As Troy Bynum was walking along Forbidden Drive, his ears were drawn to the sharp, descending carp of a beautiful bird above the Wissahickon Creek.
As Troy Bynum was walking along Forbidden Drive, his ears were drawn to the sharp, descending carp of a beautiful bird perched upon a branch above the Wissahickon Creek…
Below the tree was a raft of ducks splashing in the creek. Behind him was the colorful Valley Green Inn, whose patio was packed with guests enjoying lunch, some with their beloved dogs at their heels.
But it was the small bird itself that caught his attention – its bluish body, long beak, short neck, yellowish legs, and jagged brownish crest, clearly visible to the naked eye. In all his walks along Wissahickon Valley Park, he had never seen one like it before, and was determined to find out what it was.
After a few days’ research, Bynum discovered that this fast-flying bird was a green heron, abundant east of the Mississippi, primarily in the South, but not all that uncommon here in wetlands during the spring and summer. Perhaps the warmer fall season enticed it to delay its departure for the more congenial South.
Bynum was quickly hooked on birding – and joined a culture that is rapidly growing here in the Delaware Valley. Always a nature-lover, Bynum said COVID turned him – and many others – into a certified birding enthusiast.
“During COVID,” he said, “everything shut down. Eventually, to cure cabin fever, people began to hit the trails. That included green patches in cities and other local parks. I began to notice more and more people in Wissahickon Valley Park looking up and paying more attention to birds.”
Along Forbidden Drive and the more challenging hiking trails in the park, Bynum met many members of Friends of the Wissahickon taking pictures of birds. In fact, in nature walks throughout the tri-state area, he encountered countless other birders looking up in search of avian prey to capture with their long lenses. It didn’t take long before Bynum and his camera joined their ranks.
On one particularly fortuitous walk in the Lower Merion Conservancy’s area in 2021, he met and befriended a quiet and unassuming fellow bird-watcher named Greg Gordon. He later learned that Gordon is the president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC).
Established in 1890, DVOC is one of the oldest ornithological societies in the country and one of only three members listed by the American Birding Association in Pennsylvania. Meeting regularly at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, DVOC organizes birding field trips, including one within the city limits of Philadelphia.
Bynum, who is Black, said that both he and Gordon, who is white, are pleased that the growing number of birding enthusiasts are a racially diverse group. And now that he is a full-fledged birder – he calls himself “a hobby naturalist” on his website tbwildlifegallery.com) – he is moving on to including the next generation, and has recruited his 8-year-old daughter, Leia, to join him on his excursions into the wooded wilds.
Equally passionate about nature and wildlife, Leia can already identify many species of birds. Bynum says that she prefers looking for salamanders and frogs, which also frequent the exquisite photo gallery on his website.
Leia attends Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where Bynum is working with the school to arrange nature walks for Leia and her schoolmates – to Wissahickon Valley Park, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum, and other parks and green spaces – to expose children to the wonders of birding and the natural world.
Bynum’s effort is similar to the mission of a new foundation called the In Color Birding Club, located in Philadelphia, which aspires to educate and connect young people of color to those in the birding community.
While birding is not a particularly costly activity, there are some equipment basics.
Although Bynum began his nature walks wearing basketball shorts and sneakers, he soon realized that with all the crawling around, and interactions with trees and rocks, that pants and sturdy hiking boots would be beneficial – and maybe a good pair of waterproof boots for those who are passionate about tracking water birds. “And a good pair of binoculars would be helpful, once you get the hang of them,” Bynum said. “The birds are often too far to see clearly with the naked eye.”
He says that the Wissahickon Valley is the perfect place to begin, as sparrows are plentiful in the winter; warblers begin to appear and fill the air with song in the spring; and ducks, owls and hawks are visible all year round. The family of birds most endemic to this region, he says, are woodpeckers – downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated. “The latter,” he said, “are the big ones you see and hear – like Woody the Woodpecker.”
Bynum, who lives in Mt. Airy, said he has become increasingly interested in documenting the wildlife he sees in its native habitat by photographing it.
“When I started, I just wanted to get people to enjoy the beautiful birds all around us – not just my favorite, the green heron,” he said. “But now it’s more of a conservation effort – to understand the role of birds in our environment.”
A case in point, Bynum says, is the ivory-billed woodpecker. “We think we’ve lost this beautiful bird. Since no one has documented seeing one in the last year or so, and it was already endangered, we’re pretty sure it’s extinct,” he said. “The more we know, the more we’ll care about, as well as enjoy, our environment.”