Birding at Carpenter's Woods
By Steve Lawrence
Carpenter’s Woods, situated in West Mt. Airy in northwest Philadelphia, has long been recognized as a birding hot spot. It owes its existence to the principal of the nearby Henry Elemental School who persuaded the city to preserve it for her students’ study of nature, especially birding, when the area was being developed in the late 1920’s. Having read about it in Owen Sewell Pettingill’s “A Guide to Bird Finding: East of the Mississippi”, I focused on the West Mt. Airy area when we decided to buy a house in Philadelphia. We moved into 637 W. Ellet St. on April 30, 1959, and lived six houses from Carpenters Woods for the next fifty-four years.
Many area birders know Carpenter’s Woods very well, and I blush at being asked to write about my all-time favorite site. Among many others, Keith Russell and Erica Brendel love the spot as much as I do and know much more.
Carpenter’s Woods is an approximately twelve block rectangle of the Wissahickon Valley bordered by West Sedgwick Street on the southern side and West Mt. Pleasant Avenue to the north. It extends like a thumb beyond Greene Street to McCallum. On three sides, there are city blocks with larger homes between the woods and Allen’s Lane. On the fourth side, across Wissahickon Avenue, there are more wooded areas leading toward the Wissahickon Creek and the horse stables.
Carpenter’s Woods is excellent for birding in spring. It’s best from mid-April to late May, when there can be substantial fall-outs of neo-tropic migrants, especially warblers. Sadly they are not quite as overwhelming as they were during the years when Joe Cadbury influenced many Germantown Friends’ students like Keith Russell to become lifetime birding enthusiasts. Fall can be good, often more so in the late afternoon than morning. Summer and winter are fair to fairly good, always with some unusual sightings but more or less similar to other areas of the Wissahickon.
In the peak spring season, the time to bird is early, at sunrise. Generally the best starting point outside the park is at the bus stop on West Sedgwick at Wayne Ave. The early sun gets insects and birds moving along that edge first, and it is a good place to spot early overhead migrants, such as Broad-winged Hawks, some other buteos and accipiters, and the occasional Common Loons. After a good front on a sunny morning, the trees along Sedgwick and also around the corner on Sherman can be alive with migrants.
Next, enter the woods at the Sedgwick and Sherman Street entrance. Having reached the main path, turn left and bird the main path to the cross walk. Turn down to the right to the area known as the Meadow. As the sun goes higher, the meadow can come alive with birds at all levels. Some may be bathing in the brook and preening on bushes and lower limbs. Others require serious neck bending. From there, the path to the left curves around to a vernal pool (in a wet spring), an area that frequently yields Northern Waterthrush, Swamp Sparrow, Common Yellowthroats and even an occasional Hooded Warbler. Then, reverse to walk back through the meadow and along the path to the upper spring. The wooded areas on both sides of the meadow, as well as the walk directly up from the spring to the upper level and the main path, can be excellent for thrushes, with Swainson’s common and Gray-cheeked regular in mid-May. Generally, by ten or eleven, things slow down in Carpenter’s Woods, but that’s true almost everywhere. Late afternoon and early evening are not nearly as productive.
From early June until late August is a slow season in the Wissahickon. Wood Thrushes continue to breed in good numbers in Carpenter’s Woods along with the expected permanent residents. Other breeders occasionally include Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great-crested Flycatcher, Wood Peewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Pileated Woodpecker and many Catbirds. Any warbler is extremely unusual at this time, however, the “greater Carpenter’s Woods area”, (from W. Mt. Pleasant to Allen’s Lane between Greene and Wissahickon and the small development across Wissahickon Avenue to the edge of the park and Livesey Lane down to the creek) can be interesting in summer, very good in autumn and worthwhile in winter. There are Veeries, an occasional Common Yellowthroat, three species of flycatcher, Eastern Towhee and Baltimore Orioles down Livesey Lane during summer. Louisiana Waterthrush is often spotted along the creek’s edge, along with Belted Kingfishers, Wood Ducks and the occasional Green Herons. In addition, look for migrating Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers in August. .
Autumn – from late August until late November – can be very good, although morning walks in the woods are seldom as active as in springtime. Often the best birding at that time of year is in late afternoon in the area from West Mt.Pleasant down to the Wissahickon. Many migrants feed along Mt. Pleasant where the late afternoon sun produces the best choice of food. Warblers, tanagers, vireos, and flycatchers are active, with swallows, swifts and nighthawks often overhead. It is the time of year when one can spot more raptors in the area than at any other, from September Broad-winged Hawks to an occasional Rough-legged Hawk or Northern Goshawk in November.
The homes on West and South Mt. Pleasant and West Mt. Airy from Greene to and across Wissahickon, have many ornamental fruit trees that at times attract large flocks of Robins and substantial flights of Cedar Waxwings, as well as other lovers of fruit and berries (starlings, too, alas). In this area, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are regular and the many varied trees attract good numbers of woodpeckers, including many Yellow-breasted Sapsuckers which sometimes linger into the next year.
Livesey Lane, which angles to the right off Allen’s Lane just before Wissahickon Ave., also catches many fall migrants There are at least four stops that can be productive: just past the second driveway on the right; in the vicinity of the trail that comes in from the left; at a rough “parking” area on the left just beyond the trail to the right and finally, at the creek itself by the “Livesey” house where it is “illegal” to park, so it is best not to leave a car unattended for very long.
Wintertime produces populations of the usual visitors, but Carpenters Woods often has more Winter Wrens along the creek than one might expect, from early November until the first freeze-up in early winter. It used to be the winter home for hordes of Purple Finches, but now they are very rare. The woods and surrounding neighborhood areas have the same owls as in summer, which are sometimes much easier to find. Red-tailed Hawks are common and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s are regular over the woods and throughout the areas outside the park, especially to the west. It is probably the best time to look for a Pileated Woodpecker, especially in the upper area below and beyond Greene St. Another “hot spot” for Pileateds is along Livesey Lane, especially along the upper trail to the right. In almost any season, one must beware the cyclists on that trail.
Interestingly enough, the general habitat of Carpenter’s Woods and the surrounding area has not changed drastically in the past 40 years. This is because it is surrounded by well established residential areas that have changed very little in that time. Much environmental work has been accomplished in Carpenter’s Woods as part of the Natural Lands Restoration Environmental Education Program (NLREEP). The project lasted from 1997 through 2004. It was funded by the William Penn Foundation and accomplished by the Fairmount Park staff members and neighborhood volunteers, particularly in the meadow area. A number of programs, ranging from culling the deer herd to weeding out exotic plants and planting native plants and trees have started to produce results. There has been an increase in populations of amphibians and butterflies, as well as the continued but not overwhelming presence of local mammals. While there has been an increase in numbers of Red Fox and the presumed presence of an occasional Coyote, still the greatest danger for birds comes from cars and feral cats.
Carpenter’s Woods and the surrounding area is an interesting place for a half day of birding in almost any month of year (except in February when birding in the South may be a better idea), however it is THE place to be for outstanding birding from the middle of April to the end of May.
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Carpenter’s Woods is easily accessible by car and bus and, to a lesser extent, by train. Parking is best on West Sedgwick between Wissahickon and Wayne, but there are opportunities to park side streets on all three sides that border city neighborhoods The area is reasonably well patrolled, so avoid parking in the obvious no-parking areas. The Wayne Avenue bus, which connects with all other transportation into the city, makes its noisy turn-around right at the Wayne Avenue entrance, providing easy and inexpensive access.