wide variety of plants. As Fry points out: if you were to randomly select people off the street today, how many could come up with the Latin names for any plant, let alone dozens of them? Hamilton even went as far as to supply multiple Latin names on a few of the packets, a detail that Fry says indicates he was privy to contemporary controversies in plant naming conventions. A handful of packets appear to be labeled by different unidentified writers. At least one packet was labeled by neighbor William Bartram. Some of the species represented in the collection were North American native species that the Bartrams first collected and grew, which William Hamilton likely acquired from William Bartram and the Bartram family garden.

Fragments of small, hand-thrown terra cotta pots used for starting seeds were also found. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Fragments of small, hand-thrown terra cotta pots used for starting seeds were also found. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The distinctive folding style is particularly visible on this large seed packet. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The distinctive folding style is particularly visible on this large seed packet. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The packets were various sizes and made from different types of paper. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The packets were various sizes and made from different types of paper. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Each has been inscribed, though some are difficult to decipher due to missing fragments from rodent damage. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Each has been inscribed, though some are difficult to decipher due to missing fragments from rodent damage. Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The collection of plants represented by the packets consists of a wide-ranging mix of plant species and types. Comprised mostly of relatively small seeds, the collection is skewed towards herbaceous plants — non-woody perennials, biennials, and annuals, but there were also some woody plants represented. Though there are some native plants in the collection, most of the plant species represented are exotics from a variety of provenances around the globe, which were also often denoted on the packets. The majority are considered to be outdoor plants—including edible varieties—and things that wouldn’t be uncommon to find in a kitchen or flower garden, as opposed to temperature-sensitive tropical greenhouse plants.

An expert historian like Fry can also read into some of the more specific details hidden within the collection. He points out that the abundance of hibiscus or mallow family plants (the Linnaean “Monadelphia Class” which included tea, cotton, okra, camellia, and the Bartrams’ Franklinia among others) indicates Hamilton was tuned in to important scientific developments and trends of the time. A prominent Spanish botanist, Antonio José Cavanilles (1745-1804), had been publishing a series of dissertations on this plant group at the end of the 18th century, and the “Monadelphia” were also the subject of significant research in Paris. The Woodlands seed packets include several “economic plants” imported from India, Asia, and Africa that align with the general interest of the time to import useful plants that could drive economic wealth. Both jute and dunchi fiber, which could be used for rope and cordage were found within the collection.

The packets also provide evidence that the plantings at The Woodlands were not without garden flowers, some which we now consider common (e.g. morning glories, marigold, zinnia, larkspur and yarrow); and some medicinal plants (e.g. euphorbia, monks rhubarb, nightshade and jimsonweed). The packets also included a number of garden vegetables, some of which would have been quite uncommon in the U.S. at the time, including seeds from two varieties of guava (which had to have winter shelter in a greenhouse), Thai basil, eggplant, several melons, and multiple varieties of cabbage.

According to Fry, three of the most historically significant plants found within the collection are:

Hydrangea macrophylla, a.k.a. French hydrangea or blue Hortensia, labeled by Hamilton as “Hydrangea mutabilis,” which he described as “a most beautiful flowered Shrub from China.”

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Known today as the Hydrangea macrophylla, this plant is a garden favorite. The flowers can be pink or blue depending on the alkalinity of the soils they are grown in. Illustration published by Curtis in London in 1799.

Known today as the Hydrangea macrophylla, this plant is a garden favorite. The flowers can be pink or blue depending on the alkalinity of the soils they are grown in. Illustration published by Curtis in London in 1799.

This is the same variety of blue hydrangea that we know and love today, but was then a very rare shrub, sent to the UK from China around 1790, only a few years before Hamilton acquired it. Hamilton was very probably the first to introduce this plant to North America. In a letter written the summer of 1800, William Bartram mentions the new hydrangea in bloom at The Woodlands, describing the “Cœlestial blue of the flowers” as “Inexpressebly pleasing.” Fry notes that Hydrangea was a newly named plant genus that had only recently been discovered in the 18th century. In fact, John Bartram may have been the first to scientifically record a hydrangea in eastern North America when he discovered Hydrangea arborescens, the American wild hydrangea.

Hydrangea quercifolia, a.k.a. oakleaf hydrangea, also inscribed by William Hamilton, includes the note “Bartram’s Travels” at the bottom.

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

William Bartram’s illustration of Hydrangea quercifolia, engraved for the first edition of Travels, Philadelphia: 1791. Image from the collections of the John Bartram Association.

William Bartram’s illustration of Hydrangea quercifolia, engraved for the first edition of Travels, Philadelphia: 1791. Image from the collections of the John Bartram Association.

William Bartram named the species Hydrangea quercifolia and included an illustration in his book Travels, published in Philadelphia in 1791. The plant’s inclusion in The Woodlands collection is interesting; though oakleaf hydrangea is now a common household and garden shrub, at the time it was a very rare plant in gardens. When William Bartram illustrated and named the new hydrangea, he probably did not have a live example at Bartram’s Garden. Only in March 1791 did the French botanist and traveler André Michaux send live plants of oakleaf hydrangea from his South Carolina garden to the Bartrams in Philadelphia. It is likely that Hamilton’s plant also came from French botanist Michaux or from the Bartram plants shipped by Michaux.

Aeschynomene virginica, labeled phoenetically by Hamilton with its Latin name as “Eschinom: inundata” and the note “with articulated pods viscid[ula…]s Mic[haux] by George from Jersey 1803.”

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Aeschynomene virginica or joint-vetch is an annual member of the legume family found on fresh-water tidal flats. Photo: Joel Fry

Aeschynomene virginica or joint-vetch is an annual member of the legume family found on fresh-water tidal flats. Photo: Joel Fry

This plant, a sensitive joint-vetch, was once a common native of the fresh-water tidal marshes of the lower Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, though it had been virtually eradicated in Pennsylvania and today can only be found in a few protected marshes in southern New Jersey. William Bartram was aware that this was a rare species and had discussed it letters, noting that it had formerly grown in marshes along the Schuylkill with wild rice and other wetland species. Hamilton’s note is of particular interest in this case, since it seems to indicate that the seeds were collected by George Hilton, Hamilton’s African American gardener who was sent to southern New Jersey to collect them, precisely the place where the plant can still be found. There is some evidence that William Hamilton also sent George Hilton on a collecting trip to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania to collect new native plants.

Shortly following the discovery of the seed packets, Fry and his colleague Robert M. Peck, Senior Fellow of The Academy of Natural Sciences co-authored an article detailing the discovery of the collection of seed packets and its significance. Though submitted for review, the article has yet to be published, perhaps in part due to the general lack of appreciation and understanding of Hamilton’s contributions to early U.S. botanical study. They plan to persevere and re-submit to a different publication in the near future. The collection of seed packets is now safely housed in the rodent-free herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, which is probably for the best, though we should pause and appreciate the critters in the attic of The Woodlands for their assistance in making a major historical discovery, which without their hoarding antics might never be known.

By Starr Herr-Cardillo with contributions by Joel Fry

 

Want to save your seeds like an 18th century botanist? Follow these instructions and channel William Hamilton and William Bartram!

seed packet fold.jpg

Stay tuned as we highlight more of the fascinating botanical connections between these two sites!

Previous Posts: 
Introducing the Two Williams

Upcoming Posts: 
William Bartram's Travels and the Early Naturalist's Library
Think Local Swap Global: 18th Century Approaches to Plant Collecting
From Seed Shack to Plant Palace: Evolutions in Greenhouse Technologies
The 19th Century Commercial Nursery


This blog series is made possible by Penn Sustainability and PennDesign. 

Introducing the Two Williams

Did you know that William Hamilton of The Woodlands and William Bartram of Bartram's Garden were contemporaries and friends? The two shared a love of plant collecting and botany, were neighbors, and were involved in many of the same local institutions! To highlight some of these lesser-known connections, we're bringing you Two Williams: a six month blog series hosted between The Woodlands and Bartram's Garden. Each month, we will dig into the archives and share what we find!

Picturing the banks of the tidal Schuylkill as a lush, pastoral landscape takes a bit of imagination these days. But long before it was home to manufacturing plants and oil refineries, the stretch of the River running through Philadelphia to the Delaware was considered one of the most beautiful scenic landscapes in the country.  Though much of this revered landscape was lost as the waterfront industrialized, some vestiges were spared. The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden were both prominent 18th century estates and hubs for the early study of botany and horticulture, separated by just over a mile along the Lower Schuylkill. Safeguarded by early preservation efforts, both are now recognized as National Historic Landmarks, bastions of Philadelphia’s horticultural legacy that live on as parks, historic sites, and important community anchors in their respective neighborhoods.

The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden shown on an 1808 map surveyed and published by John Hills. (Image: Philageohistory.org)

The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden shown on an 1808 map surveyed and published by John Hills. (Image: Philageohistory.org)

The Woodlands and Bartram’s share a number of historical themes and connections, which we will be exploring in monthly blog posts. This month, we’ll begin by introducing two key players: William Bartram (1739-1823), son of John Bartram and William Hamilton of The Woodlands (1745-1813). The two men were friends and contemporaries (and, notably, both were both lifelong bachelors) passionate about botany and horticulture in distinct yet complimentary ways.

William Hamilton’s mansion as seen from across the river depicted by James Peller Malcom ca. 1792. (Image: Dietrich American Foundation)

William Hamilton’s mansion as seen from across the river depicted by James Peller Malcom ca. 1792. (Image: Dietrich American Foundation)

Portrait of William Bartram by Charles Wilson Peale, 1808 (Image: Independence National Historical Park)

Portrait of William Bartram by Charles Wilson Peale, 1808 (Image: Independence National Historical Park)

William Bartram, son of John Bartram (1699-1777), was a gifted naturalist and a very skilled botanical and ornithological artist. Growing up, he accompanied his father on many of his travels and gradually took over the maintenance of the family garden. Later, William spent the years 1773-1776 traveling the southern Colonies studying and collecting plants and animals. He interacted with local Native American tribes and made copious notes and drawings, writing extensively about his findings which were published as Bartram’s Travels in Philadelphia in 1791. Upon returning from his excursion in 1777, William resumed his work maintaining and caring for the family garden and business at Bartram’s with his younger brother John, Jr.

Portrait of William Hamilton and his niece Ann Hamilton Lyle. (Image: Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Portrait of William Hamilton and his niece Ann Hamilton Lyle. (Image: Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Just up the river, William Hamilton (grandson of prominent Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton, whose defense of John Peter Zenger established freedom of the press) established his estate, The Woodlands, in the style of an English country house. Hamilton inherited the estate from his father in 1747 when he was just two years old and had, over the course of his adult life, parceled together roughly 500 acres along the western bank, including much of what is now the campuses of Penn and Drexel. Hamilton was an Anglophile and an enthusiastic amateur botanist and plant collector. An extended visit to England in the mid-1780s inspired the neoclassical remodel of his Philadelphia estate, recognized as the earliest example of Federal architecture in the country, and heavily influenced his approach to landscape design. Thomas Jefferson, who was a frequent visitor to both Bartram’s Garden and The Woodlands, once remarked that Hamilton’s estate was “the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.” Hamilton was particularly interested in collecting rare and exotic plants, introducing a number of exotic species to the U.S. through his massive greenhouse complex which is believed to have housed upwards of 9,000 species.

The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden formed the nexus of the country’s early botany scene and helped spur a regional horticultural economy that persisted for generations. Prominent naturalists, politicians, and members of the gentry would often stop at one or both gardens when travelling into the city. The two Williams frequently connected over their shared interest in plants and botany, often exchanging letters, plants, seeds and services. This relationship is best illustrated in their correspondence, which was frequent and familiar and often involved arranging the viewing, sharing, and trading of plant material.

A photograph of the Gingko at Bartram’s Garden from 1924 captioned “Oldest Gingko in America.” After William Hamilton imported the first Gingko biloba into the country, he kept two on his property at The Woodlands and sent the third as a gift to William Bartram. The two at The Woodlands no longer stand, but the impressive Gingko at Bartram’s still does and is recognized as the oldest living example in North America.  (Photo: John Bowman Bartram Special Collections Library)

A photograph of the Gingko at Bartram’s Garden from 1924 captioned “Oldest Gingko in America.” After William Hamilton imported the first Gingko biloba into the country, he kept two on his property at The Woodlands and sent the third as a gift to William Bartram. The two at The Woodlands no longer stand, but the impressive Gingko at Bartram’s still does and is recognized as the oldest living example in North America.  (Photo: John Bowman Bartram Special Collections Library)

In a letter[1] to William Bartram on November 7, 1796 Hamilton wrote:

Dear Sir

I must beg the favor of you to make a sketch of the Senecio nova, floribunda as it now blooms in my Hot House. For this obligation I will make you any compensation in my power. After this day it cannot be done this Season as its beauty is already on the decline.

I have moreover in my Hands at this moment, just arrived from England near 100 coloured plates mostly of new plants (some of them from Botany Bay) which you ought not to lose the opportunity of viewing & they are immediately to be return’d to the gentleman who left them here. I hope therefore you will oblige yourself as well as me by coming here as soon as you can after receiving this & that you will come prepared to make the sketch I have required, in which I am more interested for the Honor of American gardening than you are aware of. I have seen a figure & description of this plant as it flower’d last season for the first time in Europe, under the name of Senecio Chrysanthemum by which I find it flower’d with me before it was known in Europe.

                              I am dear Sir truly

                                             Your friend & humble Servt.

                                                                           W Hamilton

 

Both Williams also had connections to the University of Pennsylvania, then known as the College of Philadelphia, particularly to Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, chair of Materia Medica and the sole professor of botany at the university. Bartram’s Garden and The Woodlands functioned as outdoor laboratories to supplement lectures and William Bartram often leant his services as a botanical illustrator to assist Barton. The relationship between the three ensured the university’s position as the best place in the country for the study of botany and both Hamilton and Bartram assisted in procuring and sharing noteworthy and interesting plant specimens. In the following letter, William Bartram writes Dr. Barton about the first blue hydrangea imported to America, on display at William Hamilton’s garden at the Woodlands:

 

P.S. Come see us as soon as convenient. Have you seen the most beautiful Hydrangia [sic] from china now in flower at Hamiltion’s Gardens at the Woodlands? if not it is well worth a visit. The Cœlestial  blue of the flowers is inexpressebly [sic] pleasing. [2]

An Illustration from Frank H. Taylor ca. 1922 showing the Woodlands mansion and John Bartram’s house as examples of country mansions from “a time when the unpolluted tide-water Schuylkill River was bordered by fine country seats.” (Image: Library Company of Philadelphia)

An Illustration from Frank H. Taylor ca. 1922 showing the Woodlands mansion and John Bartram’s house as examples of country mansions from “a time when the unpolluted tide-water Schuylkill River was bordered by fine country seats.” (Image: Library Company of Philadelphia)

Hamilton frequently entertained guests at The Woodlands and his dinners and his gatherings, more often than not, involved lengthy discussions about plants and botany supplemented by demonstrations of species from his greenhouse. These were sometimes even coordinated around significant bloom times of his most impressive rare species, which would be brought in to the house to be observed and appreciated throughout the meal. In the following letter,[3] Hamilton requests a sample of a particular variety of grape from Bartram to serve the dual purpose of botany and dessert at an upcoming dinner:

 

My dear Sir

Mr Pursh tells me that he was at your house yesterday & that you shewed him a white grape which you called Blands grape—From what I have heard you say, I have always supposed it a dark fruit & my curiosity is exited to understand the Business. I will therefore thank you to send me a specimen of the fruit by the bearer. If it is ripe & you can spare them, you will oblige me by sending as many as will fill a plate as if the fruit good, it would serve as an interesting part of our Desert [sic] at dinner to day for Mr. & Mrs. Merry whom I expect will be here—

                                                                                          —I am most sincerely

                                                                                                         Your friend

                                                                                                                        W. H.

Stay tuned as we highlight more of the fascinating botanical connections between these two sites!

Upcoming Posts: 
Found in the Floorboards: 200 Year Old Seed Packets
William Bartram's Travels and the Early Naturalist's Library
Think Local Swap Global: 18th Century Approaches to Plant Collecting
From Seed Shack to Plant Palace: Evolutions in Greenhouse Technologies
The 19th Century Commercial Nursery

By Starr Herr-Cardillo

 

[1] William Hamilton to William Bartram, November 7, 1796, Gray Herbarium Autographs 3:17a, Harvard University.

[2] William Bartram to Benjamin Smith Barton, July 16, 1800, Barton Delafield Collection, American Philosophical Society.

[3] William Hamilton to William Bartram, circa 1803-1805, Bartram Papers 4:49b, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


This blog series is made possible by Penn Sustainability and PennDesign. 

The Woodlands Wins 2018-2019 Barra Award

 
WoodlandsLogo2.jpg
BarraLogo_highres_dropshadow_official.jpg

The Woodlands Wins 2018-2019 Barra Award for Exemplary Nonprofits in the Greater Philadelphia Region  

December 5, 2017 – Wayne, PA — The Barra Foundation has announced that The Woodlands is a recipient of a 2018-2019 Barra Award. The Woodlands joins 43 exceptional nonprofit organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region that will each receive $50,000 in grant funding. Barra Awardees are nominated by their peers in the social sector and are then invited to submit an application to the Foundation. The application questions focus on the organization’s leadership, performance and adaptability.  

"It is an honor to be part of this exemplary list of awardees. The unrestricted funding that the Barra Award provides will allow us to continue to grow and serve our community better than ever."

                                                                                                    - Jessica Baumert, Executive Director

In line with the Foundation’s mission to invest in innovation in the social sector, the Barra Awards provide unrestricted funding and introduce awardees to a diverse network of social sector leaders. “Without unrestricted capital, nonprofits have little margin for error or appetite for innovation. Through the Barra Awards we hope to provide organizations with some financial breathing room and their leaders with opportunities to learn from their peers—a diverse and inspiring network of entrepreneurial thinkers from across the nonprofit sector,” said Kristina Wahl, president of The Barra Foundation.

Since its 2013 inception, the Barra Awards has granted more than $6 million to area nonprofits. Awardees represent a range of nonprofits from the Arts and Culture, Education, and Health and Human Services sectors in the Greater Philadelphia region.  

A full list of the 2018-2019 Barra Award winners is available here.

To learn more about the Barra Awards program, click here.

About The Barra Foundation: The Barra Foundation invests in innovation to inspire change that strengthens communities in the Greater Philadelphia region. Through its Catalyst Fund and Barra Awards, the Foundation provides approximately $4 million in annual grants that are focused on supporting innovation in and across the fields of Arts & Culture, Education, Health and Human Services. 

About The Woodlands: The Woodlands’ 54-acre undulating landscape is at once a one-of-a-kind 18th-century English pleasure garden, 19th-century rural cemetery, and a modern green oasis for its neighbors in bustling University City and West Philadelphia. The Woodlands was designated a National Historic Landmark District in recognition of its unique history and rich resources. Actively used today, the cemetery, mansion, landscape, and programs are an educational resource for local school children, community residents, university students, as well as for a small, highly motivated cadre of scholars seeking further understanding of American architectural and botanical history, urban development, and the origin and growth of West Philadelphia.

Today, our mission is to enrich the lives of area residents and visitors by serving as a hub for activities and educational programs that interpret, celebrate and make available to the public The Woodlands’ historic buildings and tranquil green space.

 

### 

UCD-Drone_Online-BARRA.png

Meet Victoria, AKA Toribird

FullSizeRender (12).jpg

I have loved birds since I was five years old!  I am now thirteen and an intern for the Woodlands.  

My talking parakeet gave me the nickname “Toribird”. Coincidentally, ‘Tori’ means ‘bird’ in Japanese! 

In addition to The Woodlands, I also volunteer at a bird-banding station. I found a rare Black-headed Gull at John Heinz NWR, own a parakeet, and have participated in birding competitions. However, I'm not a total bird-brain. I am a nature photographer,  pianist, and beginner singer. I enjoy writing stories that combine birds and music - my two passions.

Some notes on seasonal birding at the Woodlands:       

Spring: Watch for migrating warblers, thrushes, and other songbirds.  Swallows will arrive. 

Summer: A rather dull time to bird. Look for breeding songbirds, and hummingbirds.   

Fall: Look up! Migrating hawks, warblers, and nighthawks make Fall a fun season for birding.                  

Winter: Small songbirds such as sparrows and kinglets are fun to see.  It is easy to see birds since the trees are leafless. 

I will add my birding tips to this blog about once a week, so keep an eye out! 

 

Sept. 27, 2017   Northern Rough-winged Swallows are plentiful at the Woodlands! However, they will soon migrate south, so catch them while you can. It is fun to watch these acrobats zip through the air as they chase insects. 

The swallows are similar to the Chimney Swift, but swifts are gray, have shorter tails, and generally fly higher. Swifts will also soon fly south. But, when the acrobatic insectivores are gone, it will be time to watch for ducks, kinglets, and sparrows.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow photo by Toribird

Northern Rough-winged Swallow photo by Toribird

Oct. 4, 2017  Hawks are awe-inspiring creatures.  When they soar, they appear to be made of sun and wind. The great news is that hawks are easily seen at the Woodlands! The Woodlands are home to two hawk species: the Red-tailed Hawk and the Cooper's Hawk.  The Cooper’s is seen in the forested area near the VA, and the Red-tail is seen in more open areas, generally near the house. 

So how do you tell them apart? See the guide below.

Red-tailed Hawk: Overall chunky build. White belly, dark brown back, and rust-red tail. Band across the belly made of brown spots. 

Cooper's Hawk: Overall slender build. Gray back and orange-tan belly. Thin black-and-white stripes on tail.

 

Oct. 11, 2017 If I say CROWS, what comes to mind? Do you think of spooky Halloween decorations, or a swarm of black birds, or a crow picking at bones?

Though crows have a bad, scary reputation in our culture, they are actually fascinating birds! Crows, magpies, and jays make up the Corvid family. Corvids are some of the smartest birds, capable of making tools, solving multi-step puzzles, and recognizing individual faces! 

The American Crow is common in Philadelphia, and can certainly be seen at the Woodlands!

 

Oct. 18, 2017 If I had to guess, I'd say you didn't like vultures. You might even be afraid of them. However, they are interesting, useful, lovable birds. 

Contrary to some myths, vultures do not predict death. Since they eat animals that are already dead, they almost never kill. And if they did not clean up carrion, there would be dead, rotting animals everywhere!

Also, though their heads are rather ugly, vultures' plumage is sleek and elegant. The Black Vulture is especially striking with its all-black body and silvery-white wingtips. Wildlife rehabbers and zookeepers have even described vultures as sweet and shy. It's no wonder vultures are my favorite birds! 

Black Vulture photo by Toribird

Black Vulture photo by Toribird

Nov. 1, 2017 As the seasons change, some birds migrate south and others arrive. One of these new arrivals is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. These birds are a bit smaller than sparrows. They are overall brown with darker stripes and yellow patches at the base their of tail (rump; hence their name), head, and flanks. You will likely see them in a Juniper (evergreen) tree, eating the berries. These adorable birds are common, and can make birding even more fun! 

 

Nov. 8, 2017 Have you ever heard the term 'Invasive Species'? If you're not familiar with this term, an invasive species is an animal, plant, or other organism that has been introduced to a part of the world where it did not originally occur. 

There are many invasive birds in the United States. Three of the most common are Rock Doves (pigeons), House Sparrows, and European Starlings. Due to that fact that invasive birds are typically quite common, they are a good group for beginner birders to learn. 

Unfortunately, since invasive species are adaptable and numerous, they often out-compete native birds. For example, European Starlings are pushing Purple Martins, a bird native to the US, out of the martins' former nest sites.  

European Starling photo by Toribird

European Starling photo by Toribird

Nov. 15, 2017 Tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-ta-trrrrrr. A woodpecker drumming on a tree may be a familiar sound for you. Woodpeckers, as a group are common, and adapt easily to living near humans. You may have even had a woodpecker drum an your house! 

The woodpecker group consists of birds that have woodpecker, sapsucker, or flicker in their names. For example, the Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicker are all types of woodpeckers (and they all can be seen in Philly!).

The Red-bellied Woodpecker has one of the worst names in the history of ornithology! Not only does its "red belly" consist of only a faint pink tint, it also has a far more obvious red stripe going from its forehead to its nape. This can cause confusion with the similarly-named but overall different-looking Red-headed Woodpecker. 

If you want to attract a woodpecker to your front yard, try putting up a suet feeder. Suet and the feeder can be found at most pet and grocery stores

 

Nov. 30, 2017 As the the nights get longer and the wind colder, people may think that winter is a bad time for birdwatching. It is true that some birds leave the Mid-atlantic to spend the season farther south. However, there are many that summer in northern places like Canada, and spend the winter right here in Philly!

Ducks, kinglets, and sparrows are among those that winter in this area. Also, birds like the Blue Jay, American Robin, and Red-tailed Hawk, along with various types of woodpeckers, can be seen year-round at The Woodlands. 

Finally, since most trees have lost their leaves, it is much easier to find all these winter treasures!

 

Dec. 13, 2017 If you hear the word 'robin', you probably think of spring, blossoms, and April showers. However, contrary to popular belief, robins can be seen in Philly year-round! 

Robins are a good bird for beginner birders to learn as they are distinctive, common, and, as mentioned above, can be seen all year. The distinctive markings of robins consist of a brick-red breast, gray back, yellow bill, and a broken white ring around the eye. See if you can spot these markings on the picture below! 

The robin's full common name is American Robin, and its scientific name is Turdus migratorius.

American Robin photo by Toribird

American Robin photo by Toribird

Jan. 3rd, 2018  Though you might not think it, gulls are not seen only at the ocean. Ring-billed Gulls are a common year-round Philly resident. They are often seen on the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, lakes, and even shopping center parking lots! The Schuylkill River can be seen from the Woodlands, especially in winter. Try to spot a gull next time you visit! 

To know what to look for, see the Ring-bill photo below. 

  Ring-billed Gull photo by Toribird

 

Ring-billed Gull photo by Toribird

Jan. 24, 2018 With the Superbowl coming up, everyone is talking about the Eagles. What better way to celebrate your team's victory than seeing a wild Bald Eagle? See the list below for good places to see our national bird and the mascot of Philly's football team. 

  • The Woodlands: Bald Eagles have been seen at the Woodlands, though they are not as common as some other birds. Since they eat fish, they are usually seen flying over the Schuylkill River. They can be seen year-round.
  • Conowingo Dam (Maryland): There is a guarantee of seeing eagles here - if you go in the winter. The eagles love to hunt the stunned fish that come through the dam. 
  • John Heinz at Tinicum: There is a resident, breeding pair of Bald eagles here that can be seen year-round.