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Remembering Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon – Lessons from the Past

Passenger Pigeon specimen at Everhart Museum, Scranton, by Bill Williams, PGC

Only a century ago, North America lost the Passenger Pigeon when Martha, the last of her tribe, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. For wildlife conservation in America, this is a date for all to remember because there are so many lessons learned from this event and so many changes that came with these lessons. The downward spiral and eventual loss of this most abundant bird on the continent is a story of a species “that became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Modern day conservation organizations, wildlife agencies, regulations, and hunting seasons are all legacies of the extinction of Passenger Pigeon. We learned that even impossibly abundant species can be lost through foolish human behavior, so it is smart to “keep common birds common” as part of our conservation strategy. Basic inventory and monitoring birds are vital parts of this approach to best manage our wildlife populations. Involvement of the public in all aspects of bird science and conservation is essential for success. This “biological storm” of a bird was lost by everyone, so any prevention of future losses also involves the same broad-based involvement of the public. It is not only a story about birds, but also a very human story of tremendous loss from shortsightedness and greed.

Canada Warbler: Our Next Forest Bird Challenge?

Canada Warbler by Jake Dingel

Pennsylvania has been engaged in research, monitoring, and management for some of the region’s most threatened migratory songbirds. We especially have been engaged with Golden-winged Warblers and Cerulean Warblers with on-going projects. One of the most likely “next big things” in bird conservation may be the Canada Warbler, a songbird of the northern forest. This species continues to be active on its breeding ground in July – appropriate since July 1 is “Canada Day.”

Throughout its breeding range, populations of Canada Warbler have been in a general decline. Changes in Pennsylvania have been more difficult to tease apart with the Breeding Bird Survey results not really indicating any trend. My own take on Canada Warbler is that it should be increasing more than it has been, given the general recovery of the state’s forests, reflected by increases in many forest bird species in the last few decades. These increases represent returns to pre-timbering populations of forests still in recovery.

Birding Pennsylvania’s “Big Woods”

Male Scarlet Tanager by Jake Dingel

During the heat and humidity of summer, birders can still find great birds back in the cool “big woods” of northern Pennsylvania. Although only a hint of the vast forest that existed in the late seventeenth century when William Penn was granted his royal charter, forests dominate Pennsylvania and account for 59 percent of its land cover. Pennsylvania is situated at the center of the Eastern hardwood forest and the state’s 16.7 million forest acres provides breeding grounds for many forest bird species; vital food and cover during migration; and wintering habitat for waterfowl, raptors and other winter residents. Despite land-use changes, the overall coverage has remained fairly consistent over the last half-century with reverting forest offsetting deforestation. The consistent forest coverage, however, fails to reveal the fragmentation occurring that has negatively affected forest interior birds, including several species that have a notable portion of their global breeding population in Pennsylvania, such as the Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Cerulean Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler. Pennsylvania has a high responsibility for these and other forest interior species. So, each bird survey in the state’s “big woods” helps us all better understand Pennsylvania’s importance to birds.

PSO 1st Annual Breeding Bird Blitz: June 27 – 30

PA Society for Ornithology Logo

The Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology (PSO) is holding its first Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Blitz (PAB3) this year. What is a breeding bird blitz? It is a concentrated effort by a group of birders to gather data on the state’s breeding bird population. This will be a quick snapshot of the state’s breeding birds. This project is a bit like the Great Backyard Bird Count, but the whole state is the birders’ backyard! And, we will take measure of the breeding population rather than the winter bird population. So, more skills required and more effort made. There will be some prizes, but perhaps the biggest prize will be the great fun of doing the blitz and finding out more about the birds where you go. The PAB3 is during the last weekend of June and includes the Friday and Monday preceding and following it: June 27th to 30th.

Exhibit Celebrates Alexander Wilson’s “American Birds”

Wilson's Warbler, named after Alexander Wilson, by Jake Dingel

The serious study of American birds was started in Pennsylvania. Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, lived in Philadelphia where he wrote his monumental work, American Ornithology and based his study of the continent’s bird life. His nine-volume American Ornithology was the nation’s first significant bird book and launched a long history of bird publications in our nation. Every bird book author in America owes a debt of gratitude to Wilson. Since he collected, observed, and described birds in most of the states and territories of the new United States and illustrated all the bird species that he described, Wilson set the stage for Audubon, Peterson, Sibley, Kauffman, and all the others who followed in his boot steps. The 200th anniversary of this publication is the birthday of the science of ornithology in the Americas and an occasion for celebration.
There is an exhibit showing right now at The State Museum of Pennsylvania that features Wilson’s prints from American Ornithology and a number of bird specimens from the museum’s collections from the 19th century. Titled A Fondness for Birds: Pennsylvania’s Alexander Wilson, this exhibit provides us with a connection to a time when many forest and field birds still nested right in Philadelphia.

Swainson’s Thrush: the Mountain Minstrel

Swainson's Thrush by Jake Dingel

One of the state’s characteristic mountain forest birds is the Swainson’s Thrush, or should I say the “Olive-backed Thrush” which is the older name for the species and the name given to the subspecies group found in the “continental North America” east of the Pacific Coast where it is replaced by the subspecies group known as the “Russet-backed Thrush.” Its upward spiraling song is one of the most enchanting sounds of the state’s extensive forests.

Swainson’s Thrush is one of the rarest breeding birds in the state, considered “Vulnerable” by the Ornithological Technical Committee. It is found in extensive forests, generally at high elevations in northern hardwoods, mixed woods, and conifers. In northeastern counties, they are mostly associated with shady, moist hemlock groves and often near small streams and seeps. Although primarily associated with spruce and fir forests over most of its range, it is primarily found where hemlocks are dominant in Pennsylvania. But, it is also found in mixed forests in the Northwest counties than in north-central or northeast regions.

Assist the State Marsh Bird Survey

Sora in Marsh by Jake Dingel

The PA Game Commission is looking for volunteers for the 2014 Marsh bird surveys. No doubt many birders who regularly use eBird are interested and familiar with the challenges of monitoring wetland birds. The marsh bird survey focuses on secretive nesting marsh birds including Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Black Rail, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Moorhen, and American Coot This protocol is adapted from the Standardized North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Protocols and very similar to that used in the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas. By following a protocol, it better assured that the secretive species have been detected and not overlooked. The surveys must be conducted between May 15 and June 30 on wetlands statewide. The information collected will promote conservation efforts for this declining habitat and the birds and other wild species that depend upon it. The PGC is excited to introduce a new method of data entry, Although not required, it is even possible to use a smart phone application for data entry in the field — an exciting new way to connect nature and technology. The complete protocol and details on how to participate can be found on the PGC website under Wildlife / Birding and Bird Conservation / Marsh Bird Survey. Contact information can be found through the link provided, or feel free send any questions to MarshBirds@pa.gov. Your help and cooperation are greatly appreciated. Please note that many of these species are listed as endangered or threatened in the state so be careful about disturbing the birds unnecessarily. Of course, entering data into eBird about birds found at wetlands also is appreciated.

Eastern Whip-poor-will Shouts its Name

Perched Whip-poor-will by Jake Dingel

Because it is a true bird of the night, most of our encounters with Eastern Whip-poor-will are auditory experiences, an unmistakable woodland song delivered emphatically on spring and summer nights. The sound of the whip-poor-will is one of the most recognizable sounds of the summer especially since this is one of the birds that says its name—and does it very loudly. Between late April and late May, Eastern Whip-poor-wills arrive in Pennsylvania and lend as much to the woodland night chorus as spring peepers and Eastern Screech Owls. This nightjar may chant its name repeatedly for hours on end. Its song is easy to distinguish but difficult to pinpoint for a visual, even when the bird is very close because it usually remains motionless unless flushed. Their occurrence is often clustered, so if you can hear one, you often can hear more nearby. With its mottled gray and brown plumage, Whip-poor-wills blend perfectly against leaf litter and tree bark. They are most often spotted along country roads at night where they sometimes forage from the graveled edge of the road. An eye-shine reflection from the headlight beam usually reveals the otherwise camouflaged bird at the side of the road.

PSO 2014 Annual Meeting in the Big Woods

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology will hold its 25th annual meeting in Bradford, PA, beginning the evening of Friday, June 6, 2014 and continuing through Sunday, June 8th. The meeting will be based at University of Pittsburgh – Bradford. The campus is ideally located in rural McKean County in the state’s heavily forested northern tier. Within this northwest region are large tracts of northern hardwoods and the Allegheny National Forest which holds one of the largest intact forest tracts in the northeastern U.S. The forest landscape here is very scenic and sure to reveal some interesting forest songbird species. This will be a meeting in “the big woods” of Pennsylvania.

The 2014 meeting itinerary is loaded with expert-led field trips which will undoubtedly produce exciting birds and other forest wildlife in dynamic settings. PSO has gathered a wonderful list of speakers who are sure to deliver interesting programs on fascinating subjects. Sharing their expertise are Kathleen Kolos, Don Bickford, Jeff Larkin, Mike Lanzone, and Mark Baker along with a host of other top-notch birders. The organization’s Conservation Award and Poole Award will be revealed on Saturday evening during the banquet. Lodging information, a meeting schedule, field trip details and registration for the meeting can be found on the PSO website at: www.pabirds.org

Red-headed Woodpecker – Charismatic Clown of the Woods

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker by Jake Dingel

The Red-headed Woodpecker lives up to its name and, as such, it is one of the most recognizable and attractive birds of the continent. Its strikingly scarlet head and bold plumage patterns of black and white set the Red-headed Woodpecker apart from others in this family even though many woodpeckers have some red plumage. It also has a very playful and feisty personality which adds to its almost clownish charisma. Many bird aficionados, including Alexander Wilson, were attracted to ornithology by this bird. This medium-sized woodpecker may be the easiest woodpecker species to identify although it can be challenging to find. It is the rarest breeding woodpecker in Pennsylvania, where this species approaches the northeast extent of its regular nesting range. It seems to be undergoing a population decline and range contraction.
The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania reports an alarming decline throughout the state with a 46 percent decrease in the number of blocks that recorded the species between the first and second atlas periods. In that short amount of time, the Red-headed Woodpecker withdrew significantly from its former breeding range and was no longer found in 13 of Pennsylvania’s northern counties. The Ornithological Technical Committee (OTC) recently responded to the reported decline by listing the Red-headed Woodpecker as a Pennsylvania Vulnerable species. In the Wildlife Action Plan it is designated a species of Maintenance Concern. Monitoring this once much more common species is a critical part of its conservation.