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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Keith Russell
January 8, 2006 (Saturday)
Philadelphia Census - Keith Russell - Coordinator
When the PMWBC was inaugurated on January 11, 1987 it was unclear how many birds a census conducted entirely within the confines of the nation’s 5th largest city would find, especially during early January. The 83 species recorded that year by only 18 observers demonstrated however, that the idea of a mid-winter bird census in Philadelphia was not that far fetched. Since that inaugural year the census has not only continued to demonstrate that an impressive variety of bird species can be found in Philadelphia during the winter, but that Philadelphia actually has one of the most diverse wintering bird populations of any county in Pennsylvania. A total of 142 species have been recorded on the census since 1987 and while the annual total has ranged from as few as 79 to as many as 108, an average of 92 species have been recorded each year (average of 96 since 1997). Perhaps more importantly the census has helped to make some of Philadelphia’s fine birding locations like Roosevelt Park and Benjamin Rush State Park better known, and information from the census has been instrumental in preserving at least one of Philadelphia’s threatened bird locations (the East Park Reservoir’s West Basin) and it may prove helpful in preserving others in the future. The census could not have succeeded without the interest and dedication of those who participate however, and it is with the utmost appreciation that I would like express my thanks to this year’s 57 participants, and to all those who have participated over the years for having made this our 20th year possible.
This year’s census was held on Saturday January 7th, a cold but sunny and virtually windless day that proved to be a generally favorable one for birding, and a welcome change from the difficult weather conditions experienced over the last two years. Although temperatures were a good 10 degrees colder on the day of the census than they had been for almost a month all waters were open and no snow or ice remained on the ground. With the combination of good weather, a slightly larger than average number of participants (57), and what appeared to be larger populations of many birds this winter, its not surprising that 100 species were recorded making this the 3rd highest species total tallied to date.
While no species new to the census were found this year several taxonomic groups were well represented in terms of numbers and species variety. Chief among these were ducks. Seventeen duck species were recorded (1 species shy of the high of 18 recorded in 1991 and 2000) and of the ‘regular’ species only Wood Duck was missed. A new all time high was also set for Gadwall, while Shovelers were recorded near their all time high, and this year’s Pintail total was the highest since 2000. The best duck area was again Roosevelt Park where 10 species were found, including the only Redheads, Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup and most of the Gadwall and Shovelers (Horwitz et al.). Other major duck areas included two Philadelphia Water Department properties - the Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant (SWPCP) where 7 species were found, including the only American Wigeon and most of the Pintail and Ring-necks (Walters et al., Russell and Somerville) and the East Park Reservoir’s West Basin where 6 species were recorded, including the only Canvasback and most of the Hooded Mergansers (Russell and Somerville). Green-winged Teal was recorded for the first time since 2001 (John Heinz NWR [JHNWR]; McGovern and Sevareid) and Common Goldeneye was recorded for the first time since 2003 (Delaware River at Rhawn St.; Windfelder). While Philadelphia continues to be an important wintering area for American Black Ducks (mainly on the northern Delaware River) Ruddy Ducks, which once wintered abundantly on the southern Delaware (1300 in 1987), continued to be well below their historic levels. No geese besides the usual number of Canadas were found this year, but what appears to be a resident pair of Mute Swans were found at the SWPCP resting under one of the I-95 off ramps, the same place one was found during last year’s census.
The precipitous decline of the Ring-necked Pheasant (66 in 1988) has brought the species to the brink of extinction in Philadelphia. This year’s single bird was found in a large field in Eastwick adjacent to the JHNWR (McGovern and Sevareid). Pied-billed Grebes were found by several parties and a lone Horned Grebe was discovered on the Delaware at Pulaski Park (Horwitz et al.). While Cormorants were recorded in numbers similar to recent years, Double-crested Cormorants, once difficult to find at all, have now outnumbered Great Cormorants for 3 years in a row. But interestingly this year all 38 Double-crests were concentrated on the Delaware around the Army Corps area (Walters et al.). No herons besides Great Blues were found, although a Great Egret was present at Roosevelt Park during December. The once regular Black-crowned Night-Heron (7 in 1987) has not been recorded since 2002.
All of the ‘regular’ raptors were recorded this year except for Northern Goshawk. Northern Harrier (a species favoring open fields and wetlands that has declined in part because of loss of habitat) was recorded again after being missed last year for the first time, but only one bird could be found (Army Corps; Walters et al.). One (light morph) Rough-legged Hawk (another declining bird of open habitats) was spotted at Fort Mifflin for the first record since 2000 and only the 6th record overall (Walters et al.). Three different Red-shouldered Hawks were found this year (JHNWR; McGovern and Sevareid, Awbury Arboretum; Reaume, Glen Foerd; Windfelder) tying the all time high established in 2004. After having been recorded only once between 1987 and 1996 the Bald Eagle (Naval Base; Horwitz et al.) was recorded for the 7th year in a row and 8th year out of the last 10. Similarly the Merlin (Chestnut Hill; Bilheimers and French) was recorded for the 8th time in the last 11 years after only having been recorded twice between 1987 and 1995. American Kestrel, always recorded in double digits through 2004, remained in single digits for the 3rd straight year, but the usual number of Peregrine Falcons was found – one at the Girard Point Bridge and 2 at the mouth of the Frankford Creek just south of the Betsy Ross Bridge (Horwitz et al.). Interestingly Cooper’s Hawks, often well outnumbered by Sharp-shins, were almost equal in number to Sharp-shins.
Coots now winter regularly (and almost exclusively) at Roosevelt Park, which is where all 17 individuals were found this year (Horwitz et al.). A prolonged freeze in early December probably reduced Killdeer numbers. Only one bird was reported – a flyover at Roosevelt Park (Horwitz et al.) but the 3 American Woodcock found at dawn at the JHNWR were the first Woodcock recorded since 1999 (McGovern and Sevareid). No rare gulls were recorded but one Lesser Black-backed Gull (3 records through 1998 but annual since 1999) was found at Pleasant Hill Park along the upper Delaware River (Windfelder).
This year’s 43 Eastern Screech-Owls was the highest total ever thanks largely to the always intensive efforts of David Belford who alone tallied 30 individuals in the upper Wissahickon between 3:15 and 7 am. Although conditions for finding owls were ideal the Great Horned Owl total remained in the single digits for the 4th year in a row after having almost always been in double digits through 2002. One Barred Owl, a species known to have been present in the Wissahickon area now for almost a decade, was finally found on the day of the census in Mount Airy along the edge of the Wissahickon (Russell and Somerville) providing only the second census record. The Barn Owl (a species unrecorded since 1991) found and photographed at the JHNWR on January 5th could not be relocated, and although evidence of Saw-whet Owl activity in the form of pellets and 2 mice cashed in a tree was found on the day of the census at Roosevelt Park, no birds were seen on the 7th. But a bird was located at the JHNWR on the 8th by Gregg Gorton.
All 5 regular species of woodpeckers were found including 1 Pileated, a species that is often difficult to locate (Livezy Lane in the Wissahickon; Lawrence et al.) and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, which appear to still be increasing in Philadelphia, were recorded in record high numbers.
One Eastern Phoebe was found at the JHNWR (McGovern and Sevareid) providing the 8th overall record but the 3rd in the last 4 years. Ever since crows of both species crashed within Philadelphia County in February 2003 the number recorded on the census has been very low, and this year’s totals remained almost identical to those of 2004 and 2005. The lone Fish Crow was identified along the Delaware River at Pleasant Hill Park (Windfelder). Black-capped Chickadees appeared in the greatest numbers ever recorded, while another invasive winter passerine, the Red-breasted Nuthatch, was also near its record high, but White-breasted Nuthatches well surpassed the previous high of 119 set in 1992. Small birds that glean insects from bark were generally in good numbers including Brown Creepers.
Other highlights among passerines included new record high numbers for Eastern Bluebirds (almost all were found at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education [SCEE]; Dupont), White-crowned Sparrows (Army Corps; Walters et al., SWWPCP; Russell and Somerville), Rusty Blackbirds (Roosevelt Park; Horwitz et al.), and American Goldfinches (recorded by all but 1 team). Among fruit eaters American Robins and Gray Catbirds were also recorded in larger than average numbers, but Cedar Waxwings were only found by 2 teams and in small numbers (West Park; Brendel and Goschke, SCEE; Januski and Schroeder). Eastern Towhees were also found in above average numbers. Passerine species found by only one party this year include the aforementioned Fish Crow (Pleasant Hill Park; Windfelder), along with Yellow-rumped Warbler (West River Drive in West Park; Brendel and Goschke), Chipping Sparrow (SCEE; Dupont), Savannah Sparrow (Naval Business Center; Horwitz et al.), Brown-headed Cowbird (Roosevelt Park etc.; Horwitz et al.), and Purple Finch (Kitchen’s Lane in the Wissahickon; Russell and Somerville). Swamp Sparrows continue their decline due to loss of habitat, while Field Sparrows (another declining bird of open fields) were found mainly at the SCEE.
Of course the most compelling sighting recorded this year was (again) the flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, which have now been found 2 years in a row at the Northeast Water Pollution Control Plant along Wheatsheaf Lane and Delaware Avenue (Horwitz et al.). These birds, which normally winter in Mexico and Central America, with smaller numbers along the Gulf Coast and in southern Florida, are feeding on some as yet unidentified flying insects that appear to be emerging from outdoor water processing areas at the plant. The number found last year however (21) was far surpassed this year (95) and with this winter’s mild conditions its likely that many of these birds may survive until spring as they did last year despite the fact that last January and February were unusually cold and snowy. Last year was the first time the species had ever been recorded in Pennsylvania during the winter and probably one of the only times the species had ever been known to survive throughout the winter north of the Carolinas. One wonders if these birds will continue to winter at the plant as long as the winter insect supply continues to be produced there.
I would like to thank the Army Corps of Engineers, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia Naval Business Center, Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, and Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education for granting or facilitating access to their properties. I would also like to thank Adrian Binns, and especially Brian Convery, Ken Januski, and Winston and Wendy Moody for their assistance in obtaining newspaper coverage of this year’s census. Articles about the census were published in the Northeast Times (December 29), Fallser (January issue), Mount Airy Times Express (January 11), City Paper (January 12-18), and Philadelphia Inquirer (January 14). And finally, I would like to express my thanks to Chris Walters and Doris McGovern for their unfailing logistical and moral support, and to Joe Schultz of the Philadelphia Water Department and Kate Somerville for (as always) going above and beyond the call of duty. And again to all who have participated over the years my deepest gratitude.
Keith Russell - Census Coordinator
Canada Goose 4442
OBSERVERS (57 observers, 25 parties)
Peter and Pauline H. Kurtz - Pennypack Creek (Verree Rd. to Krewstown Rd.)
Brian Schultz, Bill Jelek, Frank Steinmiller - Pennypack Creek (Verree Rd. to Pine Rd), Northeast Philadelphia Airport
Roland Williams - Pennypack Creek (Frankford Ave. to Rhawn St.)
Chuck Lyman - Pennypack Creek (Rt. 1 to Krewstown Rd., Rt. 1 to Holme Ave., Lexington Ave.), other locations in Northeast Philadelphia
Frank Windfelder - Delaware River (Poquessing Creek to Rhawn St.), other locations in Northeast Philadelphia including Fleuhr Park, John Byrne Golf Course, Woodenbridge Run in Pennypack Creek
Bernice and Joseph Koplin- Tacony Creek (various locations)
David Wiedner Delaware River (Penn’s Landing to Snyder Ave.), various Center City parks graveyards and streets
Richard Horwitz, Nikolas
Haass, Liam Hart, Steve Kacir, Raja
Stephenson, Walter Hart, Rob Hynson,
Alan Jackman - Philadelphia Naval Business Center, F. D. Roosevelt Park, Delaware
River (Walt Whitman Bridge to Betsy Ross Bridge)
Chris Walters, Mike Logan, Edwin Shafer, Brad Whitman - Fort Mifflin, Army Corps of Engineers compound and vicinity
Doris McGovern, Alice Sevareid - John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Eastwick and vicinity
Jan Gordon, Denis Brennan, Gregg Gorton - Bartram’s Garden, Woodland Cemetery, Cobbs Creek (various locations)
Erica Brendel, John Goschke - West Park (various locations), Philadelphia Zoo, Belmont Reservoir
Winston and Wendy Moody - East Falls, Queen Lane Reservoir, Wissahickon Creek (East Falls area)
Michael Darcy - Western Roxborough (various locations in Manyunk and vicinity)
Steve Dupont - Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
Ken Januski, Jerene Schroeder - Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
Leigh Ashbrook, Penelope Myers - Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
Stephen Lawrence, Robin Mattison, Paul Piechoski, Gary Seagraves - Wissahickon Creek (Carpenter’s Woods, Livezy Lane and vicinity)
Cliff and Nancy Hence - Cresheim Creek (Wissahickon Creek to Stenton Ave.)
Al and Nancy Bilheimer, Ron French - Wissahickon Creek (east bank from Chestnut Hill Ave. to Springfield Ave.)
David Belford - Wissahickon Creek (west bank from Bell’s Mill Rd. to Cathedral Rd.)
Edie Parnum, Barb Elliot, Donna Wilhelm - Wissahickon Creek (Andorra)
Jim Best, Andy Fayer, Bob Gutowski - Morris Arboretum
Bill Reaume - Awbury Arboretum
Keith Russell, Kate Somerville - Wissahickon Creek (various locations), East Park (various locations including East Park Reservoir and Schuylkill River falls), Platt Bridge area, Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant and vicinity
Temperature: low 23F, high 34F.
Sky: Mostly sunny.
Water: All waters open but with small patches of ice on some ponds.
Wind: Mostly calm but with but with very light winds at various times during the day, especially during the late afternoon.