At our annual spring banquet yesterday, the outgoing president (that's me) oversaw the installation of the four new officers elected at the program meeting in March. We can never remember precisely what the installation of new officers entails, so we had to improvise. I considered stepping down in a blaze of glory: shouting "HAIL GAIA!" and removing my still-beating heart from my chest with an obsidian blade and feeding it to a flock of migrating gnatcatchers. But that seemed a little messy, so I settled instead for sharing brief biographical sketches of JVAS' benevolent new overlords. Please join me in welcoming our new secretary, Kristin Joivell; treasurer, George Mahon; vice president, Mark Bonta; and president, Laura Jackson.

Kristin JoivellKristin Joivell, shown here on a recent JVAS hike examining a promethean moth cocoon, is our new secretary. Kristin teaches kindergarten at the Juniata Valley Elementary School, lives in the Huntingdon area, and brings an infectious enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge about nature to the JVAS board, being both well-read and widely traveled. Stick close to Kristin on a nature hike if you want to learn the i.d.s of critters and wildflowers — or to generally just have a good time.

 

George MahonDespite his regular attendance on field trips and thus his frequent run-ins with Stan Kotala's camera, JVAS treasurer George Mahon is almost always seen with his eyes turned to the ground or the sky, displaying the same restless curiosity that led him to teach junior high science in Altoona for many years, and to first become involved in JVAS activities way back in the late 1970s. I have also grown to appreciate George's endless patience and attention to detail over the past year as he's eased into the treasurer position — surely one of the most thankless and time-consuming posts in any organization.

Mark BontaYou'd think I'd have a better photo of my own brother, but he got off Facebook last year, so what can I do? Mark Bonta agreed to step in as vice president, which mainly means he'll be the programs chair. He's been attending programs pretty regularly since he started teaching geography at Penn State Altoona last fall. He and his wife will be moving to the area permanently in August, after a couple of years in Philadelphia and many years in Mississippi before that. Mark was a member of JVAS as a kid, helping to spark an interest in birding and nature that now makes its way into his classes and research. He's currently leading an expedition in the mountains of Honduras to document a possible new species of ant-shrike.

Laura Jackson with hickory horned devilLaura Jackson, our new president, hardly needs an introduction. She and her husband Mike (also a member of the board) have been among our most active members for years, attending numerous township meetings, writing letters, agitating, advocating, giving slideshows and workshops, and putting their own time and money where their mouths are on their mountainside property near Everett — a conservation showcase. Laura's always-pleasant demeanor masks a steely resolve, as many developers and politicians have learned to their sorrow. We are deeply fortunate that her work with SOAR has finally slowed down enough to permit Laura to take over as JVAS president. And oh yes, that's a hickory horned devil on her shirt.

Thanks to all four new officers for stepping up to the plate. The future of the chapter looks very bright.

Gnatcatcher 2014 March-AprilThe latest issue of the JVAS newsletter, the Gnatcatcher, is out and will be on its way to members' mailboxes shortly. In the meantime, you can download and read the PDF version in full color. This is especially useful for a full appreciation of the feature story on outdoor painting by JVAS member Sam Dietz. Also included is a full description of, and sign-up information for, our spring banquet, with a program by Trish Miller on Golden Eagle Migration, plus some exciting news about a sizable addition to State Gamelands 147 in Blair County. Check it out!

After weeks of waiting for the right weather, my husband Bruce, always the designated driver, a new young birder in our area, Michael David, and I headed down to Sinking Valley to do our annual Winter Raptor Survey. It was a perfect day—fifteen degrees, still, and blue-skied.

We had a slow start, but finally Michael and I started seeing white spots sitting in trees. They all turned out to be red-tailed hawks. Sometimes we thought they might be something else and Bruce set up our scope. Nope! Only red-tails. This went on for most of the morning.

Since Michael was working on his county list, we noted other birds too. Robins eating staghorn sumac fruit. Twenty-six horned larks in the fields along Crawford Road so close we could almost touch them. A great blue heron sitting under a tree near the stream at the Arch Spring homestead. A pileated woodpecker clinging to a sapling near the road.

Ah! But I’ve saved the best for the last. After counting 26 red-tails and not even seeing a kestrel, we drove beneath what might be a kestrel. “Stop!” I yelled to Bruce and found I had made the same mistake as last year at the same place. A flock of mourning doves took off.

Then Michael started studying a flock of what he thought were starlings, but they turned out to be brown-headed cowbirds.

“I think I see a rusty,” he said and was out the car and down the road to study the flock more carefully. After all, my sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a flock of cowbirds during Christmas Bird Count, perhaps in this very same place.

I followed Michael at a slower pace and stood waiting for him to decide if he had found a rusty. Just as he had concluded that whatever he had seen had flown, I glanced idly across the barren, snow-covered field at a huge old tree standing by itself and saw two spots of white. I looked through my binoculars, expecting to see more red-tails and instead saw a pair of mature bald eagles, one sitting on the branch directly above the other.

Finally, raptors to get excited about! Michael wondered if they were a pair and perhaps nesting in the area. After all, this is the time of year when they begin building a nest. I certainly hope folks living in Sinking Valley keep an eye on this pair.

To cap the day, just after we saw the great blue heron, a golden eagle flew low over our car. Perhaps it was the same eagle Bruce and I had seen fly low over us while we walked on our Far Field Road several days ago.

Altogether, it was one of the more exciting Winter Raptor Surveys we have done over the years.

—Marcia Bonta

The Winter Raptor Survey is a state-wide citizen science program coordinated by JVAS member Greg Grove with the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. See their website for information on how to take part.

The January-February 2014 issue of the JVAS newsletter, the Gnatcatcher, is now out [PDF]. Members should be getting the paper edition in their mailboxes today or tomorrow.

Speaking of which, it's time to renew your membership in JVAS. If you're not already a member, you can print out the form in the PDF version of the newsletter. This year, for the first time, we are offering the option to not receive the paper version, and just read the Gnatcatcher online. While this is undoubtedly a somewhat more environmentally friendly choice, we do understand why some will prefer to read it the old-fashioned way. And if you have a physical bulletin board, you may want to tack up the Spring 2014 field trips and programs brochure [PDF].

Speaking of which, it's interesting to note that there is now no single, canonical source for information about JVAS events. The brochure includes all of the monthly program meetings and those field trips that are planned well in advance, but there are often fuller descriptions here on the website — not to mention embedded Google maps. And many more impromptu outings are only advertised on the JVAS Facebook page, so we encourage people to like our page on Facebook if they want to keep abreast of absolutely everything we're doing.

At any rate, the latest issue of the Gnatcatcher includes articles on the snowy owl irruption, Fort Roberdeau County Park in winter, and the importance of early successional forests. Check it out.

The November-December issue of the Gnatcatcher is now out [PDF]. Paper copies should be arriving in mailboxes shortly. In the meantime, feel free to download and share the digital version (and visit the growing archive for other recent issues you may have missed). Featured articles in this issue include one by JVAS Conservation Chair Stan Kotala on some major riparian restoration work along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata, and a couple of pieces by JVAS Vice President Laura Jackson: a portrait of "The People Behind Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch" and a description of the recent PSO-sponsored field trip there and all the raptors they saw. Additional news notes and a reminder about the Christmas Bird Count on December 21 round out the issue.

Thanks to Gnatcatcher editor Ruby Becker for another terrific job!

Mark your calendars for Saturday, December 21, and plan to participate in our annual Christmas Bird Count by contacting the coordinator, Steve Bonta, to coordinate your counting activities. Call 684-1175, or send an email to stevebonta@yahoo.com with "Christmas Bird Count" in the subject line. We aim to have as complete coverage of the count circle, with as little overlap of participants' count areas, as possible. Of course, backyard bird feeder counts are always welcome as well.

Although we previously announced that the CBC would be held early this year, on December 14, we decided to move it back to December 21 when we realized that the 14th was the last day of regular rifle deer season in Pennsylvania (and that Steve would be here on the 21st after all, and not in Newfoundland as he originally planned).

One big change from previous years is the location of the count supper. Rather than our habitual potluck, the board decided to instead try meeting at a restaurant this year, which should mean that more people can go out and count birds rather than staying home to cook. So we will meet at 5:00 PM to trade stories and compile bird numbers at Urie’s Rib Shack, 954 Pennsylvania Avenue, Tyrone. Any JVAS member is welcome to join us, whether or not you counted birds, but please visit their menu online and let our hospitality chair, Marcia Bonta, know what you'll be ordering no later than December 12 so we can let the chef know. Anyone who fails to do so will not be able to join us. Email her at marciabonta@hotmail.com with "Bird count supper" in the subject line or call 684-3113. We'll have a private room in the back with room for up to 30 people.

man in blaze orange baseball cap

A blaze orange cap is more than a practical necessity—it's a fashion statement.

Archery season for antlered and antlerless deer begins today statewide in Pennsylvania. Although archers tend to make very sure of their targets, it's still a good idea for anyone in the woods — birdwatchers, hikers, mushroom gatherers, etc. — to wear a blaze-orange cap at least, if not a vest or coat as well. In State Game Lands it's more or less mandatory, but state forests, state parks, and most other public lands are open for hunting as well. Later on in November, when regular rifle deer season comes in after Thanksgiving, non-hunters should probably stay out of the woods altogether on opening day and the first Saturday, and be very cautious and visible for the rest of the season. And turkey season, which is in November, is also a very good time to get shot if you're not wearing blaze orange. Gobbling and scratching in the leaves is also discouraged.

See the complete list of 2013-2014 hunting seasons on the Game Commission website. (Scroll down for the map of wildlife management areas. Our area is split between 4D, 4A and 2C. )

Needless to say, as a conservation organization, Juniata Valley Audubon strongly supports deer hunting, and many of our members are also hunters. Shoot a deer, save a wood thrush.

An unsigned editorial from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette spells out the fundamental wrongness of PA House Bill 1576:

When it comes to protecting endangered species, whom would you trust? Members of the Legislature, who know squat about conservation but a lot about campaign contributions from special interests, or the wildlife experts employed by state agencies that manage threatened and endangered plants and animals?

If you trust ideologically driven politicians more than the professionals, then House Bill 1576 is for you. The measure, which has 67 cosponsors, treats current regulations and the species they protect as a nuisance to economic progress.

Read the rest.

Every fall, the Pennsylvania Game Commission offers tours at select game lands around the state. This year, one of them is in our area: State Game Lands 108. Here's the relevant section from their press release:

Cambria County: Sunday, Oct. 6, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., State Game Lands 108, consisting of 23,086 acres. This 7.5-mile, self-guided, one-way, driving tour will highlight mountainous terrain and fall foliage on the Allegheny Front. Items of interest along the tour route include a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which has been converted to small-game habitat. The area also serves as a study area for grassland nesting birds, including the Henslow’s sparrow, a grassland species of special concern. Northern harriers and endangered short-eared owls also inhabit the study area. Also highlighted are tree and shrub identification, wildlife habitat food plots and a deer exclosure fence. Each tour participant will be provided a brochure with directions and information about various features along the tour route. The tour begins at the State Game Lands access road three-tenths of a mile north of Frugality, along State Route 53, in White Township. Watch for the sign. The starting point is just minutes away from the main beach at Prince Gallitzin State Park, where the annual Apple Cider Festival will be taking place on the same day. The tour will conclude on State Route 865 near Blandburg, in Reade Township. Game Commission land management, forestry, wildlife management, and law enforcement personnel will be on hand to explain the various habitat improvement projects on this SGL and to answer questions.

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A new study in the Journal of Raptor Research attempts to tally bald eagle and golden eagle deaths at wind energy facilities nationwide, as the AP reports:

Wind energy facilities have killed at least 67 golden and bald eagles in the last five years, but the figure could be much higher, according to a new scientific study by government biologists.

The research represents one of the first tallies of eagle deaths attributed to the nation's growing wind energy industry, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama's plans to reduce the pollution blamed for global warming. Wind power releases no air pollution.

But at a minimum, the scientists wrote, wind farms in 10 states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997, with most deaths occurring between 2008 and 2012, as the industry was greatly expanding. Most deaths — 79 — were golden eagles that struck wind turbines. One of the eagles counted in the study was electrocuted by a power line.

The vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, Mike Parr, said the tally was "an alarming and concerning finding."

A trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, said in a statement that the figure was much lower than other causes of eagle deaths. The group said it was working with the government and conservation groups to find ways to reduce eagle casualties.

Still, the scientists said their figure is likely to be "substantially" underestimated, since companies report eagle deaths voluntarily and only a fraction of those included in their total were discovered during searches for dead birds by wind-energy companies. The study also excluded the deadliest place in the country for eagles, a cluster of wind farms in a northern California area known as Altamont Pass. Wind farms built there decades ago kill more than 60 per year.

The research affirms an AP investigation in May, which revealed dozens of eagle deaths from wind energy facilities and described how the Obama administration was failing to fine or prosecute wind energy companies, even though each death is a violation of federal law.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which employs the six researchers, has said it is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities, and seven have been referred to the Justice Department. The authors noted the study's findings do not necessarily reflect the views of the agency, although some of their data was obtained from staff.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.

Wind farms in two states, California and Wyoming, were responsible for 58 deaths, followed by facilities in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Texas, Maryland and Iowa.

In all, 32 facilities were implicated. One in Wyoming was responsible for a dozen golden eagle deaths, the most at a single facility.

The research was published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

See also Chris Clarke's summary of the findings at his ReWire column for the California-based KCET.org: "California Leads Nation in Wind Turbine Eagle Deaths."