A new pandemic pastime? Counting birds

January 11, 2021 Cranberry Local News

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Red-bellied woodpecker this is not the same as red-headed woodpecker mentioned in story.

The numbers are up in the latest annual Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's South Butler Christmas Bird Count, and not just the bird population.

The South Butler Christmas Bird Count is conducted within a 15-mile circular area centered around Mars and running west to Zelienople, south to Cranberry Township, east to the Route 228 corridor and north to Connoquenessing Township. This year the count ran from midnight to midnight Jan. 2.

Chris Kubiak, director of education for the society, said, “We had 12 parties of 55 people total out in the field, and an additional 44 people at home counting birds at their bird feeders.

“That's the most we have ever had for the South Butler Bird Count,” he said.

The outdoor counters had a good day for it, he added.

Winter is the time for annual bird counts. Above is a white-breasted nuthatch at a peanut feeder.

The weather was in the upper 30s to low 40s, which, while good for humans, was not the best for bird counting

“We want the snow and cold because it drives the more interesting birds to the bird feeders,” Kubiak said.

Kubiak, who finished compiling the numbers Friday, said counters found 56 species and 9,605 individual birds.

Kubiak said he was most excited over the three confirmed sightings of the red-headed woodpecker.

“That is a bird that has almost become nonexistent. I was really, really glad to see it out there,” he said.

There were two sightings of the woodpecker on Three Degree Road in Penn Township and one in Connoquenessing Township.

“It's been a really good year for acorns from oak trees. That's their primary winter food source,” he said.

Development and reforestation have eliminated many of the oak groves the woodpeckers depended on for acorns.

He noted the sightings of the red-headed woodpeckers were on dairy and cattle farms.

“It's great that we'll still have in this circle that habitat,” said Kubiak. “It's pretty exciting. I had been hoping for years. It's like winning the lottery.”

Kubiak's tabulations showed once again the most numerous bird in the count area was the European starling at 2,309. Second were crows with 915 spotted.

“They are continuing to increase and do well, which is not surprising as they are very well adapted to our growing urbanization and suburbanization,” he said.

“Believe it or not, less agriculture equals more crows. They are using cities, particularly Pittsburgh, to roost. The cities are safer and warmer than the surrounding landscape,” he said.

The other trend the bird counters saw this year was a multitude of fruit-eating birds, robins and cedar waxwings.

Kubiak attributed their presences to more winter food sources being available in the area.

Less eyes at Jennings

There were less eyes taking part at Jennings Environmental Education Center, 2951 Prospect Road in Brady Township, which conducted its Christmas Bird Count Dec. 20.

Stephanie Taylor, an environmental education specialist at Jennings, said she and another Jennings employee conducted a “bird feeder” survey from 9 a.m. to noon.

“We didn't have any volunteers this year because we couldn't bring people into the center. We don't have any in-person programs,” Taylor said.

“We counted 15 species and 51 birds,” she said. “There wasn't anything crazy or unusual.

“We were fortunate we got to see brown creepers and purple finches,” Taylor said. “We do see them from time to time, but they don't cooperate on days of the count.”

The Jennings count is part of the Butler County Christmas Bird Count for the Bartramian Audubon Society.

The Bartramian count circle is 15 miles in diameter, centered on Lindsey Roud north of Moraine State Park.

Mary Alice Koeneke and Glenn Koppel of Butler Township compiled the numbers turned in by the 38 field and feeder watchers.

“We ended up with a total of 84 species and 16,127 individual birds,” Koeneke said.

“Some of the birds, we had the largest ever number,” she said.

Watchers spotted 14 Cooper's hawks, when the usual average number sighted was four; two merlins, when the average was less than one; 2,027 brown-headed cowbirds when the average was 55, and 624 American goldfinches when the average number sighted was 107.

In addition, Koeneke said, watchers saw 41 sandhill cranes when the average number sighted in a Christmas count was one.

“We think there is an actual breeding population in Lawrence County,” she said. “There may be a nesting pair or two in Butler County.

Kubiak said the number of people participating in the South Butler count has increased from five in 2012 to 99 this year.

“There's bigger push for the public to be involved in the science,” he said, noting scientists rely on the data collected during bird counts to detect and measure changes in the environment and bird populations throughout the country.

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Eric Freehling

Eric Freehling

Eric was born in Butler and grew up in Winfield Township. He graduated from Knoch High School and later Indiana University of Pa. with a degree in Journalism. After working as a reporter and editor with the Kittanning Leader-Times, he moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where he worked at The Pantagraph newspaper as a copy editor, page designer, reporter and business editor. Freehling later worked at the Houston Chronicle as senior copy editor and the Chicago Tribune as a copy editor on the business desk. He moved back to Pennsylvania in 2010 and joined the Butler Eagle as Community Editor in January 2011.