Well before the snow flies, state birders stick their heads out their windows to listen for the wheezy call notes of flying Pine Siskins and other “winter finches.” Some already have been reported far south into the state. When they move into the state, they really move. The days have already grown agonizingly short and snow has piled up on doorsteps of many birders in the snowbelt. This winter’s selection of northern birds is predicted to be better than last year, so dust off your binoculars and study up on the sights and sounds of northern visitors. The famous Ron Pittaway Winter Finch Forecast is often cited for good reason. Any birder should check it out at http://www.jeaniron.ca/2014/forecast14.htm or the general eBird story at http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/wf1415/. However, there is nothing like checking out the cone and other natural food crops, yourself, for real information about the bird possibilities this winter. So far, Pine Siskins are the most reported “winter finch” this season with a few tantalizing reports of Evening Grosbeaks, but more may be coming.
The continued expansion of Sandhill Cranes into Pennsylvania is an exciting story; a testament to the benefits of wetland protection and public lands with long term habitat management benefitting a variety of wildlife. Due to our state’s growing Sandhill Crane population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Birds has requested Pennsylvania’s participation in the annual Fall Sandhill Crane Survey. The Pennsylvania Game Commission invites experienced birdwatchers to contribute observations as part of this statewide survey on November 10 (or any day between November 10 and 14). Information on completing the survey is offered on the Game Commission website, click Birding and Bird Conservation under the Wildlife tab. This Sandhill Crane Fall Survey is not a labor-intensive effort. Time commitment includes traveling to known crane staging or foraging areas during the November 10 to14 survey period to count number of birds, as well as distinguishing between juveniles and adults if possible. Counts are best conducted just after sunrise or just before sunset as birds move to and from their roosts. Each site need only be counted one time. In addition to participating in this USFWS Fall Survey, birders are encouraged to report any Sandhill Crane observation in eBird throughout the year. This charismatic bird is making history in eastern North America and we have the opportunity to witness it with our observations.
One of the very best Pennsylvania bird books is still available for sale! The 2nd Atlas is a masterpiece and a “must-own” reference book for any Pennsylvania birder or ornithologist. With the holidays coming up, it is time to consider getting a copy of this invaluable book for a friend, a library, or yourself. The 2nd Atlas was published 20 years after the first Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas. It brought our knowledge of the state’s bird populations up to date, documented current breeding distribution, abundance, and changes since the previous project. This publication has been given very favorable reviews including in the June 2014 edition of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology which stated that “Any birder visiting Pennsylvania should be sure to have a copy of this book at home or in the car.” It is called a “masterful and successful example” of a breeding bird atlas. There also was a great review of the book in the Journal of Field Ornithology. A remarkable feature of this project was its strong support from citizen scientists with 2000 dedicated birders contributing to the project. That kind of passion and dedication also extends to eBird and projects promoted by the PA Game Commission and its partners. The result of this dedication was a fine book published by Penn State Press and also a coalition of volunteers eager to do more field work and conservation. This valuable resource is still available for purchase at; http://www.psupress.org and a discount will be applied with the following code WS14 during check-out.
The southbound autumn migration of Rusty Blackbirds is now occurring. Some have already been sighted in the state including the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia and Delaware County. Rusties depart from northern forests in early to mid-September on their way south on a fairly leisurely southward migration. In contrast to a speedier spring migration, they often linger for a month resting and feeding at stopover sites between mid-October and mid-November, and they later arrive on southeastern wintering grounds in late November. Including stopover time, autumn migration can last 10 to 12 weeks. Pennsylvania birders can sift through the flocks of “blackbirds” to find southbound Rusty Blackbirds. It might be a good idea to review the identification challenges of this group of birds so you can properly identify the Rusties in the crowd. The Spring Blitz was a big success thanks to the help of Pennsylvania birders. Thanks to all of you who contributed! For more information check out the Rusty Blackbird International Work Group website: http://rustyblackbird.org/
The new State of the Birds report highlights our successes and challenges in bird conservation. What is the current State of the Birds in 2014? Probably “fair to middling” with some successes and many challenges. We have come a long way since the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, and we have a long way to go. The new State of the Birds 2014 report was just released with a news conference at the Smithsonian Institution. This is the fifth report in the State of the Birds (SOTB) series, all available on-line. The story of American bird conservation is one of many successes. Conservation works! Some of these successes are enjoyed in Pennsylvania as well as the rest of the country. Our best examples here are the comebacks of the Bald Eagle, Osprey, and other raptors. It also has been a success of sorts that we have not had more extinctions and extirpations given the rapid loss of some species and the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Programs now under way include wetlands protection and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act that is helping to fund some international projects. Yet, we have many challenges including the declining populations of our own forest and grassland birds. For more information, please check the 2014 State of the Birds report at: http://www.stateofthebirds.org/ where the report and the latest Watch List are offered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.