Friday, February 29, 2008

The Hummingbird Effect

I'm no scientist, but if I correctly understand the Butterfly Effect -- which is really just an elaborate metaphor to describe a principle of Chaos Theory -- it says that something as seemingly minuscule as the flapping of a butterfly's wings can, over time, grow in magnitude to cause something as monumental as a hurricane.

I don't know about that. I do know that when the ruby-throated hummingbirds begin their annual northern migration around this time of year, I can, in my more whimsical moods, imagine the furious beating of their tiny wings setting in motion a pattern of cause and effect that will eventually dispel the despicably cold weather of a day like, well, a day like today, where the temperature didn't make it above freezing.

Lanny Chambers has been marking the migration of ruby-throats on his website,, for over ten years. Usually around late February you'll see the first little blip, representing a sighting reported by one of his loyal followers, appear in Florida or the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico. The blips are color coded into two week periods, with the date of the sighting marked to the side. To hummingbird geeks like me, who hang up their feeders in mid April, those blips are as sure a sign of the turning of the season as crocuses and daffodils.
And remember, hummers typically return each season to where they were born or spent the summer before -- the same backyards, the same porches, even the same feeders. So consider this -- one of those blips might be on his way to visit you.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Saylor's Grove

Roughly triangular in shape, the three acre island of parkland know as Saylor's Grove is defined by Lincoln Drive, Wissahickon Avenue, and Rittenhouse Street. High-rise apartment buildings loom overhead, and traffic whooshes around its perimeter constantly. And if you're jonesing for a cup of coffee before stepping down into this fragile basin, the shiny Sunoco-cum-QuickieMart abutting the eastern border of the park will suffice.

Nonetheless, Saylor's Grove stands as an example of natural restoration within the urban environment. Described as the city's first storm water-treatment wetland, the five year project that converted the largely abandoned park into a vital natural oasis was an answer to growing concerns over the contamination of the Monoshone, or Paper Mill run, which flows into the Wissahickon.

I don't know what the success metrics are, or what, if any, studies are being conducted to determine if they are being met. But I imagine that if the City does not continue to support this project, Saylor's Grove will soon revert back into a neglected backyard of the park system, and the half million dollars spent on it's refurbishment will have been wasted.

On the particular day in late February, however, when this photo was taken, there was no real reason to presume that Saylor's Grove would not continue to be a success. Given the quality of light, and the ducks and the cattails in the pond, it was probably best not to presume at all, and just enjoy the day.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Not corn dogs

Cattails, Saylor's Grove, Monday afternoon.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Children at Play

Detail from the sculpture Children at Play, Saylor's Grove, near Wissahickon Avenue and Lincoln Drive, Monday afternoon, February 25.

The plaque accompanying the sculpture reads:

Monday, February 25, 2008

A poplar topic

We tend to call them tulip poplars around here, but they are also commonly known as yellow poplars or tulip trees. Reaching heights up to 120 feet, they are the tallest trees native to Pennsylvania, and they thrive in the Wissahickon.

The odd mixture of wild and urban that characterizes the park, gives us access not only to the great ramrod-straight trunks that crowd the slopes of the gorge, but from the higher bridges that span the Wissahickon and its tributaries, the vast spread of their upper branches. This time of year, cross the Walnut Lane or Henry Avenue Bridges, or in the case of this photo, the McCallum Street Bridge, which spans the Cresheim Creek, and you will find yourself amidst bare branches and twigs studded with the tree's strange fruit, reminiscent of the tulip shaped blossoms from which it gets its name.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Not a butterfly

Only a deflated Mylar balloon caught in the branches of a sycamore tree. Thursday afternoon, February 21, near where the bicycle path crosses Ridge Avenue.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Up and down

These are known as the One Hundred Steps, built in the early 1900s, and they will take you from the Wissahickon neighborhood of Roxborough down to the bicycle path that parallels the lower portion of the Wissahickon Creek; or vice versa.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Snow comes to Blue Bell Hill

Posting twice in one day feels a little like cheating, but today we've had the first, and probably last, real snowfall of the season: unofficially, about four inches. I am too lazy busy to actually go outside with my camera, so this was taken from my upstairs window. The line of trees in the horizon marks the border of the Wissahickon Park. I'll claim legitimacy from that.

Reading Railroad Bridge

That's the Reading Railroad Bridge, and it has spanned the lower Wissahickon, just north of Ridge Avenue, since 1876. Today it conveys the SEPTA R6 commuter rail from East Falls to Manayunk.

Taken Thursday, February 21, during the latter part of the afternoon.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Daffodils. My backyard, early Thursday morning, February 21.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Out of season

This photo was taken in the middle of the afternoon on Monday, February 19. That the temperature was around 65 degrees Fahrenheit made this forgotten Christmas wreath on the door of a WPA constructed guardhouse at the intersection of Bell's Mill Road and Forbidden Drive seem all the more out of season.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Looking south down Forbidden Drive from Bell's Mill Road, around 3:30 in the afternoon, Monday, February 18.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Washington and Lincoln

This plaque commemorates a local skirmish during the Battle of Germantown fought along the stretch of the Wissahickon that now borders, more or less, along Lincoln Drive. The rock to which it is fastened, for reasons unknown to me, is known as Washington's Rock. Since it is located just off of Lincoln Drive -- named for Abraham Lincoln -- it seemed an appropriate post for Presidents' Day.

The plaque, being over a hundred years old, and showing the effects of both nature and graffiti, is a bit hard to read. Here is what it says:


Sunday, February 17, 2008

General Lafayette Inn

The General Lafayette Inn, located at the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Church Lane, has been serving beer for 275 years. Well, at least part of this structure has been there that long -- originally called The Three Tuns -- and has been a tavern for most of that time. Surely the esteemed young general for whom the establishment is now named hoisted a few pints when he and his troops were holed up nearby in the fall of 1777. On this particular day -- Saturday, February 16 -- the inn was hosting a festival in which breweries from around the region were invited to share their winter beers with 250 ticket-holding patrons.

You can read more about the local beer culture at Beers of the Wissahickon. (Warning: shameless self-promotion.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not evidence of life on Mars

That forty-five-degree angle gash in the rock face is what is left of a hole drilled to accommodate explosives when the roadway that is now Forbidden Drive was being blasted out, probably in the 1850s. You can find it, as well as a couple of others, in the massive outcropping of rocks on Forbidden Drive half way between Lincoln Drive and the Blue Stone Bridge.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lincoln and Forbidden Drives

Forbidden Drive, so called because motor vehicles are prohibited, runs for a little over five miles, from Lincoln Drive to the south, to Northwestern Avenue to the north. Paralleling the Wissahickon its entire length, it is the main road through the park.

Taken on Thursday, February 14, at the beginning of the evening rush hour.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Snow falling on feeders

Noon. Tuesday, February 12. Gold finches toward the top (for Valentine's Day, let's say they are a couple); fat sparrow on the bottom.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


This strew of gray dove feathers under the azalea bush at the top of the steps leading to my backyard, not more than ten feet from my back door, serves as a reminder that those of us who live at the edge of the Wissahickon will occasionally be witness to nature in the raw. These are the meager leavings of a hawk -- probably a sharp shinned or a coopers -- who saw opportunity in the cluster of birds crowding the backyard feeders.

(Check out Abe Lincoln's blog post describing a similar event. He goes into detail on how the impact of the attack disperses the feathers. A great photo.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Harper's Meadow

Sunday afternoon, February 10.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Keeping the sycamores out

To the left, Germantown Avenue. To the left of that (and beyond the boundaries of this photo), Montgomery County and the grounds of Chestnut Hill College. To the right, Harper's Meadow, the northernmost reach of Philadelphia's Wissahickon Park.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Toleration, another view

I'm cheating today -- this photo was taken two weeks ago, on January 26. I want to spend a little more time talking about this fellow.

The statue is known as Toleration, and stands as a tribute to the local Quaker tradition. It has been presiding over this spot on Rinker's Rock on the eastern ridge of the valley since 1883. To give you an idea of scale, he stands close to ten feet tall; this photo was taken from the trail at the bottom of Rinker's rock, maybe forty feet below. The Wissahickon itself runs about one hundred and fifty feet below.

The most outstanding characteristic of this statue, to me, is its obscurity. He's not easy to find, standing on a secluded outcropping of rock far from the most used trails. Most stumble upon him by accident.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Looking for snow

Taken around 9:00 this morning, atop Rinker's Rock, looking out toward the western ridge of the valley. That's the Toleration statue to the left. A dank, drizzly and cold morning, appropriate for February.

This has been a mild winter, with no more than a coating of snow. It occurs to me that if we don't get snow in the next week or so, the chances of it for this season will soon quickly diminish. In three weeks it will be March. To be sure, we can get a major snow storm in March -- anyone of a certain age living in Philadelphia in 1993 will remember that year's late season blizzard. But that storm is remembered as much for its rarity as for the amount of snow.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Rush hour, Walnut Lane Bridge

8:00 a.m., Friday morning, from atop the Walnut Lane Bridge.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A thing of beauty

Wednesday, February 6, a little after noon.
The inn at Valley Green , three and three-quarter miles from the creek's mouth, and a mile from the Germantown Avenue, is a rendezvous of and delightful refreshment station for all. For many years a committee of public-spirited women have had it in their care. Here ends navigation for canoes, and here in winter there is excellent skating. Just above the inn Springfield Avenue comes down from St. Martin's over an arched bridge which is a thing of beauty.
-- The Wissahickon by T. D. Daly, 1922

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Duck. Duck. Goose!

Tuesday, February 5, a little after noon, Valley Green. The sky was overcast, but the temperature was pushing sixty, and it felt every bit of spring. Someone was feeding bread to the ducks and geese, and I had my camera ready.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

One response to public space

Detail from graffiti, under the Henry Avenue Bridge, Monday morning.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Gimme shelter

Gray Monday morning, 8:00. I scrambled under the Henry Avenue Bridge to escape the drizzle.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Not a groundhog

These fellows are skunk cabbage, and they don't need to look for a shadow to predict the coming of spring. In a sense, they make their own season, being able to raise their temperature above that of the immediate environment, often melting a covering of ice or snow as they push above the ground in late January or early February. This photo was taken in a marshy area along the Monoshone Creek, on the grounds of Thomas Mansion, Saturday, February 2.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

They might be giants

Tulip poplars, Wednesday afternoon, January 30.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Wind chimes

Beech tree leaves, Wissahickon Park.Wednesday afternoon, around four, somewhere on the path between Rinker's Rock and Kitchens Lane Bridge.

Young beech trees keep their leaves far into winter. Walk down into the park from Park Line Drive and you are soon deep into a grove of tulip poplars. Interspersed among their great trunks are the lithe bodies of young beeches vying for their bit of sun on the crowded slopes. They lend copper to overwhelming gray, and when the wind picks up, as it is doing on this afternoon, a constant scratchy rustling against the whooshing of greater branches overhead.