Sheryl Johnson, September eBirder of the Month, is a Pennsylvanian

By dgross October 21, 2016

Sheryl Johnson, September eBirder of the Month

Please join us in congratulating Sheryl Johnson of Haverford, Pennsylvania, winner of the September 2016 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Our September winner was drawn from eBirders who submitted at least 15 eligible eBird checklists in September that contained Flyover codes. Sheryl’s name was drawn randomly from the 287 eBirders who achieved the September challenge threshold. Sheryl will receive new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binoculars for her eBirding efforts. Pennsylvania birders are especially pleased for Sheryl’s recognition by eBird and here contributions to eBird. It is particularly significant that she has been counting common nighthawks migrating over Haverford College, Montgomery County. Common Nighthawks are a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the state’s Wildlife Action Plan so a monitoring effort like this one is potentially important. Her example of establishing an eBird hotspot and data entry is an example that could be followed by other efforts to count nighthawks or other aerial insectivores that fly over the state. We asked Sheryl to tell us a little more about herself, her use of eBird, and her love of birds – read on for more.


Sheryl’s response: I was about eight years old when I started keeping a life list. I still have a typed list of the birds I had seen through my teen years and a spiral-bound notebook where I would record daily sightings. In those early years, I have to thank the members of the Allen Bird Club of Springfield (MA) for including me on CBC’s, their annual May censuses (pre-North American Migration Count), and bus trips to the coast. I have fond memories of trip leaders convincing incredulous bus drivers to position the bus to serve as a windbreak in places most large charter buses would never go! My trip lists generally contain only the species seen, while my daily notes record the actual number of each species. I guess even back then, I was a record-keeper.

These days I record my sightings in eBird, no longer in a notebook. In the past, I would not have written down the time of the sightings, now I do. Now I also record the age and sex of the bird, when known, and additional comments, including notes on weather and behavior. I particularly like the breeding bird codes. Adding those became an easy habit after participating in the PA Breeding Bird Atlas. Are birds breeding earlier or later than they were ten years ago? If enough people enter that data, eBird might be able to provide some answers. How do the late and early dates compare from one year to the next? Instead of referring to a static, outdated publication, with eBird I can now get current information. I am especially intrigued when the yard lists all show a certain species as arriving in yards across the state on a given day or within the span of a couple of days. Timing is important in the natural world.

One of my favorite, but little-witnessed, timed events is the annual migration of Common Nighthawks. The major push begins in mid-August and runs through mid-September. I was first introduced to this phenomenon in the 1970s when Massachusetts Audubon coordinated a statewide survey. Each evening, during the watch period, my mother and I would sit on the Indian Orchard kame and count the nighthawks swirling over the Chicopee River. I was thrilled when, more than 20 years later in Pennsylvania, I discovered I had a good nighthawk viewing location, practically in my own backyard. For the past 17 years I have been counting migrating nighthawks from near the Haverford College observatory, from about 6-8 PM every night from mid-August through the beginning of September. According to eBird, we have recorded 67 other species while counting nighthawks at the Haverford College Nighthawk Watch. Six species were new to our count this year. The hotspot shows the past six years of data; previous records were included elsewhere because the specific hotspot had not yet been created. Here are sample checklists from two days in September. (Sept 1; Sept 11) They are shared with my daughter, who often adds photos. List sharing and media additions are now easy to do. I am pleased that other folks in Southeast Pennsylvania have started looking for Common Nighthawks during migration. Perhaps our success will encourage a few more individuals to give it a try on a nightly basis for at least a week at the end of August into the beginning of September.

Common Nighthawk at the Haverford College Nighthawk Watch. Photo by Kristen Johnson/Macaulay Library.

Common Nighthawk at the Haverford College Nighthawk Watch. Photo by Kristen Johnson/Macaulay Library.

In addition to conducting the Haverford College Nighthawk Watch, I serve as a counter for both the Militia Hill and Rose Tree Park hawk watches. While on duty, I always keep a separate list of additional species seen, an added benefit on slow-raptor days. (Militia Hill 10/1/16 checklist) I also lead many local walks for the Birding Club of Delaware County, which I helped found. Winning the September eBirder challenge has made me consider all the projects that I have participated in during the past four decades. They are too numerous to name and existed long before “Citizen Science” was a term. From cardinal, titmouse and mockingbird counts, when those species were first becoming numerous in Massachusetts (who among you remembers those?), to helping with banding at Rushton Woods Preserve, Pennsylvania or Wing Island, Cape Cod, to NABA butterfly counts and BAMONA submissions, my interests continue to expand. I may not be birding in exotic places, but I hope my steady, long-term contribution from my frequently visited places, gives a well-documented picture of the region’s fauna. Although it is fun to peruse old notebooks, those hand-written records are inaccessible to all but a few. Someday, perhaps I can transpose those old notes into the eBird database where they may be of some use to many, since eBird is visible to all.

Red-breasted Nuthatch photographed by Sheryl’s daughter, Kristen Johnson. Photo credit Kristen Johnson/Macaulay Library.

Red-breasted Nuthatch photographed by Sheryl’s daughter, Kristen Johnson. Photo credit Kristen Johnson/Macaulay Library.

Thanks to my daughter for pushing me to meet the monthly eBird challenges, to the sponsors of this contest for encouraging more people to become involved, to the eBird team for all their hard work, and to the legions of volunteers out there reviewing and entering data that we can all use to enhance our knowledge and love of birds.