Christmas Bird Count 2017

Christmas Bird Count 2017_just sally
Sally Ingraham – Dec. 30th 2017

The annual Christmas Bird Count is a unique event – a community science project that has been going on for 117 years.

It began in 1900 when an ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed a “bird census” on Christmas Day, instead of the traditional “side hunt”, where hunters would compete to bring in the most quarry over the course of the day. Somehow, even on that first count, 27 birders went out in 25 different locations across the USA and Canada, and accounted for 90 species of birds.

The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running wildlife census of its type, and the collected data is important to numerous organizations and scientists who are monitoring bird health and developing conservation initiatives. It now takes place anytime between Dec. 14th-Jan. 5th depending on local organizers, and each year thousands of folks go out to officially check in with their neighborhood bird populations. The “CBC” has been managed by the Audubon Society since the beginning, and you can read more about the history of the event HERE.

I have fuzzy memories of going on Christmas Bird Counts as a kid with my Dad when we lived in New Mexico, getting up while it was still dark and walking out into the hogback to look for owls, or driving to a lake where sleepy ducks made funny noises as the sun crept over the top of the mesa.

Frick Park, Nine Mile Run, Dec. 30th 2017

My first CBC in Pittsburgh, PA, was not quite as mysterious – but it met the assumed CBC criteria of braving the elements in service of the birds. After a week of moderate temps, I woke on Dec. 30th to 18 degrees and snow. The roads in the city were treacherous, to say the least.

I had connected with the Three Rivers Birding Club a few weeks prior, and been assigned a portion of Frick Park that I frequent regularly, so fortunately for me I spent the day only a mile from my house (although to my credit – or as proof of my craziness – I never went home to warm up).

I wasn’t out before dawn, but I was down in the park by 8 AM. I had high hopes for the day, but faced with the weather my expectations, at least for the moment, were fairly low. I headed into Frick Park, at the Nine Mile Run end by the Irish Center, and hadn’t walked more than 5 steps before I saw a Northern Flicker. Even as I properly took note of the bird, other motion caught my eye and a Golden-crowned Kinglet materialized with a flutter.¬†From there, despite the snow that fell relentlessly until 1 PM, the day’s bird activity didn’t even remotely disappoint.

Christmas Bird Count 2017_squares
Christmas Bird Count 2017 – Sally Ingraham

It almost seemed like the birds knew what was up, and presented themselves for accounting. I saw more species than usual, more or less checked off the list of possibilities for the area. Granted, I was at it all day. But for example, when I hiked up the hill to where I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker 8 months before, there was a Pileated Woodpecker for me, winging through the woods in spectacular fashion and then pecking away at a nearby tree until I got hungry myself and had to wander off to find my own lunch.

I met up with some of the other Three River Birding Club members around 12:45 PM, at the home of founders Jack and Sue Solomon. Food was shared, and birding tales were told. Some folks who had been out since 5 AM knocked off home or at least snatched a nap on the couch, but a couple of groups went back out for more counting. I took Sue and a couple of fellows back down to Frick Park to help me look for a possible Winer Wren that I’d caught an inconclusive glimpse of earlier.

We spent an hour quietly poking along the edge of the Nine Mile Run, hoping to coax a wren out, but only turned up the more typical Carolina Wrens and a couple of Song Sparrows. I took Sue and company back home, and then returned to the park for a few more hours.

The snow had finally stopped, and although it was cold and less birdy in the afternoon, I still ticked off a few more species as I made my way up a different hillside, and then into Falls Ravine.

I was determined to find an owl, or rather I desperately hoped that I would. There are a couple of species of owls that live in the park, but I had never found one despite other days of “desperate hope”. Still, this day felt lucky.

I didn’t find an owl until just after 5:00 PM, when dusk was definitely settling and I was turned towards home at last. The little Eastern Screech Owl turned up sitting, of all places, in one of the bird boxes that the park has provided. It was a dark little puff of owlish face, framed against the wood of the box, and I had to stifle a gleeful shout. I got a nice long look at it before some bikers passed by and spooked it away.

The owl was pretty much my last bird of the day, and a very pleasant note to end on. All together I saw 21 species of birds (and walked 7.5 miles back and forth across the bottom of Frick Park) which, given the snow and temps, was a solid turnout and a job well done, I thought. Home at last to warm up, eat, and tally before both myself and the birds tucked in for a good night sleep.

Nearly full moon, Frick Park, Dec. 30th 2017

Heinz Field Snowy Owl

A “rare bird” is a special phenomenon, something that even folks outside of the birding community understand and celebrate. People travel long distances to see a rare bird. Sometimes the bird itself is rare – scarce or endangered – but more often what makes it special is that it is in an unusual spot. For example, last year an incredibly common American Red-winged Blackbird stowed away on a freighter and wound up in the U.K., where it caused quite a sensation (folks were chartering flights to Orkney to get a peep at it, as reported HERE!)

I’d say “quite a sensation” was also caused a few weeks ago when a Snowy Owl paid a visit to Pittsburgh’s football stadium, Heinz Field. Stadium employees were considerably startled when the glorious, huge white owl winged its way across the field (your average Snowy Owl can stand 2 ft high and often sports a 5 ft wingspan…!) The workers called the nearby National Aviary and an expert popped round to verify the sighting. And then the eBird alert went out, and local birders came flocking.

12-22-2017 – Sally Ingraham

I made it over to the stadium a few days after the initial sighting and spent 3 hours wandering back and forth across the street from the shuttered field, scanning every inch of the rooflines, field lights, seats, etc.

Snowy Owls are listed as vulnerable (one step below endangered) and there are probably only about 30,000 of them in the wild. They live up in the Arctic, where they eat mostly Lemmings, and when it’s a good year for Lemmings it’s a good year for Snowy Owls. We are enjoying a larger-than-normal migration this winter, and there have been owl sightings all across the Lakes Region and the northeastern U.S. – good news for researchers who are scrambling to understand these nomadic birds.

I did my part to “research” the Heinz Field Snowy Owl, looking like a right weirdo staring at the stadium through my binoculars, withstanding the perplexed looks of passing tourists and rubbernecking motorists (a few of whom stopped in the road to ask if I’d SEEN it?) I was pleased the make the acquaintance of a few other birders, and although we were complete strangers we spent a few hours strolling around together and shrugging ruefully when the owl continued to be a no-show.

Sadly for me, I didn’t see even a speck of snowy white owl that afternoon – just a lot of pigeons.

Eventually I wandered down to the edge of the Ohio River where I consoled myself with interesting ducks (!) – a rubber ducky-like Bufflehead and a couple of blue-billed Lesser Scaup.

Bufflehead, always disappearing

Of course it is possible that the owl was sitting somewhere among the field lights that whole afternoon, chuckling to itself as it watched the human spectacle. Although no one at all wound up seeing it that day, a week later it or maybe even a totally different Snowy Owl was seen in downtown Pittsburgh checking out the holiday lights.

Oh well. Maybe I’ll get another chance this winter.

Pittsburgh, seen from the North Shore

Meanwhile, I hear there’s an Iceland Gull hanging out at the head of the Ohio River…

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I regularly walk to Duck Hollow, following Nine Mile Run out the bottom of Frick Park to where the stream slips into the Monongahela River near where it ends in Pittsburgh, PA. The trail runs among old slag heaps, now grown over with bushes and trees and often populated by interesting sparrows and warblers and other colorful birds.

Slag, for those who don’t know, is a by-product of iron and steel production, which was once the primary industry found in the Monongahela River Valley. The mills used iron ore and coke to make carbon steel. Slag is made of silica and alumina from the original ore, and “every ton of iron produced more than a half ton of blast furnace slag“, so an awful lot of slag needed to be dumped somewhere. For about 50 years, from 1922 to 1972, a whole lot of that slag landed in Nine Mile Run. You can read more about that process, and the history of the area in this fascinating article by Andrew McElwaine, which was written BEFORE the area was bought by Frick Park and extensively restored by the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.

Now, despite the area’s intense history from an environmental point of view, it is easily one of the best birding spots in the city and quite beautiful in its own way. I saw several species of orioles here last summer, and Indigo Buntings, and most recently my best views of a Golden-crowned Kinglet EVER.

12-1-2017 Sally Ingraham

It was the tail end of my walk and I was almost back to the car, my thoughts already on the rest of the day’s tasks. Movement caught my eye, and I thought I was seeing a hummingbird at first. A tiny bird, moving fast but fluttering/hovering often as it searched for things to nibble in the thick bushes to my left.

It couldn’t really be a hummingbird in such chilly temps, and I’d caught a glint of yellow on its head that was almost startling against the grey colored day – so logically it had to be a Golden-crowned Kinglet! It took several minutes of snatched glimpses through my binoculars to confirm, but for a kinglet it was relatively cooperative. Not cooperative enough for a picture, of course – even my Dad chased them for years before getting a “decent” photo – so my memory (and a comic) will have to do.

Hopefully this little guy will still be around on December 30th to join me for the Christmas Bird Count – although I can guarantee he won’t sit for his portrait then either!

Schenley Park: Panther Hollow

Sally Ingraham

Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, PA, covers 456 acres, which makes for a lot of corners to explore. The Phipps Run stream channel, which leads down to Panther Hollow Lake, is one of my favorite areas due to it’s crazy terrain.

From the stream channel, where little stone bridges carry a zigzagging trail, the walls of the hollow rise steeply. There are broad gravel paths on either side about 1/2 way up, and plenty of birds in the bushes, but my birder’s dawdle is often at odds with the joggers who frequent the area. This is why I like to head further up the hollow, to a network of trails that skirt the rim, running through the forest just on the edge of the Bob O’connor Golf Course.

Highlights of the hollow – top to bottom – over the last year were bluebirds, an Eastern Screech Owl, the always interesting antics of Red-tailed Hawks, and of course a crowd of Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Sally Ingraham

This area, like several other watersheds in the city of Pittsburgh, has undergone extensive restoration over the past 10 years or so. The stream was once channeled underground, but this caused stormwater to overwhelm the sewer system. I like it better above-ground! I caught a Red-tailed Hawk splashing around in it one day last winter, which is kind of weird behavior for a hawk, but it was a really nice day so I can’t fault the guy for enjoying some sun-dappled water.

Digiscoping this is not! Just an iPhone photo through my bins (yes, I do own a good camera, I just didn’t bring it)

As for the hollow’s namesake, I’ve never seen a panther around there – unless I count the University of Pittsburgh students who go racing past me wearing their school mascot!

The Wren

A Carolina Wren appeared at the feeder last winter. I heard it singing – or rather, I heard it shouting – in my Pittsburgh, PA, backyard, it’s ringing teakettle-teakettle! overpowering the mild(ly-offended) chipping of the resident House Sparrows. The wren seemed incredibly exotic compared to them, with its latte coloring (cream and cinnamon), fierce white eyebrow, and cocked tail. A bouncy-ball bird, round and excited, it frequented the feeder and brought along friends.

Carolina Wren – Sally Ingraham

I’ve been keeping an eye on a bird feeder since I was a kid, but Carolina Wrens didn’t make it up north to my childhood feeders in Maine. That fact made this wren seem even more fantastic, and it reminded me that there were, in fact, interesting birds in Pittsburgh – a concept which I had neglected to consider for the majority of the time I’d lived in the city.

I went other places to bird – traveling with my Dad (Stephen Ingraham, or “the Point and Shoot Nature Photographer“) to birding festivals in Arizona, Florida, Honduras, New Mexico, Ohio, exploring proper marshes and wetlands, deserts and jungles in the morning, and working as a rep selling¬†Zeiss binoculars and spotting scopes in the afternoons. A morning spent in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, near Titusville, FL, in January has that “a kid in a candy store” feel to it. Birds galore, every shape and size and color.

In a way though, I got just as much pleasure last winter out of watching the antics of the Carolina Wren, and when I noticed the same bird (the very same bird, perhaps?) down in the Hollow at the bottom of Frick Park, my on-again (when traveling)/off-again (when home) interest in birding finally solidified into a concentrated pursuit – one that perfectly fits in with my normal excursions and explorations around Pittsburgh.

You’ll catch me as usual investigating a flight of city steps, or poking round underneath a bridge – the only difference is I now carry a pair of “bins” with me.

Sally Birder
Sally Ingraham