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.
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.
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.
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.