News & Features

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.

Lessons from Project SNOWstorm

Snowy Owl by Wayne Laubscher

The Snowy Owl irruption of the winter of 2013–14 brought us more than a boatload of charismatic big white owls. It also brought a blizzard of birding energy and unprecedented cooperation on a large scale. When reports began streaming in of Snowy Owls in late November and early December, it became apparent that we were being treated to an amazing phenomenon. This looked like a major Snowy Owl irruption that has proven to be the biggest one in living memory. We may never see a Snowy Owl irruption like this again in our lifetime.

How did we react? Of course, the birding community reacted by looking for and recording many Snowy Owls and sharing these observations with others. It has been an amazing tale. At this point, the current Snowy Owl adventure has not ended. There still are several Snowy Owls in the state with some more wandering up from the south. Between SNOWstorm and eBird, Snowy Owls have been reported in at least 44 counties by mid-March. There are unconfirmed reports that have not been verified by competent birders or entered into these project data compilations for other counties. As more Snowies move north, we may learn even more about them and the people who enjoy them. Please keep submitting your Snowy Owl reports to SNOWstorm and eBird. If you hear of unreported sightings, please verify those reports and submit them as well.

Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz

Rusty Blackbird

The Rusties are coming! Rusty Blackbirds are moving northward from their southeastern U.S. wintering grounds, and they are headed towards Pennsylvania. Some are already here. So get ready to go out and start searching. .After the winter of the Snowy Owl, a boreal bird of winter, we have another boreal bird that migrates through the state – the elusive Rusty Blackbird. The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz officially opens in Pennsylvania on March 15th. We encourage all birders to participate. Helping out is easy. Go birding as you normally do and search especially carefully for Rusty Blackbirds, and report your results to PA eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” survey type in the drop-down list of options. For more information on Blitz objectives, along with Rusty Blackbird identification tips, data collection instructions, and data reporting information, you can find additional resources at the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group website: http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/. We hope you’ll “get Rusty” with us to help conserve this elusive and vulnerable songbird.

Valentine’s Day Birding: The Great Backyard Bird Count Is February 14 – 17

Male Eastern Bluebird on Staghorn Sumac by Jacob Dingel

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) recommends that the state’s birders participate in the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This year the count is scheduled from February 14–17, 2014. Is there a better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day? Many Pennsylvanians enjoy watching birds on their personal property. This project enables them to easily document the birds that can be found there. With more folks making changes in their backyard to attract wildlife, the fruits of their labors can be shown in this survey. By providing shelter, planting wildlife-friendly trees and shrubs, and building water gardens, property owners can provide more for wildlife to survive the harsh winter. In my own backyard, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, American Robins, and Eastern Bluebirds visit the waterfall and pond looking for a little water – adding to the backyard bird list, too. With the days getting longer, there is more time to enjoy what we have in our own backyard. Involve the whole family in the count –just make sure that all the birds are identified correctly!
Enjoy the backyard birds with your loved ones!

Snowy Owls For Christmas!

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

The winter of 2013 – 14 will be remembered for being one of the most spectacular migrations of Snowy Owls in history. The “White Owl” as many people call it is a truly fabulous bird of the boreal tundra that we are fortunate to be able to see this winter in record numbers. It may be a lifetime opportunity for many to experience this iconic bird. It was only two years ago that Snowy Owls staged a widespread invasion of northern United States including Pennsylvania. This winter’s invasion may be even better. The 2011 invasion by the “White Owls” occurred mostly in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, while this winter’s event is more concentrated in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions. Pennsylvania is right in the middle of the action! By December 10, there were reports of Snowy Owls from at least 21 counties, some for the first time in history. By January 7, there were reports from as many as 33 counties. Snowy Owls already have been reported as far south as South Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas. More are probably on the way with many sighted in the Canadian Maritimes, New England, and New York that may work their way south. A team of ornithologists are working to document and study this phenomenon: a collaboration of researchers from Project Owlnet and Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art working with the PA Game Commission, eBird, and others. As part of the coordinated effort, we urge you to submit Snowy Owl sightings to a special e-mail account for monitoring this event: snowyowlphotos13@gmail.com or to the new SNOWstorm website that can be found at http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/ This is a centralized place for people to contribute their information and photos to the Snowy Owl project. Of course, entries into eBird also are very welcome! Photographs, especially of owls with spread wings and tails, are needed because they help determine the sex and age of the birds. Explicit location information is preferred including latitude / longitude coordinates, street address, road name, and township.

PSO Field Trips to Top Pennsylvania Hawk Watches

Golden Eagle at the Allegheny Front by Mike Lanzone

The PA Society for Ornithology (PSO) staged two field trips to famous Pennsylvania hawk watches this fall. One of the rewards of visiting these remote mountain summits is a glimpse or even a prolonged look at a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks or a soaring Golden Eagle. So far this fall, there have been 214 Golden Eagles reported from the Allegheny Front and 46 from Jack’s Mountain with both figures sure to grow as the season progresses. Golden Eagles continue to migrate in December and some overwinter in the state. Approximately 40 people visited the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch on September 15th in the hopes of seeing some nice flights of Broad-winged Hawks and whatever else the winds might carry their way. The visiting birders were treated to good views of many warblers and other migrating songbirds as well as several diurnal raptors. There were 43 species recorded on eBird for the day accumulatively from the lists of several observers. The Allegheny Front trip was not as successful for birds but gave several people their first experience at the impressive hawk watch site that will surely tempt them to return.

Bald Eagle Poised for Upgrade from Threatened to Protected Status

Adult Bald Eagle by Jake Dingel

The recovery of the Bald Eagle has been one of the great wildlife conservation stories in the history of both the state and the nation. Pennsylvania’s nesting bald eagle population has increased steadily and dramatically in recent years, roughly 15 percent annually. As recently as 1980, the state’s known nesting population numbered only three pairs. With its numbers in Pennsylvania continuing to soar ever higher, the Bald Eagle soon could be removed from the state’s list of threatened species. This would represent an upgrade to “Protected” status afforded to all bird species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management is making this status change recommendation. In 2013, there were at least 271 active nesting pairs in the state, representing a huge increase from those three “original” nests and an increase from the 237 nesting pairs reported in 2012. If anything this is a slight underestimate because not all nests are found and reported each year In recent years, Bald Eagles have nested in at least 61 of the 67 counties statewide. The mission of Pennsylvania bald eagle management is to establish and maintain a secure bald eagle population and provide recreational viewing opportunities for citizens.

State of the Birds: Pennsylvania Positives

Barn Owl Nestlngs by Hal Korber, PGC

Of the four State of the Birds reports released since 2009, The State of the Birds 2013: Report on Private Lands: United States of America, may best illustrate the critical role American citizens play in bird conservation. As part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a forum created to advance integrated bird conservation across the continent, these reports are reliable indicators of our environmental health and reveal species at risk and habitats in greatest need of conservation attention. Agencies and organizations can use the reports to effectively employ conservation efforts and to build partnerships between private landowners, government agencies and conservation organizations. Volunteers contributing to eBird have significantly increased our common knowledge of how private lands support birds. Since most birds live on private lands, eBird submissions for privately held locations is valuable.

Sandhill Crane USFWS Survey Officially Tracks Expansion

Adult Sandhill Crane by Bill Williams, PGC

Who is the new family on the block? Are they here to stay? As a child, a new neighbor appearing in your world could cause great excitement. Though we are adults now, seeing a new face in our avian neighborhood brings the same thrill: Who is it? Are they here to stay? For Sandhill Cranes in Pennsylvania, the answer to the latter question appears to be ‘yes.’

The Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes has undergone rapid growth in recent decades, and their expanded range now includes Pennsylvania. These birds are a relatively new addition to our avian community. Sporadic sightings began in the late 1980s in the northwest corner of the state. According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, the earliest breeding record occurred in 1993 when a Lawrence county pair disappeared from view in March and re-appeared in August accompanied by a juvenile. As big as cranes may be, they can be very secretive during the nesting season and take advantage of their well-camouflaged plumage. The first photograph of a nest was not even accomplished until 2009. Since those early, highly-localized reports, cranes have been spotted in more than 30 counties and during every month of the year! Most of the Sandhill Cranes that are spotted here in fall and spring are probably passage migrants that are not part of the small nesting population of the state. Thanks to your eBird and Pennsylvania Birds reports, we all have learned a lot more about cranes in the East. We can learn even more through this focused survey effort. This USFWS survey is October 27-November 2, with ideal dates occurring October 29-31. Any additional details about the habitat cranes use would be welcome in eBird reports.

Jays Airlifting the Oaks

Blue Jay with Acorns by Jake Dingel

Each fall, loose flocks of Blue Jays migrate over the Appalachian Mountain landscape. Hundreds can be seen in a day from a hawk watch. The bold and beautiful Blue Jays bring a brassy brightness to any backyard or woods where they are found. Many stay the winter near their nests, but thousands migrate south in small groups and larger flocks. The manner and causes of Blue Jay migration remain largely mysterious despite the conspicuousness and commonness of the bird. They migrate only during the day, usually staring about an hour after sunrise and migrate mostly in the morning hours. Flocks tend to be in a loose string of jays and sometimes in an oddly shaped “V”. They avoid open water and often fly one-by-one since each bird is very vulnerable to predation when exposed. Whether they travel as families is not known, but some pairs do return to their nesting sites each year, which implies year-long mate and nest site fidelity. Jays are very important dispersers of the acorns of oaks and the nuts of beeches. Since individuals disperse thousands of acorns, the Blue Jay is a keystone species of the eastern deciduous and mixed forest of North America. Each bird may plant thousands of nuts in its lifetime and be responsible for planting several trees that live long after the jay is gone. Jays are especially valuable as dispersers because they carry their cached prizes more than a quarter mile from the tree, often to clearings or recently disturbed areas. The Blue Jay has an enlarged esophagus that allows each bird to carry several seeds. Each jay can haul 5 or 6 acorns or as many as 15 beechnuts per trip. So, jays truly put wings on seeds and plant them where they need to be.