Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Notes from the Sea Watch, Stick Nests, and PA Atlas

CMBO's Sea Watch continues through the winter solstice (December 22) under the capable eyes of Ken Behrens and swing counter Chris Brown. Some extraordinary milestones have been set - for example, Ken noted on December 7 that "A new seasonal Northern Gannet record was set today. 100,000 should be surpassed tomorrow." As of December 9, the gannet total was 101,105 for the season.

Also of recent note were single Red-necked Grebes on December 7 and 8. There's a good flight pattern to learn - Red-necked Grebe is a completely missable bird for the year list, so being alert for the pattern of white secondaries and white leading edge of the wing, together with its tendency to look more level in flight than Horned Grebe (which looks tipped up in front) could really help.

This morning driving to work I noticed a large stick nest along Route 47 south of Goshen. Now's the time to start cataloging stick nests, so you're ready to check them for nesting Great-horned Owls beginning in late January.

Speaking of nesting, the fall issue of the Pennsylavian Monitor reports on the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas, which just completed the 4th of 5 years of atlassing. I was a regional coordinator for the NJ Atlas, which was conducted in 1993 through 1997, and surveyed a number of blocks. Atlassing changes your whole approach to birding, for the better. Atlassing involves watching birds, not just identifying them, and carefully recording data. This makes you a more careful observer, and leads to some really fascinating behavioral observations. I remember, for example, watching a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak snapping dead twigs from a limb for her nest by hovering in front of them, grabbing hold, and then hanging by her weight. I also learned that many birds will do some sort of distraction display when you near their nest - it's much more widespread than the familiar Killdeer routine. Two memorable distraction displays were courtesy of a Ruffed Grouse, which paraded back and forth in the trail in front of me, clucking repeatedly, and from an Ovenbird which moved piteously slowly and weakly in front of me, coming so close I feared I would step on the bird's nest and retreated.

Atlassing can also sharpen understanding of bird vocalizations - many notes heard on the breeding grounds are also given in migration.

One of the most interesting finds in PA was the first confirmed breeding record for Merlin in PA, in a spruce tree near a town park in Bradford, PA. Remarkably, 4 other pairs of nesting Merlins were found in the northern tier. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Merlin will be the next new nesting species for New Jersey. I remember many years ago predicting that sapsuckers would soon nest in the mountains of north Jersey, and sure enough they did, and now are close to common in High Point. Merlin could be our next boreal invader.

To participate in or learn more about the Pennsylvania Atlas, visit

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