Game Commission Offers Tips on Birding

HARRISBURG – With the arrival of spring in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is offering tips on how residents can take advantage of the many wildlife-viewing opportunities that will soon be literally flying into their backyards in April and May.

“All winter, Pennsylvanians have been enjoying cardinals, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees, birds that make our state their year-round home,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor. “Now that’s changing with the increasing arrival of many songbirds that either are migrating through the state or coming to here to nest. Whatever the reason, though, it’s really an exciting time to watch birds, regardless of whether you’re a novice or a veteran. It’s great fun for families, too.

“Many great horned owls and bald eagles already hatched eggs during March. Others, such as bluebirds and song sparrows, are shopping for nesting sites and mates. Snow geese and tundra swans have already passed through on their long treks north. Robins are back, as are red-winged blackbirds and common grackles, and many great blue herons are returning to their colonies. But the neotropical birds are still coming, and a variety of migrating ducks will be setting down in your area’s secluded waters for a few more weeks.”

The deeper water of lakes and rivers attracts transient diving ducks such as common mergansers, common goldeneyes, canvasbacks and scaup. Birds that winter in southern states or along the coastal areas start moving northward in a race to be the first to stake a claim in the best breeding territory. Eastern phoebes and perhaps an early tree swallow arrived in late-March and the first waves of robins have moved north.

While waterfowl migrations – such as snow geese and tundra swans – peaked in mid-March, early April brings the majority of blue-winged teal and northern shovelers pass. Depending on ice-off, a large variety and big numbers of migrant waterfowl make ponds and lakes interesting places to visit. Hawk migration is well under way by this time and is especially evident along the south shore of Lake Erie, where hundreds of hawks – up to 10 species – may be counted in a day, especially when a storm front approaches from the southwest.

“This month, local resident birds are nesting, such as cardinals, titmice, song sparrows,” Brauning said. “Robins also are in song and building nests for the breeding season. Early migrants, such as tree swallows, phoebes, and chipping sparrows recently arrived from the south and quickly will be staking out their territory.

“Many other short-distance migrants, birds such as sparrows that winter in the southern U.S., are returning to Pennsylvania territories or passing through to northern homes through this month.”

While snow geese and tundra swans have largely moved north, bird watchers still have plenty to see in waterfowl species that breed in Pennsylvania, especially at locations like the Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, along the Lebanon/Lancaster county line.

“Lingering ducks, such as blue-winged teal, continue to pass through the state,” said John Dunn, Game Commission Game Bird Section supervisor. “Wood ducks, mallards, and Canada geese are nesting, and can be found in wetland settings throughout the Commonwealth.”

Brauning noted that, in May, some of the most interesting bird activity of the year will begin, as that is the peak of spring migration and the number and diversity of songbirds that pass through Pennsylvania is breathtaking.

“Flocks of these nocturnal migrants rise from their daily resting places about one half-hour after sunset, appearing like a huge cloud lifting from the earth on weather radar systems,” Brauning said. “A normal May morning will find dozens of species pursuing insects in treetops and underbrush. Many of these will briefly appear in suburban backyards. Although many pass unnoticed, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers and wood thrushes arrive in nightly waves to begin singing boldly in woodlots statewide at the first light of morning.

“On particularly active mornings after a clear night and southern breeze, trees may be swarming with birds such as black-throated green warblers and red-eyed vireos. A sharp eye and good pair of binoculars are needed to sort out the flitting specks of color, yellow warblers and Swainson’s thrushes. Their chip notes can be heard high overhead in quiet locations across the state. Pennsylvania is a veritable highway for our migrant songbirds going to the boreal north forests.”

Many songbirds are arriving in Pennsylvania from Central and South America for a brief summer breeding season, and even more are passing through on the way to territories further north. In wetland areas, migrant shorebirds appear along island shores and common and Forster’s terns work their way north along major rivers and lakes. Most species sing while on migration, making this a great time of year to learn to identify birds by sound. This ability will be especially useful after leaf-out, when birds are more easily heard than seen. Most of these migrants eat insects or fruit while in transit.

And, while many people may be planning to get their bird feeders out, Mark Terrnent, Game Commission bear biologist, urged those who live in bear country to reconsider feeding birds during spring and summer months.

“While most bears remain in their winter dens until around mid-April, males may emerge earlier depending on weather,” Ternent said. “Residents who put out bird feeders – or any food for wildlife, for that matter – after bears have left their dens may attract bears to their property. Once bears learn that food is available in your yard, they will return and often become a nuisance by damaging property or upturning garbage cans. That is why intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears is illegal.”

Ternent noted that bears are common throughout most of Pennsylvania, except in the highly-populated areas of southeastern Pennsylvania, such as Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties; the southcentral counties of Adams, York and Lancaster; and the western counties of Mercer, Lawrence, Beaver, Greene and Washington.

“Pennsylvanians who decide to feed birds where bears are common should consider bringing feeders inside at night, or suspending them at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet from anything a bear might climb, including overhead limbs,” Ternent said. “Also, avoid using foods that are particularly attractive to bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet.”

Doug Gross, Game Commission ornithologist, stated that homeowners can best help birds by planting good natural habitat around their homes, such as native wildflowers, shrubs and trees.

“Many of our native shrubs provide berries or good forage habitat for migrant songbirds and resident birds,” Gross said. “Flowers, such as columbine and salvia, are great for hummingbirds.”

Additional information on bird-watching can be found on the Game Commission’s Web site by clicking on “Wildlife” in the left-hand column of the homepage and then choosing either “Bird Watching” in the upper -right hand corner of the page.

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