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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Northern Saw-whet Owl at Scotia Range

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Image Credit: Jim Weaver, All About Birds

Last week I received a tip from another birder that a Northern Saw-whet Owl (presumably a migrant) was heard near the rifle range at Scotia Barrens. I went out there last night to investigate. I brought along my recorder and parabola to capture a recording if possible. The weather seemed good for owls - it was about 42 degrees, clear and calm. The moon was near its first quarter. Adding to my optimism was the fact that I had heard two other owls (Great Horned and a Barred) at other locations on the same day.

I arrived at Scotia around 6:45 pm. I parked near the iron gate at the rifle range. After walking around a bit, I thought I heard a bark, so I played the Saw-whet calls from the Stokes CD (including toots, barks and wails). I got no response. 20 minutes passed. I moved down past the gate to the skeet range. I played the Saw-whet call and was able to get the owl to toot back. I got a crappy recording, but the owl sounded distant and I had a plane overhead. After a few minutes, I heard some wails back by the gate. I went back and played the CD again. The owl wailed again and then barked 3 times. It seemed fairly close by, but it was not vocalizing particularly loud. Either way, I captured both the wailing and barking on my recorder.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Centre County Big Year - Needs List

My Nemesis Bird for Centre County - Forster's Tern
Image Credit: Steve Blain

This year, I decided to make a run at a BIG YEAR for Centre County. My primary goal was to try and break the 200 species mark for the year. Although I have attempted it before, I have not been able to crack the 200 mark for the county. The best I have done in the past is 196.

Fortunately, I was able to surmount the hurdle on May 11th with the sighting of a Mourning Warbler along Scotia Range Rd. Like many of the birds I have seen this year, I got a tip from another birder through the State College Rare Bird Alert (SCRBA). In this case, as in quite a few others, the tip came from Drew Weber.

My secondary goal for the year was to take a shot at the county record of 224 species in a year which was set by Terence Schiefer back in 1985. In order to equal or surpass 224, I was going to need a bit of luck, some help from other birders and some cooperation from the weather. Fortunately, all three have panned out so far. Just this week, with a bit of assistance from Tropical Storm Irene, I got bird #224 - a Sanderling - at the beach at Bald Eagle State Park.

With four months left to go, and fall migration just heating up, I have a pretty good chance to add a few more species. With Drew Weber hot on my heels with 223 birds, I gotta keep moving... LOL!

I went through Birds of Central Pennsylvnia by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove and put together a list of needs for the county. I compiled the list on the basis of birds that have been seen in the county on a regular or casual basis. For the most part, vagrants and accidentals were excluded from the list. With a bit of good forturne, I should be able to pick up a handful of these birds.

2011 Centre County Needs
    Red-throated Loon
    Mute Swan
    Trumpeter Swan
    Black Scoter
    Ring-necked Pheasant
    Red-necked Grebe
    Snowy Egret
    Little Blue Heron
    Black-crowned Night Heron
    Yellow-crowned Night Heron
    Swainson’s Hawk
    Peregrine Falcon
    American Golden Plover
    Ruddy Turnstone
    Baird’s Sandpiper
    Buff-breasted Sandpiper
    Wilson’s Phalarope
    Red-necked Phalarope
    Red Phalarope
    Laughing Gull
    Greater Black-backed Gull
    Forster’s Tern
    Barn Owl
    Snowy Owl
    Long-eared Owl
    Sedge Wren
    Marsh Wren
    Bicknell’s Thrush
    Orange-crowned Warbler
    Kentucky Warbler
    Connecticut Warbler
    Clay-colored Sparrow
    Blue Grosbeak
    Brewer’s Blackbird
    Yellow-headed Blackbird
    Red Crossbill
    White-winged Crossbill
    Pine Grosbeak

#225, Forster's Tern, BESP, Sept 5th
#226, American Golden Plover, Nixon Rd, Sept 7th
#227, Ruddy Turnstone, BESP dame, Sept 8th
#228, Baird's Sandpiper, Nixon Rd, Sept 9th
#229, Connecticut Warbler, Scotia Pond, Sept 10th
#230, Marsh Wren, Julian Wetlands, Sept 18th
#231, Orange-crowned Warbler, Circleville Farm, Sept 23rd
#232, Clay-colored Sparrow, Panther Strip Mine, Sept 25th
#233, Peregrine Falcon, Musser Gap, Oct 2nd
#234, Dickcissel, Circleville Farm, Oct 3rd
#235, Ring-necked Pheasant, Toftrees Gamelands, Oct 11th
#236, Brant, Colyer Lake, Oct 27th
#237, Black Scoter, BESP, Oct 29th
#238, Red-necked Grebe, BESP, Oct 30th
#239, Red-throated Loon, BESP, Nov 14th
#240, Red Crossbill, David's Vista, Dec 18th

Monday, July 18, 2011

Taiwan Trip Report - Summer 2011

Indian Black Eagle
Photo credit: Birding in Taiwan

I spent the first three weeks of July in Taiwan visiting in-laws in Kaohsiung County. I did most of my birding in Daliao (Kaohsiung County), as on previous trips.

In addition, I made two weekend field trips, one down to Kenting National Park on the southern tip of the island, and another to the mountains in south-central Taiwan (Nantou County).

I used two field guides during the trip: Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia and Wu Sen-Hsiong's Field Guide to the Wild Birds of Taiwan.

Birding in Kaohsiung

Chestnut Munia
Photo credit: Flickriver

In Kaohsiung, I did most of my birding in Daliao, in the hills between the Taiwan Military Academy and the Jhong I Guo Xiao on Highway 25. I also made a brief visit to the Naiosong Wetlands adjacent to Chenching Lake. Over the course of my stay, I observed 43 species in the county, including a pair of Chestnut Munias (lifers). Perhaps the most surprising sighting was a singing male White-eared Sibia near the military academy. The sibia is a mid- to high-elevation species that typically resides in mountainous areas above 800 m. This was the first time that I have seen one in the lowland, as Daliao is located at around 50 m.

White-eared Sibia.
Photo credit: Photos & Graphics Index

Here is a list of my observations:

Yellow Bittern
Cinnamon Bittern
Great Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Crested Goshawk
White-breasted Waterhen
Ruddy-breasted Crake
Common Moorhen
Little Ringed Plover
Rock Pigeon
Red Collared-Dove
Spotted Dove
Lesser Coucal
House Swift
Common Kingfisher
Taiwan Barbet
Black Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Gray Treepie
Eurasian Magpie
Barn Swallow
Pacific Swallow
Striated Swallow
Light-vented Bulbul
Zitting Cisticola
Golden-headed Cisticola
Yellow-bellied Prinia
Plain Prinia
Vinous-throated Parrotbill
Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler
White-eared Sibia
Japanese White-eye
Crested Myna
Javan Myna
Common Myna
White Wagtail
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Indian Silverbill
Nutmeg Mannikin
Chestnut Munia

Pingtung County

Slaty-legged Crake.
Photo credit: >Richard2Formosa

I made a few trips to Pintung County. I visited several friends that live in the agricultural district just east of the Gao Ping River. There area is punctuated by many small farms and rice paddies, as well as many small tributaries that feed the Gao Ping. The highlights of the agricultural area were a Oriental Pratincole, a calling Slaty-legged Crake (lifer), and a small flock of Black-winged Stilts.

Crested Serpent Eagle.
Photo credit: >Simon van der Meulen

I also made a weekend trip down to Kenting. As usual, I visited the beach at Baisha, Longluan Lake Wildlife Area. I also took a short hike up into the mountains behind our hotel near Baisha. In the past, Kenting has not been a very productive birding area for me; however, this year seemed to be a bit different. While not overwhelmingly good, I did see more birds that I am accustomed to in that area. The highlights were several species of terns (Black-naped, Gull-billed & Bridled), the last of which was a lifer. I also observed two resident raptors – Crested Serpent Eagle and Indian Black Eagle - soaring along some of the local ridges. At night, I heard a Mountain Scops Owl calling from the hills about a half mile up the road from Baisha.

Bridled Tern.
Photo credit: >Mike Pope

During the course of my birding adventures in Pingtung, I observed 46 species. Here is a list of my observations:

Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Chinese Bamboo-Partridge
Yellow Bittern
Great Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Crested Serpent-Eagle
Black Eagle
Slaty-legged Crake
Ruddy-breasted Crake
Common Moorhen
Little Ringed Plover
Black-winged Stilt
Oriental Pratincole
Greater Painted-snipe
Bridled Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Black-naped Tern
Rock Pigeon
Red Collared-Dove
Spotted Dove
Lesser Coucal
Mountain Scops-Owl
House Swift
Taiwan Barbet
Black Drongo
Bronzed Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Gray Treepie
Plain Martin
Barn Swallow
Pacific Swallow
Striated Swallow
Styan's Bulbul
Light-vented Bulbul
Black Bulbul
Zitting Cisticola
Plain Prinia
Taiwan Hwamei
Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler
Japanese White-eye
Javan Myna
Common Myna
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Nantou County

White-bellied Yuhina.
Photo credit: Flickriver

In addition to local birding, I also made two field trips to Nantou County in south-central Taiwan. First we visited the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (TERSI) in Jiji. There is an excellent education center on site, as well as a nice wetlands area and trail system adjacent to the institute. In the wetlands area, I observed a number of Bronzed Drongos, as well as a nest with three fledgling Malayan Night Herons in attendance. On a hillside adjacent to the institute, I came across a mixed flock of Gray-cheeked Fulvettas and White-bellied Yuhinas, not to mention a swarm of skeeters that left welts on both of my twigs.

We then made our way up to a “leisure farm” at the top of one of the local ridges. The elevation was around 2200 m. The scenery in the morning was absolutely breathtaking. The whole valley was blanketed by a sea of clouds. The clouds were pouring over the surrounding ridges like a waterfall. Bird song provided a wonderful soundtrack.

Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler
Photo credit: Donald Liao

To make the most of the birding opportunity, I arose before sunrise to listen for birds. Among the first birds I encountered was a raucous flock of Steere’s Liocichlas. They were seemingly everywhere. I spotted a Green-backed Tit just down the road from our lodge. In a tended field on the slope below the lodge, there were several Bamboo Partridges and Barred Buttonquail foraging. In the distance, several Taiwan Hill Patridges were calling. A small group of Strong-footed Bush Warblers was also making their way around some heavy undergrowth along the edges of the field.

Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler
Photo credit: Birding in Taiwan

I took a short hike along a trail that straddled the slope just below the ridge line. At one point, the trail was washed out leaving 40 foot sloped drop to the brush below. The slope was heavily overgrown, so I did not feel there was much chance of sliding 2200 meters to the ground, so I jumped over to the other side. It was well worth the leap, as I picked up a Black-necklaced Scimitar Babbler (lifer). A flock of Taiwan Yuhinas and several White-tailed Robins on the other side.

During the course of my birding adventures in Nantou, I observed 42 species. Here is a list of my observations:

Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Taiwan Partridge
Chinese Bamboo-Partridge
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Malayan Night-Heron
Crested Serpent-Eagle
Barred Buttonquail
Oriental Turtle-Dove
Red Collared-Dove
White-bellied Pigeon
House Swift
Taiwan Barbet
Bronzed Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Gray Treepie
Plain Martin
Pacific Swallow
Green-backed Tit
Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler
Collared Finchbill
Light-vented Bulbul
Black Bulbul
Striated Prinia
Plain Prinia
Vinous-throated Parrotbill
White-tailed Robin
Steere's Liocichla
Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler
Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler
Rufous-capped Babbler
Gray-cheeked Fulvetta
White-eared Sibia
Taiwan Yuhina
White-bellied Yuhina
Japanese White-eye
White Wagtail
Brown Bullfinch
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Nutmeg Mannikin

In all, I observed 81 species, 11 of which were lifers for me. The overall highlights of the trip were the raptors at Kenting and the high-elevation birds in Nantou County. There were also some disappointment. I still have not been able to find a Formosan Magpie. It is a fairly common bird on the mountainous areas, but it is proving to be my nemesis bird for Taiwan. Hopefully, I will able to find on on a future trip.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Whirlwind Birding in China

Daurian Redstart
Image Credit: Nomadic Journeys

I spent the past week or so touring some historical sites in China. As always, I bought my binoculars in case I should happen to stumble upon any interesting birds. Overall, birding was pretty slow on the mainland. Other than Eurasian House Sparrows, Common Swifts and Spotted Doves, there were not many birds one could see regularly.


White-cheeked Starling
Image Credit: Tim Edelstein

The first stop on the trip was Beijing. Due to some unplanned flight delays, we did not arrive in Beijing until after midnight. The following morning, I did a little birding around the hotel. By far the most abundant birds were Eurasian Tree Sparrows. There were also a fair number of magpies, both Black-billed and Azure-winged. In the sculpted gardens around the hotel, I found a few White-cheeked Starlings. A few Large-billed Crows were heard calling. Back in our hotel room, I had a pretty decent view of the city and the scores of Common Swifts circling overhead.

We next visited the Temple of Heaven. There was a nice park on the temple grounds which housed lots of Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Spotted Doves. I did find one sweet spot in the park with a nice variety of birds. In addition to the two magpies mentioned above, I also spotted a pair of Red-billed Blue Magpies. They are quite striking birds. Blue birds, with black heads accented by a brushed white crown and nape, and a large red bill. They are about crow-sized with long flowing tails. I also pulled in a few lifers here as well, such as the Great Spotted Woodpecker, Gray-faced Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Grosbeak and Oriental Greenfinch.

Gray-faced Woodpecker
Image Credit: Cosmin-Ovidiu Manci

The Summer Palace was next on the agenda. The park has what appears to be excellent habitat for birds. Lots of tree and shrub cover, hills, and ample access to water. That being said, the place was virtually devoid of birds except for a few Black-crowned Night Herons patrolling the lake. And of course the Eurasian Tree Sparrows.

Chinese Hill Warbler
Image Credit: Bob Thompson

Our final Beijing destination was the Great Wall at Badaling. The wall itself was incredible, and quite a challanging climb in spots. I did manage to take a peak over the edge of the wall numerous times looking for birds. Suprisingly, few birds were observed other than Azure-winged Magpies and more Tree Sparrows. At one spot near the Hero's Slope, my daughter spotted what turned out to be a female Daurian Redstart carrying nesting material. I watched the bird for about 10 minutes and also found the male. They were apparently nesting in one of the towers. While watching the redstarts, I also managed to find a Great Tit as well as a Chinese Hill Warbler. The warbler was quite striking with its long tail, and heavily streaked head and back. Down at the base of the wall, I got a really good look at a singing Red-gorgeted Flycatcher perched on a wire above a concession stand. I was quite surprised to see the bird here, as it is a bit north of its range (as reported by MacKinnon and Philips in "Birds of China").


Brown-breasted Bulbul
Image Credit: Michael19481

Xi'an is in north central China, just north of the Qinling moutains. The area is basically a flood plain for the Wei River. As such, the area was pretty flat overall. Birding here was not much better than the Beijing area. Again, Eurasian Tree Sparrows were the predominate species. The area around the hotel was pretty quiet. There were several Red-rumped Swallows circling above the hotel and a few Eurasian Blackbirds in the hotel gardens. The highlight was a Eurasian Sparrowhawk that strafed the trees. That was about it.

Scarlet Minivet
Image Credit: Vijay Cavale

Our first destination was the Terra Cotta warriors site. The birds here were pretty sparse. Species of note included lots of Light-vented Bulbuls and Oriental Greenfinch. Also saw one Brown Shrike hunting insects and a Black Drongo perched on a wire. Later, we headed to the Huaqing Hotsprings to visit the site where Chiang Kai-shek was held captive during the Chinese Civil War. There were a nice mix of birds in that area, such as a pair of Great Tits foraging with two fledglings. I also observed an immature male Scarlet Minivet singing from a perch atop the bathing area for the emperor's favorite concubine. Light-vented Bulbuls were fairly abundant. I also managed to find two other bulbul species, a Collared Fincnbill and a Brown-breasted Bulbul.


Our next destination was Taiwan. In order to get a direct flight to Kaohsiung, we had to fly through Fuzhou and spend the night. I didn't have the opportunity for much birding here, but did manage to see a few things along the way to/from the airport as well as in a local park and garden near our hotel. Near the airport, I saw several Cattle Egret and a lone Ring-necked Pheasant foraging in a field. Overhead, a Black-crowned Night Heron and a few Little Egret was passing by. Near the hotel, there were lots of House Swifts circling.

House Swift
Image Credit: Charlie Moores


Overall, I observed 33 species of birds over the past week. Of these, 18 were firsts for my China list, including 11 birds on my world life list.

Commentary on the Scarcity of Chinese Birds

I am not exactly sure whey there are so few birds in China. One obvious answer is that this impression is incorrect. I did a a fair amount of birding in urban areas. As expected, there would be less birds here than one would expect in the countryside or in forested areas.

Other evidence suggests that the impression is correct. I did a fair amount of birding in some forested and agricultural areas. Even there, the number of birds seemed to be less than I would have encountered in similar areas in the US. It is possible that I was just there at the wrong time or some similar reason. However, in talking with others who have birded in China, they have the same impression.

Some of the locals tell me it is a carry-over from Cultural Revolution policies. Apparently, Mao instructed people to kill birds because birds ate seeds (and thus food). I guess no one told him that birds also eat insects, which in turn eat plants, which results in even less seeds... I think you get the point. Others I have spoken to suggest that agricultural practices in China are having a large negative impact on birds. I have read several articles that support this view as well. Either way, in my experience, bird diversity was low throughout China.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

American Bittern Gets Out of Rehab

I received an email from Robyn Graboski at Centre Wildlife Care asking me to assist them in releasing a rehabed American Bittern into the wild. Of course, I was excited to help.

I took my kids over to the CWC facility and pick-ed up the bittern. Our initial plan was to release it at Scotia Pond in SGL 176. Once we arrived at the pond, I had second thoughts about the site. Due to all the rain, the water in the pond was very deep and most of the vegetation surrounding the pond was submerged. It didn't seem the bittern would have any places to hide.

We then decided to take the bird over to Toftrees Pond, which is situtated between the Toftrees Gold Resort and the east portion of SGL 176. We took the bittern down to the edge of the pond and released it directly into the cattail reeds.

The bittern was very anxious to get out of the box in which he was transported. He jumped out, gave a deep "squonk" and lept right into the water. He didn't count on the water being a few inches deep and he got most of his feathers wet. After a few minutes, he seemed to adjust and started acting more "bittern-like", stretching his neck and holding it upright, trying to blend in with the reeds. We watched him for a few moments and he seemed to be acclimating pretty well.

Now he is on his own!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cattle Egret Touch Down in Centre County

Cattle Egret
Image Credit: Jiri Bohdal

I was out at Bald Eagle State Park birding this afternoon when my cell phone went off. Got a text message from Drew Weber saying that four (4) Cattle Egret were lurking around a farm pond back near Nixon Rd. I immeadiately headed out there and was able to get a good look at the egrets.

While I have seen thousands of them in Taiwan and the Middle East, these were my first ones for Centre County!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Shorebirds at Fairbrook “Wetlands”

American Bittern
Image Credit: T. Grey

Yesterday evening, I led a field trip into the Scotia Barrens to look for woodcocks and hopefully catch a glimpse of their flight display. I met up with the group about 45 minutes prior to our designated time to head into the barrens. We met at the gravel lot at the intersection of Whitehall & Tadpole Roads (map), near the Fairbrook Methodist Church. With all the rain we had this early spring, the corn field adjacent to the church has been converted into temporary wetland.

There were quite a surprising number of shorebirds present (see list below). Most surprising to me where the 8 Pectoral Sandpipers. We usually get 1 or 2 in the county every year, but to have that many at one time was exciting.

Killdeer (1)
Solitary Sandpiper (1)
Greater Yellowlegs (2)
Pectoral Sandpiper (8)
Wilson's Snipe (21)

The Wilson’s Snipe were also quite interesting. Several were perfoming a ground display wherein they were observed fanning their tails and acting aggressively toward other snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe ground display
Image Credit: Jessica Yarnell

The highlight at the wetland was undoubtedly the American Bittern. The bittern was initially spotted early that morning by hawkwatcher Steve Kolbe. That evening, it strutted out right into the center of the corn field were the shorebirds were feeding. It was by far the best view I have ever had of a American Bittern in the ~30 years I have been birding. It must have been the tasty fare that lured him out in the open. While watching the shorebirds feed, some of them were pulling out night crawlers that were easily 10-12 inches in length.

We eventually did make our way into the barrens. We set up a stake-out at the gun range. Several skeet-shooters were present when we arrived, but they departed just as it was getting dark. Not long after they left, the woodcock started calling. Molly Heath called our attention to several calling Whip-poor-wills.

We had a few woodcock flying around, but not were observed doing a flight display. Perhaps the gunners had them a bit spooked. There was also a vocal Brown Thrasher that seemed to call every time the woodcocks started “penting”. Nevertheless, it was quite an enjoyable evening.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short-eared Owl - FINALLY!

Short-eared Owl
Image Credit: Tam Stuart

This morning Drew Weber reported a Short-eared Owl flying over Shiloh Rd. I decided to go out there after work to see if I could locate it. So far, my luck with SEOWs has not been good. As Jack Cochran can testify, I have spent over 30 hrs standing in the sub-freezing temps at various locations around Centre and Huntingdon counties (including Shiloh Rd) trying to find one. Thanks to Drew's leg work, I was FINALLY able to find one today!

I initially spotted the owl flying over the Rockview Prison fields to the east of Shiloh Rd, between 220 and Bricker Rd. For a map, click here. The owl was flying higher than I would have expected. It was pretty far out – about one-quarter mile. Based on the large head, barrel-shaped body, broad wings, and long graceful wingbeats, I was fairly sure it was a SEOW.

I followed it with my scope for about 10 minutes and got a decent view of the wing patch. The owl flew north and then turned and crossed Shiloh Rd somewhere in the vicinity of the Benner Fish Hatchery. It then turned and moved south-west over the field across the road from the parking area and dropped out of sight behind the trees.

Image Credit: Royse Photos

About 5 minutes later, an owl (same one?) flew overhead from the east (heading west) and took up a perch at the top of a tree at the back of the field across from the parking area. It remained there for a good 15 minutes. The owl took off and moved south-east towards Route 220 then turned and headed straight at me, dropping as it approached. I could see its bright yellow eyes growing larger through my bins! I thought it was going to strafe me or remove my scalp! At the last second, it pulled up and landed on a sign adjacent to my car - about 15 feet away!!!

What a fantastic view! I got a clear view of the steaked breast and triangular eye patches. I believe it was an adult male.

Image Credit: Royse Photos

It only stayed a second or two when it caught sight of me and abruptly took off, banked and slowly glided across Shiloh Rd and perched in a tree less than 100 yrds away. I watched the owl for a good 20 minutes. Although it had its back to me, it was constantly rotating its head in quick snappy movements as it presumably scanned for prey. Several times it looked straight down the barrel of my spotting scope. I got some really crappy “Bigfoot quality” photos by holding my cell phone up to the eye piece of my scope.

Here’s a Bigfoot quality digiscope shot from my cell phone.

It started to rain, but the owl remained perched there. I packed up my scope and loaded up the car around 6:15. Again, thanks Drew for finding & reporting the owl! That's two lifers in two days for me!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cackling Goose at the Centre Furnace Duck Pond

A Cackling Goose was spotted by Drew Weber today at the Centre Furnace Duck Pond.

I arrived at the Duck Pond early this morning for my usual check to see if anything dropped out of the sky last night. Drew was already present and seemed somewhat animated. I figured he found the Northern Pintail that was rumored to be present. Turns out he found something much better. A Cackling Goose!

There were about 120 or so geese present this morning. Most, including the putative Cackler, were sleeping with their necks curled back and tucked. There was also a considerable amount of fog overhanging the pond, obscuring the view. I spent about 30 minutes observing the goose in question. The goose was noticeably smaller that the other Canada Geese that were present. During that time he lifted his head 3 times, giving me a pretty good look at its stubby bill. That being said, I was not completely satisfied with the view.

I went back after work this afternoon with my spotting scope and digital camera to take some digiscope shots. By this time, the fog had lifted, the lighting was much better, and the geese were all awake and going about their business. I got some really good looks – and pics - of the goose.

Cackling Goose (back) was noticeably smaller than the Canada Geese (fore) - roughly about two-thirds the size. It was only slightly larger than the local Mallards. In addition, it has a short stubby bill. Based on some rough measurement on the photos, the length of the bill was about 50% the length of the head.

The wings were held above the back in a slightly arched position and the primary feathers extend beyond the tail, as shown on the top photo and the photo below.

Based on these observations, I am fairly well convinced it is a Cacking Goose.

If you look up the Cackler in the Sibley Guide, you may be confused. Sibley shows the Cackling Goose with a much smaller bill and a darker breast. However, it should be pointed out that Sibley was published in 2000, when Cackling Goose was considered a sub-species of Canada Goose. In 2004, the Canada Goose was split by the AOU. Although the Sibley Guide shows 6 sub-species of Canada Goose, there were 11. The seven larger sub-species were grouped together as "Canada Goose", and the four smaller sub-species (Cackling, Richardsons, Aleutian & Taverner's) were grouped under the name "Cackling Goose".

Long story short...the Cackling Goose at the Duck Pond is most likely a Richardson's Cackler, rather than a Cackling Cackler.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Owling in Central Pennsylvania

Barred Owl
Image Credit: Steve Sleep

I was looking over my US life list and noticed that owls in particular were under-represented. This year, I decided to make a conscious effort to actively seek out some owls.

There are 10 species of owl that one can see in Pennsylvania, albeit some of them are rare. They are: Barn Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Barred Owl, Great Gray Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, & Northern Saw-whet Owl. Of those, the Northern Hawk Owl and Great Gray Owl are the most unlikely to be seen. That leaves eight owls that one has a good or reasonable chance to see in PA each year. Of those, I had only seen or heard (as of 2010) three within the confines of Centre County: Great Horned Owl, E. Screech Owl & Snowy Owl. Two others (Barred Owl & N. Saw-whet Owl) I have seen or heard in the state, but that was more than 20 years ago in Cobbs Creek Park, Delaware County.

Last month, I hooked up with Chad Kauffman and found some Barn Owls nesting in a barn silo somewhere along the backroads of Juniata county. They were quite an exciting find! And life birds to boot!

Other owls have been more elusive. Numerous reports of Short-eared Owls have been posted in Huntingdon County. I have gone down on several occasions to stake out the areas where they were seen but came up empty.

Earlier this week, another birder reported owls in the Scotia Barrens (SGL 176). I had been back there several times over the last six months but had no luck with owls. I decided to give it another shot.

Last night, I headed into the barrens around 8:30 p.m. The moon was nearly full and the temperature was in the mid-30s – making for good owling conditions. I made a quick stop at Scotia Pond where a Great Horned Owl was heard calling. A little further down the road, two more Great Horned Owls were heard calling back and forth.

I then proceeded to the research station where a Eastern Screech Owl was heard. The owl called once, but was not heard a second time. After I settled down, I was able to hear at least one distant Barred Owl calling. I played the Barred Owl call from the PA BBA Owl Survey CD on my iPod/speaker set-up. Within a minute, I observed a Barred Owl slide across the sky in front of the moon and take up a perch in a tree directly adjacent to where I was positioned. What a fantastic bird! The owl seemed to be as interested in me as I was in him. He hung around for a good 10-15 minutes before wandering off. The Barred Owls were county birds for me, and the first Barreds within PA for more that 25 years.

Next month should bring migrating Saw-whet Owls this way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mass Movement of American Robins

American Robin Roost
Image Credit: Journey North

The return of American Robins is a clear sign that spring is on the horizon!

The vast majority of Robins head south for the winter. For most, south means Florida, the Gulf coast and central Mexico. For others, "south" may mean southern Canada or the northeast US. Here in Centre County, a few Robins are typically present throughout the winter. I observed my first two Robins of the year on January 2, at Scotia Barrens (SGL 176), and continued seeing a few each week through the end of January.

The first significant flocks I observed were seen at Millbrook Marsh on Jan 29th & 30th. I was looking for Rusty Blackbirds for the Rusty Blackbird Blitz. Late in the afternoon, small groups of Robins began coming in to roost. Over both days, about 120 Robins were tallied.

A week later, on Feb 6th, I was out at Shiloh Rd near the Benner Fish Hatchery. It was late in the afternoon and I was scanning the fields of the Rockview State Prison for raptors and owls. Although I did not pay close attention at first, I heard the flight calls from small flocks of Robins streaming overhead. I began counting the Robins as they passed overhead. Within 30 minutes, I was upwards of 1800 birds.

This past weekend (Feb 11th), I was back at Millbrook Marsh looking for Rusty Blackbirds. I was scanning the hills and fields to the northwest of the marsh and noticed a pretty good sized flock of 200+ Robins passing by the Mt. Nittany Medical Center. No sooner did the flock pass that another came by, followed by yet another, and another. Before it was all over, more than 5200 Robins were tallied. Because of my vantage point at the bottom of the hill, I undoubtedly missed a number of Robins that passed beyond my line of sight.

Oddly, both the '1800' and '5200' flocks were not heading north, but rather in a westerly direction. A quick look at the map (click here) shows that the Shiloh Rd site and the Medical Center are about 3 miles apart in a direct south-westerly line. The westerly movement of the Robins seems to have been a local non-mirgatory move, perhaps to a nearby roosting site. One likely destination would be Toftrees Gamelands. In past years, large numbers of Robins have been observed to roost there. I'll have to venture out that way and have a look.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Horned Lark sub-species in Centre County

Horned Larks feeding
Image Credit: One Jackdaw Birding

Over the last few weeks, I have done quite a bit of open field birding. As expected, the species of bird that I encountered most frequently was the Horned Lark. The birds are always exciting to see, with their black masks, yellow throats and their batman-like erectile feathers on their heads.

With few exceptions, virtually all the Horned Larks were observed feeding in harvested corn fields or picking grit from the edge of the road. Sometimes, the Horned Larks would be accompanied by other birds, such as Mourning Doves, Snow Buntings and (rarely) Lapland Longspurs. Of course, each time I observed a flock of larks, I was sure to break out my tripod and mount my spotting scope to peruse the flock for these other tag-alongs. After all, you seen one Horned Lark, and you’ve seen them all, right?

Well, that is what I initially thought. While scanning the flocks, I noticed that there were at least two different “types” of Horned Larks present, one with a white supercilium and pale throat, and a second with a yellow supercilium and yellow throat. I initially dismissed it as normal variation. Then last weekend, I was out field birding with Steven Feldstein and he made the same observation. I decided to look into the matter.

As it turns out, Clement’s Checklist of Birds of the World recognizes 41 subspecies of Horned Lark (27 New World and 14 Old World). According to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, there are two sub-species of Horned Larks that commonly migrate through the eastern US, the “Northern” Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris alpestris) and the “Prairie” Horned Lark (E. a. praticola). A third sub-species, Hoyt’s Horned Lark (E. a. hoyti), is a very rare eastern migrant.

Horned Lark
Image Credit: USF

All Horned Larks have a black mask which extends from the base of the bill to down below the eye, a black bib at the base of the throat, and black stripes on the flanks of the crown which extent rearward, forming horn-like projections. The face and throat are typically colored white or yellow. The sub-species can be distinguished by careful observation of the head pattern.

Northern Horned Lark

Northern Horned Lark (E. a. alpestris)
Image Credit: David Raymond

The Northern Horned Lark in the nominate sub-species. It breeds primarily in northern Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland. The Northern can be distinguished by its bright yellow supercilium and throat.

Prairie Horned Lark

Prairie Horned Lark (E. a. praticola)
Image Credit: Kevin Fleming

The Prairie Horned Lark breeds in Southern Canada and the Eastern US. According to Ron Pittaway, its breeding range is separated from the Northern and Hoyt’s Horned Larks by a wide boreal forest. The Prairie is distinguished by its overall paler appearance, pale yellow throat and white supercilium.

Hoyt’s Horned Lark

Hoyt’s Horned Lark (E. a. hoyti )
Image Credit: Marshall J. Iliff

The Hoyt’s Horned Lark breeds in "arctic islands south to northeastern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, northeastern Manitoba, extreme northwestern Ontario”. It migrates primarily through the prairie region west of Lake Superior. Hoyt’s in similar in appearance to the Prairie Horned Lark, except that it is larger. Further, the yellow on the throat is typically paler and restricted to the central region of the throat. As mentioned above, Hoyt’s is a very rare winter migrant to the east.

Based on the observation made in the field, it seems that the differences in appearance of the Horned Larks that were observed around Centre County over the last few weeks correspond to the two common eastern sub-species, the Northern and Prairie Horned Larks.

One additional difference that may be of some interest is that the Northern and Prairie Horned Larks have different spring migration habits. Prairies typically migrate earlier, arriving on the nesting ground in early to mid February. Northern Horned Larks arrive later, in mid-March to early April. As such, the two sub-species we are currently observing could be headed in different directions.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winter Field Birds in Central Pennsylvania

Lapland Longspur
Image Credit: Nick Kontonicolas

Although it lacks the diversity of the spring and fall migrations, birding in the winter can be quite rewarding. One aspect of winter birding that I particularly enjoy is looking for birds in the open field – something I don’t typically focus on during the rest of the year.

Winter birding can also test your patience and your will. For one thing, it can get quite cold, and in the open field it can be a tad on the windy side. Moreover, the birds are not always cooperative. Case in point – a Northern Shrike (or two) has been seen lurking around Bald Eagle State Park since last December. Following the initial reports, I drove out to the park to get a glimpse at it. And that is exactly what I got – a glimpse! I spotted the bird perched on the top of a tree. I saw it just long enough to say it was a shrike when it dropped down into the brush. I was unable to relocate it.

Northern Shrike
Image Credit: Terry Sohl

I spent the better part of the next three weekends trudging through the snow in sub-zero temperatures trying to get a better look at the bird but came up empty each time. Upon reading the State College Bird Club listserv, I would see other birders reports of having seen the shrike. Many even posted photos on their bird blogs. I would go out again the next day and strike out. Finally, this past weekend I was able to relocate the bird along the West Launch Road. This guy sure made me earn my view. Perhaps in recognition of my efforts, it was very cooperative this time around. Although the bird moved frequently between perches, it stayed at each perch for several minutes and I was able to put the spotting scope on it for some nice views!

Other birds have not rewarded my patience. A pair of Short-eared Owls was recently reported in Huntingdon County on a neglected farm. The habitat is perfect for the owls. I drove out there last week to try and find them. About an hour before sunset, there were several Northern Harriers patrolling the fields. At least one of the harriers was an adult male, two others were juveniles, and the fourth was either a female or another juvie. Three Rough-legged Hawks and a male American Kestrel have also made their appearance. I waited around ‘til well after sunset, but the owl never showed up.

I went back a few days later and ran into another birder on the same quest. Again, the harriers, rough-legs and kestrel showed up, but not the owl. We returned again the next night with the same results. Because the Short-eared Owls are crepuscular, I figured I might have a chance to catch it just at dawn, so I went back the following morning. Again, no owl!

Horned Lark
Image Credit: Ohio Nature

Having struck out on the owls, I though I would test my luck with some open country birds. I drove the back roads through Center Hall, between Rts. 322 & 45. There were several moderate sized flocks of Horned Larks working their way around the fields. Yesterday, I tallied around 130 or so birds. I tried putting the spotting scope on the birds, but between my shivering in the sub-zero temps, and the wind rattling my scope, I was unable to get a clean look at the birds. Fortunately, a small group of about 15 birds alighted on the road about 50 yards off, providing me with a fairly good look.

Horned Lark, juvenile
Image Credit:

I went back again this afternoon. The wind was not nearly as bad, and the sun was breaking through the clouds periodically, providing good lighting conditions. I spotted a flock of about 100 Horned Larks in the same field as the previous day, but much closer to the road. I pulled over and set up the spotting scope. I got some excellent views of the birds feeding. I even spotted a few juvenile birds in the mix. The juveniles look similar to the adults, except that they lack the horn-like tufts, mustache and yellow throat.

I started scanning the flock for other field birds, particularly American Pipits, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. I missed on the pipits and bunting, but surprisingly, I did spot a Lapland Longspur – a rare but regular visitor to Central PA. This was a lifer for me - #505! I watched the longspur for several minutes before it got chased by an aggressive lark. The bird did not appear to fly off. Rather, it scampered into a cluster of wind-burned cornhusks, and I was unable to relocate it.

Image Credit:

I continued to search for the longspur, as well as look for the other above-mentioned birds when the flock suddenly shot up off the ground and scattered. I looked up to follow the birds when I spotted a male Merlin streaking overhead. The larks were a step ahead of the Merlin which did not even pursue them. Rather, it touched down at the top of a tree about 100 yards off. I spotted a second Merlin a few miles down the road, near the Elks Club Golf Course.

I still have a few more winter birds that I would like to pick-up over the next month or so. Crossbills and Redpolls have both been reported in the area, so I will come up with a strategy to search them out. I am also going to keep on target with the Short-eared Owl. Other birders who have seen it at the present location say the likelihood of seeing it on a given trip is about 50/50. I am batting 0 for 4 at present, so my chances for upcoming trips should be better. Moreover, a full moon is on slate for this week, so that should increase my chances of seeing it as well. Either way, I’ll keep going back until I get it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter Birding in Juniata County

Barn Owl
Image Credit: BBC – Inside Out

After striking out on both Northern Shrikes and the multiple flocks of Horned Larks roaming around the Centre County, PA, I figured a change of scenery might bring some good birding my way. Fortunately, I got a call from Chad Kauffman to see if I was interested in having a look around Juniata County.

I got the OK from the boss (read: wife), so I headed east on Rt. 322 early this morning to meet up with Chad in Mifflintown. We primarily birded the back roads and farms between Routes 35 & 333, from Oakland Mills to Port Royal.

Made several stops along the Juniata River looking for waterfowl. Overall, waterfowl were scarce, other than a few local Mallards and several flocks of migrating Canada Geese. We did spot a Bufflehead and three Common Mergansers on the Juniata, as well as some American Black Ducks and a lone Greater Scaup on a mostly frozen-over farm pond. A Bald Eagle was also observed circling above the river.

Northern Harrier
Image Credit: Lilibirds

The most productive areas were the back roads and farms. Our target raptor for the day was a Rough-legged Hawk. Unfortunately, we were unable to find one. Other raptors were plentiful. Red-tails Hawks and Kestrels were fairly abundant. Seems that there was one or two of each on just about every road we were on. Also had several Northern Harriers, including one individual that stayed out in front of our vehicle for a good stretch, almost as if he was leading us somewhere. The harrier had a light russet color on the breast and tail, suggesting that it was an immature bird.

We also stumbled upon a pair of Barn Owls sitting at the opening of an old barn silo that looks like it had seen better days. This was a particularly exiting, as the Barn Owls were lifers for me - #504!

Horned Larks
Image Credit: Dave Appleton

A few of the farms had recently spread manure. This drew in some good sized flocks of Horned Larks. We carefully scanned the flocks to see what else they might contain. We were unable to find any Lapland Longspurs, but Chad did spot a Snow Bunting.

A few of the farms also had some springs or seeps that seemed to draw a lot of sparrows. We scanned the seeps looking for shorebirds. The first few places we checked were not productive, except for a few Killdeer. Chad said he knew a reliable place where we might be able to pick up a Wilson’s Snipe or two. He was right about that! Just driving slowly along the road, we were able to count 16 Wilson’s Snipe – by far the most I have seen at one sitting. There was also a solitary American Pipit.

Wilson’s Snipe
Image Credit: Toronto Hiking

Near the end of the day, we had a fair number of Black Vultures and one Turkey Vulture. We finished up the day in a small park near the Lost Creek Shoe Shop where Chad spotted a Red-headed Woodpecker chiseling at a tree that looks like it has seen its fair share of woodpeckers.

In all, we tallied 44 species for the day.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Birding on the Edge (of Centre Co)

Rough-legged Hawk, dark morph
Image Credit: Marcel Gauthier

I stopped by the Duck Pond this morning to get another look at the female Redhead (or is it a late-molting male) - as if I haven't seen it enough already. While I was there, I bumped into another birder (Steve lastname?) and we got to chating – about birds, of course. I mentioned that there was a Rough-legged Hawk sighting last week, along Rt. 220 near Bellefonte, in case he was interested in searching for it. He told me that there was a better and more reliable place to see them – out on the eastern edge of Centre County, near the Union County Line. More specifically, in the town of Woodward.

Woodward lies at the eastern end of Penns Valley, along Rt. 45 East. It’s mostly Amish farms out that way. According to Steve the birder, the Amish maintain hedgerows between fields, don’t plow the soil as often and refrain from the heavy use of pesticides. Taken together, this makes for a nice healthy population of rodents – primarily meadow voles. Sounds like good eatin’ for a raptor.

I asked for directions, and he kindly provided them. After lunch, I went out and spent the afternoon driving around Woodward Gap (map) tallying raptors. I made few loops around Cemetary and Jackson Hill Roads. I saw lots of raptors and other nice birds.

I spotted lots of American Kestrels along the power lines adjacent to Rt.45 (Penns Valley Rd.). I turned left at the second entrance to Cemetary Rd., and immediately picked up a Red-tailed Hawk. About a half-mile in, I spotted another hawk in a tree about 20 yards off the road (see "A" marker on map). It was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk. I observed it for about 1 minute or so before it took off and slowly glided across the field and set down in another tree about two-tenths of a mile off. I got a fantastic view! Might be the best look I have had of a Rough-leg.

I continued along Cemetary, spotted one Red-tailed Hawk after another. Also picked up a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a few Ravens. A lone Killdeer was observed hanging around a cattle feed station. Along the way, I spotted a handful of Goldfinches and American Tree Sparrows in an abandoned brush field.

It was getting late, so I started to make my way back to Rt. 45. I decided to sneak out the back way – along Pine Creek Hollow Rd. At the junction of Pine Creek and Jackson Hollow Roads, I spotted another Red-tail. While viewing it in my binoculars, I picked up another more distant bird to the northwest of Buffalo Mountain. To my surprise, it was a circling Black Vulture – somewhat of a rarity in Centre County at this time of year. Certainly the earliest I have ever seen one.

Black Vulture
Image Credit: Patrick Lynch

Woodward Gap looks like a promising place to pick up some good winter birds. I will definitely head back in February to search for more Rough-legs. I should also be able to find some Horned Larks, Snow Bunting, and perhaps even a Longspur. I'll keep you posted!