A singular birding moment that I will forever hold close to my heart as a testament to life's beautiful surprises, was the day two American Flamingos became the birding spotlight for Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
On September 7th, 2023, I escaped for a lunchtime bird outing in hopes of finding fall migrant shorebirds at local ponds. When approaching the country pond on Long Lane, little did I know that this would be the most unparalleled experience in my life of bird watching, as I discovered the first recorded American Flamingos in the state of Pennsylvania.
Near the end of August 2023, Hurricane Idalia stirred across the Gulf of Mexico, pushing flocks of American Flamingos from the Caribbean into Florida and well beyond. American Flamingos started showing up in many other states in response to this tropical cyclone, creating a Flamingo mania.
I was as jittery as a caffeinated squirrel, and the enthusiasm bubbling over like a shaken soda can. As I stood alone along the farmland road admiring a once in a lifetime species discovery, I knew this was an unprecedented event that other bird and nature lovers would marvel over. Just as the flamingos flocked to this hidden oasis in the Cumberland Valley so would a mass of people near and far. The news spread like wildfire through the communication channels and fortunately the landowners were accommodating and gracious to welcoming people to take on the observation of these majestic splendors.
The birds had daily surveillance taking in accounts of behaviors and interactions, the state police would help manage the crowds of people so safety and respect would follow suit to help establish appropriate observation etiquette. Another extraordinary, mega rare visitor of a Brown Booby would flyover and be documented on September 14th.
As nature goes, not everything concludes with a happy ending. On September 11th the subadult flamingo was attacked by a resident common snapping turtle, causing a substantial injury to the leg. The bird was quickly and safely captured, and then transported by the PA Game Commission to the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Washington Boro, PA. The injured bird was making strides in its recovery, but would perish en route to the next stage of its recovery.
The remaining adult flamingo would remain at Long Lane Pond for another 8 days giving opportunities for bird chasers, nature lovers and just curious individuals a chance to see a once-in-a-lifetime birding opportunity in the wild. The adult flamingo departed the pond soaring on the evening of September 19th.
It was such a joy to see the smiles and excitement of others taking in their encounter of the American Flamingos. I ventured to the pond seven different times and was beyond grateful to share my binoculars and spotting scope with outside visitors so they could have a close-up view.
December 28, 1969: ‘Twas a clear day, low of 22, high of 31. Eight intrepid souls, led by the late John Orr, ventured into the woods and fields of Sinking Valley for the first ever Christmas Bird Count in the recently established Culp circle. After 24 hours of team effort, the counters tallied 32 species. That year was the 70th annual CBC nationwide; it would take the Culp count all the way to year #123, on December 17, 2022, to reach 72 species. Along the way, effort, species numbers, and weather have had their ups and downs, but enthusiasm has never flagged. In celebration of surpassing the long-sought 70-species goal, we present a brief history of the Culp Count.
My family, up in Plummer’s Hollow, first got involved in CBC #79, in 1978. I was nine years old. Since then, I participate every year I am in town. In my family, it is safe to say, Christmas Bird Count is bigger than Christmas!
In those early years, the count supper, as we called it, was strictly potluck, at the old Sinking Valley Grange. Before the age of the Internet, we would straggle in oblivious to each other’s finds. Indeed, half the fun was the unveiling of the best species during the tally after every count supper. If you had something good, you kept mum until then. Nowadays, via a Whatsapp group chat, we announce the top finds as we get them.
Back in the day, many frustrations resulted from lack of a good photograph. After all, it was going to take you quite a while to get the film developed, and telephoto lenses were scarce. Now, of course, we share photos instantly. And we have eBird. And Merlin. And so forth—but the spirit of the thing hasn’t changed, even if potluck count suppers are long forgotten, and we meet in the private room of a local restaurant. We still swap war stories (of the birding variety) and do a read-out tally of every species.
It does look like hi-tech has helped us get to 70 species, though. How else would we have known that this year’s putative Yellow-rumped Warbler was actually, on closer examination of digital evidence, a Cape May Warbler? How else to keep track of who is getting what, and thus refocus and calibrate team efforts during the course of the day?
Effort—number of total hours logged by teams—doesn’t necessarily correlate to number of species. In 1993, 138.5 hours were spent for a total of only 50 species. Compare that to 2012, where only six counters, the smallest group ever, spent 40 hours but got 58 species. The most counters, 45, were in 1983, but they only logged 56 species.
The weather of course is a huge factor. Birds that remain in central Pennsylvania in late December move around quite a lot: waterfowl, particularly. They have to, as their waterholes freeze over and they head to bigger lakes or rivers outside the count circle. What about holding it later, after Christmas? Wouldn’t we get more winter species? This tactic has never worked for Culp. The first five counts were all after Christmas, but otherwise, only Jan 2, ’93; Dec. 27, ’97; and Jan. 3, ‘17 have been later; in none of these have species been higher. Mid-December works best!
Now for the suffering. One can reliably predict most of the species that will be gotten, but the weather conditions? Never! Our coldest count ever was December 16, 1989: a low of 0 and a high of only 14.
At the other end of the spectrum, just five years earlier, December 15, 1984, the low was 46 degrees and the high reached 66!
As for the birds themselves, over the years, Culp has gotten a total of 121 species on count day, and another three only on count week (the three days before and after). Some of these, like this year’s Savannah Sparrow and Cape May Warbler, have been gotten only once. Others, like this year’s Lapland Longspur and Golden Eagle, and many more, have been recorded only a handful of times. Then there are the frustrating misses: when the tallier reads out an expected species and no one raises their hand. No Red-breasted Nuthatches??? How can that be?!?!
At least, there are those old dependables, the ones you get on every count. We have 15 species in that category. If you live in the area, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the most common of these is the European Starling. It’s had some low years, but never less than 100, and the most-ever of a single species was 2,160 in 2016.
Of course, there are a lot of other trends of interest. Ruffed Grouse, PA’s state bird, used to be easy to locate, with a count high of 31 in 1988. A few are still in the area, but we haven’t gotten any on count day since 2016. You can thank the West Nile Virus for that population crash. On the other side of things, we didn’t get the first Bald Eagle until 2002, but now we get up to five every year. Raptors in general have remained stable or gone up in numbers, with the sad exception of the Northern Goshawk, which has vanished from the area and indeed from most of the state.
December 17, 2022: So, what WAS this year’s magic formula for hitting 72? I can honestly say we have schemed and plotted and scouted for several counts in the past. In the mid 2010s, I put together a Google Map of the count circle with every accessible road and birding spot highlighted and applied a technique I had seen in other count circles: drawing birding zones so that we could match teams to areas and avoid overlap and missed opportunities. Still, we couldn’t top the record of 67 species set in back-to-back years (’07/’08).
Then came all the bird identification tech and just the right combination of motivated (some would say obsessed) counters, just waiting for perfect weather conditions. Here are some choice snippets from the group chat:
John Carter, 4:53 AM: “Good morning and happy Culp CBC day! Hope you all have fun and see lots of birds! Thank you for being part of the count. On the board with a Screech Owl.”
John again at 7:21 AM: “Grackle!”
Me at 7:30 AM: “5 male common mergs”
Michael Kensinger at 7:31 AM: “50 Red-winged Blackbirds”
And on it went. People hit the best spots in the morning, cognizant of looming snow showers in the afternoon, and a general lull in bird activity. At around 9:30 AM, we began to wonder about waterfowl.
John: “Any update from Canoe Lake, Jacksons? Hoping there is some open H20 there.” Nothing to report. But a few minutes later, John clocked in with a Green-winged Teal and Laura Jackson reported 3 Northern Pintails.
The adventure continued. Michael Kensinger at 10:01 AM: “100 Horned Larks being hunted by an immature Sharpie.”
Carl Engstrom at 10:33 AM: “Good stuff – kestrels and Bald Eagle if those haven’t been recorded yet.”
At 10:55 AM, John reminded folks to keep their eyes on the sky in case of Golden Eagles; Carl delivered one at 12:36 PM. Sign of the times: a Red-headed Woodpecker returned after a 24-year absence (Michael Kensinger reported from Ft. Roberdeau).
At 11:39 AM, I messaged John: “Looks like we are headed for an all-time high. Easily break 70.” This was after my Savannah Sparrow, hanging with some Northern Cardinals at the edge of our field. But the kicker, or so we thought, was Carl’s 2:06 PM Lapland Longspur. After that, as it usually does, numbers of new species dropped off and heavy snow showers kicked in. I had already walked eight miles and decided to scrap a final push for Ruffed Grouse in the thickest, thorniest, invasive thickets of Brush Mountain. No Barred Owl was to be found, no Red-breasted Nuthatch; no one had gotten a Merlin or a Rusty Blackbird, either: granted, not easy or common species, but when your totals are already high, as all birders know, you tend to get a little greedy. John announced he was headed to Sinking Valley in the fading light to make a try for a possible Short-eared Owl reported by Michael Kensinger, but no luck.
And then it was over. I joked that had the total been 69 species, folks were invited to scrabble through two miles of icy slush to make a try for the Plummer’s Hollow Barred Owl. Owling, as it’s called, is about the only option left if you want to make use of the 5 hours remaining in the count. But we stayed with Great-horned Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl and went home happy (some prepping for another CBC somewhere else the next day).
How many bird species were in the Culp Circle on December 17, 2022? The surprises weren’t over yet. A Peregrine Falcon sailed over my head in Tyrone the next morning, hunting Rock Pigeons, but I doubt it had been there the day before. Nevertheless, it became a count week bird, or “cw.” Though several feeder counters didn’t turn in new species, Michael delivered the biggest surprise of the season when announced on the evening of the 18th that his team’s Yellow-rumped Warbler was a Cape May Warbler, with a photo to back them up. This was only the 9th-ever of this species for Pennsylvania in December and the second from central PA.
For more of Mark's birding adventures, check out his Bird Mountain newsletter.
It was an early Autumn morning and the sun was just peaking over the mountain top. I could hear the Red-winged blackbirds and Song Sparrows wake up the neighborhood. I was enjoying a fresh cup of shade grown Lenca Farms coffee, and that was when I heard the sound that makes all of us bird lovers just cringe. Yes, it was a loud thud against the window from an alluring Red-eyed Vireo.
With the white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by blackish lines, this olive-green colored bird was certainly dazed but did not appear to have any other injuries such as a broken wing. I held the bird for a few minutes to see if it would come to and fly-off, but it seemed comfortable in my hands. I have read that birds can overheat in your hands, so I didn’t want to hold this adult bird longer than necessary. I got a shoebox and softened the bottom with some cloth. After 15 minutes, I opened the box and the bird was clearly calm and alert, ready to take flight once again.
Sadly, in many of window strike cases, birds suffer serious injuries such as internal hemorrhages, concussions, or damage to their bills, wings, eyes, or skulls. Window collisions kill vast numbers of birds in the United States each year and is reported to be at least a billion birds per year.
Here are some strategies from the National Audubon website to help protect our bird friends from window strikes:
Make windows look like a barrier to birds, such as:
Window decals may help, but they must be placed no more than 2-4 inches apart in order to be effective. Birds will try to fly through larger gaps. This means that on large windows, many closely spaced decals may be necessary to deter bird collisions.
Create temporary designs with window markers or tempera paints, soap, or hang ribbons on window exteriors. Again, designs or ribbons should be placed no more than 2-4 inches apart.
Install external screens or netting on windows. When done effectively, external screens can break up reflections or can slow birds down before they hit the glass.
Close window drapes or blinds partially or completely whenever possible. This is especially important at night when interior lights are in use.
Position feeders either directly on a window with suction cups or within 3 feet.
Avoid placing plants near windows inside your home.
Thanks for helping keep our birds safe!
Mike and I have also found birds that were injured or killed by flying into a window. Most of the problems occurred outside our big kitchen window, in the back yard where we have bird feeders and a bubbling boulder to provide water for wildlife. The kitchen window reflects the forest that surrounds our backyard, so it’s no wonder that birds fly into the glass. Birds don’t realize that they see a reflection; they think they are flying into the forest.
One thing that does work is screening. Frank Haas, a well-known Pennsylvania birder, started the Bird Screen Company. His products do work, by providing a screen that deters most birds from hitting the windows. The screens are not flush with the window and have enough tension, so birds that hit the screen bounce off without being injured. We bought enough screens to cover our kitchen window and thought we had the problem solved, until our backyard bears discovered the suction cups that attached the screens to the windows. For some reason, the bears delighted in removing the suction cups, rendering the screens useless.
Still searching we found a product called Bird Crash Preventer. This setup has easy-to-install brackets that held up a curtain of fishing line spaced 4 in. apart and fastened to brackets below. The fishing line is very reflective, so birds avoid the “curtain.” However, we found that small birds like American Goldfinches would fly between the fishing line and hit the window. We then strung more fishing line to make the gap just 2 inches apart. This helped, but a few birds still hit the window. Next, we bought black garden nylon netting sold in hardware stores used to cover fruit trees and shrubs. We strung this on top of the fishing line, attached it to the brackets, and pulled it taut. When birds hit the netting, they just bounce off without being injured. Voila! Problem solved.
There are other solutions, too. Check out Acopian Bird Savers (Zen Wind Curtains). You can purchase this solution or make your own. This product has been scientifically shown to be effective. You can download the research papers from the website.
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.
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.