Tomorrow I am headed on a trip through MD, DE, and NJ so today was my last full day of birding in Pennsylvania for the year. 2012 has been a great year of birding for me in the state, with my highest state year list ever – 292 species. I guess I should have tried a little harder and tried to get to 300…it is sort of embarrassing, but I haven’t even seen a Snow Bunting in PA this year. At any rate, I figured it would be fun to end the year birding on the Lititz Christmas Bird Count. This count is focused entirely on Middle Creek WMA and is actually pretty far from Lititz, on the border of Lancaster and Lebanon Counties. Honestly I am not sure why it is called the Lititz CBC and not the Middle Creek CBC…..
Josh Lefever, who lives in Lititz, joined up with my at the Middle Creek WMA visitor center parking lot at 5:30am and despite the heavy wind, we attempted to call in owls around the refuge. By 7:00am, we had only managed to get one Eastern Screech-Owl to respond but one is better than none. We met up with the other participants at the visitor center and split up in to groups from there. Josh and I were assigned the trails that wind around the ridgelines to the SW of the main lake. Our entire section was forested, there was 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, and it was well below freezing, and on top of all that it was incredibly windy. Needless to say, we weren’t expecting to come across many birds.
We spent close to 4 hours wandering around the trails and ended up hiking 5.4 miles. Things started off slow as expected but as the sun rose higher in the sky and things warmed up a bit (although still freezing cold), the birds became more active. Flyover flocks of Tundra Swans passed over, heading SE, throughout the morning. We had a total of 149 pass over our section. We also had a flyover flock of Snow Geese and a flyover flock of Canada Geese. Two adult and one immature Bald Eagles sailed overhead on a few occasions. We found 5 species of woodpeckers including a stunning male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmice, and Dark-eyed Juncos were the most abundant birds besides the Tundra Swans. Along a small creek, we had two kingfishers and a bunch of very friendly Golden-crowned Kinglets. Other highlights were a male Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and 3 Brown Creepers. By noon we had made our back to the visitor center and had managed to find 26 species (eBird list). Not too shabby for winter forest birding!
All the other teams finished up birding their respective areas around the outside of the refuge, and then we all met up back at the visitors center around noon for a break and lunch. After that we split up into new teams and figured out a plan for us to cover the entire inside portion of the refuge. The PA Game Commission gives birders access to the restricted access areas during the CBC so I was able to explore areas of the refuge I had never been to, despite having birded this area hundreds of times in my life.
Myself and seven others took the area to the north of tour stop 3 and 4. The highlight of this portion was that there are two large cedar groves that are known Long-eared Owl roost locations. No one ever gets to check for Long-eareds back there except for on the CBC, so we were pretty excited. On our drive in to where we were going to park, a female American Kestrel flew by carrying a large Meadow Vole. We all got out into the cold wind and wandered around the corn fields and grassy meadows, slowly making our way to the cedar grove. Many species of waterfowl were flying around and could be seen down on the unfrozen portions of the lake. At least 6 Northern Harriers, 6 Red-tailed Hawks, 7 Bald Eagles, and both vulture species all were seen soaring and hunting around the area. Two male Ring-necked Pheasants flushed to me left and flew right in front of my, offering a nice flight shot.
We finally made it to the cedar grove and started walking through to look for roosting Long-eared Owls. On our first pass through the largest of the two groves we didn’t have much luck. A few people in the group had seen something flush out, but got poor looks although we figured it was likely a Long-eared Owl. The second cedar grove was much better though. We spread out in a line and began walking through. Mike Epler was to my right and at one point I looked over towards him and right there between us were two Long-eared Owls! They were roosting side-by-side and looking around. I waved to the other birders that we had found owls. I was able to snap off 3 quick photos but my camera setting weren’t great so the photos came out really dark. The owls flew off and in front of the other birders and then tucked back in to some cedars nearby. Success – at least two and probably three Long-eared Owls!
From there, we made our way slowly back towards where we had parked our cars and checked hedgerows, brush, and other likely areas for sparrows and other birds. We found 7 sparrow species, at least 14 Eastern Bluebirds, and a few other nice species by the time we made it back to the cars. A few people had to get home but most of us went over to tour stop 3 and waited till dusk to see if any Short-eared Owls would show themselves. Based on the number of Northern Harriers flying around the refuge, we were hoping that the Short-eareds would put on a similar show. Sure enough, at 5:10pm one Short-eared Owl lifted up from the tall grass near tour stop 3 and was soon followed by a second. After a few minutes there were 5 Short-eared Owls flying around in front of us, screaming to each other as they flopped around the sky like massive moths.
In total we found 45 species after lunch (eBird list) bringing my personal list for the day up to 52. I am looking forward to what the entire CBC area had – probably well over 70. Overall, it was a great day of birding one of my favorite locations in Pennsylvania and a great way to end a wonderful year!