Visit my main blog at Monkey Wrench Revival.

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.


Anonymous said...

Maybe you can help...I saw what certainly seemed like a Merlin in southeastern PA this afternoon. It looked like a miniature Cooper's Hawk. Its tail wasn't really long like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and it wasn't colorfully distinctive like a Kestrel.

Still, bird guides say Merlins are only in this area during migration.

So, I'm confused. Am I likely to see a Merlin around here at this time of year?

Joe Verica said...

Merlins are becoming more common in PA during the winter that they historically have been. Knowing that, you very well could have seen one!