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A solitary mallard paddled upstream on the Schuylkill near Riverfront Park Saturday afternoon. It beat slowly against the current, but with a kind of stoic persistence, it kept moving until it was out of sight behind the trees. What it was after, or where it wanted to be, remained its own secret.
“He looks so lonely,” said Ngoc Kim, a watershed fellow at the John James Audubon Center in Lower Providence who was leading a bird-watching program at the park.
The mallard wasn’t lonely for long. Within minutes, a small flotilla of the birds swam into view, also heading upriver. A Canada goose honked in midstream, competing with a police siren, and on the pother side of the water, a great blue heron stood on the shore of Barbadoes Island.
Despite pollution, urban noise and the ever present litter, birds thrive along the Schuylkill River, and the Audubon Center hopes to make Riverfront Park an even more inviting habitat. Under consideration is a rain garden that Kim said will be designed to attract more songbirds and pollinators.
“Songbirds are fascinating to me because they can remember hundreds of songs,” Kim said. “I haven’t seen anything too exciting since I’ve been birding. I get excited when I see goldfinches—the males.”
The Audubon Center also plans to water quality for the Schuylkill in Norristown. Indicators of quality include nitrate and dissolved oxygen levels, as well as a diversity of macroinvertebrates such as dragonflies and crayfish, she said.
“There’s a lot of pollution that goes into the water because there’s not enough shrubs here,” Kim said, pointing to a bare patch of riverbank.
Shrubs curb pollution, she said, by blocking sediment and absorbing nitrates carried in stormwater runoff.
They can do nothing about litter, however. One member of the birdwatching group fished a pair of beer cans out of the river, and another, Elena Santangelo of Norristown, pointed out a plastic water bottle floating in the river.
“There is a wild water bottle in its original habitat,” she said.
Nevertheless, she added, the water is much cleaner than it was in the 1960s and ’70s, before the environmental legislation of that era took effect.
In addition to goldfinches, birds that make their home at Riverfront Park include catbirds, robins, and of course, sparrows. Doug Kraemer, a bird-watcher from Phoenixville with seven years’ experience, identified the trilling call of a woodpecker, although he was unable to spot it when he turned his binoculars toward the trees.
“It’s always an adventure,” Kraemer said. “You never know what you’re going to see.”
Not long ago, he said, he saw a red-tailed hawk fly over Route 724 near Pottstown, carrying a snake in its talons. Nothing so dramatic was on view Sunday at Riverfront, but the day was sunny and the air was comfortable, and the bird-watchers even sampled some wild raspberries that grew beside a footpath. Tonya Crisi, who accompanied Kraemer from Phoenixville, judged the brief outing a success.
“For me, any day is a good day birding,” she said.