Citizen Science

cartoon of Christmas-y birds with stockings

The JVAS Blair County Christmas Bird Count (CBC), centered on Culp, will be held on Saturday, December 16, 2017 with a Tally Dinner (aka “tally rally”) to be held at The Dream Restaurant, starting at 5 P.M. The pay-your-own dinner is open to all, so you can attend even if you can’t help with the CBC. The Dream is located at 1500 Allegheny St., Hollidaysburg, PA.

Please contact Christmas Bird Count Coordinator Laura Jackson no later than Saturday, Dec. 9 to reserve your place at the Tally Dinner. Call 814-652-9268 or email jacksonlaura73@gmail.com.

We hope YOU will be a counter this year! We are always in need of more participants, so check with birder friends and invite them to participate, too. Participation is free. In addition to field surveys, we need feeder watchers. If you live in the count circle (within 7.5 miles of Culp), you are encouraged to record the birds you see on your property or at your feeder.

Counters will be assigned a section of the circle to cover, so if you have a favorite area, be sure to sign up early. Register by calling Laura Jackson. You will receive a map showing which part of the circle to cover, a species checklist, and pointers on any bird hot spots that might be in your part of the circle. We will assign the count areas in early December, so if you have a favorite area that you want to cover, contact Laura before December 10.

Also, we hope you will attend the Sunday, Dec. 3 Pre-CBC Workshop to help us organize the event. We will meet at 2:00 pm in Penn State Altoona's Hawthorn Building. Call Laura if you plan to attend.

There are 3 other Christmas Bird Counts in our area that need participants:
Huntingdon Co. CBC is centered on Donation, PA.
Contact compiler Deb Grove: 814-643-3295 or dsg4@psu.edu
Bedford Co. CBC on Saturday, December 30, is centered on Manns Choice, PA.
Contact compilers Mike and Laura Jackson: 814-652-9268 or jacksonlaura73@gmail.com
Raystown CBC: Contact compiler Greg Grove for more details: gwg2@psu.edu

The 1st annual Earth Day Birding Classic at Penn State Altoona will be held on April 22 and 23, 2016. Registration is free. The goal is for teams in six different categories to count as many species of birds as possible in the 24-hour-period beginning at noon on April 22. This non-profit event is co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies program at Penn State Altoona and Juniata Valley Audubon Society. Pledges that team members garner will support bird conservation and education in central Pennsylvania. Teams of 3 or more (2 or more for Senior citizens) will count birds in Blair and surrounding counties, and prizes will be awarded during the closing ceremony. The opening and closing ceremonies will take place at the Slep Center on the Penn State Altoona campus immediately prior to and following the event. Registration deadline is April 15 – to register and for more information, please contact Catherine Kilgus at catiegk5059@gmail.com.

→ Download the Registration Form

→ Download the Pledge Sheet

→ Download the Rules & Guidelines — or see below.
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Tufted Titmouse
Many song birds, such as this Tufted Titmouse, prefer black oil sunflowers. These seeds are high in fat, providing much-needed energy during the winter.

Birders converged on the Culp Christmas Bird Count Circle in Blair County on a cold and windy December 19, 2015 to participate in the 47th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) sponsored by Juniata Valley Audubon Society, under the direction of National Audubon. The first CBC ever was in 1900 - an alternative activity to count birds ALIVE, since prior to 1900 the tools of choice were not binoculars, but were guns, with participants competing to see how many birds they could KILL.

Some key counters were sorely missed as they could not participate this year due to illness, but the 18 people who did participate on December 19 counted a total of 5,082 birds, representing 67 different species. JVAS President and CBC Compiler Laura Jackson would like to thank the following counters who braved a cold and windy day: Susan Braun, Michael David, JP Dibert, Carl Engstrom, Kurt Engstrom, Stephanie Gallagher, Debra Grim, Charlie Hoyer, Mike Jackson, Kristin Joivell, George Mahon, Stephen Martynuska, Ian McGregor, John Orr, Mark Shields, and Jody Wallace. JVAS VP Mark Bonta helped to organize the counters and contributed the sighting of a Horned Grebe that was recorded as a “count week bird,” making 68 the total number of species recorded during the count week.

Mild fall weather meant that there was plenty of open water, but waterfowl were surprisingly scarce. Canoe Lake is a good location to observe waterfowl, but no Canada geese were to be found. Observers did find 10 Buffleheads, one Common Goldeneye, seven Hooded Mergansers, and one Common Merganser, as well as a few Mallards, at Canoe Lake. Elsewhere in the count circle, 143 Canada Geese were found, just two Wood Ducks, one American Black Duck, and over 200 Mallards. Fortunately, the 10 American Coots spotted at Canoe Lake were alive - last year approximately 12 were found dead floating in the lake. The reason for their death remains a mystery.

Bald eagle in flight
Counters spotted 5 Bald Eagles this year - a record high for the Culp CBC Circle; Bald Eagles were rarely seen during the Christmas Bird Count until recently. Reintroduction efforts by the Pennsylvania Game Commission are so successful that Bald Eagles are actually nesting in Blair County.

It was a good day for raptors: 5 Bald Eagles and 1 Golden Eagle were counted, as well as 1 Merlin, 3 Northern Harriers, 7 American Kestrels, 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks, and 6 Cooper’s Hawks. As expected, Red-tailed Hawks were the most common - 28 were found. The highlight of the raptor survey was finding a Northern Goshawk. Sinking Valley, with its broad vistas and farm fields, is a good habitat for birds of prey, as well as for the gallinaceous birds like Wild turkey (48), Ring-necked Pheasant (16), and some exotic Chukar (7) - a partridge native to Eurasia that has been introduced as a game bird. Sadly, our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, is in decline, and only one was found. Another species that frequents Sinking Valley in the winter is the Horned Lark - 70 were counted.

All species of woodpeckers were observed, except the Red-headed Woodpecker; European Starlings are responsible for their absence. In fact, the Starling was the most common species counted in the circle, with observers reporting a total of 1,714 birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds were the second most common bird with 550 reported. A few Red-winged Blackbirds (8) and just one rusty Blackbird were found in some of the Cowbird flocks.

Many common “winter birds” were seen: Winter Wrens (2), Golden-crowned Kinglets (16), American Tree Sparrows (40), Dark-eyed Juncos (265), White-throated Sparrows (120), Purple Finches (7) and a few Pine Siskins (7), to name a few.

The relatively mild winter meant that many birds which might be scarce during cold winters were still in abundance: 53 Eastern Bluebirds, 50 American Robins, 7 Northern Mockingbirds, and 24 Killdeer.

Observers at feeders and along wooded trails also reported good numbers of our common backyard birds: 76 Black-capped Chickadees, 81 Tufted Titmouse, 50 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 7 Carolina Wrens.

It is a challenge to thoroughly cover the count circle, centered at Culp - a crossroads in Sinking Valley. The circle is 15 miles in diameter, so the effort includes observations while driving the roads, hiking the fields and forests, or counting birds at backyard feeders. This year, 18 birders counted throughout the day, from dawn to dark - and even after dark for owls, for a cumulative effort of 75 hours looking for birds.

The Culp CBC is usually held the Saturday before Christmas, so if you might like to participate next year, call JVAS President Laura Jackson (814-652-9268) and get your name added to the list of potential participants. If you live in the count circle, you could count birds at your feeder. Otherwise, expect to spend part of a day on an exciting adventure exploring parts of Blair County.

A Christmas Bird Count Dinner was held immediately following the count when most of the birders enjoyed an evening at Marzoni’s - after a great meal each group reported their findings at the “tally rally.” A good day was had by all!

A complete list of all the bird species counted for the Culp CBC can be found on the National Audubon website.

Here is the link to an interactive circle for our CBC on Dec. 19th. Search Culp, PA and you'll see our circle with Tyrone Twp near the center. Zoom in and out to see details, as well as other CBC circles. You can also change the maps, which is a cool feature.

Please let me know what area you plan to cover for the CBC. We will have a planning meeting at The Dream Restaurant on Dec. 6th at 5:15 pm to assign areas. If we don't hear from you before then, we won't know what area you want to bird. We can meet there for free as long as people buy dinner. Ask for the meeting room under Laura Jackson's reservation.

Also, we will have the tally rally dinner at Marzoni's on Dec. 19th. Reservations need to be sent no later than Dec. 11 and cost $20.00. See more details in the last issue of The Gnatcatcher. Send your check payable to JVAS to Laura Jackson 8621 Black Valley Road, Everett, PA 15537. We encourage you to attend, even if you can't help with the CBC.

Laura Jackson, incoming JVAS President, presents the 2014 Conservation Award to Ron Singer, founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch
Laura Jackson, incoming JVAS President, presents the 2014 Conservation Award to Ron Singer, founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch

The Juniata Valley Audubon Society 2014 Conservation Award was presented to Ron Singer, the founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch, at our Annual Banquet in April. Ron started watching migrating birds on Jacks Mountain in Mifflin Co. almost 40 years ago, before many people knew that the mountains in the ridge and valley province in Pennsylvania were critical flyways for thousands of birds. Ron's particular interest was documenting the hawks and eagles that migrate over Jacks each year. Ron is still very active today, as he is the main facilitator and compiler of the Hawk Watch. Ron organizes a fall hawk watch each year, and all data is sent to the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). You can access this data on the Jacks Mountain page at hawkcount.org.

Because of his love of the mountains that surround him, Ron has helped with Mid-State Trail 
maintenance and he was instrumental in organizing a large-scale clean-up project along the sides of the Jacks Mountain Overlook which removed huge amount of trash that had been dumped there for decades.

Ron spends innumerable hours on top of Jacks sharing his love of migrating raptors and his expert identification skills with everyone who stops during the migration season. His leadership and dedication to the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch has also ignited a larger group of people to form known as Friends of Jacks Mountain. This new organization is a community action group that was formed because the Jacks Mountain Hawk watch is threatened by industrial wind turbine development on Jacks Mountain.

The Juniata Valley Audubon Society 2014 Conservation Award honors Ron’s dedication to observing and documenting raptor migration, as well as founding and maintaining the Hawk Watch at Jacks Mountain.

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Jacks Mountain commemorative patch featuring a broadwinged hawk
Jacks Mountain commemorative patch

The Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch has a commemorative patch for sale. Email Ron Singer at risinger2@verizon.net if you would like to purchase one for $5.70, which includes shipping. The patch features a Broad-winged Hawk, since thousands of them migrate over Jacks each fall.

You can learn more about the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch at their webpage.

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.

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.

Read the Game Commission press release (via PA Environment Digest). Here's a snippet:

Game Commission biologists are seeking assistance from residents in a regional monitoring effort to collect bat maternity colony data this summer. This monitoring is especially important due to the mortalities in bat populations throughout the northeastern United States, including Pennsylvania, being caused by White-Nose Syndrome.

"WNS primarily kills during the winter, but the true impact of WNS on bat populations cannot be determined using estimates from winter hibernacula alone," said Calvin Butchkoski, Game Commission wildlife biologist. "Pennsylvanians can help us more fully gauge the impact of WNS on the landscape by hosting a bat count this summer. We are especially urging people who have ever conducted a bat count for the Game Commission in the past to redo a count this year."

To obtain applications and information on how to participate, visit the Game Commission's Appalachian Bat Count webpage. Forms on the website guide interested participants through the steps of timing, conducting a survey and submitting their findings to the Game Commission. Scout groups, 4-H clubs, local environmental organizations, and individual homeowners can all participate in this important effort.

From Pennsylvania Herp Identification:

The Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation is pleased to announce the launch of the Pennsylvania Amphibian & Reptile Survey (abbreviated as PARS), a new amphibian and reptile atlas created through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. This ten-year project (2013-2022) is calling on Pennsylvania’s naturalists, amateur and professional herpetologists, and nature enthusiasts in general, to join the increasing ranks of citizen scientists collecting important observations for science and resource agencies. The amphibians and reptiles of Pennsylvania need your help.

Read the rest.