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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Keith Russell
January 8, 2005 (Saturday)
Philadelphia Census - Keith Russell - Coordinator
The 19th annual Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census was held on Saturday January 8th, a day that will probably be remembered more for its difficult weather conditions than for its birds. It was the first time the census had been held on a rainy day and, although weather conditions were otherwise favorable, the rain made birding difficult throughout the predawn and morning hours and virtually impossible when it was heaviest during the late morning. For all of you who struggled with wet or steamy binoculars, soggy clothing, fog, mud, and flooded trails, not to mention reduced bird activity, I thank you for your perseverance. Here’s hoping we don’t have such a day again for a long time. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising that a number of expected species were missed, causing this year’s species total of 83 to be the third lowest ever. It was also the first time in 15 years that less than 90 species were tallied. Nevertheless, two new species were recorded this year (both lingerers) and one can only wonder what other unusual species may have been discovered had better weather conditions prevailed.
Rain not only reduced bird activity, but it also made it difficult to hear the birds that remained active and this was particularly noticeable to those who owled during the pre-dawn hours. The only Great Horned Owls recorded were two individuals found during the day by Pete Kurtz and by Bill Reaume and Donna Caesar, and the only Eastern Screech-Owls recorded were 5 birds called in by David and Alan Belford very early at night before the steady drizzle had begun, and one bird found during the day (looking out of its roosting cavity) by Roland Williams. Rain also reduced the number of hawks and vultures recorded (both in terms of species and individuals). Black Vulture, Northern Harrier and Merlin (all annually recorded species) were missed along with Northern Goshawk and Red-shouldered Hawk (both recorded semi-annually), and some species such as the two Bald Eagles found sleeping at Tinicum by Doris McGovern at dawn, would have been missed without special effort. On a positive note the 6 American Kestrels recorded this year, while below average, were slightly more than last year’s all time low of 3, and this year’s 4 Peregrine Falcons (the number I arrived at after deleting possible duplicate sightings) was an all time high.
Virtually all land birds were recorded in below average numbers, presumably because of the rain and as a result I did not highlight any exceptionally low numbers on this year’s species tally. Several expected species were also missed including Cedar Waxwing (1st time ever missed), Gray Catbird and Yellow-rumped Warbler (3rd time missed for both), along with Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Thrasher, Palm Warbler and Chipping Sparrow (all recorded semi-annually). Crows of both species, whose populations have presumably been decimated by West Nile Virus, remained in very low numbers with this year’s totals almost matching last year’s. House Finches (which have become less numerous because of avian conjunctivitis) also continued to be well below the levels recorded prior to the late 1990s. While Blue Jays were also extremely low in number this year’s drop may have been caused, according to Johnny Miller, by a mass exodus of Blue Jays that occurred during the autumn. Despite the low numbers recorded for most land birds the number of Mourning Doves was ABOVE average while the number of Northern Cardinal was at least average. Although no invasive winter finches were found a major invasion of Black-capped Chickadees this winter resulted in a total of 7 tying the previous high recorded in both 1988 and 1993.
As time goes by new species are recorded less and less frequently, thus the occurrence of not one but two new species this year was highly unusual. One, an Ovenbird, was found by David Wiedner in a garden behind the City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut, where it perhaps enjoyed more warmth and protection than it might have found in a more natural area. In a similar vein a group of at least 21 Northern Rough-winged Swallows was found at the Northeast Water Pollution Control (sewage) Plant independently by Rich Horwitz, Pete Kurtz, and Matt Sharp. These birds were observed foraging for insects over the relatively warm, churning waters of the plant’s settling basin (which never freezes). This species is quite rare during winter north of the Carolinas but perhaps increasing. One was recently recorded on the Wilmington, DE CBC in 2001 and 4 very late birds were observed this past December 31st at Philadelphia’s Southwest WPC Plant. The present record however, appears to be the first one for January in Pennsylvania.
Water birds, as might have been expected, were not as difficult to find in the rain as land birds, but there were several unusual misses nonetheless, including Killdeer (missed for the 1st time ever, perhaps because of a freeze in late December which iced mudfalts and other feeding areas), Black-crowned Night-Heron, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Wood Duck. Scarce water birds that were recorded this year included a Horned Grebe along the northern Delaware River (Filemyr, Murphy), two Snow Geese (Miller / Horwitz, Goff), a Great Egret at the John Heinz NWR (McGovern team) and a first winter Iceland Gull at the mouth of the Frankford Creek (Horwitz, Goff – 5th census record). A week long freeze during the last week of December drove out large numbers of dabbling ducks while most divers (except mergansers) never seemed to have arrived in any numbers. Thus, in addition to the ducks already mentioned, Green-winged Teal was also missed, only 2 Northern Pintail were recorded, and both Canvasback and Ruddy Ducks were in extremely low numbers. The number of Ruddy Ducks may have also been reduced by the November 26 oil spill on the Delaware. Although a few oiled Canada Geese were seen, Canada Geese, gulls, and cormorants (the species most likely to have suffered the greatest mortality from of the spill), were not recorded in numbers inconsistent with those of recent years.
You might have to look a while to find certain species on this year’s list, which is in a new order from what we’ve been used to. The new order, established by the American Ornithologists’ Union last summer, places waterfowl ahead of loons and grebes.
I would like to thank Doris McGovern and Chris Walters for their moral support as well as their logistical help this year and Kate Somerville for her tremendous assistance on census day. It’s hard to believe that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the census. I hope we will have a good day in terms of the weather in 2006, and that all of you who helped this year will be able to participate again. Good wishes to everyone for the coming year and good luck to the Eagles - those other birds we root for.
Keith Russell - Census Coordinator.
Snow Goose 2
Total Species 83