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In Search of Pennsylvania’s “Butcher-bird,” the Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike at Gettysburg, PA, by Geoff Malosh

Reports of Loggerhead Shrikes in Pennsylvania are few and far between. That is why it is considered a state Endangered species. Is it gone from the state? Or is it a matter of birders and biologists not looking in the right places? There does seem to be a glimmer of home with recent nesting season activity reported in neighboring states along Pennsylvania’s southern border. These reports are encouraging and should entice birders to conduct searches of this peculiar songbird in spring and summer. Small populations persist in northern Virginia, primarily in the Blue Ridge, the Valley and Ridge provinces of the state and in the southeast. During West Virginia’s recent atlas efforts, 2009-2014, provisional reports show Loggerhead Shrike was confirmed in seven atlas blocks in southeastern and northeastern parts of the state. This is a relatively short distance from the Mason-Dixon line as a shrike flies, with the potential for shrikes to show up in Pennsylvania. The shrike’s occurrence in those same areas of West Virginia is further supported by eBird reports some of which include breeding behavior observations. Franklin and Adams Counties seem to have the best chance for Loggerhead Shrike enclave, but there may be other unsearched areas where it is eluding observation. Its habit of impaling prey on the thorns or barbed wired give it the nic-name of “butcher bird.” New locations tend to be associated with grazed pastures, something to look for. In some older references, it was called “Migrant Shrike.” We invite the state’s birders to search for Loggerhead Shrikes and report these observations to the Pennsylvania Game Commission as well as to eBird. Follow the story below for more information.

Let’s Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day!

IMBD 2015 Theme of Restore Habitats, Restore Birds can readily be embraced by PA birders!

In Pennsylvania, bird migration can be as dazzling as the swirling flocks of snow geese that descend by tens-of-thousands of birds to refuel at Middle Creek WMA before continuing their Arctic-bound journey; it can be as fleeting as a Golden Eagle soaring over the Tussey Mountain Hawkwatch on a southerly March wind; or it can be as subtle as a Louisiana Waterthrush arriving from Caribbean wintering grounds to establish a territory along the stream bank of small stream in Moshannon State Forest. Regardless of size or scope, bird migration is a spectacular phenomenon that connects us to faraway lands and diverse cultures and people. Birds connect us together across political and geographical borders. It is cause for celebration.
International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) celebrates the amazing journeys of birds. Nearly 350 migratory birds live out their full life cycles by traveling the Americas. Many birds make epic flights that span thousands of miles. These migrants face perilous obstacles and threats along the way, both natural and human-related. An alarming number are endangered, threatened or species of conservation concern. Annual migration cycles bridge breeding grounds, wintering grounds, migration routes and stopover areas. The health of those environments is imperative. Protecting and restoring our migratory bird populations requires conservation and cooperation on an international scale. IMBD promotes international conservation by raising awareness and educating at the local, regional, national and international level. As with migration, IMBD links continents and nations by including countries and territories in North America, Central America and South America in this unique celebration.

Birders Are Needed to Monitor Wetland Birds

American Bittern at "the Meadows" in SGL 57 by D. Gross

Most birders know, first hand, the value of wetland habitats. Be it forested wetland, emergent marsh, shrub-scrub wetland or boreal swamp, quality wetland habitat is rich in its diversity of wildlife and an exciting place to search for birds. Our wetlands hold uncommon and secretive species including a host of species of greatest conservation need that can be challenging to detect and to identify, especially in our larger wetlands. Several formerly common birds have dwindled over the past two decades as wetland habitat continues to decline. Many of our wetland-dependent species are declining in the state according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Wetland birds are undoubtedly in need of our monitoring attention.
As our wetlands begin to stir with the extraordinary sounds of the nesting season, birders are once again invited to participate in the 2015 Marsh Bird Survey effort. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, assisted by Audubon Pennsylvania and its local chapters, the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, and wetland survey volunteers, will conduct wetlands surveys across the state this year with a concentration on large wetlands of 10 hectares (25 acres). Breeding season data collected on any size wetland, however, is valuable and contributes to wetland conservation. Birders should also recheck locations where they have observed our wetland-dependent species and attempt to confirm nesting by these species.

Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology 2015 Ontario Field Trip

Bohemian Waxwing by Wayne Laubscher

The Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology (PSO) is a group of birders founded “to foster the study and appreciation of birds of Pennsylvania and to promote the conservation of birds and their habitat. It is a dedicated group of bird watchers who contribute significantly to “citizen science” projects. They also go out and have fun birding in new places and finding adventures on the birding trail. The PSO organizes field trips to great birding spots across the state and a few out of state. Information on these trips can be found on the PSO website. Trips have been planned to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, Tussy Mountain Hawkwatch, Presque Isle State Park, Bake Oven Knob, and other likely birding locations. Here is a narration by Wayne Laubscher of a recent PSO field trip to the wilds of Ontario where many boreal birds were found and enjoyed. On the early morning of February 13th, 16 hardy birders departed Hazleton for four days of birdwatching in cold and snowy Ontario. This was the first official Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology 2015 field trip. To say the participants were a hardy bunch would be quite the understatement, as we experienced nighttime temperatures averaging around -10 to -15 degrees F. with -30 degrees F. as a brief record low. Daytime high temperatures remained several degrees below zero all four days of the long President’s Day Weekend.

SEEKING RUFFED GROUSE NEST LOCATIONS – APRIL AND MAY

Ruffed Grouse drumming in Penn's Woods by Jacob Dingle

As you are birding in Penn’s Woods this spring, intending to report your findings to eBird, please keep an eye out for Ruffed Grouse nests. Ruffed Grouse have undergone a noticeable northern shift in their distribution and a significant range contraction in Pennsylvania, as recorded by the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas project. Our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, has been called the “quintessential species of upland forests” by Ian Gregg in the 2nd Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. How can this bird be declining?

While the loss of young forest cover is a primary reason for long term population declines, there are a host of other factors capable of suppressing grouse populations. Spring weather, predation and increasing fragmentation and isolation of suitable habitats on a landscape scale are all likely contributing to grouse population woes.

A new factor being assessed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission for its role in recent population declines is West Nile Virus (WNV). While bird watchers are familiar with WNV due to its dramatic effect on corvid populations in the early 2000s, the effect of WNV on grouse has not been studied. Birders can help the Game Commission study Ruffed Grouse. Follow the story by the link to learn how you can help by reporting any Ruffed Grouse nests that you might find. On the agency website, look under the Ruffed Grouse – How You Can Help section.
http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/ruffed_grouse/14777

Spend a Golden-winged Warbler Weekend at Penn State Altoona Campus

Golden-winged Warbler in Pennsylvania by Wayne Laubscher

Spring is upon us and many of our neotropical migrants will soon be making their way north to breeding grounds in Pennsylvania. Thanks to conservation actions, one forest gem, the critically threatened Golden-winged Warbler, may find an increase in the availability of quality breeding habitat when it arrives this spring. There are great efforts underway across breeding grounds and wintering grounds to stop the steep declines and recover Golden-wing populations. There are many partners in these efforts including Audubon chapters, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. This workshop brings many partners together. For more information and registration on the Golden-winged Warbler Weekend visit www.jvas.org.
Join the Juniata Valley Audubon Society, Penn State Altoona, and Audubon PA for a Golden-Winged Warbler Weekend on April 10 – 11, 2015 at the Penn State Altoona Campus. The two-day workshop will explore research and early successional and young forest habitat creation and restoration projects going on in Pennsylvania as well as conservation programs in Central America where many of our Golden-wings spend the winter. The event is open to birders, forest landowners, students and anyone interested in conservation and the Golden-winged Warbler. The weekend will include interesting presentations on the Golden-wing’s identification, biology and conservation. Learn how we can help keep this vivacious songbird off the Endangered Species List.

Second Round for the Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz

Get Rusty! photo by Mark S. Szantyr.

Thanks to an enthusiastic crew of birders, Pennsylvania was one of the many states that participated in the first Rusty Blackbird spring blitz last year. The results were pretty amazing considering what an obscure bird the Rusty is reputed to be, and not to mention that they can occupy some pretty obscure places. We urge that you learn more about and participate in the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz to support an international initiative to conserve this enigmatic and vulnerable songbird. To review, Rusty Blackbirds are among the highest priority conservation songbirds of North America. Their decline is tough to measure because most of their nesting range is beyond where breeding surveys go and they spend the winter in swampy areas in the deep south. Many migrate through our flyway on the way back and forth from their nesting grounds in the boreal forest. Rusty Blackbirds get their toes wet when they forage. They can be found along ditches; wet woods; the edges of streams, ponds, swamps; and almost anywhere there is shallow water. They roost in tree groves, sometimes far away from their foraging location. The visitors from the north can start migrating even when there is snow on the ground, finding bare ground and shallow water to forage in. The Pennsylvania portion of the Blitz officially starts on March 15, but there are many reports of Rusties spending winter in the state. So, there is incentive to look for Rusties as early as possible. There are lots of pictures of Rusty Blackbirds walking on frozen mud and at the edge of icy pools. The 2015 Spring Blitz has been improved with the addition of some neat features on the website. It has made some progress by identifying “Areas of Interest” and a section on the RustyBlackbird.org website devoted to AOIs: http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/2015-areas-of-interest/ and a Frequently Asked Questions page, which is now available online: http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/faq/s
Remember the Boreal Oriole! Let’s beat last year’s Blitz!

The Invasion of the Pointy-beaked Finches: Pine Siskins Are Here!

Pine Siskin portrait by Jake Dingel

The winter of 2014 – 15 has been a winter of a Pine Siskin irruption. They might not be as charismatic as Snowy Owls, but they do have their charms. Dozens of Pennsylvania birders and bird photographers are declaring and showing off their backyard siskins. These streaky, pointy-beaked little finches are cooperative and photogenic visitors from the north. They pose. They fight. They twitter in the pre-dawn light while waiting for the feeders to be filled. Pine Siskins tend to irrupt in alternate years, but the seed resources are probably calling the shots for the streaky invasions. And, siskins do enjoy a variety of conifer and other seeds for their diet all year around. Perhaps not the most glamorous winter bird, but charming and feisty nonetheless: Pine Siskins are here and getting a lot of attention. There also are a few reports of Common Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks, which may increase as food resources decline and birds seek the lingering seed sources. Siskins are gobbling up all the nyger seeds hanging in feeders everywhere. I have had a difficult time finding any nyger seed in my own town. I’d like to blame the empty shelves on the siskin invasion. They’ve cleared out inventory! This invasion may last a bit longer if everything falls into place. Some of these irruptic siskins may stay to nest in the state. Birders should be on the alert for siskin breeding behavior.

Presque Isle Audubon Plans A Festival of the Birds

Festival of the Birds at Presque Isle

Presque Isle Audubon is hosting its Seventh Festival of the Birds on May 8 – 10 this year at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie. Discover a multitude of migrants along the southern shore of Lake Erie at beautiful Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, where more than 320 species of birds have been recorded, including desirable warblers and other songbirds. It is also home to many owl, woodpecker and heron species. It contains Gull Point, a sand plain sanctuary that hosts migrant shorebirds and terns. This year’s keynote speaker is George Armistead, author of the ABA Field Guide to Birds of Pennsylvania. Every full-weekend registrant will receive a copy of the book. His presentation will be “Ornithology: The Birds and the Birds and the Bees (courtship rituals and reproductive strategies)!” This is a small festival, limited to 150 attendees. There are no crowds of people, but a desirable crowd of migrant bird species. Presque Isle offers multiple habitats, lagoon birding, plus lots of camaraderie and potential to enjoy birds never experienced before. All birding skill levels are welcome. For more information including registration, see http://www.presqueisleaudubon.org/festival.html

Birding Adams County

Short-eared Owl perched in the snow by Jacob Dingel, PGC

We are very glad to have the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology (PSO) as a partner in Pennsylvania eBird. As part of our goal to educate birders about great places to find birds in the state and encourage data submission for more locations, we are teaming with PSO to present some locations that deserve more birders. This news story is a narrative by Vern Gauthier of PSO of his search for good birding spots in Adams County. It already was published in the December 2014 edition of the PSO Pileated, the society’s newsletter. So, it takes the flavor of a birding adventure. Adams County is one of southern tier counties that is a bit removed from the urban centers where many birders live. But, it does have many birding opportunities. The Freedom Township grasslands were listed as Important Bird Areas because of their lingering populations of Loggerhead Shrikes, Upland Sandpipers, Barn Owls and other grassland birds. Gettysburg Battlefield National Monument is a center for grassland birds due to its history of old-fashioned agriculture. Lately, there have been some waterfowl reports at Lake Kay, generally an overlooked body of water. More adventures await those willing to explore Adams County. DAG.

Why Adams County? Why not? It is the first county alphabetically in Pennsylvania and it is close to my home county of Cumberland in southcentral Pennsylvania. On the morning of October 13, Chad Kauffman, Aden Troyer, Gideon Renno and I met up with veteran Adams County Birder, Mike O’Brien, at State Game Lands 249 (SGL 249) just west of Heidlersburg. Mike is a long-time member and current field trip leader of South Mountain Audubon and the compiler for the Gettysburg Christmas Bird Count (CBC). He graciously agreed to meet us and show us around what he says is, “hands down the best all-around place in Adams County to bird.”