Get Outdoors with Philly’s Nature!

The cooling weather of autumn might be enough to get you moving after another sweaty Philly summer, and you’re not alone. Plenty of our animal neighbors become more active during the day, and easier for us to observe, as the heat fades and the lean months of winter approach. Winter might be coming, but now is the perfect time to join many of our non-human neighbors in enjoying the outdoors.  

Whatever you end up observing, consider documenting it with community science tools such as iNaturalist. This is a great way to keep track of your finds while making the data available for scientists and conservation agencies. 

Redback salamanders are named for the broad reddish-brown stripe that runs down some of their backs. Bernard Brown/Grid Magazine

Start Small 

Redback salamanders hunt small invertebrates in the leaf litter of our forests and tree-shaded yards by night. By day can be found under cover such as logs, rocks, and debris like old boards. The small, lungless amphibians get all the oxygen they need through their skin. The heat of summer drives them underground, but in the fall, they return to the surface. 
Redback salamanders are named for the broad reddish-brown stripe that runs down some of their backs above gray flanks. They also come in a “lead-back” phase that lacks the stripe and is gray all over. 

You can find them by peeking under rocks, logs and other objects on the ground. Be sure to replace the object carefully after scooping the salamanders out of the way to avoid squashing them. They’ll find their way back under the object. These delicate creatures can also absorb chemicals from lotions and other products we apply to our hands, so use a clean glass jar to hold the salamander if you’d like to spend more time looking at it or if you’d like to pass it around to the kids before releasing it. 

Redback salamanders are our region’s most abundant and widespread amphibian. Find them in most of our forests and many of our yards. 

These wild turkeys are a conservation success story. Kirk Thornton/Unsplash

Gobble Gobble  

Not all turkeys will end up on a carving board at the end of November. Wild turkeys form flocks in the fall, which can make them easier to spot. Sleek and black, they strut through parks and adjacent neighborhoods searching for food, which shifts away from a summer menu of insects and other small animals and toward the fall feast of acorns and other nuts and seeds.  

These wild turkeys are a conservation success story. After getting nearly wiped out by the end of the 1800s, careful hunting regulation and efforts in the mid-1900s to reintroduce them to rural areas succeeded to the point that they now have spread to suburban and urban green spaces. 

Wild turkeys are easy to spot in South Jersey parks such as Camden’s Cramer Hill Preserve as well as in parks in Southwest Philadelphia like Bartram’s Garden and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Even if you miss the birds themselves, check muddy patches for their large, three-toed footprints. 

You’ll be surprised at how many creatures ignore or don’t manage to spot us when we’re quiet and still. Jack Bulmer/Unsplash

Stake Out 

Lots of the wild animals that share our neighborhoods with us survive by coming out while we’re asleep inside. Some are nocturnal by default, such as flying squirrels and raccoons, while others such as coyotes become more nocturnal around humans. Observing them in the summer can mean staying up past bedtime, while in winter the cold might be enough to drive you into the warmth of your house. Autumn evenings, however, can be the perfect time to slip into some cozy layers, pour a thermos of mulled cider and stake out your yard. 

Turn out the lights if you can and move as little as possible. You’ll be surprised at how many creatures ignore or don’t manage to spot us when we’re quiet and still. Use your ears as well. A rustling in the leaves can alert you to a visitor, while some light chirps from the trees could be flying squirrels communicating with each other while they forage for food.  

If you can’t make it out in person, consider investing in an infrared-triggered camera (often called a “game cam”). These are widely sold for hunters to study deer and other quarry, but you can set one up to take pictures in your own yard. It will automatically photograph your nocturnal neighbors, and in the morning, you can review the evidence of any furry visitors. 

Cemeteries are also great places to study lichens. Bernard Brown/Grid Magazine

Rock Gardens 

Most of the plants around us are dying back or dropping their leaves right around now, but the lichens growing on stone, brick and wood surfaces aren’t going anywhere. Some stick tight to the surface like a crust, some look like leaves rippling out in a rosette, while others project up like moss. All of these are partnerships between fungus species that provide the structure and algae that gather energy from the sun.  

You can study lichens with the naked eye, but they come to life under a magnifying glass, allowing you to take in the details, including reproductive structure such as tiny cups that they use to spread their spores.  

Lichens are the most diverse in our forests, growing over bark as well as exposed rocks on the ground among the trees. Several species grow on stone and brick surfaces of our buildings, meaning you can often observe lichens without leaving your porch. 

Cemeteries are also great places to study lichens. The old, weathered stone surfaces of grave markers and the bark of stately trees positively bloom with the leafy green circles of common green shield and the greenish-yellow patches of candle flame, among other species.  

Not all White-throated Sparrows have a white supercilium, or eye stripe. Genetics give some birds a tan stripe. © Rick & Nora Bowers/VIREO.

Departures and Arrivals 

Fall is prime time for migration. Birds and some insects (such as monarch and buckeye butterflies) that breed here during the warmer months take off for the south to spend the winter there. Other species that breed far to our north settle here, while others pass through on their way south. 

Insect-eating songbirds tend to move through toward the beginning of fall, but seed-eating birds such as white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos keep showing up as fall progresses. Join a bird walk near you through Bird Philly, your local park or nature center, or your local birding club or Audubon chapter to learn more about these winter residents.  

Several species of raptors soar past the Philly area, and local hawk watches such as the one at Rose Tree Park in Delaware County are great venues to observe them in the company of experienced birders who can explain what you’re looking at. 

As open water freezes over to our north, waterfowl from Canada and New England touch down in our area. Check out your local ponds and marshes, such as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum or the “lakes” at FDR Park, for dabbling ducks such as shovelers or gadwalls. Head to the shores of the Delaware for diving ducks such as buffleheads and scaups.  

If your cat needs some outdoor time, consider building a “catio” or taking it out on a leash. Leighann Blackwood/Unsplash

Lay Out the Welcome Mat 

Want to welcome wildlife into your neighborhood?  

Consider gardening with native plant species that creates food to visiting birds, either directly through fruit and seeds or indirectly by hosting insects that a lot of migrating birds gorge on while they stop over. 

You can also save the lives of visiting birds. The two biggest ways humans kill birds are with our cats and our windows. Outdoors cats kill roughly 2.4 billion birds in the United States every year (not to mention billions more mammals, reptiles and amphibians), and up to one billion birds die annually from smacking into windows. Most of these deaths are avoidable. 

If your cat needs some outdoor time, consider building a “catio” or taking it out on a leash. Wildlife will be protected from your cat, and your cat will be protected from cars as well as larger animals such as coyotes. 

You can also make your windows visible to birds. Plenty of companies sell stickers, window films or other solutions, but you can also simply decorate the outside of your windows with tempera paint. Window collisions are most common in fall and spring migration, so you can wash it off for the winter, and re-decorate in the spring.  

Last, don’t feed your local mammals. Contain your trash in wildlife-proof containers, and don’t leave pet food outside unattended. Although your local foxes, raccoons, and opossums might enjoy the meal, artificial feeding, whether intentional or unintentional, can facilitate transmission of diseases such as rabies and otherwise bring wild animals into conflict with humans. 

Bernard Brown is a nature writer at Grid magazine and author of Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons.

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