Sunday was this year’s date for the State College Christmas Bird Count. This was my second year running the Bear Meadows and Rockview Property routes. Last year Drew Weber, Steve Brenner, and I birded the route together but this year it was me and Josh Lefever. My goal for last year was to find 50 species, but we were only able to find 44. This year I wanted to shoot for 50 species again but threatening rain and high winds were going to make that tough.
Josh and I met up a little after 4am and drove over to Bear Meadows. The gradual change in elevation and shift in habitats makes the Galbraith Gap, Bear Meadows, and Alan Seeger areas some of the best owling in the county. At our first two stops to try and lure in some owls, the high winds made our efforts futile. We decided to continue farther along the route and look for spots with more understory to block the wind a little. At a faithful cabin halfway up to Bear Meadows, we pulled over and tried calling in an Eastern Screech-Owl. A few minutes later and we had a screech-owl doing its ‘monotone trill’ call about 30 feet away from the car! We drove up the road a little ways and I pulled over again to try for saw-whet and screech. No luck with saw-whet but when I turned on the lights on my car to move to the next spot, a gray screech-owl was perched right in front of us (although mostly obstructed by sticks)! Nice – two screech-owls so far!
We tried a few more spots and attempted to call in saw-whets, screech-owl, Barred, and Great Horned depending on what the habitat looked like but weren’t having much luck with the wind conditions. Finally, when we parked near North Meadows Rd a distant Northern Saw-whet Owl quietly responded with a few odd fall vocalizations. Unfortunately, I had missed it since I was standing on the wrong side of the car. We drove in to the main parking area for Bear Meadows and tried our luck for another saw-whet. Sure enough, within minutes a saw-whet was within 40ft of my car and calling loudly! Northern Saw-whet Owl marks my 229th species of the year for Centre County!
We jumped over Tussey Mtn and tried a few spots for owls on our way down to Alan Seeger, but didn’t have any luck. As the sun was beginning to rise we could see Hermit Thrush and Dark-eyed Juncos scattering out of the road. We arrived at the far end of our route at 7:18am and waited there till it was brighter out. We split up and searched for our first species of the day. Common Ravens croaked in the distant, crows called nearby and the distant chatter of chickadees, titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches made me realize why I love Christmas Bird Counts so much. Next we moved back towards Alan Seeger and walked around checking the spruces for crossbills. If ever there was a CBC to get crossbill on, it was this year’s. However, despite out best efforts we couldn’t find a single crossbill. A noisy Winter Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Pileated Woodpecker were pretty nice.
By 8:50am, we were back at Bear Meadows. We spent the next 2 hours wandering around the area, searching for birds. In typical Bear Meadows fashion, we were able to find a whopping 10 species. Sadly, none of those species were crossbills. Darnit. After that we headed down towards a few stops at the northern end of the Bear Meadows route. After a quick and unproductive stop at Galbraith Gap, we pulled in to the Tussey Mtn Ski Resort’s parking lot.
I wanted to scan around for raptors, but then we noticed that there were loads of spruces around and they were all covered in cones! Josh and I frantically scanned all the trees but came up empty-handed. We were just climbing back in to my car when Josh spotted a flock of finches dropping down the side of Tussey Mtn and heading towards a large stand of spruces. White-winged Crossbills!! There were 23 birds total in the flock and it looked like almost all of them were White-winged. We quickly set up my spotting scope to get a better look but before we knew it, the birds had moved on. They were perched for a total of about 30 seconds! Oh well, at least we saw them at all.
We drove through two developments back out towards 322 and added a handful of species to our list – American Kestrel, Belted Kingfisher, Blue Jay, and Northern Mockingbird to name a few. Just across the street at the Elk Country Club we found our first Red-tailed Hawk and Canada Geese. Next, we drove down Linden Hall Rd and made a quick stop for snacks at Sheetz. We had completed the Bear Meadows route and were now going to do the Rockview Property for the rest of the afternoon.
This property is quite large and split into two sections, each without vehicle access which makes the entire section a 7 mile hike. Anna met up with us, and helped us cover the large area. We birded the north section first and found 24 species in a little over 2 hours including our first Cooper’s Hawk, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Fish Crow, and American Tree Sparrows of the day. Almost every time I visit the Rockview Property, I see one lone Black Vulture pass over heading NE. Today was no different. We were spread out birding across a large field and I heard Anna yell to me and point in the air, gliding overhead was a lone Black Vulture! A nice treat for the State College CBC since Black Vultures are generally uncommon in Centre County and we didn’t even see a Turkey Vulture all day! Towards the end of birding the north section, I flushed up two female Ring-necked Pheasants!
With just an hour and a half left of daylight, we drove around to the south side of the property. On our drive over, we spotted a raptor perched along the road and turned around for a better look. We were pleased to find a light type Rough-legged Hawk!
Once we parked at the south side, the three of us birded around the area for 2 hours. We found 20 species, but only the Rough-legged was new for the day. As it got dark, we drove over to Denny’s in State College for meet up with the other birders from the CBC to tally our results. Josh, Anna, and I ended up finding 40 species between the two routes – still shy of 50, and a few birds behind last year but a fun day nonetheless! Who can complain after seeing Northern Saw-whet Owl, White-winged Crossbills, and a Rough-legged Hawk!
If you are interested in exactly what we saw where, all of the links above go to our eBird checklists! Like I mentioned, we saw 40 species during the count which included 1,120 individual birds. There is a full list of the species that we saw in the comments of this post.