Listing in PA and the run to see the AWPE

To start off with, I want to say that my Pennsylvania list is not really that impressive. Yet. I have been making great strides now that I have been spending more time in PA. I believe I was at around 240 about this time last year, and I am currently sitting at 257, with about 13 that I should be able to see with just a little bit of luck and a whole lot of stuff that will require a little bit more than luck.

To make it easier on myself, I have created a spreadsheet with all the birds that I would very much like to see in Pennsylvania. My biggest holes are waterbirds, sea ducks and shorebirds. I am missing both bitterns, maybe seven species of shorebirds and 2 of the scoters. Some of these birds just require visiting the Conejohela Flats with a little more regularity in the fall. Other species I want to see will require the perfectly aligned tropical storm to sweep out of the Atlantic and blow some storm-petrels, shearwaters, or terns my way. One, Whip-poor-will, only requires that I can drag myself out of bed before my bird surveys start (5am) to listen in some good habitat.

The one enjoyable thing about state listing is that it adds more excitement to seeing birds that are strays and vagrants from other parts of the country. I may have seen 50 Lazuli Buntings in the Dakotas and Montana, but seeing one in Pennsylvania was somehow even more special.

A bird I just recently added to my list for PA is American White Pelican. One individual was spotted a few days ago along the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. When it was relocated the next morning, I received a phone call that I should come and see it. At this time it was sitting calmly in the way, providing distant looks. I immediately started the 40 min drive to the river. Not more than 5 minutes into my drive I got a call that the pelican was taking off, circling up in a thermal and giving every impression that it was going to keep going up and leave. Well, I decided I might as well head to the river anyway and see what was there. I continued driving and a little later I received another phone call, this time telling me that it was still in the air, hurry! I picked up the pace a little once I was on a major route and had almost reached the rendezvous point when I got another call telling me to turn around, it was now south of their. I whipped my little car around and started heading south, pulling off the side of the busy 322 as Tom frantically pointed up at the circling bird. I leaped out and got to watch it for maybe ten minutes as it lazily circled up and down the river and finally disappeared from view. The pelican had been in the air for almost an hour total, an amazingly long time. I had really lucked out.

An excellent shot is available at Tom’s photo site.

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Clay-colored Sparrow

I saw my 2nd state bird in as many days yesterday. Although its not very common in PA, Clay-colored Sparrows are findable in several parts of the state. They breed in some limited areas in the western part of the state and are sometimes seen in migration elsewhere.

This bird is coming to a feeder in Lancaster County and is the same bird the presumably frequented the same yard last summer. When I arrived I was greeted by the buzzy bzz bzz bzz bzz that is so characteristic of the Clay-colored Sparrows song.

It will be interesting to see if this bird continues to hang around for the summer and maybe finds a mate. Now I am off to training for my summer job doing point count surveys for the 2nd PA Breeding Bird Atlas.

New State bird on the drive home

This afternoon, I was driving home from New Jersey after completing the hawk counting season. It was a pleasant day but I didn’t see much bird-wise for most of the trip. It was pretty ordinary in fact until I turned on to Schantz Rd southwest of Allentown. I spotted a plowed field off to the right that was sporting a large (1/2 acre maybe?) flooded area. Straining my eyes as I slowed down I could see birds moving out in the water and one really seemed to stick out. Slamming on the breaks and swerving to the shoulder in the safest manner possible, I slung by binoculars to my eyes, fully expecting to see the graceful foraging of a Greater Yellowlegs. What I had seen as I was driving was white flashes above the water as a shorebird dipped into the water, but what really stood out was how high above the water the white flashes were.

Binoculars now up to my eyes, I focused….and bam, not a yellowlegs, but a gorgeous black and white bird. A Black-necked Stilt! No wonder the flashes had been so high. I managed to get a few record shots of the bird as it foraged and a video which you can watch once it has been processed by Youtube. I shot of some quick phone calls and then continued to watch the bird as it foraged back and forth over the same little flooded area. It gave me a fright when a Canada Goose landed nearby and all the Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plovers took to the wing. I would have been sorry to see the stilt leave without giving others a chance to see it. Luckily it stayed and I know at least several people have gotten a chance to see it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to get back to that pond and have a better chance to study it.

Year Milestone

I finally hit the 200 mark for the year, a good start but not necessarily that stellar. There have been quite a few birds mixed in to make it interesting though. A Long-billed Murrelet showed up at Sandy Hook in January to provide me with my first rarity of the season. I was also able to see a Scott’s Oriole and a Lazuli Bunting in Mechanicsburg and Red Hill, PA, respectively, which were both new state birds for me. One notable bird I did not chase (and now regret) was the Yellow-billed Loon that was present on the Susquehanna near Harrisburg, PA for several days in May. Number 200 was a Whip-poor-will that sounded off as I walked around outside of the Weis Ecology Center. Hopefully this summer, fall and winter will bring me many more excellent birds to see and to chase.

The Ballet of the Shorties

Short-eared Owls have been on my want list for Pennsylvania for quite some time. I had several opportunities to see them while in college in northern Indiana and greatly enjoyed that. Then I got a tip on where they might be in my own county. My own county! Now some people might not understand that thrill, but having just recently hit the 200 mark in my current county, I am enjoying the growing number.

So anyway, there is a fantastic piece of grasslands not 20 minutes from my house. I decided to hit it late afternoon in order to be there for the most productive time for the owls. I was elated when I arrived, 2 were already flying around. After several minutes of viewing the antics of these two birds with my bins I whipped out the scope for a closer look and when one cooperatively perched about 80 yards away I pulled out the digiscoping setup and snapped a few shots. I was happy with the results so I pulled the camera off the eyepiece and looked back at the owls. Wait…what was that diving at the shortie?

Definitely a falcon. Hmmm, small and dark….could only be a Merlin. I watched as the Merlin repeatedly stooped on the owls, harassing them as only a Merlin harasses. This was my third falcon species for the day, pretty good for a January day in PA. As the Merlin exited the scene, a Northern Harrier gracefully floated onto the stage. There is something about harriers and shorties, they always go together. I have not once seen short-eared owls and not seen a harrier. This was a beautifully plumaged juvenile.

I noticed something about their flight, harriers have such graceful flight, bouyantly floating around on their long spindly arms. Short-eared Owls on the other hand have such a stiffness to their flight, almost like they are afraid to bend their wings.

I stayed put, watching the interactions, the pouncing and listening to their raspy barking call. Now there were four in the air at once. Trying to get some last images before the sun disappeared I managed the flight shot below. I had to do some tricky stuff to the photo to bring back the colors but I think it turned out nicely.

All photos © 2007 Drew Weber