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West Basin at East Park Reservoir

Jan and Ken Gordon - Co-Chairpersons

DVOC is contributing money to help preserve and make accessible the area of the West Basin of East Park Reservoir in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This is a project headed by the National Audubon Society and the Fairmount Park Commision

In the Spring of 1999, DVOC member Jane Henderson wrote this article about the area. It appeared in Philadelphia Larus

On December 16, 1998, as a representative of the Wyncote Audubon Society, I was invited by Keith Russell and Dr. Jan Gordon to visit the East Park Reservoir in Fairmount Park. Even though I had often passed by the gates to the reservoir at 33rd and Diamond Streets when I was still teaching high school in Philadelphia, I had never imagined what was on the other side of the berm and behind those high fences.

The East Park Reservoir complex has four sections, all of which used to hold treated drinking water when Philadelphia’s population was larger. At present, only one section, the covered Northeast Basin, still serves as a source of drinking water for the city. The Northwest and South Basins have been drained and are marshy. But on December 16, our focus was on the exciting section, the long-abandoned 45 acre, 22 foot deep (presently with a water level of 6-7 feet) West Basin, which has been populated for years by diving ducks, loons, grebes and cormorants.

At several DVOC meetings I had heard Dr. Jan Gordon and the late Ed Fingerhood speak of the West Basin at East Park Reservoir and its importance to wintering waterfowl. But that had not prepared me for what I saw on that December day when Joseph Schultz, the reservoir’s maintenance supervisor, unlocked and opened the gates of the two chain-link fences, and we and our cars were admitted inside.

Representatives from the DVOC, the ANSP, the West Chester Bird Club, the Valley Forge Audubon Society, the Delaware County Bird Club and the Wyncote Audubon Society set up scopes and began scanning the far end of the West Basin. We immediately counted at least 200 Canvasbacks and a large number of Common Mergansers. When we examined the flock of Canvasbacks more closely, we discovered a male Redhead. Later on we saw the female.

We drove on a bit and looked some more. This time we identified both Greater and Lesser Scaup and a large flock of Hooded Mergansers. We also saw Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, Mallards, Wood Ducks and Ruddy Ducks.

This, according to Keith Russell, who has monitored the West Basin for several years as a member of the Ornithology Department at ANSP, was not even a particularly good day there. For example, not too long ago, he said, a Red-throated Loon and a Tundra Swan were spotted there, as well as many more ducks.

Over the years, a great many species have been recorded in the West Basin, including Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Common Goldeneye, Common Loons, Ring-necked Ducks, and Red-breasted Mergansers. In fact, informal accounts by members of the DVOC, going back to 1901, and official records of the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census, begun in 1987, indicate that 30 species of waterfowl have wintered in the West Basin or stopped there in migration. The West Basin often hosts the largest regular wintering flock in the state of Pennsylvania, even larger than the flock on Lake Erie.

In the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, Dave Cutler and many other DVOC regulars made frequent visits to East Park Reservoir. The complex was not gated well then, and the fence was lower, so access was not as difficult as it is now. They routinely found huge numbers of birds, especially after storms. Dave told me that it was not uncommon then to find 40-50 Common Loons there. Red-Necked Grebes used to be regular visitors in March, he said.

In 1996, while doing his “Big Year,” Ed Fingerhood heard rumors of potential problems at the reservoir. Keith Russell called the reservoir staff and found out exactly what was going on: the Philadelphia Water Department had begun emptying the West Basin with the intention of filling it with soil and turning it over to the Fairmount Park Commission for use as a ball field.

Keith wrote a letter to the Water Department and the Fairmount Park Commission, explaining the value of the West Basin and the risks involved in draining it. Dr. Robert Ridgely co-signed the letter. At Ed’s request, Drs. Jan and Ken Gordon wrote a similar letter from DVOC to both agencies. As a result, the Water Department decided to stop draining the basin at which point the water level had reached 6-7 feet.

Bob Ridgely, Keith Russell and Ed Fingerhood subsequently met with members of the Water Department and the Fairmount Park Commission to discuss the situation. This was the beginning of what was to become an ongoing dialog.

To determine whether the West Basin would continue to attract birds at its diminished depth, Keith Russell, Ed Fingerhood and Louis Bevier began monitoring bird populations there three times a month, from September 1996 to May 1997, and again from October 1997 to January 1998.

Early in 1998, Keith wrote an extensive report, based on data from these censuses, for the Fairmount Park Commission and the Water Department. The study confirmed that large numbers of waterfowl were continuing to use the West Basin at its present depth. In the report, Keith stated: “Ornithologically, the West Basin is a unique body of water within the city of Philadelphia. It is currently the only location in the city where a large number of different species of diving waterfowl occur, and the only location where certain species of divers are now known to occur at all.”

With this in mind, he asked the Park Commission and the Water Department to consider preserving the reservoir as a refuge. This effort was given a boost by a member of the Fairmount Park Commission who interceded with the Water Department on behalf of the wintering waterfowl.

The Water Commissioner has now provisionally agreed to turn the West Basin over to the Fairmount Park Commission for maintenance as a sanctuary. According to Jan Gordon’s report to the Valley Forge Audubon Society, “the term ‘provisionally’ covers concerns for water safety in the Northeast Basin, integrity of the embankment surrounding the West Basin, and costs, all of which would have to be addressed before placement of a viewing blind or observation tower would be discussed with the Academy and the DVOC.”

There has been no official letter yet confirming any of this, but the Fairmount Park Commission appears to be receptive to the idea of a refuge. A meeting of all interested parties has been promised, but, to date, has not materialized.

The representatives from area bird clubs who visited East Park Reservoir on December 16 were sent home with a mission: Write letters, and encourage others to do the same.

People to contact:
Mr. William E. Mifflin, Executive Director
Fairmount Park Commission
P.O. Box 21601
Philadelphia, PA 19131
(215) 685-0000

City Councilman Michael Nutter
(whose district contains East Park)
City Hall, Room #404
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 686-3416

Points to include in your letter:
• Recommend establishment of the site as a sanctuary
• Oppose its use as a recreation area
• Stress its unique, critical importance to waterfowl
• Emphasize its potential as an educational resource

Jan Gordon concluded in her report to VFAS: “Those in the Academy and the DVOC who have spearheaded this project are optimistic that with the help of other bird and nature clubs we can assure the establishment of a sanctuary with reasonable access to birders, scientists, students and others . . . The DVOC has offered to contribute funds toward an observation tower or blind at the site and is awaiting a promised next discussion with the two city departments.”

Thanks to Keith Russell, Dr. Jan Gordon and Dave Cutler for their assistance in the preparation of this piece.


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